Swing Time (1936)
Release Date: September 4th, 1936 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: George Stevens Actors: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness
he star dancer of Cardetti and Company, John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire), is anxious to leave the theater just seconds after his big performance has concluded. He’s off to marry Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), a woman he hasn’t known for long, and whose father not only despises him, but also has little faith in Garnett’s ability to show up for the ceremony. “Letting his marriage interfere with our careers,” huffs one of the fellas, who is bitter at their lead for abandoning the show. In protest, they sabotage his wedding day (by delaying him and answering his phone calls until he’s unable to arrive on time).
Margaret is distraught and her father is furious. But with a very brief explanation, he’s given another chance to win Margaret’s hand. If he can go to New York, become successful, and raise $25,000, he can come back to try again. Since this is a lighthearted musical, there’s no sense in his being mad about the predicament – though in any other picture, this setup would shatter a number of friendships and irreparably harm the marriage. Although Lucky doesn’t plan on dancing anymore, as gambling is his more lucrative profession of choice, he quickly has a run-in with a woman in New York who just so happens to work at the Gordon Dancing Academy. Penelope “Penny” Carrol (Ginger Rogers) is an instructor, but she’s none too anxious to teach a lesson to Lucky, since their first interaction involves him robbing her of money.
As these comedies tend to go, Lucky and Penny quickly hit it off and are singing and dancing together in no time, which creates a love triangle with the woman waiting back home for his return (and his fortunes). There is, of course, something uncommonly delightful in seeing Astaire play a master tapdancer who pretends not to know how to dance. And having Rogers as a tutor is a perfect match. Strangely, however, it takes almost 30 minutes before the first song kicks in, followed by a dance routine as they demonstrate Lucky’s exceptional “progress.”
Additionally having Garnett penniless and jobless when he arrives in New York amplifies his underdog status. But it’s a little uncomfortable that his solution is to gamble, and that he accidentally excels at it (the roulette wheel doesn’t appear to have any obvious advantages for the experienced player). The glorification of gambling, and Lucky’s ability to win back Penny even after letting her down so tremendously (time and again, in fact), is a plotline component that could only work in a purely fantastical setting. Several other characters engage in gambling too, from sidekicks Edmund “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore) and his convenient romantic counterpart Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick), to a hall owner whom Lucky must play cards against just to acquire musical accompaniment with which to dance.
Perhaps most upsetting of all is that Lucky is continually coerced into gambling more and more as a way to fix every predicament – and he must be occasionally bailed out by Pop, who cheats better than an opposing cheater. And in an even queerer twist, Lucky purposely tries not to obtain his full $25,000 target, so that he has an excuse not to go back to Margaret too soon (as if merely lying about the accrued sum couldn’t have done the trick). Ultimately, however, the story serves only to ferry the characters from one show-stopping performance to the next.
Even in this regard, however, there is much to be desired. The title number is short and unelaborate, some of the lyrics by Dorothy Fields lack inspiration (orchestral music by Jerome Kern is slightly better), the jokes aren’t terribly funny, and the Bojangles blackface number at the Silver Sandal Cafe ages poorly (though it surely shows off Astaire’s athleticism better than the preceding routines, as it becomes the longest and the most complex). Plus, the romantic turmoil sorts itself out rather neatly. Astaire and Rogers once again prove their skills on the dance floor, but it’s a shame that they don’t do so onscreen, together, more frequently – and in an appropriately grand finale (there’s essentially no final, show-stopping, closing dance sequence).
– Mike Massie