Years ago, ScreenCrave contributor Jaime Lopez privately began tackling Roger Ebert’s “Greatest Films” list, an ever-expanding monolith of celluloid currently comprised of 354 films. With 264 under his belt and less than 100 films left to go, Lopez has set himself to put these remaining films’ “Greatness” to the test–reviewing both the movies themselves and Ebert’s response. This week, he takes on George Steven’s Swing Time.
There was a time back in the 1930’s and 1940’s when grabbing dinner and going out to dance was viewed as an evening’s entertainment. And when I say dance, I mean really dance, not just bumpin’ and grindin’ at the club after dinner. Not surprisingly, during this time, musicals held a special place for movie-going audiences, providing inspiration for what many would try to replicate on dance floors all across the world.
- Director: George Stevens
- Writer: Howard Lindsey
- Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers
Fred Astaire did more to lift the dance industry than probably anyone or anything ever since. (A similar thing can be said about the single-handed impact that Top Gun had on U.S. Navy recruitment). And this, of course, is due his dance numbers.
Consisting mostly of silly conflicts with simple resolutions, the plot is films weakest point by far. Astaire’s John Garnett is a dancer/gambler who is about to abandon his career for marriage. Late to his wedding, his father-in-law forces to Garnett to come back with $25K if he wants to marry his daughter. When he sets out to make enough money to get married, he runs into Roger’s “Penny”, a dance instructor at a school where Garnett cheekily seeks lessons. From this point on, the relationship between Garnett and Penny, and their feelings for each, continue to grow. Overall, character motivations are relatively weak, especially as the film tries to wrap things up in the third act. Penny’s response to a marriage proposal seems like an easy way to create conflict. The comedy is mostly dated and falls flat. With the exception of a few magic tricks, the sidekick character, “Pop” Cardetti, played by Victor Moore, is mostly unnecessary.
But again, its all about the dancing here. The scene where Penny is about to get fired and Garnett does a dance demonstration to show the owner that he has indeed learned from Penny, is pure cinema. It takes nearly 30 minutes to get to this first dance number, but “oh my dear god” are we just getting started!!! (An early dance number was deleted from the film). In terms of dance, not only is there is a great deal of it after the first 30 minutes, we are treated to a rich variety of dance, from light-hearted dance to energetic tap dancing and elegant ballroom dancing. And all of it, damn near all of it, is shown to us in one continuous take, without the use of editing (this is something that Astaire firmly believed would show the full extent of the physicality of each dance number). Watch this piece, and notice how little cutting there is (also note the use of blackface):
The film was choreographed by Hermes Pan, and the dancing performances are hypnotizing. As storytelling devices, the dance numbers come a long way here, adding to a flimsy plot but also conveying just as much – if not more – than the dialogue. Similar to a jazz musician, a good dancer is able to improvise and determine how it fits into the rest of a musical piece.
We must consider that sound was added to filmmaking in 1927, and movie musicals were little more than photographed Broadway productions. By 1936, when Swing Time was released, musical had become sophisticated enough to become the major genre of the 1930’s. Some of the best dancing is I’ve ever seen moves gracefully and energetically within the frames of this film, and it’s greatness is hard to understand completely if you haven’t watched enough musicals to compare. The “Bojangles” dance number as seen above, meant as a tribute to dancing great, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson is a great number, although it’s a shame that it has to be in blackface, because otherwise it would be placed under the “greatest cinematic dance number” without a slight cringe. Yet still, it is hard to deny that this dance number is inventive and has great visual creativity, and the 3 shadows on the back wall that dance in sync with Mr. Astaire made me look forward to possibility of seeing him in a “hologram” stage performance at a future show in Coachella.
Brief Words for Ebert: Mr. Ebert, I was most amazed to read your description of the dance numbers. Your admiration for Astaire and Rogers is unmistakable, and you give good reasons for it. This is a film that I understand is deemed “Great” because as a musical, there is dancing here that sits in the pantheon of all such movies. Whether I agree with you on a particular film or not, your review of this film is a perfect example of why I’ve always admired and respected your work, as your LOVE of film jumps off the page! Having said this, I would love to agree with you about Swing Time, and echo your classification of this film as “Great”, as I was absolutely mesmerized and riveted by the dance numbers. However, the part of me that trumpets the quality of a story as the most important element in a film, holds me back, just barely. Any musical worthy of considerations of “greatness”, despite a poor story, speaks volumes to me about the pure value of its dancing.
Good, Bad or Great Movie: Good
Do you like Swing Time? Do you consider this film to be Good, Bad, or does it stand up as Great?
Next week’s review: Red River