Directed by George Stevens
Expectations: Very high.
In the case of Swing Time, it would be very appropriate to say, “They just don’t make them like that anymore.” This common phrase is often clouded in rampant nostalgia, but here it is a true statement; they simply don’t make films like this anymore. Films this charming have gone the way of the dodo long ago, but what’s interesting is that the base structure of the plot is still thriving in today’s romantic comedies. Apparently, they do still make some movies kinda like this, but just without all the parts that make Swing Time stand out and dance its way around the crowd of other similarly plotted films.
Swing Time opens as Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) has decided to leave show business to settle down and get married. He talked his troupe into performing in his hometown, and apparently he got nostalgic and wanted to re-root himself there. Lucky’s performing buddies don’t think too much of the idea, though, so they do everything they can to thwart his attempts at leaving them. It works, and it sets in motion the main plot of the film, causing Lucky to eventually meet up with the beautiful dance instructor Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers).
Interestingly, the only glaring mar on this brilliant film’s record is also the film’s most iconic and memorable sequence. I speak of the Bojangles dance number, which Fred Astaire performs in blackface. I understand that blackface was culturally accepted then, and I don’t think we should hide films like this away so that no one gets offended. There is always something to be learned from the past. What I find most interesting about this particular instance is that it doesn’t feel especially aimed at satirizing black people. The song is an instrumental number and the scene focuses solely on Astaire’s ability to dance. Further research indicates that the dance was intended as a tribute by Astaire to Bill Robinson and John W. Bubbles, fellow dancers that Astaire admired (and in the case of Bubbles, studied under). In an overtly racist time, I suppose any homage to a black man would have to be done subversively, so it makes sense that Astaire would use blackface to do this.
Swing Time is a charming, musical experience that will warm your heart and make you laugh. It’s not the film to jump into if you’re inexperienced with musicals, but seasoned fans will find a truly transcendent film experience.
Swing Time was the concluding film in the 2013 Blind Spot Series, but don’t worry because it’ll be back next year. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the series is designed to make it easier to watch films that have sat for ages on your “To Watch” list. The kernel of the idea is that if the neverending, gargantuan list of films is overwhelming and feels insurmountable, a small list of 12 for one year is easily manageable and rewarding. And it is. It’s all the brainchild of Ryan McNeil over at The Matinee, one of the web’s premiere film blogs. Head over there tomorrow where he’ll have a post of his own for the series, as well as links to all the other people taking part. And come back tomorrow when I announce what I’ll be tackling next year!