When it’s on: Monday, 7 January (8.50 am)
Four years ago, BBC4 treated us to a week of ‘Golden Age’ nostalgia by repeating The RKO Story, a fantastic documentary series that looked into the history of the long lost studio. After each episode, the channel screened a film that had some relevance to the chapter,which is how I was first introduced to the virtues of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Swing Time.
Since then, I’ve picked up a number of Astaire-Rogers titles and, like most viewers see Top Hat and Swing Time as the pick of the nine in which they performed together (I’m yet to catch The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, however, which by happy chance is scheduled after Swing Time today). Opinion seems neatly divided over which is the better picture – Top Hat has its Irving Berlin score, the fantastic ‘Venice’ set and Edward Everett Horton, and maybe it comes down to something as unfair as the one you see first that determines it. For me, I kind of fell in love with Swing Time. It was a perfectly lovely confection, put together with care and heart despite this being the pair’s sixth collaboration, at the height of their success and yet determined to outdo the last hit. The plot was daft, poking fun at Depression-era America and existing merely to string together the song and dance numbers. There was a sequence in which Fred Astaire danced in blackface. The story turned on marriages being broken up, and yet this stuff was being played for laughs. I adored it and I adore it still. For me, it’s a hundred minutes of unimpeachable light entertainment, the sort of thing you can wallow in and while it’s on keep all your troubles at bay. It’s that darn good.
Swing Time was directed by George Stevens, a departure from the usual Mark Sandrich and possibly the better for it as he brought a meticulous approach to the production that helped to polish the dance routines to such a level that they look effortless, which of course they weren’t. Perhaps the pick of the bunch, Astaire and Rogers’s Never Gonna Dance, a paean to their seemingly doomed romance, was shot again and again, the camera performing impossibly elaborate movements to keep up with the pair, and at one stage Ginger’s feet were bleeding into her shoes through sheer effort. And yet the routine is a complete delight, the song both gorgeous and beautifully sung by Astaire, who wrung all the despair and emotion out of the lyrics, whilst the dancing, which begins slow and melancholic before speeding up into a complicated series of twirls and spins, is nothing short of glorious. It’s so good that one forgets the hours of practice, the endless takes, the fact we get just one cut throughout the performance to change camera position, which obviously means they were doing that stuff for real, and all this before appreciating the ravishing set decoration of the Silver Sandal nightclub, or the stars’ clothes.
And yet Swing Time has an even bigger treat, the Bojangles of Harlem sequence, performed by Astaire as a club turn and featuring some of the most complex routines committed by him to celluloid. Controversially to modern eyes, Astaire ‘blacked up’ for the scene, though the scene was intended to be a tribute to Bill Robinson, and Fred made up the entirety of his facial skin rather than going for a Minstrel Show caricature, which makes a difference. Again, the segment features few cuts, three by my counting and these only necessitated by changes to the set. You choose your own favourite bit, whether it’s Astaire dancing alongside and with a troupe of women dressed alternately in black and white costumes, or his performance before a screen of three ‘silhouettes’ that apparently are reflections of himself, which they turn out not to be when they fail to keep up with him and, licked, stride off. The technical background to this sequence is as jaw dropping as what appears in the film; Astaire was filmed performing the routine once, providing the silhouette version and then simply copied it for the final version, keeping near perfect time with his dizzyingly quick prior rendition.
Elsewhere, Stevens keeps Swing Time running at a brisk pace, meaning one can almost ignore the half-hour that’s elapsed before any dancing takes place. By then, the major plot points and characters have been uncovered. Astaire plays John ‘Lucky’ Garnett, a professional dancer who at the film’s opening is about to be married to Betty Furness’s society girl. It’s a decision that goes ill with his troupe, who realise once he’s wed that’s the end of their business concern and so conspire to scupper the big day. They succeed, playing on Lucky’s love of gambling to hold him up, so that by the time he turns up to the wedding it’s all over. Furness’s blowhard father tells him he can have another go once he’s earned $25,000, no mean feat in an America still suffering the after-effects of the Wall street Crash, so Lucky heads for New York, employing the classic ‘Depression’ method of stowing onto a freight train car and taking with him best friend and stooge ‘Pop’ Cardetti (Victor Moore). Happy but penniless, Lucky is nevertheless impeccably dressed and groomed, and it isn’t long before he comes across Rogers’s dance instructor, both getting her fired and then reinstated when he makes her give him some tuition, all for the sake of worming his way into her affections.
The budding partnership between them is such that they’re quickly entered for auditions, whilst Pop endears himself to Rogers’s cynical older friend and stalwart, Helen Broderick. But there’s a catch. Rogers’s character is already adored by a suave band leader, played by Georges Metaxa, who just happens to hold the key to their dancing future together. The stage is set for a yarn in which Lucky not only has to break off his previous engagement but also persuade Rogers that her future’s with him. Hilarity ensues, along with dancing, lots of dancing, as the natural chemistry between the stars defines their growing affection for each other.
It’s all good natured stuff, with some fine comic moments along the way. I especially like the scene in Furness’s house, as the pets’ attitude to Astaire shifts with her father’s moods, along with the complexion on a portrait of some old family member. The performances of Moore and Broderick, who serve as the comic relief counterpoints to the more romantic relationship between the headliners, are also fine, though Moore has little of the class of Top Hat’s Horton. And whilst it’s clear Astaire is the real star, the script gives Rogers ample opportunities to shine, indeed this is a great, fleshed out and blousey performance from the female half of the partnership. Ginger emerges as utterly adorable, no pushover and worth chasing.
Swing Time: *****