Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time (1936) movie poster

director George Stevens
viewed: 02/11/2012

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at the height of their collaboration, directed very effectively by George Stevens, and featuring music by the fantastic Jerome Kern.  What’s not to like?  The blackface, perhaps?

After watching Top Hat (1935) a couple of years ago, I wondered about watching films like this with kids.  This time, I did.  The magic was lost a bit on Felix, perhaps due more to tiredness (he fell asleep during the film) than due to real reaction, but Clara, who is soon to be 8, totally loved it, as did I.

As good as the Irving Berlin songs were in Top Hat, the Kern songs in Swing Time are even more impeccable.  “Pick Yourself Up”, “A Fine Romance”, “The Way You Look Tonight”.  Fantastic.

The dance sequences, namely the first, set to “Pick Yourself Up” in which Astaire vies to prove that Rogers has just taught him how to dance in the studio is magic.   The “Bojangles of Harlem” sequence is perhaps the most cinematic, highlighting a big tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson with a striking sequence in which Astaire dances in front of a screen of three giant syncopated silhouettes of himself, projected behind him.  This sequence, though, is the site of the blackface that Astaire dons.  It’s the sad thing about blackface that it’s so rightly stigmatized that even in a sequence like this, which is done in tribute, and perhaps far less is lampoon, it’s still shameful.  I, personally, try not to get too hung up on these elements, as there is no simple, clear way to feel.  It’s of its time, it’s shameful, it’s there.  It’s still arguably one of the film’s best moments, tainted as it is.

Not being a particularly “dancey” person myself, I still found myself wanting to glide around the room a-la Astaire, and Clara did very much too.  It’s almost impossible not to get caught up in it.  We both thoroughly enjoyed it.  Felix slept through the ending, so maybe next time for him.