Criterion Review: SWING TIME

A Fred & Ginger classic joins the Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection grows the musicals in its number with the release of Swing Time. The 1936 film, directed by George Stevens (Shane, A Place in the Sun), pairs Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in their sixth film together. Tunes from Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields written for Swing Time include standards such as “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Pick Yourself Up,” “A Fine Romance,” and “Never Gonna Dance.” Some call the last dance number here Fred & Ginger’s finest moment together.

Astaire plays a dancing gambler named Lucky, and Rogers is a dance instructor named Penny, but the plot is barely important here; their character types are similar to roles we’ve seen them play in earlier works. It’s all about the music and the dancing, the way Lucky will win a wary Penny over, as Astaire’s characters usually do to Rogers’ characters.

What makes this work less of a standout for me is a number, “Bojangles of Harlem,” performed by Astaire in blackface. It’s no homage to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the famous African-American tap dancer. As Gary Giddins comments in one of the extensive special features in this Criterion package, Astaire’s dance stylings here appear as “a white person’s idea of what black dancing was, maybe.” It’s a poor mimicry that causes the modern viewer (at least this one) to cringe. This new release includes cultural criticism from film scholar Mia Mask which delves further into the performance and provides historical context.

Kern’s music, the lyrics by Fields, Rogers’ dry sarcasm, and the delectable chemistry she shared with Astaire on the dance floor can’t compensate for the blackface number. But that “Never Gonna Dance” choreography, with the pair winding their way up separate staircases and bidding farewell to each other in a moment that took 47 takes (!!) to get right — it makes me wish that regrettable club number had been left on the editing floor.

The Criterion Blu-ray release for Swing Time includes:

  • The aforementioned interview with Mia Mask about the use of blackface in “Bojangles of Harlem” and the importance of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
  • A 40 minute short entitled In Full Swing, about the choreography and music of Swing Time, with Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer, dance critic Brian Seibert, and jazz/film critic Gary Giddins. It provides a glimpse into the collaboration between Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern.
  • An audio interview from 1980 and video interview from 1982 with Ginger Rogers, wherein she discusses working with Astaire on 10 films and contrasts the directing styles of George Stevens and Jay Sandrich (Top Hat, Shall We Dance). During her critique of the costuming she wore while dancing in the films, she comments that sometimes she was dancing in shoes still wet from dyeing (ick).
  • More video interviews from 1982 include: Fred Astaire talks about working with George Stevens; choreographer Hermes Pan on his work with Astaire and the many, many takes for the final dance number in Swing Time.
  • George Stevens, Jr., son of the director, in a new interview. He mentions that his grandfather appears as the blustering dad of Lucky’s fiancee.
  • Astaire scholar John Mueller provides (a sort of monotone, yet informative) audio commentary, from a 1986 recording.
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