Blu-ray Review: Swing Time | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Monday, October 14th, 2019  

Swing Time

Studio: The Criterion Collection

Jun 20, 2019 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In 1936’s Swing Time, Fred Astaire plays a degenerate gambler who stiffs his fiancée at the altar, runs off to New York, hooks up with a dancer, and then publicly humiliates her fiancé to arrive at the movie’s happy ending. It’s certainly a product of a bygone era when a story based around such a cad of a hero can yield such a breezy, lighthearted film. It’s also a testament to Astaire’s ever-dopey charm.

The sixth of ten (!) dance musicals Astaire made with Ginger Rogers over a run of 16 years, Swing Time is often considered the pinnacle of their partnership. Even within a series that elevated the genre from the spectacle-driven smorgasbords of Busby Berkeley to a showcase for nuanced choreography that could be appreciated even by the serious dance world, Swing Time is a step above its fellows. It features several of Astaire’s best works with a partner, from the opener “Pick Yourself Up” to the absolutely elegant closer “Never Gonna Dance,” often considered the pair’s finest work and which functions as a beautiful, stand-alone piece of storytelling even when removed from the larger context of the movie itself.

It also helps that Fred and Ginger here had some of the best support they ever received within their shared filmography. Jerome Kern’s score is nothing less than magical, and his Oscar-winning composition co-written with lyricist Dorothy Fields – “The Way You Look Tonight” – is one of Hollywood’s most iconic songs and among the all-time jazz standards. With Make Way for Tomorrow’s Victor Moore and returning co-stars Eric Blore and Helen Broderick, they’re surrounded with a strong supporting cast of comedic character actors. Swing Time was the only Astaire-Rogers film helmed by George Stevens, a young director who’d film the Normandy landings and the liberation of Dachau for the U.S. Army and later go on to be a five-time Best Director nominee, two-time winner (for 1951’s A Place in the Sun and 1956’s Giant). He instills an otherwise routine and predictable script with some much-needed heart, and pulls a particularly strong performance from Rogers.

It might have been possible to regard Swing Time as an unblemished masterpiece if it weren’t for one particularly large elephant in the room. Alongside some of his best duets, Swing Time also features Fred Astaire’s lone performance in blackface. The “Bojangles of Harlem” dance number serves as the film’s centerpiece; often defended as a “tribute” to the trailblazing African American tapdancer and actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, the abundance of uncomfortable racist imagery and the fact that Astaire is dancing in a style markedly different than the one for which Robinson was famous make it seem more in the tradition of Vaudeville’s ugly minstrel shows. It’s impossible to overlook this awfulness in 2019, even when Astaire’s tap routine is so playful and the special effect where his shadows perform different dance moves is rather clever.

Thankfully, Criterion’s extra features address this problematic sequence multiple times, but most notably in a video essay by scholar Mia Mask who talks about the number’s place within the history of blackface performance. There’s also a fantastic, 40-plus minute video appreciation of the film by noted dance and jazz critics, as well as an expert on Dorothy Fields’ work – this multi-angled approach served the film well, and is a feature we’d love to see on more Blu-rays. You’ll also find an audio commentary, 1980s interviews with Astaire and Rogers, a piece on choreographer Hermes Pan, and essay by Imogen Sara Smith. It’s a great package that shines a light on every aspect of the film – even its most problematic one.



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