They made nine films together at RKO, the most famous of which is probably Top Hat (1935) but, in some respects, the best one is actually Swing Time (1936), featuring Jerome Kern's music and Dorothy Fields's lyrics. It has an even more inane plot than usual but the dancing is sublime. Unlike the Warner Bros. musicals, which always had so much at stake for characters that audience could identify and empathize with, the RKO Fred and Ginger pairings were pure fantasies, always set in swanky nightclubs where the women wore furs and men white ties and tails. After all, it wasn't 42nd Street Mia Farrow's character watches at the end of The Purple Rose of Cairo to forget life's miseries: it was the fantasy and glamor of Top Hat that could offer a few hours of temporary escape from reality.
Personally, though, I prefer the Warner musicals and Astaire's later-career films like The Band Wagon (1953) and Funny Face (1957). Back at RKO, a much younger Astaire made an unlikely star. When he wasn't singing and dancing he sort of resembled a ventriloquist's dummy, his receding hairline (or toupee) looking painted on, big eyes and ears on inverted triangle features, the antithesis of regular leading men like William Powell or Cary Grant. In many of the RKO films he basically tries to win Ginger's affection by annoying her to the point where she finally gives in and, rather defeated, falls in love. But, in scenes where Astaire sings and dances, alone or with Rogers - that was another story.
In Swing Time, dancer and inveterate gambler "Lucky" Garnett (Astaire) is ready to quit the show business and marry heiress Margaret (Betty Furness), but his fellow dancers in Vaudeville (played by such improbable hoofers as Frank Jenks and Donald Kerr) trick him into showing up so late to his own wedding that the fed-up father of the bride calls it off. He does, however, agree to let Lucky try again, inviting him to ask for his daughter's hand after he's made his first $25,000.
In New York, Lucky and his magician sidekick, "Pop" Cardetti (Victor Moore, who perfectly executes some real sleight-of-hand), are dead-broke, and Lucky eventually wanders into a dance school where Penny (Rogers) works. He pretends to have two left feet, frustrating Penny, but when her boss (Eric Blore) fires her, he helps her get her job back by demonstrating how good a teacher she is, dancing the polka "Pick Yourself Up" like the pro he secretly is. Impressed, Penny's boss arranges an audition for the pair at a nightclub.
Lucky's gambling, always to win a drunk's tuxedo or to buy back conductor Ricardo Romero's (Georges Metaxa) contract so that they can audition, upsets Penny, who wrongly assumes he's addicted to games of chance. They fall in love, of course, but his pending engagement to Margaret keeps getting in the way, their out-of-synch desire for one another famously expressed in "A Fine Romance." They eventually wind up at the usual swanky nightclub, in this case a place all but inviting a class-action lawsuit brought by injured patrons, judging by its crazy, Escher-like floorplan.
Director George Stevens started out as a cameraman, including many Hal Roach shorts, before graduating to directing there and, later, Universal and the more upscale RKO. After a couple of Wheeler & Woolsey comedies, Stevens finally got his big break with Alice Adams (1935), a picture that boosted the flagging career of its star, Katharine Hepburn. His direction of Swing Time is especially good in the musical sequences, which always show Fred and Ginger in long shot, from head-to-toe, yet the camera is similarly fluid, trucking and tracking about as they do. At times they almost seem to linger mid-air.
Working with Astaire's longtime collaborator-choreographer, Hermes Pan (who even resembled Astaire), they conceived a nice mixture of dancing styles, and it was Astaire, apparently, who pushed for the climatic "Bojangles of Harlem," his tribute to Bill "Bojangles" Robinson but also African-American style dance in the manner of his former teacher, John W. Bubbles, the father of rhythm tap. It was the one time in his career Astaire would perform in blackface, an issue addressed in a featurette on Criterion's disc.
Video & Audio
? RKO's classic film library is, famously, in terrible shape, with few surviving original camera negatives from ‘30s and ‘40s titles. Criterion (and licensor Warner Bros.) source two 35mm fine-grains and a duplicate negative, cleaning it up digitally as much as possible for this 2K restoration. The image looks very good, considering, if not up to those OCN (on nitrate stock) transfers which do survive. The LPCM 1.0 audio (mono) was derived from a 35mm fine-grain. Optional English subtitles are included on this region "A" encoded disc.
Supplements are a nice mix of old and new material, some dating back to Criterion's laserdisc release in 1986. Most interesting is "In Full Swing," an analysis of the musical numbers and accompanying choreography by jazz critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and historian Deborah Grace Winer. Similar to a featurette on King of Jazz, it's not to be missed. Also included are early ‘80s interviews with Rogers, Astaire, and Hermes Pan running about 40 minutes in all; a new interview with George Stevens, Jr., discussing his father; a new interview with scholar Mia Mask discussing the blackface number, "Bojangles of Harlem"; an essay by critic Imogene Sara Smith; and John Mueller's laserdisc commentary track.
Emblematic of the Astaire-Rogers magic, Swing Time should be sampled even by musical non-fans, and Criterion's supplements make this a DVD Talk Collectors Series title.