“Shall we take it straight through?”
Swing Time is the last Fred & Ginger musical to have it all – lots of great songs from Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, lots of great sets from Van Nest Polglase and Darrell Silvera, and lots of great dance numbers from Fred and Ginger. Even the plot, which stumbles badly in the early going, picks up momentum at the end.
It is, indeed, the first half-hour of Swing Time that do much to drag it down. The plan was to start the film with a bang, a solo routine by Fred, “It’s Not in the Cards.”1 But the number was deemed subpar and it seems to have disappeared entirely. Instead, we start with Fred walking offstage after finishing the number, not a good idea, because we can’t help wondering what we missed. Worst of all, cutting the dance after shooting was done disrupted the entire balance of the film. With no opening number to sustain us, we have to suffer through 30 solid minutes of uninspired exposition before Fred and Ginger’s heels start clicking.
The ungainly plot is a lame combination of screwball farce and social consciousness –Swing Time is the one Fred & Ginger film to acknowledge the Great Depression.2 Fred is “Lucky” Garnett, a dancer cum gambler ready to give up his gay bachelorhood for a judge’s daughter. Once he comes offstage he starts changing into his wedding togs, which look more appropriate for Windsor Castle than Any Town, USA. Fred’s wiseguy pals, led by “Pop” Everett (Victor Moore3), don’t want to lose Fred to respectability. The gang grabs a copy of Esquire, pencils in cuffs on a model’s wedding trousers, and convinces a gullible Fred that he’s got to make a stop at the tailor’s.
Naturally, Fred’s late for the wedding, and naturally Judge Watson is shocked by this casual behavior. We’re shocked, because Fred’s fiancée, Margaret, isn’t Ginger!4 The judge tells Fred he should go to New York and become a success before returning to marry Margaret. A penniless Fred, still in striped pants, tailcoat, and spats, hops a freight for New York, with Pop in tow.
Several days later, Fred and Pop hit the Big Apple, looking more like they’ve been living at the Plaza than in a boxcar. They encounter working girl Ginger hurrying to work in a charming little cape outfit that looks slightly above her means. They get into a contretemps regarding Fred’s “lucky” quarter, and Ginger calls a cop. But the flatfoot takes Fred’s side, since Fred looks like a big shot, though Fred only wants to smooth things over. The cop, thoroughly obtuse, gives Fred a lecture on the workings of capitalism – “Guys like you pay me to protect them from screwy dames” (though Ginger hardly looks like a moll), and Ginger calls the cop a Cossack.5
Fred, feeling contrite, tails Ginger to her place of work, the “Gordon Dancing School – To Know How To Dance Is To Know How To Control One’s Self.” By now we’re more than ready to see the stars in action, but we have at least ten more minutes of insipid “business” – Fred annoys Ginger, Pop annoys Ginger’s pal Mabel,6 and Ginger and Mabel annoy “Mr. Gordon” (Eric Blore7), to the extent that he fires them both.
We’re ready to fire director George Stevens, who was never in a hurry.8 Fortunately, relief is finally at hand in the form of “Pick Yourself Up.” Fred and Ginger swap verses and then hit the floor in a dance that is never less than superb.9 As she dances, Ginger hikes her flowing skirt up over her lovely legs, an act that, to gentlemen of a certain age, is the most touchingly feminine of all gestures.10 “Sheer heaven!” cries Eric, and truer words were never spoken.
Eric arranges an audition for Fred and Ginger at Manhattan’s most fashionable nightclub, the Silver Sandal.11 But Fred, attempting to win enough money for some evening clothes, loses his pants instead, to Ginger’s disgust, who turns up her nose at the idea of becoming involved with a common gambler. Fred and Pop move into the same middle-class residential hotel12 where Ginger and Mabel share a flat, and start a mini-picket line to overcome Ginger’s renewed resistance.13 But Ginger doesn’t weaken even after Fred sings “The Way You Look Tonight” to her, one of the two great Kern/Fields songs in the picture that the stars don’t dance to.
Undismayed, Fred keeps gambling, and, like any movie character named “Lucky,” he is lucky!14 He splurges on some glad rags and sets up a second audition at the Sandal, but, when they get to the club, bandleader Ricardo “Ricky” Romero (Georges Metaxa), a greasy Latin with an eye for Ginger, won’t play for them. Anyway, Ricky and his band are in transit to the Club Raymond,15 a nightclub/gambling den with a terrific view of Central Park. Fred and Ginger follow, and Fred wins Romero’s contract from “Dice” Raymond, the club’s sleazy owner, courtesy of some card-sharping from Pop. So finally we’re allowed to see the audition, an up-tempo tour de force, the “Waltz in Swing Time,”16 which gets them the job at the Sandal (apparently, the Sandal’s owner followed them over and liked what he saw).
Despite the fact that he’s in love with Ginger, Fred feels he can’t break his word to Margaret. To avoid having to return to her, he can’t become a success.17 For her part, Ginger can’t figure out Fred’s distant behavior, and she’s also still pissed at him for gambling.18 The unhappy couple set off for a winter picnic in a classy convertible with Mabel and Pop as chaperones, providing a winter wonderland setting for a terrific song of amatory frustration, “A Fine Romance.” At first, Ginger’s hot and Fred’s not, then the reverse, so each gets to sing a set of verses.19
Fred and Ginger’s continued success on the dance floor means that Fred can give up gambling. Since Fred has decided he isn’t going back to Margaret, romance can finally blossom, leading, almost, to Fred and Ginger’s first on-screen kiss!20 Ginger’s so excited you can see her nipples!21
There’s a break in the action while Fred does a specialty number, the “controversial” “Bojangles in Harlem” – controversial because it’s in blackface, although Fred fortunately tones things down so that it’s more like tanface.22
If you can get past the blackface, “Bojangles” is a classic Astaire solo, and the first of his “special effects” dances – he is backed by three gigantic shadows of himself.23 The dance is presented as a salute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, most famous for his work with Shirley Temple.24 Apparently, Astaire wasn’t that all impressed with Robinson (Robinson danced from the waist down, and Astaire thought a real dancer used his entire body), but presumably both Astaire and the studio wanted a blackface number, and Robinson was box office.
“Bojangles” ends oddly, with Fred simply walking off stage with a dismissive wave of his hand, a gesture that mystified Astaire/Rogers experts Arlene Croce and John Mueller. To get the bit, you have to have seen Robinson’s “stair dance.”25 There Robinson dances up and down a double staircase that looks something like a pyramid. As soon as he reaches the floor stage right after each descent, Robinson races stage left to the other end of the staircase and starts up again. Each trip is more demanding than the last, of course, and after about the fifth descent, Robinson first feigns yet another race to the left and then saunters off stage right with a “that’s enough” wave of his hand.26
Once he’s offstage, Fred runs into real trouble – both “Dice” Raymond and Margaret! Fortunately, they’re not working together, but Fred loses Romero’s contract (Dice has figured out how Pop cheated him) and then he loses Ginger too when she hears about the girl Fred left behind him. She’s so ticked she decides there’s nothing left to do but marry Romero, who can assure her a lifetime supply of money, music, and hair oil.
All of this is grossly contrived, but it sets up one of the most emotional scenes in the entire Fred/Ginger oeuvre, the celebrated “Never Gonna Dance” number. Fred and Ginger meet awkwardly in the Sandal (naturally, it’s deserted) and stumble through a sad, sweet conversation. Fred then sings “Never Gonna Dance,” a song with the sort of offbeat lyrics that aficionados love but other people can’t stand.27 Once he’s finished, they float imperceptibly into “the last dance.”
But of course Ginger really doesn’t want to marry Romero, and Fred doesn’t want to marry Margaret. Fortunately, Margaret wants to marry someone else! Fred and Pop buffalo Romero with the same penciled-in cuffs gag that the gang used on Fred!28 The cast converges at the Club Raymond, where, fortunately, Ricky turns out to be a pretty nice guy. He leads the segue into a reprise of “A Fine Romance,” which Fred takes up while Ginger sings “The Way You Look Tonight” in counterpoint. As they sing they look out over the Manhattan skyline, where the sun is bursting through the falling snow.29 Hooray for Hollywood!
Astaire recorded all of the songs from Swing Time (without Ginger) at the time the film was released. They are available on the two-CD set “Starring Fred Astaire” from Columbia as well as several other collections. The great Billie Holiday recorded both “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance” at the time Swing Time was released. They are available on a number of CD collections of her recordings.
Check my author page for reviews of other Astaire/Rogers films and a discussion of Jerome Kern.
- Supposedly, the music for “It’s Not in the Cards” is used as background for some of the early scenes. Since I’ve never heard a recording of the song, if indeed one exists, I have no idea if this is true. According to Astaire expert John Mueller, the first few prints of Swing Time had the number, but it doesn’t seem to have resurfaced. [↩]
- Like Follow the Fleet, Swing Time attempts to take the stars away from the no-limit luxury of their first films. Fred and Ginger live in simple one-bedrooms rather than the art moderne palaces of The Gay Divorcé and Top Hat. Also, in deliberate opposition to these two films, Swing Time takes place in New York winter, rather than Mediterranean summer. [↩]
- Moore provides indifferent relief from Edward Everett Horton’s limp-wristed second banana. Moore had a bit more grit in his make-up than Horton, which works, because “Pop” is something of a card sharp. [↩]
- No, she’s Betty Furness, best known for opening refrigerators in an evening gown on early fifties TV for Westinghouse. The expertise she acquired led to a 16-year stint on the Today show as consumer affairs expert. [↩]
- A team of established Hollywood/Broadway types – Erwin Gelsey, Howard Lindsay, and Allan Scott – did the bulk of the writing (apparently, four other uncredited writers also participated). I don’t know who supplied the “Popular Front” touches that dot the film. [↩]
- Helen Broderick, also her pal in Top Hat. [↩]
- Blore appeared in four Astaire/Rogers films (The Gay Divorcé, Top Hat, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance), more than any other performer. [↩]
- Giant (1956) clocked in at over three hours, and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) ran for more than four in its original cut. [↩]
- Among the many wonderful bits are the “look ma, no hands” gestures from the stars to remind us just how very, very easy it all is. [↩]
- For gentlemen of a certain age and a certain sexual persuasion. [↩]
- The Silver Sandal, whose design is credited to John Harkrider, is perhaps the most satisfying of all the art moderne extravagances created for the Astaire/Rogers films. [↩]
- Despite a decent lobby, the place is so bourgeoisie the telephones are black. [↩]
- Former dotcom millionaires with time on their hands could do worse than read up on the great unionization battles of the thirties, which laid the groundwork for decent wages and working conditions for tens of millions of Americans. [↩]
- One suspects that Fred’s character is a gambler for no other reason than to provide the cash needed to put Fred and Ginger in Fred & Ginger settings. [↩]
- Why the action has to shuttle between two nightclubs isn’t clear. Apparently, RKO had two killer sets and decided to use them both. [↩]
- The number was written by Robert Russell Bennett, an arranger who worked on five pictures with Fred. [↩]
- Judge Watson didn’t specify a price tag, but somewhere along the way Fred and Pop apparently decided on $25,000 as the magic number. [↩]
- Except when she’s not. The plot devices here are shamelessly ad hoc. [↩]
- The mechanics involved in turning Fred on and Ginger off are particularly clumsy. [↩]
- Astaire supposedly worried that audiences would laugh at him if they saw him kissing on screen, although that didn’t seem to slow him down much when he was working with Rita Hayworth. He may have been particularly reluctant to kiss Ginger because he saw their “partnership” as a threat to his independence. [↩]
- Through her dress, idiot. [↩]
- Most fortunately, he eschews the clownlike white lips that were a staple of most blackface acts. Still, it’s offensive, particularly since Robinson, unlike most black performers of his generation, made a point of not blacking himself up. Louis Armstrong claimed Robinson as his “idol” for this reason. [↩]
- Unfortunately, the effects aren’t perfect. The “real” Fred tends to disappear into the background at times, particularly the back of his head. [↩]
- Robinson appeared with Temple in the mid-thirties in The Littlest Rebel, The Little Colonel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, and Just Around the Corner. He also appeared in the early musical Dixiana (1930) and finally got the lead (when he was 65!) in Stormy Weather (1943), the great all-star, all-black musical that also starred Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, and the Nicholas Brothers. [↩]
- Robinson was so proud of this dance that he tried to patent it. Robinson does a little stair dancing with Shirley, but the real stair dance is only available on the video collection At the Jazz Band Ball. [↩]
- Still, Croce and Mueller are right to complain. A cute anticlimax is still an anticlimax. In fact, many of Astaire’s solo pieces end awkwardly. When you’re dancing with a partner, you can always finish either with an embrace or by staring rapturously into her eyes. But in a solo, it’s just you up there, all alone. [↩]
- The song refers back to an exchange that Fred and Ginger had on their snowbound picnic re la belle romance versus “la swell romance” and also mentions the Marx Brothers and Major Bowes, whose amateur hour was an institution on thirties radio. [↩]
- I’ll bet you never saw that coming. [↩]
- Ginger is looking trés thirties in an elegant veil, orchid corsage, and “full pelt” boa, a fur worn around the neck with the head, feet, and tail still attached. [↩]