Swing Time (film)
theatrical release poster
|Directed by||George Stevens|
|Produced by||Pandro S. Berman|
|Screenplay by||Howard Lindsay
Contributing writers (uncredited):
|Story by||Erwin S. Gelsey
"Portrait of John Garnett" (screen story)
|Music by||Jerome Kern (music)
Dorothy Fields (lyrics)
|Edited by||Henry Berman|
|Distributed by||RKO Radio Pictures|
Swing Time is a 1936 American RKO musical comedy film set mainly in New York City, and starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It features Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Betty Furness, Eric Blore and Georges Metaxa, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The film was directed by George Stevens.
Noted dance critic Arlene Croce considers Swing Time Astaire and Rogers' best dance musical, a view shared by John Mueller and Hannah Hyam. It features four dance routines that are each regarded as masterpieces. According to The Oxford Companion to the American Musical Swing Time is "a strong candidate for the best of the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals". The Oxford Companion says that, although the screenplay is contrived, it "left plenty of room for dance and all of it was superb. … Although the movie is remembered as one of the great dance musicals, it also boasts one of the best film scores of the 1930s." "Never Gonna Dance" is often singled out as the partnership's and collaborator Hermes Pan's most profound achievement in filmed dance, while "The Way You Look Tonight" won the Academy Award for Best Original Song and went on to become Astaire's most successful hit record, scoring first place in the U.S. charts in 1936. Jerome Kern's score, the second of two he composed specially for Astaire, contains three of his most memorable songs.
The film's plot has been criticized, though, as has the performance of Metaxa. More praised is Rogers' acting and dancing performance. Rogers herself credited much of the film's success to Stevens: "He gave us a certain quality, I think, that made it stand out above the others." Swing Time also marked the beginning of a decline in popularity of the Astaire–Rogers partnership among the general public, with box office receipts falling faster than usual, after a successful opening. Nevertheless, the film was a sizable hit, costing $886,000, grossing over $2,600,000 worldwide, and showing a net profit of $830,000. The partnership never again regained the creative heights scaled in this and previous films.
In 1999 Swing Time was one of Entertainment Weekly's top 100 films. In 2004 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". In the new AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) it has been added at #90.
John "Lucky" Garnett (Fred Astaire) is a gambler and dancer. He is set to marry Margaret (Betty Furness), but his friends hold him up so that he is late for the wedding. Margaret's father phones to call off the wedding, but Lucky doesn't get that message. His friends bet him that he will not be getting married, and he agrees to the bet. Margaret's father tells Lucky that he must earn $25,000 to demonstrate his good intentions.
He and his friend "Pop" Cardetti (Victor Moore) try to buy train tickets, but his friends take his money – because he lost the bet. So they hitch the first freight train to New York. Broke, they wander around the city. Lucky meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dance school instructor, when he asks for change for a quarter. It's his lucky quarter and Pop feels bad that Lucky lost it. They attempt to get it back, but Penny is in no mood to deal with them. When she drops her things, Pop sneaks the quarter out of her purse, and she thinks Lucky did it.
They follow Penny to her work. To be able to apologize, he has to take a dancing lesson from her. She's still furious at him. After a disastrous lesson, Penny tells him to "save his money" since he will never learn to dance. Her boss, Mr. Gordon (Eric Blore), overhears her comment and fires her. Lucky dances with Penny to "prove" how much she's taught him. Not only does Mr. Gordon give Penny her job back, he sets up an audition with the owner of a local venue.
They check into the same hotel where Penny is staying. Lucky does not have a tuxedo to wear to the audition. He tries to get a tuxedo off a drunk man, but he ends up losing his own clothes instead. They miss the audition, and Penny gets mad at Lucky all over again. Lucky arranges another audition. He and Pop picket in front of Penny's door until she gives in and forgives him.
But they cannot audition because the club has lost their band leader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), to a casino. They go to Club Raymond where Lucky gambles to win enough to get Ricky back. Meanwhile, Ricky declares his feelings for Penny. Lucky is about to win enough to marry Margaret, but he takes his last bet off in time... proving he is no longer interested in her, but in Penny, instead. The club owner bets him double or nothing and they gamble for Ricky's contract. Upon seeing that the club owner intends to cheat, Pop cheats as well, and Lucky wins the contract.
Lucky and Penny dance at the club. They are dancing together all the time, but Lucky does not trust himself around Penny because he feels guilty about not telling her about Margaret. He's avoiding her, which Penny notices, so she and her friend Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick) conspire to get Lucky and Pop out to the country. Pop lets slip the information about Lucky and Margaret.
Despite her best efforts, the two begin a romance, even as Ricky continues to woo Penny. When Margaret shows up, Lucky tries to avoid her; but, too late, Penny finds out. She agrees to marry Ricky. Margaret calls off her engagement to Lucky before he can. Lucky successfully stops Penny's wedding. And the two end up together, much to everyone's delight.
- Fred Astaire as John "Lucky" Garnett
- Ginger Rogers as Penelope "Penny" Carroll
- Victor Moore as Edwin "Pop" Cardetti
- Eric Blore as Mr. Gordon
- Helen Broderick as Mabel Anderson
- Betty Furness as Margaret Watson
- Georges Metaxa as Ricardo Romero
- Landers Stevens as Judge Watson
Initially, the working titles for the film were I Won't Dance and Never Gonna Dance, but studio executives worried that no one would come see a musical where no one danced, and the title was changed. Pick Youself Up was also considered as a title, as were 15 other possibilities.
Erwin Gelsey's original screen story was purchased by RKO, and in November 1935, Gelsey was hired to adapt the story. Although he did not receive any screen credit, he was under consideration for screenplay credit as late as July 1936. Howard LIndsay wrote the first draft of the screenplay, which was then considerably re-written by Allan Scott. Just before shooting started, in April 1936, Scott was called back from New York to write additional dialogue.
Astaire spent almost eight weeks preparing for the film's dance numbers.
The "Bojangles of Harlem" number, a tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, was the last part of the film shot, because of the special effects required. To create the effect that Astaire was dancing with three shadows of himself that were larger-than-life, Astaire had to be filmed dancing in front of a blank white screen on which a powerful light projected his shadow. This footage was tripled in the film lab. Astaire was next filmed performing under normal lighting in front of another white screen while watching a projection of the shadow dancing, and the four shots were optically combined. In its entirety, the sequence took three full days of shooting, and the film overall took several weeks longer to shoot then the normal Astaire-Rogers film. 
The New York street scenes were shot on Paramount's back lot, the train station interiors and exteriors at the Los Angeles Santa Fe Railroad Station, and the freight yard scene was shot in downtown Los Angeles.
- "Pick Yourself Up": The first of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field's standards is a charming polka first sung and then danced to by Astaire and Rogers. One of their most joyous and exuberant numbers is also a technical tour-de-force with the basic polka embellished by syncopated rhythms and overlaid with tap decoration. In particular, Rogers recaptures the spontaneity and commitment that she first displayed in the "I'll Be Hard to Handle" number from Roberta (1935).
- "The Way You Look Tonight": Kern and Field's classic Oscar-winning foxtrot is sung by Astaire, seated at a piano, while Ginger is busy washing her hair in a side room. Here, Astaire conveys a sunny yet nostalgic romanticism but later, when the music is danced to as part of "Never Gonna Dance", the pair will create a mood of sombre poignancy. As evidence of its enduring appeal, this song is regularly featured in modern cinema and television: as in Chinatown (1974), or My Best Friend's Wedding (1997), and it played a prominent role as the key linking element in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine series finale "What You Leave Behind".
- "Waltz in Swing Time": Described by one critic as "the finest piece of pure dance music ever written for Astaire", this is the most virtuosic partnered romantic duet Astaire ever committed to film. Kern – always reluctant to compose in the Swing style – provided some themes to Robert Russell Bennett who, with the assistance of Astaire's rehearsal pianist Hal Borne, produced the final score. The dance is a nostalgic celebration of love, in the form of a syncopated waltz with tap overlays – a concept Astaire later reworked in the similarly impressive "Belle of New York" segment of the "Currier and Ives" routine from The Belle of New York (1952). In the midst of this most complex of routines, Astaire and Rogers find time to gently poke fun at notions of elegance, in a delicate reminder of a similar episode in "Pick Yourself Up".
- "A Fine Romance": Kern and Field's third standard, a quickstep to Field's bittersweet lyrics, is sung alternately by Rogers and Astaire, with Rogers providing an object lesson in acting while a bowler-hatted Astaire appears at times to be impersonating Stan Laurel. Never a man to discard a favourite piece of fine clothing, Astaire wears the same coat in the opening scene of Holiday Inn (1941).
- "Bojangles of Harlem": Once again, Kern, Bennett and Borne combined their talents to produce a jaunty instrumental piece ideally suited to Astaire, who here – while overtly paying tribute to Bill Robinson – actually broadens his tribute to African–American tap dancers by dancing in the style of Astaire's one-time teacher John W. Bubbles, and dressing in the style of the character Sportin' Life, whom Bubbles played the year before in Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Dorothy Fields recounts how Astaire managed to inspire the reluctant Kern by visiting his home and singing while dancing on and around his furniture. It is the only number in which Astaire – again bowler-hatted – appears in blackface. The idea of using trick photography to show Astaire dancing with three of his shadows was invented by Hermes Pan, who also choreographed the opening chorus, after which Astaire dances a short opening solo which features poses mimicking, perhaps satirising, Al Jolson – all of which was captured by Stevens in one take. There follows a two-minute solo of Astaire dancing with his shadows which took three days to shoot. Astaire's choreography exercises every limb and makes extensive use of hand-clappers. This routine earned Hermes Pan an Academy Award nomination for Best Dance Direction.
- "Never Gonna Dance": After Astaire sings Field's memorable closing line: "la belle, la perfectly swell romance" of Kern's haunting ballad, they begin the acknowledgement phase of the dance – possibly their greatest – replete with a poignant nostalgia for their now-doomed affair, where music changes to "The Way You Look Tonight" and they dance slowly in a manner reminiscent of the opening part of "Let's Face The Music And Dance" from Follow the Fleet. At the end of this episode, Astaire adopts a crestfallen, helpless pose. They now begin the denial phase, and again the music changes and speeds up, this time to the "Waltz In Swing Time" while the dancers separate to twirl their way up their respective staircases, escaping to the platform at the top of the Silver Sandal Set – one of the most beautiful Art Deco-influenced Hollywood Moderne creations of Carroll Clark and John Harkrider. Here the music switches again to a frantic, fast-paced, recapitulation of "Never Gonna Dance" as the pair dance a last, desperate, and virtuosic routine before Ginger flees and Astaire repeats his pose of dejection, in a final acceptance of the affair's end. This final routine was shot forty-seven times in one day before Astaire was satisfied, with Rogers' feet left bruised and bleeding by the time they finished.
- Finale duet: At the end of the film, Astaire and Rogers sing shortened versions of "A Fine Romance" and "The Way You Look Tonight" simultaneously (with altered lyrics). Harmonies have been very slightly altered so that the two songs fit well together.
- Kern and Field also wrote an additional song, "It's Not in the Cards", as a full opening number, but it was edited out, being heard only momentarily at the conclusion of the first scene and later as background music.
- Kern was hired to write seven songs, for which he was paid $50,000 and gross percentage up to $37,500. Astaire requested that two of the songs be swing numbers, but the weak version of "Bojangles of Harlem" he delivered remained unacceptable even though Astaire spent several hours tap-dance in Kern's hotel room in an attempt to loosen it up. Kern required the services of Robert Russell Bennet, and, during rehearsal, Astaire's rehearsal pianist Hal Borne contributed ideas. Although Astaire requested that Born receive credit for his contribution, Kern was insistent that Born receive no credit, was not to compose any music, and was not to be paid for writing any music. Bennett also received no credit in the film, but the sheet music for "Waltz in Swing Time" credits him with the construction and arrangement.
According to RKO records the film made $1,624,000 in the US and Canada and $994,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $830,000.
- American Dancer, November 1936: "Astaire's dancing can no longer be classified as mere tap, because it is such a perfect blend of tap, modern and ballet, with a generous share of Astaire's personality and good humor...Rogers is vastly improved...but she cannot, as yet, vie with Astaire's amazing agility, superb grace and sophisticated charm. With Astaire one feels, with each succeeding picture, that surely his dancing has reached perfection and marks the end of invention of new steps: and yet he seems to go forward with ease and apparent nonchalance."
- Dance Magazine, November 1936, Joseph Arnold Kaye: "Much has been written about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swing Time except, perhaps, one thing: Astaire and Rogers are the picture; everything else seems to have been put in to fill the time between swings. Dance routines are fresh and interesting, dance is superb. When Hollywood will learn to make a dance picture as good as the dancing, we cannot even guess."
- Variety, 2 September 1936, Abel: "Perhaps a shade under previous par, but it's another box-office and personal winner from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers combo...Film's 103 minutes running time could have been pared to advantage but Swing Time will swing 'em past the wickets in above-average tempo."
Awards and honors
In 1999, Entertainment Weekly named Swing Time as one of the top 100 films, and in 2004, the film was included in the United States National Film Registry for being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". Three years later, in 2007, the American Film Institute ranked Swing Time #90 on their 10th Anniversary list of 100 Years...100 Movies.
A Broadway musical, Never Gonna Dance based on the film, used much of the Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field's original score. The show, which had a book by Jeffrey Hatcher, began performances on October 27, 2003, running for 44 previews and 84 performances. It opened on December 4, 2003 and closed on February 15, 2004. It was directed by Michael Greif and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell.
Since 2005, a digitally restored version of Swing Time is available separately (in Region 1) and as part of The Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol.1 from Warner Home Video. These releases feature a commentary by John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing – The Musical Films.
Since 2003, a digitally restored version of Swing Time (in Region 2 – not the same as the US restoration) is available separately, and as part of The Fred and Ginger Collection, Vol. 1 from Universal Studios, who control the rights to the RKO Astaire-Rogers pictures in the UK and Ireland. These releases feature an introduction by Astaire's daughter, Ava Astaire McKenzie.
- Swing Time at the American Film Institute Catalog
- "Swing Time: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved April 10, 2014.
- Richard Jewel (1994) 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931–1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol. 14 No. 1, p.55
- Croce, pp.98-115
- Mueller, pp.100-113
- Hyam, Hannah (2007). Fred and Ginger – The Astaire-Rogers Partnership 1934–1938. Brighton: Pen Press Publications. ISBN 978-1-905621-96-5.
- Hischak, Thomas. "Swing Time". The Oxford Companion to the American Musical, Oxford University Press 2009. Oxford Reference Online, accessed September 25, 2016 (requires subscription)
- The other one was You Were Never Lovelier, while Kern's Roberta was originally written for the Broadway stage
- Mueller, p.101n: "In a 1936 letter George Gershwin was somewhat patronizing about the music: 'Although I don't think Kern has written any outstanding song hits, I think he did a very credible job with the music and some of it is really quite delightful. Of course, he never was really quite ideal for Astaire and I take that into consideration'".
- Mueller, p.101: "the story is riddled with inconsistencies, implausibilities, contrivances, omissions,and irrationalities," Croce, p.102: "discontinuities in the plot," also see Hyam, p.46
- Mueller, p.103: "her finest in the series."
- Astaire, Fred (1959). Steps in Time. London: Heinemann. pp. 218–228. ISBN 0-241-11749-6.
- Croce, p.104: "Swing Time is an apotheosis."
- Hischak, Thomas S. (2013). The Jerome Kern Encyclopedia. Lantham, Md.: Scarecrow Press. p. 211. ISBN 978-0-8108-9167-8.
- Billman, Larry (1997). Fred Astaire – A Bio-bibliography. Connecticut: Greenwood Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-313-29010-5.
- Never Gonna Dance on the Internet Broadway Database
- Croce, Arlene (1972). The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book. London: W.H. Allen. ISBN 0-491-00159-2.
- Mueller, John (1986). Astaire Dancing – The Musical Films. London: Hamish Hamilton. ISBN 0-241-11749-6.
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