Swing Time (1936, George Stevens)
Years after its method of pop communication — the Hollywood musical — went out of style, George Stevens’ outstanding Swing Time still rings loud and true in its expressions of unrequited love, lust, and even alienation. It’s pure poetry — poetry from all sorts of varying arts melded into a single proficient and resonant device: the dancing is the key but the songs are also vital; they may or may not work outside of the film but they are more than up to the task in context. The art that results from all this is so full of life it seems like it could blow up.
And the comedy, while not anywhere close to the level of something like Singin’ in the Rain (unfair, I know), is warm and funny and not at all condescending. The elegant collision of the stylish flair in the musical’s contained environment with the splendidly realized melding of two lovers and dancers’ hearts in a fake show of non-proficiency, Fred Astaire tripping over himself while Ginger Rogers rolls her eyes, is screwball without screwball: a show of warmth not normally remembered as possible in studio pictures. I do wish Helen Broderick’s sly, exasperated Mabel had her own movie; hell, I wish I knew her in real life, as much as Thelma Ritter’s winglady characters in All About Eve and Rear Window. In the background, Swing Time doesn’t quite have time to develop full-fledged characters, but the wisps we get seem sincere enough. What really lingers is the moment after, following much buildup and preceding much comedy-of-broken-engagement complication, Astaire and Rogers first kiss — like a couple of giddy kids who’ve too long resisted — and are accidentally discovered doing so: They gaze into one another’s eyes in exhilarated, curious, breathless wonder, completely unsure what’s just happened and what will happen next. If only we all could live such a scene.
Besides the hopelessly silly/stupid Hollywood romanticism of it all, which cuts deep for me, what really sticks (and what’s important about the movie) is still the dancing, the spectacle, the setpieces. Fred Astaire doesn’t really convince as a lover or a fighter, but when he starts to tap, you believe in the Christ. And when Ginger Rogers — who additionally is an excellent comedic actress, with a pricessly expressive voice — joins him, well, fuck the rest of the world, you know?
From the moment of that first stumbling-and-falling dance together, the film is cathartic and beautiful, and the incredibly thin story would be forgiven even if it wasn’t charming.
Occasionally, of course, you see a musical with a really good story; this isn’t one. It’s just a mildly amusing diversion between the songs, which count doubly because of how far apart they are, and how completely intoxicating and cinematic they are when they come. The extraordinary “Bojangles of Harlem” routine, one of the biggest reasons this belongs in everyone’s canon, is obviously dated and racist (though not as bad as its title suggests) but it is all the same one of the most beautiful sequences I’ve seen in a movie. Even the editing is elegant like the alien rhythm in Astaire’s legs. I still wish there were more numbers — when a movie shows that power to consume you and make time stop, you want it to keep going like The Red Shoes or Singin’ in the Rain or Fantasia or Vertigo; this is one instance in which I’d cite restraint as a criticism.
I think RKO may have been the best studio; this is the most stylishly mounted, ecstatic, subtle musical I’ve ever seen — emotional instead of lavish, smart instead of sappy. It’s reputed to be easily the best of the ten beloved films Astaire and Rogers made together; hope not, because I’m seeing them all anyway now. Good show.
[Minor expansion of a review and an associated informal writeup posted in 2007.]