Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire first worked together in 1933 in Flying Down to Rio. It was the start of a fruitful partnership for both and they’d make a total of 10 films together, becoming an iconic screen pairing side by side. It’s odd to think that Batman and Robin wouldn’t appear together in the comics until 1940 and they’re the ones who have been dubbed the Dynamic Duo. The 1936 pairing of Rogers and Astaire in director George Stevens’ Swing Time is often considered the highpoint of their collaboration, and now the film arrives on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection with a new 2K transfer of the RKO musical as well as a number of other supplemental features.
People didn’t flock to the films of Rogers and Astaire because of the plot, and Swing Time is no different. It’s a rather rote story of two lovers coming together. Lucky (Astaire) is a dancer and gambler set to wed Margaret (Betty Furness), but when Lucky is late to his own wedding her father calls it off unless the gambling dancer is able to come up with $25,000 as a showing of goodwill. With his best friend Pop (Victor Moore), Lucky travels to New York City to make his fortune and it’s there that he encounters Penny (Rogers) at a local dance school where she’s an instructor. After feigning an inability to dance, Lucky then unleashes his immense talents and the duo of dancers earn themselves an audition at a prestigious nightclub. Soon the two dancers are the stars of the show working for bandleader Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa). However, Ricky has his eyes on Penny and Lucky, though enamored, is hesitant to share his feelings, fearing his past romance will come back to destroy his one true love. And it almost does.
Director George Stevens, who at this point in his career was a comedy specialist, makes the most out of the unimaginative script credited to Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott (with the quartet of Ben Holmes, Rian James, Anthony Veiller, and Dorothy Yost working as uncredited writers). The scenes not focusing on Rogers and Astaire dancing work because Stevens was a master of comedy for the era, finding just the right amount of wit to liven up the more uninteresting aspects of the story. A major assist in bringing the comedy to life comes from veteran actress Helen Broderick as the wry Mabel, who has the film’s best one-liners. The brilliance of Stevens really comes through in how the director knows just exactly what people are paying to see, and he completely steps back during the film’s big musical numbers. The director’s style doesn’t impede on the musical numbers, the camera steps back and captures the grace of its stars because that’s what the audience wants.
What really breathes life into this Rogers and Astaire collaboration is a behind the scenes collaboration, the work of lyricist Dorothy Fields and composer Jerome Kern. A number of the numbers in Swing Time are classics, including “The Way You Look Tonight” which was the first song to ever take home the Oscar for Best Original Song. Other lovely songs that Rogers and Astaire bring to the screen include “A Fine Romance,” “Pick Yourself Up,” and “Never Gonna Dance,” the last being the film’s climactic number of pure elegance.
For all the grand humor and fantastic songs with great dancing to behold, there’s a dark side to Swing Time. That comes in the Fred Astaire’s use of blackface during the number “Bojangles of Harlem.” It’s technically the best dance sequence in the film, featuring some amazing film techniques that are still impressive, but you have to weight that against the ghastly racism on display. Thankfully, the Criterion Collection is willing to confront the racism of “Bojangles of Harlem” in the supplemental features, examining and contextualizing the history and horrors of the minstrel show. Film scholar Mia Mask examines the number and what it represents in a fascinating featurette that goes beyond simply Astaire. In a longer documentary on the making of the film, jazz and film critic Gary Giddins attempts to dissect the origins of the sequence, examining how Astaire’s dance doesn’t fit as an homage to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and presents a number of theories as to the dance’s origins. None of these features are meant to explain away or diminish the use of blackface, but to better understand how something considered universally unacceptable today could play a key role in a generally beloved musical classic.
Other special features on the disc that don’t examine the more controversial aspects of Swing Time includes an audio commentary from 1986 with John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films. There are archival interviews with Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire, and choreographer Hermes Pan. There’s a new interview with George Stevens, Jr., son of the film’s director and he’s able to shed light on why Swing Time barely resembles the later works of his father’s career, none of which involves musical comedy. Finally, there’s an essay by Imogen Sara Smith.
The Criterion Collection edition of Swing Time is a great example of what we need out of the institutions that work to preserve film history. Here we have a movie featuring an iconic screen duo, a legendary director, and a horrifically racist sequence. The people at Criterion who put this edition together didn’t want to bury the horrors of the past, instead opting to present and confront them. Because as we can learn from Swing Time, the biggest musical star in the world is only a couple of steps away from stumbling into a racist minstrel show. It may not be the moment that defines the life and career of Fred Astaire, but it’s important that we don’t sidestep the shame of the past.
A charming musical starring the dynamic duo of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, Swing Time arrives in the Criterion Collection with a new 2K transfer and an array of bonus features, including a few that dive into the film’s shameful use of blackface in one morally misguided but technically excellent sequence.