Swing Time

Dancing Equals Love

Film essay by: Witney Seibold

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Full disclosure: It was a toss-up between two Astaire/Rogers films. Do I include – on my best-of list – “Swing Time,” (1936, dir. George Stevens) which is probably the most solid in terms of performances and story and romance… or do I include “Top Hat,” (1935, dir. Mark Sandrich) a film with more dancing, a more complex story, and was, incidentally, the Astaire/Rogers film that made me fall in love with them? There was much deliberation, but it was Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight” – a song that, despite whoever is singing it in whatever context, always makes me mist over a bit – that pushed “Swing Time” to the top. I love “The Way You Look Tonight.” I love Fred Astaire films. I defy you to watch an Astaire/Rogers film and not smile at least once. Of all the bubbly, upper-class film musicals to spring up during the Depression, the Astaire/Rogers films are the bubbliest, and they enjoy a timelessness that many of its forgotten ilk do not.                              

But why are they timeless? ‘Cause when you think about it, there is little to distinguish a typical Astaire/Rogers dance film from many of their contemporaries. Esther Williams, for instance, choreographed some of the most stunning mass swimming routines to be filmed, and could easily be argued that the work and spectacle could beat out Astaire and Rogers. Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney did some sentimental, aw-shucks, let’s-save-the-farm kind of films which featured similar Astaire/Rogers stories for kids. Films about showbiz were everywhere, and one doesn’t need to dig very deep to find something dramatically similar.          

The stories in Astaire/Rogers films are not really what important. The frothy romantic comedy and mistaken identity conceits were old hat when Shakespeare did it. Fred Astaire’s characters were not really dreamboats nor role models in the conventional sense; he always played irascible bachelors or gamblers, and his face – not the square-jawed hero type – was ripe for caricature. Ginger Rogers’ characters were indeed admirable, as she was feisty without being shrewish, and was actually able – being a virtuoso herself – to hold her ground on the dancefloor with a virtuoso like Astaire, but I doubt most people watch her films to analyze what deep, subtle, Chekhovian human characteristics are on display. Even much of the cast was the same between them. Helen Broderick and Edward Everett Horton crop up like Margaret Dumont in the Marx Bros.’ films.           

Why watch an Astaire/Rogers film? Why the dancing, of course. The joy. The light and skill and sheer unadulterated virtuosity on display. Few screen performers could match the skill of the two young stars in their prime. These days, you read a lot in film magazines about whether or not two stars have on-screen “chemistry.” In most cases, the term is largely meaningless, but when you watch Fred and Ginger give subtle gentle wordplay, and then, when words fail, break into dance, you really see real on-screen chemistry at work. That romance, that skill, the fun that the two of them seem to be having when they cut loose from their stuffy verbal boundaries and leap into a realm of romantic expression that can only be represented by a dance number – that is why Astaire/Rogers films are timeless.            An aside: There is also, for modern audiences at least, a touch of halcyon nostalgia that permeates though most musicals of the 1930s. It was a time when men were all classy and women all smiled and wore nice clothes. When everyone was well-dressed, polite, and educated. The contemporary references of the time feel like classical references to us, and give the films a time-capsule feeling, that reality was smarter, more dapper, and more cosmopolitan than it was today. Where else will people make drinking jokes, and then turn around and make a reference to verses in Plutarch? We hear horror stories about the Depression from our parents and grandparents, but we see the era as a clean and cheerful time thanks to the movies. In fact, the title of “Swing Time” refers to a certain dance tempo which only serious dancers know about.            I mentioned that “Swing Time” is better than the other Astaire/Rogers musicals because of it’s solidity of performance and story.  In most romantic comedies, the two lovers, obviously destined to be together, fall in love as either a plot contrivance, or one spends the entire film desperately trying to win the heart of the other. Further plot contrivances keep them apart for the duration of the film, then, at zero-hour, the two lovers realize the truth, and dance into each other’s arms. “Swing Time” is not apart from this mold; we know that Fred and Ginger are destined to be together, and we’re just waiting for the story barricades to be lifted so they can have the one big dance number near the end when they finally get to show how they feel. But this one seems a little more clever, a little more astute than some of its siblings.            For instance, before we really see him dance too much, we get to know Astaire’s character, Lucky as a gambler with irascible friends who stand in his way of marrying (by taking away his pants, no less). We get to know Rogers’ character, Penny, before we see her dance at all as well, a tough women with strict teaching rules who, at first, will have nothing to do with Lucky. When she sneers, it’s a real sneer, when he smiles, it looks genuine. And when they finally kiss for the first time about two-thirds of the way in (cleverly hidden by an open door), the two of them give genuine laughter at the final release of their romantic interests. Throughout the film, Penny is frustrated that Lucky will not declare his love for her (“A Fine Romance”), and Lucky is frustrated that he is obviously in love with Penny, but is shouldered with a fiancée a few cities away. The two of them pull of this relationship with earnestness, but with a brightness that keeps it in the realm of comedy, and doesn’t make us doubt for a second that they are not going to end up together. Even when they both end up engaged to other people, we know the ending will be a happy one.             The final dance number is a wonder to behold. The truth has come out, they are both hurt, but thanks to the performances and our knowledge of romantic comedy, we know that they are still in love and still meant to be. Fred begins dancing with Ginger, and she will not co-operate. Her feet want to, but she refuses to. He humbly makes his steps closer and more elaborate, and she slowly starts to reciprocate. Eventually they start doing the same steps, and soon they are once again holding one another swinging swiftly about the dancefloor in a frenzy. It’s a brilliant way of resolving the emotional conflict. We don’t need argument or discussion in the Astaire/Rogers universe. We don’t need logic or plot or writing to make us feel what needs to be felt. We need a beautiful choreography, and the experts to make it happen. “Swing Time” gives us that.          

Fred:          I have to mention the “Bojangles of Harlem” number for a few reasons. First, it is indeed a blackface number, which causes most people of reason to react with disgust; blackface is one of the more disgusting reminders of this country’s brutal and racist history. Fred, however, is indeed wearing dark makeup, but not the full-on blackface caricature that many performers did (think Al Jolson). Also, and this brings me to the second reason, the dancing in this number is amazing even when compared to the glory of other Astaire dances. There is a scene where we see him dancing faster and faster with three large silhouettes of himself. Our knowledge of film makes us assume that there are superimposed images of the performance we’re seeing, as the movements match exactly. But as Astaire gets faster and faster and more and more complex, we see that the silhouettes are falling behind. Eventually they fall out of step, and leave the stage, leaving Fred to hoof it beautifully on his own.             Think of the skill that went into that. Fred had to dance the same number exactly the same four times for us not to notice the joke. He was able to record the exact same dance four different ways, falling alternately out of step in each one. The knowledge and athleticism involved are daunting. You will not see a finer one-man dance number in any film.           The legend is that Fred would rehearse himself through the night, sometimes until his feet bled, in order to get the numbers right. On screen we see a breeze. We see joy and ease and dances that look as effortless as clouds. In reality, we see the fruition of hundreds and hundreds of hours of careful practice.            Ginger          The joke is that Ginger did everything Fred did, but backwards and in heels. Was Ginger as good a dancer as Fred? I’d say she was, although she was never required to give a one-person show the way Fred often did. The two of them eventually went their separate ways, Fred dancing with other partners, and Ginger trying out serious dramatic roles. Ginger proved herself to be a fairly good actress. Fred continued to show off his wonderful talents, but his new partners only complimented him. Ginger, it’s been said, gave off her own light.           

Ginger Rogers is also a lovely lady. When I first saw “Top Hat,” when she sits up out of bed, annoyed at the tap-dancing upstairs, wearing nothing but a nightgown and a skillfully arched eyebrow, my 18-year-old heart melted. Not a vamp or a sex-symbol by any standards, but… wow.           

On a personal note, I first saw “Top Hat” as part of a Musical Theatre class my first year in college. It wasn’t as fun a class as it sounds; the professor was an ambitious intellectual who made us read the rough draft of his own textbook, and we spent more time analyzing triplets than we did actually listening to music (it was a double disappointment for me, for, when I signed up for the class, I was sure we’d get to do some singing and dancing ourselves). I had not seen many old musicals at that point in my life, preferring to see whatever was new. Seeing this film late at night in a classroom with enthusiastic musical lover was a glorious moment. We all laughed and smiled and cheered. We sang along to “Cheek to Cheek.” I cherish that memory.            Another aside: Too many musicals these days are “safe.” Many people have become cynical about people breaking into song and dance. Musicals have been marked to either animated children’s fare, or are fudged over by glitz. The 2002 film version of Kander and Ebb’s “Chicago” proposed that all the musical numbers were really just fantasies by the lead characters. I know the film has its fans, and it was skillfully done, but I’m not comfortable with the safety of the music. Like the audience needed to be shielded from the inherent unreality of the musical. I much prefer the bare-faced artistry that comes from a good dance.            Watch “Swing Time,” won’t you? Appreciate a kind of performance that one rarely sees anymore. Appreciate the artistry of one of film’s greatest dancers. Feel the joy and the ease and the light and appreciate the work that went into it. Watch it and smile. Me? I’m going to watch it again from time to time, and each time I hear “The Way You Look Tonight,” I’m going to tear up just a bit.  

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Published in: on May 11, 2007 at 7:46 pm  Comments (1)  

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