08th Jul2019

‘Swing Time’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore | Written by Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott | Directed by George Stevens

swing-time-blu-cover

Dazzling dancer “Lucky” (Fred Astaire) steps off stage and straight into his wedding outfit. But his colleagues don’t want to lose their star player to some dame, so they find ways to stop him. Lucky’s lateness triggers a fit of rage in the father of the would-be bride, and he issues an ultimatum: Lucky must go to New York, build a fortune, and return only when he earns the status (i.e. money) to marry his daughter.

Moments later, Lucky is in the Big Apple, where he falls in love with literally the first girl he meets. In classic rom-com stalker style, Lucky pursues Penny (Ginger Rogers) against her wishes. He chases her into a dance studio, where he masquerades as an amateur in order to humiliate her and be close to her. Persistence pays off – they dance together and are utterly compatible; totally in step. But what about the girl he left back home?

The old tropes are out in force for 1936 RKO dance-musical Swing Time. Lucky is the lovable rascal and Penny the sceptical-yet-sexy buzzkill. Lucky has a good-hearted clutz of a sidekick (an awkward Victor Moore), and naturally Penny has her sardonic and disapproving older friend and guardian, Mabel (Helen Broderick). The one black person we see is a goggle-eyed, jolly old servant. Sigh.

Swing Time is bookended by a long-winded pair of jokes about trouser cuffs, which raises a smile not because it’s funny but because it highlights the dated and unrelatable humour. It’s not a very funny or charming film. Ironically, the comedy delivery throughout lacks flow and rhythm. The problem lies in the thudding screenplay, with its eye-rolling, sub-sitcom dialogue. The only thing that’s missing is a ba-dum-tish after each lame zinger.

Moreover, the basic story is contrived and nonsensical. Lucky must earn twenty-five grand to return to his fiancée. Except by his own admission he doesn’t love her anyway. So, where is the drama here? It kills the tension between Lucky and Penny, making his writhing reluctance when she offers herself to him illogical. After all, wasn’t he aggressively pursuing her not ten minutes ago?

The final act is a farce that falls flat, as Penny falls into the slimy arms of Lucky’s alpha male competitor (Georges Metaxa) by default, simply because the practicalities of marrying Lucky himself aren’t ideal. Marriage might have been an inescapable pathway back then; and how contrived this section feels is surely indicative of western society’s changing attitudes. No longer is betrothment the unbreakable contract it once was (thankfully); and no longer is there an assumption that women approaching thirty simply must be married, regardless of real choice.

The plot is a mere hindrance to some decent musical dance numbers, anyway. Despite Swing Time being the last of the once-indomitable pair’s blockbuster run, Rogers and Astaire are in good form. Lucky and Penny’s “audition” at the dance studio is a playful and inventive delight; there’s a lovely piano rendition of “The Way You Look Tonight”; and the “Never Gonna Dance” finale is moving storytelling in more than one sense.

Sadly, one spectacular centrepiece number is rendered virtually unwatchable with modern eyes as Astaire is smeared in blackface. It’s a pity because Hermes Pan designs some great VFX work during this section, portraying Lucky dancing before three giant silhouettes of himself.

In some ways, Swing Time was progressive for its time. The countercultural idea of compatibility being key – the value of walking in step rather than locking into duty – is laudable. And there’s no denying the tuxes and gowns are pure, timeless glam. In other ways, it’s is a relic of a distant past, bound up in the alien values and sensibilities of its era. It has the pacing of a stage play: one ten-minute farce after another, swallowing valuable screen time between the dancing. Because that’s where the money is: in those magical moments where monochrome celluloid becomes vibrant. Everything between is fairly drab.

Special Edition Features:

  • New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
  • Audio commentary from 1986 featuring John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films
  • Archival interviews with performers Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and choreographer Hermes Pan
  • New interview with George Stevens Jr.
  • In Full Swing, a new programme on the film’s choreography and soundtrack featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer
  • New interview with film scholar Mia Mask on the “Bojangles of Harlem” number
  • PLUS: An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith

Swing Time is out on Criterion Blu-ray from today, 8 July 2019.

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