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Swing Time

Swing Time
Warner DVD
1936 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 103 min. / Street Date August 16, 2005 / 19.97
Starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick
Cinematography David Abel
Art Direction Van Nest Polglase
Film Editor Henry Berman
Original Music Jerome Kern
Written by Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Directed by George Stevens

Also available in the boxed set The Astaire & Rogers Collection, Vol. 1 with Top Hat, Follow the Fleet, Shall We Dance and The Barkleys of Broadway: $59.92.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

One's favorite Astaire-Rogers film can usually be defined as the one you happen to be watching at any given moment. Swing Time has some of the most beguiling music and clever plotting of the series. It also has what is surely the most memorable meeting cute scene, accompanied by a song and dance, naturally. The film is the work of noted director George Stevens, and his mark can perhaps be perceived in details of technique and character finesse.


Traveling dancer John "Lucky" Garnett (Fred Astaire) falls in love with a home-town girl Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). His stage partners keep him from getting to the church on time, so Lucky finds himself hitching a train ride to New York with an older card-sharp associate, Everett "Pop" Cardetti (Victor Moore). He pretends to be in search of dance lessons to meet the girl of his dreams, Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor. Lucky, Penny, Pop and Penny's girlfriend Mabel (Helen Broderick) are soon double dating, but problems ensue. Oily bandleader Ricardo "Ricky" Romero (Georges Metaxa) is after Penny and refuses to play for the two dancers. Lucky is cautious to not earn too much money, so as to avoid fulfilling his promise to return and marry Margaret when he 'hits it big in the big city.'

Swing Time comes from the year that swing music took over the airwaves and invaded Hollywood in a big way - we can see that in Judy Garland's first film songs, show-offy hybrids like Mr. Mendelsohn Swing that try to put classical music on the same plane as Pop. RKO was going to call this picture Never Gonna Dance until they saw the advantage of jamming the word 'swing' into the title.

They could have called the movie Theater Closed for Remodeling and it would still have been a smash hit. It's yet another elegant entertainment in which the musical numbers seem to come direct from some celestial source, without the intervention of mere mortals. We're assured that Astaire and Rogers rehearsed these dances for hundreds of hours. The result is a perfect illusion of effortlessness, as if they had simply made them up on the spot. Nowadays many stars and directors can barely be counted on to show up to film a movie. They expect CGI to fill in all the gaps so that they can concentrate on their career moves and ET appearances. It's obvious that the sublimely talented folk who made these pictures respected the medium, appreciated their audiences and devoted themselves to long labors of love. What artist can claim greater dedication to their art?

If the earlier Fred 'n Gingers seemed aloof from Depression realities, Swing Time has more feel for the tensions of real life. Success, it seems to say, depends on having a true heart and being willing to takes chances while trying to do the right thing. Lucky and Penny obviously go together like 'lucky penny', and we happily follow their tale of instantaneous attraction. Each has an expected romantic rival, but the script by Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott complicates the chemistry with odd elements of risk and chance. In an unusually cruel beginning, Lucky's wedding plans are scuttled by his supposed friends, who are convinced they are acting in his best interest. There's an element of indecision new to the series - his intended seems okay, but we want him to forget about her so he can meet the Ginger Rogers character. Lucky starts out penniless, with only a tux and an unreliably crooked pal, riding a freight train in the direction of New York City.

New York is also a battle with reality. Poor Penny's protests to a cop are ignored because Lucky is so well dressed - in the tuxedo that has somehow stayed pressed, clean and neat through a ride in a coal car. Working girls get no justice on the street or at work, where her boss Gordon (Eric Blore in his smallest role yet) enforces a strict 'the customer is always right' rule. Lucky's efforts help Penny and Mabel lose their jobs, but his dogged optimism wins out. Thus, the sublimely perfect song Pick Yourself Up fulfills several plot and theme functions while providing a universal cure for the Depression. There's only one way to recover from a fall, you know.

Lucky's destiny is never in doubt, but he finds it with the help of plenty of well-meaning trickery. His dancing buddies seem to have their eyes on a greater good when they fool him in the beginning, and his crook pal Pop is forever palming coins and aces to further his fortunes. True to his principles, Lucky subconsciously tries to avoid becoming too rich, an irony any nickel-admission theater patron could appreciate. He's only really in control on the dance floor, yet unerringly makes the right decision. He knows Penny is the girl of his dreams, even though he can't quite straighten out his prior commitment to Margaret.

Each Astaire-Rogers films has its timeless standards, and the romantic highlight is Fred's heart-stopping The Way You Look Tonight. Strangely enough, it's conceived as another ironic comedy moment, with Ginger's head covered with shampoo. His singing pulls her right from the washbasin to the salon, and the melody so alters the mood that a comedy payoff is unnecessary.

Often lifted for 1960s TV airings is Bojangles of Harlem, Fred's tribute to Bill Robinson done in blackface. Special effects are used to multiply an Astaire silhouette into three looming shadows, while a Dunning-Process Astaire (parts of him tend to be transparent) dances in the foreground. The politics of non-P.C. scenes in older films is too complicated to argue here -- the 'minstrel' tradition was always racial but the sensitivity to it came later. The right thing is to keep the scene in and talk it out. I don't think anyone is going to think that Astaire is mocking blacks, but it's also unfair to tell modern African Americans that they aren't supposed to take exception to the scene.

Never Gonna Dance is a more fully developed 'ballet' sort of number in that it covers changing moods and tells the story of the lovers' relationship by reprising steps from previous dance scenes. It's as deeply romantic dance-wise as the The Way You Look Tonight song is musically -- both songs are about the fear and regret of lost romantic opportunities.

That subtle insecurity, atypical of the series, is often cited when serious critics name Swing Time as the best of the bunch. The added complexity is felt, but I can't help thinking that the ghost of auteurism seeped in to automatically grant highest marks to the picture made by the all-star director. George Stevens definitely has a different approach to character, one more serious but also open to more ambiguous characters like Victor Moore's Pop. At first appearing to be a pest and burden, Pop slowly becomes a positive force behind Lucky's lack of self-knowledge (Lucky has instinct alone to guide him). Auteurists might do well to note the frequent father figures hovering outside the romances in Stevens' work, both comedies and dramas - Penny Serenade, The More the Merrier.

What's undeniable is Stevens' flair with the staging of the numbers, obviously done in conjunction with Astaire. Instead of their standard exits and entrances, Stevens concocts graceful camera moves that often transcend their proper function of following the dancers. Here, the camera practically caresses the dancing pair. The Bojangles of Harlem number is particularly sophisticated, combining a Busby Berkeley graphic sense (minus the kitsch) with the expected attention to performance.

Warners' DVD of Swing Time is another good transfer of very old elements that show grain but little damage. The reduced hiss on the soundtrack has a definite rejuvenating effect.

The commentary this time around is a solo job from author John Mueller, a detail-oriented fellow who makes trivia seem essential and essentials sound like wisdom. Summerland's interview featurette The Swing of Things: Swing Time Step by Step finally shows us why so many young performers are used on the other docus. They take us through an analysis of the classic dances in Swing Time, practically in lesson mode. Instead of offering weak opinions about the film on the docus on the other discs, they concentrate on the mechanics of dance and style and are utterly charming. There's nothing like seeing real talent being open about their craft, an aspect that lifts this featurette to the top of the bunch, in terms of interest.

Hotel a la Swing is another wince-inducing musical short, with a highlight number showing a line of chorus girls in demon attire dancing and singing about Hell. The cartoon is a Technicolor migraine inducer called Bingo Crosbyana about a bunch of bugs loose in the kitchen that have a swing session of their own, complete with celebrity bug guests. A trailer rounds out the package.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Swing Time rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very good
Supplements: Commentary, featurette, two 1936 short subjects, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 7, 2005

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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