Swing Time (1936): Best Astaire-Rogers Musical, Directed by George Stevens

“Swing Time” is considered to be the best Astaire-Rogers RKO musical, boasting Astaire’s virtuoso “Bojangles” dance, and one of the most stunning and intimate dances with partner Ginger Rogers, “Pick Yourself Up.”

Grade: A (***** out of *****)

Swing Time
Swing Time (1936 poster).jpg

theatrical release poster by William Rose

In the same year, Astaire and Rogers made another great musical, “Follow the Fleet.” Some critics claim that “Swing Time” is the best teaming of the stars, while others prefer “Top Hat.”  Either way, “Swing Time” is terrific entertainment.

The sixth of RKO’s Fred Astaire -Ginger Rogers dance musicals of the 1930s, “Swing Time” starts off with bandleader Astaire getting cold feet on his wedding day.

Astaire’s bride-to-be Betty Furness will give him a second chance, providing he proves responsible enough to earn $25,000. But Astaire tries to avoid earning that amount once he falls in love with dance instructor Ginger Rogers.

Complications ensue, leading to the “second time’s the charm” climax, with Ginger escaping her own wedding to wealthy Georges Metaxa in order to be reunited with Astaire.

Detailed Plot

Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a gambler and dancer, set to marry Margaret (Betty Furness).  However, his friends hold him up so that he is late to the wedding. Margaret’s father calls off the wedding, but Lucky doesn’t get that message. His friends bet him that he won’t be getting married and he agrees to the bet. Margaret’s father tells Lucky that he must earn $25,000 to demonstrate his good intent.

He and his friend “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore) try to buy train tickets, but his friends take his money; he lost the bet.  They hitch the first freight train to New York, and broke, they wander around the city. Lucky meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dance school instructor, when he asks for change for a quarter. It’s his lucky quarter and Pop feels bad that Lucky lost it. When Penny drops her things, Pop sneaks the quarter out of her purse, but she thinks Lucky did it.

They follow Penny to her work. In order to apologize, he needs to take a lesson from her. After a disastrous lesson, Penny tells him to “save his money” since he will never learn to dance. Her boss, Mr. Gordon (Eric Blore), overhears her comment and fires her. Lucky dances with Penny to “prove” how much she’s taught him. Not only does he give Penny her job back, Mr. Gordon sets up auditions with the owner of a local venue.

They check into the same hotel where Penny is staying. Lucky does not have a tuxedo to wear to the audition. He tries to get a tuxedo off a drunk man, but he ends up losing his own clothes. They miss the audition and Penny gets mad at Lucky again. Lucky arranges another audition–he and Pop picket in front of Penny’s door until she gives in and forgives him.

But they cannot audition because the club has lost their band leader, Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa), to a casino. They go to Club Raymond where Lucky gambles to win to get Ricky back. Meanwhile, Ricky declares his feelings for Penny. Lucky is about to win enough to marry Margaret, but he takes his last bet off in time. The club owner bets him double or nothing and they gamble for Ricky’s contract. Upon seeing that the club owner intends to cheat, Pop also cheats and Lucky wins the contract.

Lucky and Penny dance at the club, but Lucky does not trust himself around Penny because he feels guilty about not telling her about Margaret. He’s avoiding her, which Penny notices, so she and her friend Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick) conspire to get Lucky and Pop out to the country.

Despite her efforts, the two begin a romance, even as Ricky continues to woo Penny. When Margaret shows up, Lucky tries to avoid her, but, too late, Penny finds out. She agrees to marry Ricky. Margaret calls off her engagement to Lucky, and Lucky successfully stops Penny’s wedding.  Predictably, the two end up together, much to everyone’s delight.

The film’s most indelible image is that of Astaire, immaculately attired in top hat and tails, hopping a freight car.

The Jerome Kern-Dorothy Fields score includes such standards as “Pick Yourself Up,” “A Fine Romance,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Never Gonna Dance” and “Bojangles of Harlem.”

The supporting cast includes Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Eric Blore, and Landers Stevens, the actor-father of the film’s director, George Stevens.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Best Song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

Dance Direction: Hermes Pan (a category that existed only several years

Oscar Awards: 1

Best Song

Oscar Context

The winner of the Dance Direction Oscar was Seymour Felix for ” Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” from the movie “The Great Ziegfeld,” which also won the Best Picture Oscar

Cast

Fred Astaire as John “Lucky” Garnett

Ginger Rogers as Penelope “Penny” Carrol

Victor Moore as Pop

Helen Broderick as Mabel Anderson

Eric Blore as Mr. Gordon

Betty Furness as Margaret Watson

Credits:

Directed by George Stevens
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay by Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott; Contributing writers (uncredited):
Dorothy Yost, Ben Holmes, Anthony Veiller, Rian James, Story by Erwin S. Gelsey
“Portrait of John Garnett” (screen story)
Music by Jerome Kern (music)
Dorothy Fields (lyrics)
Cinematography David Abel
Edited by Henry Berman

Production and distribution: RKO Radio Pictures

Release date: September 4, 1936 (U.S.)

Running time: 103 minutes
Budget $886,000
Box office $2.6 million

DVD: August 16, 2005