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Swing Time (June 5, 2014)

In my book, Swing Time is the best of the Astaire-Rogers pictures. For many years I reserved that spot in my mind for Top Hat, but I changed my opinion, for two reasons. One is the script. These movies do not have realistic stories but Fred’s and Ginger’s characters’ positions in the world in this one are more true-to-life than in those of the others. The other reason is the music of Jerome Kern and the lyrics of Dorothy Fields, which I like very much.

The script was written by Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott from a story by Erwin Gelsey. It was directed by George Stevens. Returning were David Abel as cinematographer, Carroll Clark as art director, and Hermes Pan as dance director. Costumes were by Edward Stevenson. John Harkrider designed the “Silver Sandal” set, with its skyscraper dance floor, and the “Bojangles” costumes. Victor Moore joined Helen Broderick as the comic foil couple, and Eric Blore was again a supporting player. “The Way You Look Tonight” won an Oscar for best song, and Hermes Pan was nominated for best dance direction for “Bojangles”. Swing Time was filmed from May through July 1936 and released at the end of August, 1936.

Arlene Croce, in her The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book, wrote “In a dance film the dance values are more lucid and exciting to the mind than any other kind. In Swing Time they grip with the logic of a metaphor: the dance as love, the lovers as dancers. And the dancers as stars. There never was a more star-struck movie or a greater dance musical.” John Mueller, in his book Astaire Dancing, wrote, “Whether Swing Time is. . .the greatest Astaire-Rogers film is a matter of debate. Less debatable is the superior quality of Ginger Rogers’ performance – her finest in the series. As a dancer she had grown enormously during the four years of their partnership, developing fluidity, confidence, and rich choreographic insight. Moreover, her acting is richly textured and engagingly convincing, and she is especially able in this film to leaven the defensive haughtiness of her character with a touching vulnerability.”

Astaire wrote in his autobiography that “Swing Time took a long time to complete, several weeks more than the others, due largely to the trick screen process necessary for the ‘Bojangles’ number.” Alastair Macauley wrote in the New York Times in 2011: “How should we react today to ‘Bojangles of Harlem,’ the extended solo in the 1936 film Swing Time in which Fred Astaire, then at the height of his fame, wears blackface to evoke the African-American dancer Bill Robinson? No pat answer occurs.” There are films from the Thirties I would not show here at the library because of the racial stereotypes they depict. Blackface makeup dates back over a century in this country, and its appearance in entertainment reinforced stereotypes of black identity held by whites and helped preserve the existing power structure of dominance over African-Americans. Mr. Macauley cringes at the blackface, as I do, but observes “(Blackface) was often used subversively. Here Astaire is subverting racist caricature to celebrate the black tradition of tap dance. His is not a specific imitation of Robinson: but Robinson. . . was the most famous black tap dancer in the world; this ‘Bojangles’ song congratulated his achievement. . . But even if you remain bothered by its blackface aspect, ‘Bojangles’ should be watched time and again, because it’s one of Astaire’s most rhythmically imaginative solos.” John Mueller wrote, “Somewhat crouched over (quite the opposite of the almost regal Robinson), Astaire delivers a series of bright, skittery shuffle steps with flailing arms, giving the impression of hovering a few inches above the ground while tapping out his rhythm.. .Astaire’s opening solo and his dance with the chorus are captured in a single take by Stevens’ active boom camera.” For me, I agree we should see the dance in this number as the original work that it is, but I don’t necessarily agree with anyone who asserts that Astaire “didn’t mean it like that.” The man, politically conservative for his time, quite probably didn’t see why anyone would object to a number done in blackface. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy watching Swing Time, my favorite Astaire-Rogers movie, tonight.