Swing Time

Swing Time


Reviewed by: Chris

At the height of its television popularity, a New York TV station ran Swing Time twice a night for a whole week. Even before digital program recording, people were timing it, so they could tune in to every showing and catch the magical moment when Fred Astaire performs his legendary dance sequence in Bojangles of Harlem.

Later, they would wait for the wonderful pairing with Ginger Rogers, where the chemistry would sparkle from beneath her long lashes to the tips of her toes. And although I’ve also enjoyed it on the small screen several times, nothing can compare with the wonder of experiencing it in a movie theatre. The dance becomes alive. We feel not only the rush of movement, but are caught up in the moment, seeing the fine details of expression so hard to appreciate when reduced in size.

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Swing Time is rightly regarded by many fans and critics as Fred and Ginger’s greatest movie together. It is a movie to laugh and cry with. It was even referenced in Barack Obama’s inauguration speech. The story is imaginative, the good-natured gags bring a smile to your face when remembered, and the songs and dance routines live on forever. Fred and Ginger exude a joy of performance and a skill of execution that can make you gasp: “This is what dancing is all about!”

The dances are almost always performed in a single take, showing the whole dancer’s body. No mistakes. No special effects. But dancing that sets the standard for generations to come. They look carefree and relaxed – as dancers should – but each move, each throwaway gesture and expression, had been minutely rehearsed until it was beyond perfect. It was perfect and then had charisma, warmth, and acting infused into it. The charm of Fred Astaire’s on-screen character (reputedly very close to his real life persona) and the unaffected femininity of Ginger Rogers make them the partners that every dancer longs to trip the light fantastic with. Astaire is the epitome of style, elegance and good taste. The embodiment of the ‘gentleman’ but without stuffiness. He woos the girl, gets out of problematic situations, and is a good friend. Witty repartee alights from his lips to disarm every attack and entice every woman into his arms, at once making her feel like the most special lady that ever lived.

Occasionally one wonders why Ginger Rogers achieved more fame in his arms than any of his other dance partners, many of whom exceeded her in professional training and maybe even looks. Perhaps the answer is that she is not just a perfect dancer, but a perfect partner. Who wants to dance with someone who just loves themself? Rogers, both in her performance of dance steps and in the attitude she emanates, dances as part of a partnership – seemingly made in heaven. As if both people are dancing from the same inner source.

Watch her in their first dance together in Swing Time. After the initial gags, he takes her back into the dance studio to save her job in front of the boss. For the first section of the dance, she is the backdrop, discretely watching and following Astaire, the man taking the lead. (It’s a basic polka with added syncopation and tap steps.) She is the tapestry upon which he shines. The good woman behind every good man. Then, as they relax into the routine, her steps become more decorative, sparkling jewels adorning their performance together. For those fond of the oft-quoted line, “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did, except backwards and in high heels,” this is a great example, tap dancing in black high heels! By the end of the dance she is iridescent, a flower in beautiful bloom. The next scene is a suitably impressed studio manager arranging a top audition for them.

Their first dance has followed a farcical sequence when Astaire pretends he can’t dance in order to get some lessons from the beautiful dance instructor, played by Ginger Rogers. They repeatedly fall over, Astaire trying to arrange it so they fall ever closer to each other. All this is timed to the famous song line, “Pick yourself up, start all over again.” It could almost be an anthem for every dancer who has ever failed – as every dancer must – as well as in life.

Dramatically, this ‘not being dissuaded by failure’ is at the core of most rom-coms, as well as visually in much later movies like Flashdance, (where Alex has to pick herself up after falling, before going on to impress the judges). In Swing Time, it becomes iconic. The words of the song, the visual acting-out in dance, and the storyline. They combine to become something life-affirming, and also one of the quintessential qualities associated with the American attitude of ‘never give up.’ Or as Obama exhorted in the midst of the 2009 economic crisis, “Pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off!”

Rogers combines a down-to-earth, girl-next-door appeal with some of the most ladylike qualities anyone could wish for. Her elegance of movement is matched by the elegance with which she handles situations. If the unbelievably crazy strategies to romance her aren’t quite believable, she doesn’t quite believe them. She can be politely formal rather than take offence or get angry. Her displays of emotion are tempered by gentleness and good taste.

Although the award-winning Bojangles of Harlem sequence was one of the favourites of the day, Never Gonna Dance is probably the climax for modern audiences – and the climax of the film. It is one of the great unsurpassed dance performances of cinema. It deserves to be seen by every aspiring dancer, amateur or professional.

This review will not give away any more hints to the storyline. You will have to see the movie yourself and enjoy the leaps of time and place as it launches from one situation to a deeper one, carrying you with it - one of the greatest Hollywood musicals of all time.

Reviewed on: 18 Apr 2009
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Swing Time packshot
A gambler trying to win the money to marry his fiancee inadvertently falls for a dancer.
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Director: George Stevens

Writer: Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott

Starring: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness, Georges Metaxa

Year: 1936

Runtime: 103 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

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