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Swing Time
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by Jay Seaver

"There's no denying, Fred Astaire + Ginger Rogers is a winning formula."
4 stars

"Formula" is a bit of a dirty word when talking about film today, but there's a sort of awesome purity to how it was applied back in the pre-home video, pre-television "Golden Age of Cinema": RKO has a guy who can dance really well under contract, so the producers tell the writers to come up with a script that starts with him dancing, ends with him dancing, and doesn't go more than twenty minutes or so at a stretch without him dancing. The director directs, the studio ships it to their theaters, where the people who haven't seen that guy dance in a few months buy their tickets. Then they do it again. It doesn't always result in great movies, but they certainly give the audience what they were looking for.

This one opens with Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) doing his last dance as part of a traveling show before getting married to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), at least until his fellow performers sabotage him. As a result, Lucky ends up in New York, having promised to earn $25,000 to show he's responsible. So, of course, he and his magician friend Pop Cardetti (Victor Moore) immediately causes a series of misunderstandings at a dance school that gets teacher Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers) and receptionist Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick) fired. Still, it doesn't take long before people realize that Lucky and Penny have great chemistry on and off the dance floor.

Describing Fred Astaire as just "a guy who can dance really well" obviously undersells him quite a bit, but there's little denying that Swing Time is built to showcase how well Astaire and Rogers work their feet: There are five or six dance numbers in a 103-minute movie, and at times it feels as if the powers that be sense Lucky and Carroll have gone too long without dancing and so arrange circumstances to make them start. The script relies on weak plot devices like Lucky never losing when he gambles, and is just amazingly eager to wrap things up at the end. It's a dance delivery system as much as it's a story.

That's fine, because Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were really good at their jobs. There's not a song and dance number in the picture that fails to impress with its difficulty and elegance, and they get more impressive as the picture goes on. An individual number or two might not work for everybody - the "Bojangles" number, for instance, might seem like a bit much even if there weren't blackface involved - but for the most part, they get the job done, with director George Stevens and photographer David Abel having the good sense to stand back and let us watch Fred & Ginger work.

And for as silly as the script occasionally is, the pair do have enough natural chemistry to keep things moving even between numbers. At this early stage of their careers, Rogers certainly comes across as a much more natural actor than Astaire, but Astaire's wide-eyed, ingratiating charm works, while Rogers is able to soften Penny a bit as the movie goes on without the character becoming a sap. They're both more well-rounded than they initially appear, and not just because both are given somewhat exaggerated sidekicks (where Astaire makes Lucky trusting, Victor Moore's Pop is kind of dopey; Helen Broderick's Mabel is sarcastic on top of no-nonsense).

"Swing Time" is a song-and-dance delivery system, and quite effective at that. If it made much of a pretense at being a complete film, it might be kind of disappointing, but its transparency helps it out. The ending is so convenient and contrived as to almost literally laugh at itself, reminding the audience that the charm and laughs that came between dance numbers was a bonus.

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originally posted: 01/19/12 11:32:04
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User Comments

4/03/12 Randi Paul Shortt, I agree with you. 5 stars
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  DVD: 16-Aug-2005



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