Fred Astaire finds romance and redemption through dance in Swing Time

Fred Astaire finds romance and redemption through dance in Swing Time

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: With Battle Of The Year 3-D waltzing into theaters, we look back on other movies about dancers. 

Swing Time (1936)

It takes almost 30 minutes before Swing Time offers more than a brief glimpse of Fred Astaire dancing. Eventually, he makes his way into a Manhattan studio and fakes incompetence to steal some time with instructor Ginger Rogers, kicking off a song-and-dance-heavy courtship. But the pre-Rogers section of the movie devotes itself to an ambling backstory about Astaire preparing to marry a nice girl from his hometown as his fellow dancers object. The hero and his buddies come off almost feckless in that extended opening, wherein a leisurely paced argument about cuffs on dress pants turns into a cruelly elaborate scheme to detain degenerate gambler Astaire from attending his own wedding, hopefully destroying his relationship in the process. He then heads for New York, where he plans to parlay his crippling gambling addiction into a sum of money great enough to bribe his fiancée’s father back into his good graces. Because it’s Astaire, this story isn’t quite as unsavory as it should be.

Swing Time adheres to a time-honored ritual of dance movies: reforming and redeeming a lost soul through the power of the art! Astaire, of course, is not exactly a thug with a heart of gold. But his even-keeled mildness—and in this movie, his clear if underplayed moral failings—makes the dance sequences all the more transporting. While the movie’s amusing comedy bits are a little too slow for vintage screwball or farce, its love story has no such limitations. Astaire and Rogers sell their whole relationship through movement, on and off the dance floor. 

Yes, the most extensive dance sequence in Swing Time features Astaire performing in blackface—though the “Bojangles of Harlem” number was conceived as a tribute to fellow dancers like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and Astaire stays away from the most grotesque and offensive caricatures. A stronger candidate for best in show is “Never Gonna Dance,” in which Astaire and Rogers convey a movie’s worth of longing in a single graceful, melancholy scene. When the camera dollies up to follow their movements, the whole film feels like it may lift off the ground with it.

Availability: Swing Time is not yet on Blu-ray, but it’s available on DVD in a number of packages (obtainable through Netflix), and for rental or purchase through the major digital providers.

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