There are many reasons why Swing Time is the best of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies. This film, unlike their others, has a director with a point of view, the talented George Stevens, who recognizes and amplifies the emotion in their pairing (even if his sense of comedy is laborious). The music by Jerome Kern (with lyrics by Dorothy Fields) is much darker and more complex than their previous Irving Berlin scores. Best of all, the scenes in between musical numbers are in some ways all about waiting for the next number, as if the film understood this common frustration in the audience. (Of course, Astaire/Rogers films are made for DVD chapter selections. Once you buy these DVDs, you’ll never have to sit through the plots again.) In short, a great deal of thought has been put into Swing Time. Everyone knows what works for this team, and everyone is taking chances.
Astaire plays a dancer and gambling man and Rogers is a dance instructor. The film gets off to a slow start; there’s no musical number for almost a half-hour. But when it comes, it’s a whopper. “Pick Yourself Up” is the best of their fast dances, a feet on the ground sort of toe-tapper where the duo is truly on fire. Perhaps its most perfect moment comes when they rush forward, Rogers hiking up her skirt and smirking cheerily, Astaire making a “look Ma, no hands” gesture. The ending is dynamite: They do some fast jumps over a railing lining the dance floor and exit in a blaze of speed, with Rogers flying through the door and throwing out her hands, as if she’s saying, “And here you are!” After this, at her apartment, Astaire sings Rogers one of the most beautiful songs ever written, “The Way You Look Tonight.” When he finishes, he looks up and sees that she is shampooing her hair. The film specializes in discordant moments like this, in intimations of defeat (it’s the opposite of the escapist Top Hat).
Their next number, the complex “Waltz In Springtime,” is all done in a single take that lasts two minutes and 45 seconds. It’s an amazing whirligig of a dance, plotless, ecstatic, pure pleasure. Astaire’s solo, “Bojangles Of Harlem,” might raise some p.c. hackles because it’s performed in blackface. Those who are ignorant enough to simply reject it out of hand will miss out on one of Astaire’s greatest numbers. It’s a deeply respectful and inventive tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, whom Astaire revered. He doesn’t replicate Robinson’s distinctively stiff-legged dancing; this is an homage, not an imitation. The chorus girl’s costuming, half in white, half in black, is an image of racial harmony if ever there was one. There are so many choreographic ideas in this number that you can barely keep up with them, especially when Astaire begins to dance with three big shadows looming over him (another complicated visual image that lionizes Robinson’s superiority).
After this comes the most emotional and painful dance of their career, “Never Gonna Dance.” Astaire thinks he’s lost Rogers, and he sings this song to her as a pledge of faithfulness. It’s the real end of their partnership. They made three more films at RKO, none of which did them justice, and one unfortunate reunion film 10 years later at MGM. But their artistic union begins with “The Carioca” in Flying Down To Rio and ends here with “Never Gonna Dance.” The number quotes from all the previous Swing Time songs, and Astaire and Rogers dance out of desperation, as if all their steps from the past can keep them together. Stevens uses a bold crane shot as they dance up two staircases separately. The dance ends with Astaire spinning Rogers into a series of dizzying, heartbreaking turns until she is whisked out the door and he is left alone. This ending took close to 50 takes to complete. In the last few, Rogers’s feet were bleeding and had to be bandaged under her shoes. The pain of Swing Time lies in the apotheosis of its dances, the fact that it has a fine director who cares about what he’s doing, and the wrenching feeling that Astaire and Rogers have reached the height of their historic partnership right at the moment when it’s coming to an end.