1936’s Swing Time saw Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing the night away in a musical tale of romance.
Astaire plays “Lucky” Garnett, a member of a dancing troupe who is retiring to marry his fiancé Margaret. The opening scene has members of his troupe trick him into having his pants tailored while they gamble with him, causing him to miss his wedding. Margaret’s father is furious but says he will consent to the marriage if Lucky makes $25,000. He attempts to buy a ticket on a train to New York but his troupe-mates take all his money, as they had bet him that he wouldn’t get married. He jumps on the moving train and stows away and his friend Pop Cardetti comes with him.
Once in New York, Pop wants cigarettes, so Lucky gets change from a woman, Penny Carroll, to use the cigarette machine. The cigarette machine winds up dispensing multiple packs plus giving them a bunch of money back and Lucky goes back to Penny to try to get his lucky quarter back. As she attempts to brush him off, she drops her purse. Pop picks it up and steals the quarter. She accuses Lucky of stealing the quarter and grabs a cop, but he won’t help her. After learning that Pop stole the quarter, Lucky goes after Penny to try to give her her money back.
He follows her into a dance studio where she is an instructor. He asks the owner, for lessons from her. What follows is a funny sequence where he pretends to not know how to dance and Penny gets increasingly frustrated with him, ultimately telling him that no one could ever teach him how to dance. The owner overhears her and tells Penny she is fired, but Lucky shows how much he has “learned” by doing a stunning dancing duet with Penny. The owner is impressed and promises to get them a try out at a club called the Silver Sandal. Meanwhile, Pop has been hitting on the front desk lady, Mabel.
Lucky doesn’t have a tuxedo for the tryout – Pop tries to go out and win enough money to get him a tux but loses all his money. He brings back a drunk named Eric who has no money but has a tux and they gamble with him but loose. Lucky misses the tryout and Penny is furious with him. A week later, Lucky and Pop are “protesting” with signs outside of Penny’s hotel room about being unfairly treated. Mabel convinces Penny to talk to Lucky again, because Pop has made her hundreds of dollars gambling (the whole dialogue really makes little sense, but on we go). Lucky plays the piano and sings Penny “The Way You Look Tonight” – if you don’t know, Swing Time was the first time this iconic song was performed and it is absolutely exquisite – I can only imagine seeing and hearing it in a theater for the first time. Penny is enthralled and gives Lucky another chance.
They go to the Silver Sandal to try to show off their dance moves, but the club band leader and singer, Rikki Romero, refuses to sing because he is in love with Penny (he has proposed to her many times) and doesn’t want to see her dance with another man. The club owner lets Lucky know that Rikki won’t be singing there anymore anyhow as he has lost his contract to a competing club owner in a bet.
Lucky goes to the other owner’s club and plays roulette. He is up big and bets the club owner his stack against Ricki’s contract in a game of single card draw. Pop uses his magic skills to pull an Ace of Spades and they win Rikki’s contract, but Rikki still refuses to play for them because his contract doesn’t require him to. Lucky tricks him into playing and we finally see them dance.
Lucky is falling for Penny but doesn’t want to tell her about Margaret, so he asks Pop not to ever let him be alone with her. Lucky, Penny, Pop and Mabel head out to the country in the winter to a cottage called the “New Amsterdam”. Pop breaks his promise and leaves them alone. They almost kiss but Pop interrupts them. He lets slip that Lucky has a fiancé. When they are alone again, Penny refuses to kiss Lucky.
Cut ahead to re-opening night at the Silver Sandal. Rikki again proposes to Penny, but she refuses. Mabel tells Penny that she should go kiss Lucky as he is in love with her – she finds him in his dressing room and kisses him.
Next, we get to see Lucky’s performance at the Silver Sandal. His big number, Bojangles of Harlem, requires quite a bit of digital ink to discuss. Lucky comes out in blackface and performs a tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and John Bubbles. 83 years later, we’d all agree that a white guy dancing in blackface is a really, really bad idea. If you are not familiar, blackface was a common technique used by white performers in minstrel shows for centuries. It generally involved ugly racial stereotypes and was at once co-opting black culture for white enjoyment and denigrating black culture. It’s history is ugly, which is why no one does it anymore. People were not so enlightened in 1936. Having said all this and with the context of the time, what Fred Astaire does here is remarkable. Bill “Bojangles” Robinson was the most famous and successful African-American entertainer of the first half of the 20th century. John Bubbles was a mentor and teacher of Fred Astaire. There is no animus in Astaire’s performance here – this is clearly a case of him honoring Robinson and Bubbles, but there are some absolutely cringe-worthy elements here – Astaire comes out of a stage set with giant lips on it (a classically ugly black stereotype from minstrel shows) and…you know…he’s wearing blackface. I don’t know how to process all this in 2019 other than to say that while I don’t think anything but respect was intended, the scene does not age well at all.
Getting back to our plot, Margaret has shown up to see Lucky dance. After the show, Penny meets Margaret and runs away in an emotional huff. The competing club owner also shows up and tells Lucky he has learned that he cheated in the draw for Rikki’s contract. They redraw and Lucky loses.
Lucky and Penny talk. Penny asks if Margaret is a good dancer and Lucky tells her he will never dance again. Cue big musical number.
Lucky goes to see Margaret at her hotel. She tells him that she is not in love with him and isn’t going to marry him. Relieved, he shares that he is in love with Penny. Pop comes and tells Lucky than Penny is going to marry Rikki that afternoon.
Pop and Lucky go to try to break up the wedding. They use the “trouser cuff” trick that was used on Lucky in the first scene on Rikki. In a confusing closing scene with way too much laughter, Penny decides not to marry Rikki (I guess because of the trousers?) and is going to marry Lucky. Cue the closing number.
What I loved:
- The dancing is absolutely splendid. Astaire and Rogers are individually brilliant and have amazing chemistry.
- The Way You Look Tonight is probably the finest song of the 1930s – one that everyone still knows the words to today – and it was debuted here. I can’t over-emphasize how amazing it is to see it in its original context.
- The chemistry between Astaire and Rogers really makes the romance work.
- The movie is fun throughout, well-paced and never boring
What I didn’t like:
- There are elements of the plot that just flat out make no sense. Absurdity is piled on top of absurdity – club owners selling singer’s contracts for card draws, Mabel convincing Penny to give Lucky a chance because Pop has successfully gambled her money, the whole closing sequence all seem ridiculous.
- There isn’t much in the way of deeper meaning in any of this. Musicals can be deep – have you watched Phantom of the Opera (a dark look into mental illness and physical deformity) or Hamilton (an amazing history lesson)? This one falls flat here.
- Other than Lucky and Penny, you don’t come to care one way or another about any of the other characters. Maybe it’s the screen writing, maybe it’s the acting, but it almost makes me wonder if the whole thing shouldn’t have just been musical numbers with Astaire and Rogers.
Production Quality 9/10
Rewatch Value 8/10
Overall Score 27/40
Should this be on the AFI Top 100 list? I feel like its inclusion is of the “we need to include a movie with Astaire and Rogers dancing because it is so unique” versus its actual qualities as a film. I really enjoyed watching it, but I’m not sure I would call this a masterpiece the way many other reviewers have. I have a feeling opinions would be quite varied depending on taste.
Up next, M Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film, The Sixth Sense.