When I first saw Swing Time (1936)—Christmas, 1972—it was considered one of the lesser Astaire-Rogers films. As such, I wasn’t expecting much (not to mention that I didn’t—and don’t—much like the title), and so I was mightily and very pleasantly surprised to find it anything but lesser. For that matter, I found the “Never Gonna Dance” number and the dance that follows (to a medley of songs from the film) to be the single most beautiful in any of the duo’s 10 movies. And the rest of the movie wasn’t much behind that sequence. The decades have vindicated Swing Time, which has generally come to be considered their best film. While the story is hardly anything to get excited about, it does place the film in a new and fresh position within its musical-comedy confines. It’s much more part of the real world of the time—something Mark Sandrich’s Follow the Fleet (1936) had edged toward earlier that year, but in sailor “dress-up.” Fred—usually a star of some kind—is here a low-rent hoofer and a gambler, while Ginger is a lowly instructress at a none-too-scrupulous dancing school. These are much more common folks than we’re used to—and it works, though of course, it will lead to the usual glamour and the anticipated Astaire-Rogers movie “Big White Set” (in this case the star-lit Silver Sandal nightclub). The comedy is solid—and solidly placed in the hands of Victor Moore and Helen Broderick—and the direction by George Stevens (on his second major film) is creative in ways nothing else in his filmography is. Of course, the treasure trove of Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields songs—“Pick Yourself Up,” the Oscar-winning “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Waltz in Swing Time,” “A Fine Romance,” “Bojangles of Harlem,” “Never Gonna Dance”—don’t hurt in the least. The result is an Astaire-Rogers movie where the film is very nearly as great as its stars.
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