Friday, March 18, 2016

Film Review: Swing Time

"Swing Time"  *** (out of ****)

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers get into the swing of things in the RKO romantic-comedy musical, "Swing Time" (1936).

Fans of classic Hollywood cinema and Astaire & Rogers fans in particular, usually refer to "Swing Time" as the best movie the famous song and dance team ever appeared in. I believe a lot of this sentiment has to do with the fact George Stevens, who would later go on to direct "Giant" (1956) and "Shane" (1953), directed the movie and so it makes filmbuffs regard the movie as "important". Because Mr. Stevens was a respected filmmaker therefore "Swing Time" is a respected movie.

But does "Swing Time" deserve all the acclaim?

"Swing Time" had never been my own favorite Astaire & Rogers musical but I decided this would be the next movie I review and so I gave the movie another chance to impress me. Watching "Swing Time" again I'm sorry to say but I just don't see the appeal. Is "Swing Time" a good movie? Sure. It is always fun to watch Fred and Ginger sing and dance. I consider it movie heaven. Some of the songs written for the movie, from the pen of composer Jerome Kern, are enjoyable to listen to. But is "Swing Time" really the best movie to feature Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers together? For me it takes whatever worked in their previous movies together, which includes "Top Hat" (1935), "The Gay Divorcee" (1934) and "Follow the Fleet" (1936), and combines it in one movie only the plot doesn't play out as nicely and or as smoothly.

As with most Astaire and Rogers musicals there is a mistaken identity plot, Penny (Rogers) is a dance instructor who doesn't realize a pupil, "Lucky" Garnett (Astaire), is really a professional dancer, who lied just so he could have a moment of her time. In "Top Hat" and "The Gay Divorcee" this set-up is played throughout the movie. Will she or won't she ever figure out who he really is? But in "Swing Time" nothing is really done with this plot convention. The screenwriters; Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott, do not milk this scenario for all its comedic worth. Oddly enough Mr. Scott wrote several of the Astaire & Rogers musicals including "Top Hat" and "Follow the Fleet" as well as "Roberta" (1935) and their next picture after this one, "Shall We Dance" (1937).

The movie, as was done in other Astaire and Rogers musicals, provides the team with comedic supporting relief. In the past these roles were given to actors like Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady. This time around Victor Moore plays "Pops", Garnett's best friend, and Helen Broderick, who also appeared in "Top Hat", plays Mabel, Penny's best friend.

Victor Moore may not be well known to today's younger movie fans but he had a successful career on Broadway and appeared in several movies, usually as comic relief, he never really became a leading actor, though did appear in the somewhat dramatic "Make Way For Tomorrow" (1937), which heavily influenced the the great Japanese movie directed by Yasujiro Ozu, "Tokyo Story" (1953). And on a sillier note, some may recognize his voice from the Looney Tunes comedy, "Ain't That Ducky" (1945) where Mr. Moore voiced a character based on his appearance - a big-game hunter who has set his sights on Duffy Duck. The character resembles another Looney Tunes hunter, Elmer Fudd.

Helen Broderick also got her start on the stage and later appeared in movies as comic relief. Both she and Mr. Moore are playing the kind of characters the public came to recognized them for. Mr. Moore has a befuddled look on his face. He always seems just one step behind everyone else. Ms. Broderick other the other hand played extroverted characters that were usually on the prowl for a husband. Her characters were, what at one time was known as, a "woman of the world". Her characters were also a bit sassy and always had a quip ready.

When I think of a great musical the most important ingredient is the score. A movie with a so-so plot that has a great score will entertain me. Just as with a comedy. The more I laugh, the more I am willing to recommend the movie even if the plot isn't fully developed. "Swing Time" has a somewhat good score. There is the Oscar winner for best song, "The Way You Look Tonight", which unfortunately did not have a memorable set piece built around it. Fred sits at a piano and sings it to Ginger. They don't even dance to it until the end of the picture (!). There is also "A Fine Romance" - a very subtle song about sex with some inventive rhymes. Some of the lyrics are "A fine romance/ with no kisses/ a fine romance/ my friend this is". And there is "Pick Yourself Up", which like "A Fine Romance" is a charming duet. The other songs have not become standards of the American Songbook. "Bojangles of Harlem", a homage to Bill Robinson, and "Never Gonna Dance" round out the remaining songs.

Neither song is very good although both have been highly praised by the sheep (movie critics). The "Bojangles of Harlem" number, which sadly features Fred Astaire in blackface (!), is rather clumsily choreographed. There is an awful lot of room for Astaire and his back-up dancers to move around however they don't. Everyone is squeezed together. Of course, in an example of how I am normally outside of public opinion, the dance direction received the movie's second Academy Award nomination.

"Never Gonna Dance" is said to be the dance sequence which shows Astaire & Rogers at their sexiest. I don't believe the song is memorable or the dance sequence. Watching the movie it is clear the intention was for this sequence to be the most memorable. Their hand gestures during the dance routine remind me of the same gestures they did during the "Night & Day" routine in "The Gay Divorcee". The "Never Gonna Dance" routine does suggest a sexual repression in their movements. This is a direct contrast to what I feel is the best dance sequence in "Swing Time", their routine for "Pick Yourself Up". Astaire & Rogers act as if it is a spontaneous moment where they come together and dance in perfect harmony. It possesses the carefree, flirtatious quality which made their dancing together so wonderful to watch.

Still one has to admit both sequences show Astaire & Rogers versatility as well as all the emotions which can be conveyed in dancing in general.

Astaire's Garnett character is a professional dancer with a bit of a gambling problem. The movie begins on the day of his wedding to Margaret (Betty Furness). After completing a performance Garnett plays to head to Margaret's home for the wedding. Only, for reasons never properly explained, Garnett's friends want to prevent him from getting married and delay him by preoccupying him with a crap game. By the time Garnett realizes what time it is he has missed the wedding.

In order for Garnett to prove himself as a man and a good provider, in the eyes of Margaret's father, Garnett must stay away until he has saved $25,00. And so Garnett and "Pops" head out to New York.

This is of course enforces the idea that New York is the place to be in order for one to achieve their dreams. Remember what Frank Sinatra sang about New York? "If I can make it there / I can make it anywhere". But it also conveys a "Great Depression" era attitude emphasizing the importance of money. Hollywood movies during the depression would normally do one of two things, 1) have characters engage in get rich quick schemes. This usually involved putting on a Broadway show. Number two, have characters (generally women) set out to marry rich men but then they fall in love with a poor man to leave the audience with the message, love is more important than money.

Once in New York Garnett meets Penny. Garnett is instantly attracted to Penny and when he discovers she is a dance instructor and he pretends he is a novice, despite the fact the audience has already seen Garnett dance. Garnett and Penny end up impressing her boss who immediately signs them up in a dance competition.

The problem for Garnett is what should he do about Margaret? That was the whole reason he went to New York. Should he tell Penny the truth? Will Garnett and Penny end up having a "fine romance" or is it better if they say "lets call the whole thing off"?

One of the reasons I don't find "Swing Time" to be the team's most successful picture is because the material is not played out to its fullest. You watch "Top Hat" and tell me that movie could not have worked on its own, without the musical score, as a typical screwball comedy. You really can't say the same for "Swing Time". It is jumping around from idea to idea too quickly. I can actually laugh when I watch "Top Hat". The comedy works. The best moments in "Swing Time" are the musical numbers. But, as I say, if the plot is half-way decent and the songs work, I will recommend a movie. That is why "Swing Time" is recommended.

In the end though I would rather audiences watch "Swing Time" than any modern movie they can get their hands on. "Swing Time" represents what Hollywood was once capable of. It is playful and charming. You have two extremely talented lead performers. They have no equivalent in today's Hollywood. Looking back on "Swing Time" one gets the impression life was easier and Hollywood was innocent. Does anyone think that today about Hollywood or life? And that is what made the movies special. That is why these movies are classics. Hollywood was a dream factory back then. It made us dream.