Saturday, February 27, 2010

Film #13: Swing Time (1936)

Director: George Stevens.

Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: once (about a year ago)

The Story (in which I go through all of the plot points, spoilers included. Fair warning):

John "Lucky" Garnet is a talented dancer and gambling man about to get married to the young Margaret, but the guys in his performing troupe don't want to lose their best talent. They foil his wedding, leaving Lucky to make a deal with his fiancee and her father - come up with $25,000 to show he's worth something and he can have her hand in marriage. He's off!

A broke Lucky and his former manager, Pop, soon run across Penny, a dance instructor who initially finds him annoying, but comes to love him. Together, they navigate a few bumps in the occupational road and forge Penny a career as dancer, all the while falling for each other, despite Lucky's still-standing engagement to Margaret. Lucky tries to honor his promise to marry Margaret by not getting involved with Penny, which Penny reads as disinterest. Thus, she nearly gives in to the advances of the suave but pompous maestro, Ricardo Romero.

In the end, Lucky and his Margaret both admit to loving other people, which frees Lucky up to lightheartedly foil Penny's marriage to Ricardo and give us the happy joining that we've been waiting for.

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (done after 1 viewing & before any research):

Great movie. And this is a lot coming from me, a person who vehemently dislikes nearly all musicals. I had forgotten that I had seen this one about a year ago, but once it began I remembered that it was one of the few musicals that stood out as likable to me. "Why?" you ask? Well...

I think my main problem with musical films is that they usually just don't mesh to me. West Side Story is supposed to be Romeo & Juliet, but on the dangerous mean streets, right? Well, pardon me if I don't buy into the danger when the "gangs" are wearing pastel skinny jeans, jumping around like figure skaters, and singing about how tough they are. Same goes for The Sound of Music - I simply can't get past thinking, "Stop singing and run from those Nazis, for chissakes!!"

Swing Time avoids all of this nonsense. Since the story is about entertainers, the song and dance numbers fit almost seamlessly into the story. Lucky is a dancer and Penny is a dance instructor, so it makes sense when they break into dances, and even sing together on occasion. Of course, it goes without saying that the two were phenomenal dancers. I'm no expert, but watching them made me want to take ballroom lessons to even approach the grace and fluidity of their movements. Check out this clip to get a taste for how damn awesome they were (I especially like the non-chalant walk-out at the end):




Freakin' amazing footwork.

The players were incredible. Fred and Ginger were all-around fantastic entertainers. There's really nothing that they didn't do well: singing and dancing are the obvious ones, but they were both really strong actors with great senses of comedic timing. I really like Astaire's character - he wasn't a drop-dead handsome guy, but he was pretty smooth. In Swing Time, the character of Lucky is a genuinely lovable high-rollin', tap dancin', cigarette smokin', wise-crackin' rogue. Ginger Rodgers was also great, easily keeping up with Astaire and absolutely smokin' hot, if I can apply such a modern idiom to one of the greats from our past.

Already alluded to is the comedy. This movie is legitimately funny and some of the cracks totally hold up 75 years later. All of the ingredients are there - a solid script and two strong lead actors who could pull it off. The final pieces to the puzzle were the two key supporting roles of Pop and Mabel, the male/female assistants of Lucky and Penny, played by Victor Moore and Helen Broderick. Sure, there are some hokey jokes, but these two made me laugh out loud more than a few times.

There are really only two things that bugged me a bit. One is that, at the end, there was a lot of one of my greatest pet peeves in acting - forced contagious laughter. You know - when a character pulls some goofy, slapstick gag and the entire cast starts laughing uproariously in a way that borders on insane. Well, the last 10 minutes of Swing Time is just such a yuk-fest and irked me somewhat.

The other is that the next-to-last dance act, Mr. Bojangles, is done by Astaire in blackface. I can't really say there's anything overtly racist about it, as he doesn't try to sing with any kind of condescending "ethnic" accent or anything, but the hair on the back of my neck stands up a bit when I see stuff like that from films past.

I've already told multiple friends about how much I enjoyed this film, and I'll continue to do so. Take it from a musical-hater - nearly everyone can find something to like about this movie, as long as they have no great objection to black and white and they understand that's it's all in good fun.

Take 2: "Why Film Geeks Love It" (done after some further research on the movie):

This was a first for me. In re-watching the movie with audio commentary by John Mueller, something was pointed out to me: just how much I should have ripped this movie for several weaknesses. There are some serious plot holes and questionable actions by the characters, and yet I didn't care. In fact, I didn't even think about them until the commentator pointed them out. To me, this shows just how charming the movie is. Even now, when I know the missing elements for which I would be pissed at another film, I don't really care. I still think Swing Time is great. Mueller put it well when explaining that it's a movie in which the sum of its parts is greater than the whole - each scene is great enough to gloss over the occasional lack of cohesion.

The Astaire/Rogers dance movies were monstrously popular. So much so that they essentially started a massive dance craze in the U.S., and even a few other countries. Apparently, some critics knock(ed) the films for being so much fluff, which is a fair observation. Still, I don't go into a musical/dance film to find serious social commentary or even tragedy or drama (West Side Story, anyone?), so I don't see the point of getting bent out of shape about it.

I shouldn't have been surprised at the comedic chops of Victor Moore & Helen Broderick. Moore was an accomplished vaudevillian & stage comedian, and Broderick was just naturally funny as hell. When I re-watched it, they were just as good.

Something interesting is that Fred Astaire absolutely refused to do an on-screen kiss with Ginger Rogers. He never felt that he was much of a "looker" and he thought such kisses were contrived and had already seen their day in cinema. So, he artfully teased the audience. Here's an amusing sample (start it at about 1:30):



The blackface bit. As stated in Take 1, I know that it wasn't really meant as offensive, and Mueller's commentary calmed my nerves a bit more. He pointed out that the dance was, as I suspected, a tribute to an old African-American dancer named Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Astaire wasn't even using the full "white-wide lips" make-up that really appeals to stereotypes. Here it actually is (the Bojangles character shows up at 1:30):



The final thing that re-watching it gave me was a greater appreciation of the slower beauty of some of the dances and the way that they are meant to convey the emotional transitions of the characters. The dance numbers truly do take the place of dialogue and facial expressions, perhaps as even more accurate representations of the emotions that they evoke than words could ever be.

That's a wrap. 13 shows in the can. 92 to go.

Coming Soon: Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936):


Never seen this one. I would laugh at this poster if I hadn't discovered, in recent years, that there are some kick-ass noir films from France. Maybe this was one of the earliest? Come back and find out.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.