100 Days, 100 Movies: Swing Time (1936)
Swing Time tells the story of gambler/dancer Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire). The movie starts with him trying to win/earn enough money to marry his moneyed fiance Margaret, but it swiftly switches gears to him trying to find a way to avoid making enough money so he can just stay with his lovely new dance partner Penny (played by Ginger Rogers).
This film was #90 on the 2007 AFI list. And I will start this review by saying: why?
I love Fred Astaire. I love old movie musicals. I love Fred Astaire in old movie musicals. But I could not get into this movie. It set my teeth on edge for large portions of the plot. Not that there is much plot to begin with. The plot really just exists to give Fred and Ginger something to hang the dance numbers on. I was more interested by the documentary on the DVD about the making of/dancing than I was by the actual movie.
There’s also extended “comedic” portions with Lucky’s “Pop,” played by Victor Moore, that made me want to stop watching altogether. Pop is a badly written character badly played by Moore, and Pop made an already not-great film edge toward awful. I almost stopped watching this film several times. If I hadn’t been watching it for 100 Days I probably would have.
This film also aspires to be a musical. I say “aspires” because whenever the actors started singing I cringed. I believe there are few things more painful than a musical that doesn’t work. When people spontaneously break into song you need to have the audience invested in the story so it feels natural, so it feels like ‘Of course they had to start singing! Just talking about this wouldn’t be enough!’ Singing in the Rain does this very well. Swing Time emphatically does not.
I will say: the dancing is really wonderful. I think, though, I could have happily skipped the plot and just gone on YouTube to watch the dancing.
I didn’t hate everything about this movie, however. As I just said, the dancing is phenomenal. Fred Astaire was also just adorable. Totally his usual dapper, charming self. He’s got great cheekbones, you know?
And I can see why they kept casting Fred and Ginger Rogers together. They have great chemistry and in all their scenes/dancing together they really seem to enjoy each other. They seem to be having fun, which is definitely the vibe you want for your romantic leads. And the two of them together had a couple cute, romantic moments:
Penny: Does she dance very beautifully? The girl you’re in love with?
Penny: I mean the girl you’re engaged to. The girl you’re going to marry.
Lucky: Oh, I don’t know.
But, again with the criticism, Ginger’s character Penny is a total cypher. All we know about her is she’s a pretty girl who dances. We don’t really know who she is, what she wants. She’s just there so Fred has someone to dance and fall in love with, she could be any young pretty girl and that makes me sad. (He also keeps calling her “little girl”, “little teacher” in this super condescending way which set my teeth on edge.)
What did I learn from this movie? Great dancing does not a great movie make. Even if–probably especially if–you’re doing a musical, you still need worthwhile characters and a sensible, interesting plot. You can’t rely on the great dancing to carry your movie.
Can I see why this movie has become a classic? The dance numbers. They are really, really good and I think they’re the only reason anyone would re-watch this movie.
Favorite part(s)? The dancing and a few of the little romantic moments between Lucky and Penny. I also really enjoyed their first kiss. Oh, I also enjoyed the irony of him singing in rhapsody about the “way you look tonight” while Penny is in a ratty old bathrobe washing her hair.
Overall rating: ***** for the dancing ** for the movie (I didn’t like it)
p.s. Can I say I think men should get back into wearing dressing gowns? There are some great dressing gowns all over this movie. It’s a fad that should come back! (Of course I can’t find any pictures of Fred in a dressing gown to help my case. *pout*)