Film A Week- Week 5: Swing Time (1936)

If there is one brand of film I personally have a soft spot for, it will always be musicals. Musicals are similar to animation in that they can bleed into other genres to deliver the story from the dramatic efforts of Les Miserables to the comedy of Little Shop of Horrors to the thrills of horror in Sweeney ToddMusicals were once a box office cash cow back in the Classical era between the 1930’s and the 1960’s. Legends were made in the form of household names Judy Garland (The Wizard of Oz), James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy)  Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor (Singin’ in the Rain). No one was more popular than the duo that was Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. According to Katherine Hepburn herself, “He gives her class and she gave him sex appeal” and that quote alone sums up their relationship quite nicely with Astaire’s grace and style in dancing and Rogers’ true beauty coming through both in her appearance and footwork. Together, they wowed audiences made ten dance musical features including The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and today’s featuring we are covering which is considered by many their greatest, Swing Time.

1936’s Swing Time is a tale of a man named John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) who heads off to New York to raise $250,000 dollars in order to marry his fiance after arriving late upon his own wedding. Whilst in New York, he meets the gorgeous Penny Carrol (Ginger Rogers) to help him and herself to becoming a popular dance duo. The only thing coming in between them is love, due to Garnett’s resistance to be close to Penny and Penny’s resistance to kiss him. From this quick description, readers, this is going to be one fine classy comedy.

John Garnett is ready to go off and marry when his friends stall him for time to make sure he doesn’t get married to Margaret (Betty Furness), his fiancee. One of his pals is on the phone playing it off as John and giving him the wrong time as the other tells John that his pants are last year’s fashions and need cuffs for his trousers. After all this turmoil, John has to face Margaret’s father. John convinces her father that he can get $250,000 by performing in New York and also with a bit of his gambling skills. John heads off to New York alongside his managing magician companion “Pop” Cardetti, played by Victor Moore, with his friends taking his money to not allow John to get on the train. Luckily, John knows the old ‘hobo boxcar’ tricks and hitch a freight train alongside Pop. John and Pop arrive in New York and asked for change for a quarter from a woman in passing for Pop’s cigarettes from a machine. Unfortunately, John loses his lucky quarter and Pop gets it back to lead to the woman accusing John of stealing the quarter. After the confrontation, they follow her to Gordan’s Dance Academy she works at to apologize for the fuss they made. The only way to talk to her is to take a dance lesson from her as they learn her identity is Penny Carrol (Ginger Rogers). He engages in a a lesson and plays it off as a man who doesn’t know anything about dancing (Fred Astaire without dancing is like Pavarotti without his operatic tenor) and sing the first song “Pick Yourself Up”, a polka number that is both silly and heartwarming at the same time.

Penny tells John that he will never learn anything and to save the money. Her boss, Mr. Gordon, over hears this and promptly fires her with John, stunned by his criticism and sudden dismissal, grabs her to show what she ‘taught’ him.

She gets her job back along with her friend Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick). Mr. Gordon books them an audition at the Silver Sandal. John and Penny stay at the same hotel to prepare for their audition, but John needs a dinner jacket for the audition and has none. Pop brings up the bright idea of bringing a drunkard in to win the tuxedo off of him. Penny wonders where ‘Lucky’, as she nicknamed him, is and discovers he is gambling causing Penny to get angry at ‘Lucky’. After a week (and hours of walking in the hallways under Penny’s demands in sadness), John and Pop plead for forgiveness. Whist alone in the room to convince Penny to get another audition for them to succeed, Lucky sings a beautiful song of admiration, “The Way You Look Tonight” that makes her come around.

They head off to the Silver Sandal, but they cannot perform as the band leader, Ricardo Romero (George Metaxa) of the club has just signed to a casino which Lucky and Penny head off to. At the casino’s club, Club Raymond, Lucky decides to play a game against the owners for Romero’s contract to allow them to dance (if only you can do that for every audition). As he plays, he finds that he is getting enough money to head back to Margaret and takes his final bet and the contract into his hand to stay a while longer with Penny. Ricardo comes to tell them about how he would not let them dance because of his love of Penny and wants no other man to dance with her. Screw that noise because Lucky whips out the contract and he is forced to perform for the “Waltz in Swing Time”.

As they continue their long (in movie time) career dancing in the Silver Sandal, they decide to take a holiday at the New Amsterdam, a cabin Mabel once stayed at as a young girl. Lucky tells Pop to not let him get too close or alone with Penny while Mabel convinces Penny to expand on her fondness of Lucky by getting comfortable with him. Pop and Mabel go off on their own as Lucky and Penny stay together with one avoiding the other and the other wanting to get something more leading to the number comical love ballad, ‘A Fine Romance’.

Pop and Mabel come back with Pop revealing to Penny that Lucky must go back to get married, which Penny did not know anything about. The trope of the ‘misunderstanding’ may be done to death as of now, but this film is much older so I can buy it. Lucky finds out that Penny knows, but tries to make it up to her. Back at their steady gig, Penny finally kisses Lucky thanks to Mabel’s advice and tries to move the relationship forward as they both realize they are mad for one another. After this, Lucky pays homage to Bill Robinson with the piece ‘”Bojangles of Harlem”. Yes, kids, Fred Astaire in full blackface as Bill Robinson. It is not that offensive as Robinson actually was fond of this tribute and is a huge inspiration of Astaire. Even stranger, this footage is nowhere on YouTube and it is sad because the performance is spectacular despite the whole blackface on Astaire’s face. After this, Lucky heads back to his dressing room and comes across Margaret and the casino owners finding out Pop cheated using his magician sleight of handto win. Lucky, down on his luck, is saddened by the whole affair and Penny sees that Margaret is their with him. Out of anger, she decides to get married to Ricardo and leaves Lucky in the dust. Lucky stops Penny and proceeds to profess that once she leaves, he will never dance again with the gorgeous ‘Never Gonna Dance’ that tells their entire story in one performance.

The next day, Lucky meets with Margaret who decides to break off the engagement falling head over heels for someone else. Lucky laughs at it all with Pop and Mabel finding out as well and laughing it off. Lucky finds out that Penny is getting married that day and heads off to stop it all by using a method with Ricardo his friends used to stop his wedding from going. Ricardo, perpexed by the whole ordeal, comes down with over sized trousers as Penny calls it all off and telling Ricardo she loves Lucky more than him. They all have a laugh and Penny and Lucky get married and thus, the classic end.

Swing Time is astounding and an all round joy. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers work wonders to together with delightful dancing and performances and the numbers throughout are amazing. One thing out of the film I did enjoy was the buildup to the first true number after twenty minutes of set up and does not feel forced at all. The dancing is spectacular with a thrilling dance number after ‘Pick Yourself Up’ that I looked up countless times before watching this feature because of how mesmerizing it all is. ‘Never Gonna Dance’ is also a lovely sequence that compliments the whole relationship between the two nearing the end that might make one tear up. The side characters are wonderful with Victor Moore’s Pop stealing a few scenes with wit and deadpan snarker lines. The direction is wonderful as is the cinematography constantly keeping up with Astaire and Rogers and never missing a beat. This may have been my first time watching this film, but there is going to be a few more views in the future because I have fallen in love with Swing Time.

Next week on Film A Week, a special Thursday edition is coming for Valentine’s Day. Having used up my time this week to focus on love blossoming, time to focus on love declining and trying to forget the one you loved the most. With foundations in the science thriller genre and romance with a praised performance by Jim Carrey, Film A Week will enter the mind of Michel Gondry to discover the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Film A Week- Week 6 Valentine’s Day Special: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

Thursday, February 14th

Stinger of the Week


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