Title: Swing Time
Release Date: September 4, 1936
Director: George Stevens
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures
Having had mixed feelings about Top Hat, I was a bit dubious about watching another Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie. The film starts with Astaire’s character John “Lucky” Garnett attempting to make it to his wedding on time but the other members of his dance troupe sabotage him. When the wedding is cancelled and Lucky makes his way to New York City to prove himself worthy, he meets Rogers’ character Penny and they squabble over a stolen quarter. The first 15 minutes or so of this movie is full of cringe comedy that set my teeth on edge.
But it turns out Penny is a dance instructor, and once made aware of Lucky’s dance ability, they are paired up to perform. Unlike Top Hat, they seem to genuinely like each other early on and scenes alternate among their dance numbers, scenes of gambling (Lucky is a gambler as well as a dancer), and their shyness about admitting they are falling in love (it strikes me that this is also the basic plot of Silver Linings Playbook, although they’re veeeeery different movies. The movie also introduces standards like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance.”
I was thoroughly enjoying the movie when I saw that the next number would be called “Bojangles of Harlem.” I said to myself: “Please don’t come out in blackface. Pleeeeaaase don’t come out in blackface.” Folks, Fred Astaire totally came out in blackface, leaving me with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Whatever Astaire’s intentions that this was a tribute to African American tap dancers, the fact is that it is nothing but black caricature. It’s doubly insulting because Bill Robinson, despite all his talents, wouldn’t get a chance to do a showstopper like this in a Hollywood film. It wouldn’t have been objectionable if Astaire had performed without blackface and the black caricature props alongside some African American performers (which is plausible since he would do that very thing in his very next film). It’s too bad it’s so racist, because this dance sequence does have a great special effect of Astaire dancing with his own shadows.
It was hard to settle into watching the movie again after this (especially since Astaire doesn’t remove the blackface for the dramatic scenes that follow). But there is a beautiful number “Never Gonna Dance” where Lucky and Penny dance their sorrow when they believe they’ll be going their separate ways. The conclusion of the movie is kind of odd, because the whole cast ends up giggling uncontrollably as if they were all high, or someone told an inside joke. Nevertheless this was a pretty great movie with one exception, but it’s a pretty big exception.
Rating: **1/2 (might’ve been ***1/2 without “Bojangles of Harlem”)