“No one could teach you to dance in a million years. Take my advice and save your money!” - Penny Carrol
When I was in middle school, a girl a hardly spoke too in my class asked me to the to the fall dance. This being my first dance ever, I was extremely nervous as to what type of dance I should do with her, because I was not much of a dancer at the time (I rip it hard now).
So I asked my Abuelo, “What dance should I do?”
He responded, “Do the Cumbia”
“I don’t know that one”
“Do the Salsa”
“I don’t think she knows that one”
“Pinche, do the Fred Astaire”
When he said that name, I had no clue what the hell he was talking about, that was until today.
Swing Time is American RKO 1936 musical rom-com often regarded as one of Fred Astaire greatest films containing some of his most masterful dance routines. It is also the first Fred Astaire film I have ever seen.
John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is a professional dancer and somewhat of a gambling addict who is getting ready to marry his childhood sweetheart Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). He is convinced by his best buddy “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore), also a gambler, that he should enter this game of cards instead. Lucky obviously addicted to gambling can not resist. The game of cards is really a ruse, concocted by Pop who doesn’t think marrying Margaret is a great idea, to steal Lucky’s pants so that he cannot make it to his wedding.
Lucky’s ends up missing the wedding but makes a few bucks. When he arrives at the hotel, he is immediately scolded and punked by Margaret’s dad who tells Lucky that he can no longer marry his daughter (You know the 30’s). Lucky convinces Mr. Hardass to let him marry Margaret, if he can make $25,000 dollars through dancing. Margaret’s dad hates dancers (Twirling scum).
For some reason, Lucky and his buddy Pop head off to New York to make some cash. There they met a young woman named Penny (Ginger Rogers). Through some hilarious misunderstandings and police discrimination, Penny gets into trouble for something Pop did. Lucky intrigued by Penny and also wanting to make things right follows Penny to her work. Turns out Penny is a dance instructors (Of course she is). Hilarious high jinks and dancing ensue and Penny and Lucky are arranged, by Penny’s boss, to dance professionally at the Silver Scandal Night Club (A really nice club).
Penny, Lucky, Pop, and Mabel (Helen Broderick), Penny’s comic relief and middle-aged friend, head off to the club. Dancing happens, more gambling happens, and Penny and Lucky fall in love. However, there is still the old fiancée problem for Lucky waiting to creep up on his new budding romance. Not to mention Penny’s fiery courter, orchestra leader Ricardo Romero (Georges Metaxa). In the end, love and dance, it’s always dance (My middle school heart breaks) conquers all.
The plot of Swing Time though entertaining really serves no greater purpose than helping transition the viewers to each dance performance and man are some of these dance routines incredible.
There are four great dances in Swing Time. These are my favorite in order.
This dance is great because it is supposed to be their last dance together. Very romantic and somber at the same time. I love the way the dance ends with Lucky standing there, almost frozen with pain, as his love walks through the door.
Yes, unfortunately, there is a Blackface number in Swing Time. The performance, the only Blackface of Astaire’s career, is apparently a tribute to groundbreaking African American dancer Bill Robinson and Astaire’s one-time teacher John W. Bubbles. Blackface aside, this dance with the three shadows behind him most have been pretty awe-inspiring when this movie first came out. It still holds great visual power today. This is only a small sample of the 7 minute plus dance routine.
After feigning ignorance, Lucky and Penny dance together to impress Penny’s boss. The score really is great in this dance, but those cuts to Penny’s boss did crack me up the first time. The jump over the fence at the end is also another great playful move.
Again accompanied by a beautiful upbeat score this lovers duet is as technical of dance as you will ever see. Two dancers, two lovers, in perfect unison. This dance though very elegant is very playful something not seen in many waltzes.
After watching Swing Time, two things are for certain. If I had ever tried to dance like Fred Astaire back in middle school I would have tripped over my feet, head-butted my date and fell face first into the fruit punch bowl. Second, the legend of Fred Astaire cannot be overstated he danced with an agility, grace, and showmanship that is truly captivating to watch and he was a charming actor to boot. Swing Time is a charming love story filled with several iconic dance performances even if the plot only seems to move us from dance to dance.
Swing Time is often regarded as one of Fred Astaire greatest dance films, yet it still works as a breezy love story that can introduce new viewers to the skill and charm of Fred Astaire.
“You can escape purgatory, but you can’t escape Hell.” - Priest in My Left Foot
This has been day 3 of 30 VHS In 30 DAYS. My journey to the center of VHS Hell. Special thanks to I Luv Video in Austin, The World’s Largest Video Store, for being my spiritual and literal guide through VHS purgatory.