Monday, December 20, 2010

My Favorite Holiday Movies: "Swing Time"

Anybody who knows me knows I love Fred Astaire movies. I don't know if it's in my gene pool (my mom was also a fan) or a learned thing (my mom and I watched a lot of his movies together) but... Whatever the reason, I'm glad I have this thing for Fred Astaire.

Back in the 70s, one of the Chicago TV stations used to run Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers marathons on New Year's Eve. I remember several times telling my date I had to be home by midnight so I didn't miss "Top Hat" or "Shall We Dance" or "The Gay Divorcee." They don't seem to be doing that anymore, but to me, Fred & Ginger need to be dancing on New Year's Eve or it isn't New Year's Eve.

I haven't found any of the Fred & Ginger classics on the schedule for New Year's Eve, but I did find "Swing Time" listed on Turner Classic Movies for tomorrow. "Swing Time" is not actually my favorite among the Fred movies (I don't like second banana Victor Moore, I don't like the silly forced laughing bit, I don't really like Fred wearing a bowler hat, and parts of the plot are very silly, especially the one involving whether formal trousers need cuffs) but it does have its charms (the Jerome Kern/Dorothy Fields score, some gorgeous dances, and dances used beautifully to advance the plot).

Although "The Way You Look Tonight" has become somewhat overexposed in a whole lot of movies and TV shows, it's still a lovely song, and it's quite appealing when Fred (as Lucky Garnett, dancing gambling man) sings it to Ginger (as Penny Carroll, a dance instructor), even if her hair is covered in shampoo and bubbles. Mr. Astaire always had a way with the sincere songs, and his delivery is as sweet and charming as it gets on "The Way You Look Tonight." Breathless charm, indeed.

"Never Gonna Dance" is also a classic for good reason; it gets a big, swoony production number involving sweeping Art Deco staircases and it involves all kinds of angst and heartache because of its place in the plot. There are all kinds of backstories on this dance that say they filmed endless takes into the wee hours and Ginger was bleeding into her shoes and all sorts of things... Whether you believe them or not, it's still a moving and lovely piece of dance and romance on film.

But my favorite number is "Pick Yourself Up," a sprightly piece where Lucky pretends to be a bad dancer who improves amazingly quickly in order to save Penny's job. They dance all around a dance studio under the disapproving eye of Eric Blore, an adorable supporting player you'll see throughout the Astaire/Rogers flicks, so that's one reason to enjoy it. Number 2: Ginger got a flippy black dress that makes her look as cute as she ever looked. And number 3: I absolutely love the little lifts back and forth over a tiny fence around the dance floor. They both look like they're having a great time, and when Fred pops out the real Astaire dance moves, there is a joy of performance that just zings off the screen. I'm smiling just thinking about it.

TCM has "Swing Time" on the schedule at 10 pm Eastern on December 21st. If you haven't seen it... Well, why not? If you have, you'll know not to miss this opportunity, either.


  1. I remember those New Years Eve TV marathons of Fred & Ginger! That's how I first saw most of these movies.

    And I think "Swing Time" IS my favorite of the series. It helps that I don't mind so much about Victor Moore (if nothing else, he's a link to classic Broadway of the 1930s). And although the plot hits a bump or two, for me they're minor especially when we get to the last scene and the running gag that we've been hearing all through as plans are frustrated -- "There isn't going to be any dance" -- becomes "There isn't going to be any wedding." That's right, in a Fred movie, dancing is equivalent to marriage.

    But most of all, the Fields-Kern score is woven into the fabric of the movie in a way that never happened before or after in the series. "Never Gonna Dance" is as wonderful as you said, and there's even more going on: it quotes a line of dialogue ("la belle romance, la perfectly swell romance"), it puns on her name ("left without a penny / left without my Penny"), and it quotes music and steps from several earlier songs. It becomes a culmination of the relationship, even as the relationship is agonizedly breaking apart.

    And then THE musical moment of the series for me: as F&G walk to a window so we can see the sun come out after all the snow, they sing the movie's two big ballads ("The Way You Look Tonight," "A Fine Romance") -- in counterpoint! And both songs are so good and distinctive, they gave no hint that they were designed to fit together. Sublime.