There’s a contradiction at the heart of even the best of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies. When those two dance, or when Astaire sings (the rhythm that made him such a great dancer also makes him an excellent singer, although his voice was nothing special), they’re as elegantly expressive as anything ever captured on film, and as perfectly suited to their medium as Shakespeare was to his. But when they’re just acting, their movies go flat, as earthbound as the song and dance numbers are airy and uplifting.
Swing Time may be their best movie (it’s a toss-up for me with Top Hat). That’s mainly because it includes several of their best duets, but it also helps that director George Stevens makes us believe in their love for each other even between those magical numbers. That’s something no other director ever quite managed.
As always, Fred falls for Ginger at their first meet-cute encounter, but it’s hate at first sight for her. And as usual, their feelings are expressed most intensely through the singing and dancing with which he woos and wins her. This time, though, their feelings are also clear in their body language and their close-ups, particularly the gorgeous shots of Rogers’ guardedly softening face and widening eyes. (Yesterday for the first time, her dignity and understated humor reminded me of Jennifer Aniston, while Astaire’s hurt-puppy eyes and bowler hat under the gazebo where they sing A Fine Romance reminded me for the umpteenth time of Stan Laurel.) The nostalgia that Fred’s Lucky and Ginger’s Penny share for their love even as it’s just starting to bloom, since one or both of them always fears that it can never be, give this meringue of a movie a light dusting of melancholy.
The dialogue is probably the best of any Astaire-Rogers movie too, though that’s not saying much. And the pacing is off: too-slow delivery and too much time between lines leave light quips hanging so long they start to feel heavy. Shots are often held too long, too, in scenes that are meant to be funny. The rhythm is most obviously off at the end, when Lucky and his friends laugh hysterically for way too long. It’s supposed to be the carefree climax to a giddy romp, but instead it’s downright painful to watch the actors strain to maintain the pretense.
But then Lucky sweeps Penny into his arms and they dance, or one of them sings to the other, and none of that matters. This film contains so many gems: Dorothy Fields’ wonderfully acerbic lyrics and Jerome Kern’s playfully poignant melody in A Fine Romance, Lucky and Penny’s fiercely exuberant—and funny—first dance, his soulful rendition of The Way You Look Tonight, and the mournful duet of longing and loss they do to Never Gonna Dance amid the splendid deco of the Silver Café set as Penny keeps trying to leave and Lucky keeps pulling her back. And there’s Hermes Pan’s amazing staging of Astaire’s tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, in which Astaire is backed up by three giant silhouettes of himself, all dancing in almost perfect synchronicity.
Who needs perfection when you’ve got this much sheer, joyful grace?
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.