Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers was an absolutely peerless pair of brilliant dancers that didn’t just inject chemistry on the dance floor, but also as a romantic pairing. Whether they were swooning over one another, or tap dancing in sync, it’s impossible not to be caught up in “Swing Time.” George Stevens’ classic romance comedy and musical takes the pairing as mismatched strangers that fall in love over the art of dance and their performances that look effortless but actually act as their own characters.
Risk-taker Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire) pursues dancing and gambling with equal passion. Engaged to the pretty Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), Lucky gets pre-wedding nerves, which leads to the ceremony being called off by her wealthy father. Margaret’s father decides that Lucky can have a second chance at marrying her if he can make $25,000, so he heads to New York City to seek his fortune. When Lucky meets the beautiful dance teacher Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), however, his priorities soon change when they realize they share a love of dance and performing.
“Swing Time” is a deceptively simple romance comedy that takes Fred and Ginger and sweeps them up in endless courting that’s surprisingly charming. Their mostly chaste romance is emphasized through their dancing and how they’re able to seemingly read each other’s minds whenever committing to a dance move. The pair moves fluidly through scene to scene, especially through their first dance number “Pick Yourself Up” where they seek to impress Penny’s boss. It’s a joy watching the twosome grab a hold of the audience every single time they dance, and it becomes a wonder Ginger Rogers is able to match Fred Astaire every single beat in high heels. Hell, Astaire makes even stumbling and falling down on his bottom look absolutely graceful and slick.
Despite the run time, “Swing Time” works as a brisk pace revolving around a romance involving status, embracing your passion, and staying true to yourself. Sadly, the film is almost instantly negated by the finale’s big number with Lucky donning black face for a minstrel dance number “Bojangles of Harlem.” Despite the number including one of Astaire’s most famous sequences where he dances with shadows, the sight of Astaire using the awful props as a means of “paying tribute to Bill Bojangles Robinson distracts from the intent. Even in its context of the period in which it was filmed. “Swing Time” is a very good romance comedy musical nevertheless in spite of the narrative taking a back seat almost immediately. But for fans of Astaire and Rogers, it serves its function as a classic bit of dance and music.
Presented in the Criterion Edition of “Swing Time” are two excerpts of an interview with Ginger Rogers as she recalls being discovered, her professional relationship with Fred Astaire, and the films they made together. Interview two explores her views on George Steven’s working methods. Both interviews clock in at almost thirty minutes total. “In Full Swing” is a new program with Jazz critic Garry Giddins, dance critic Brian Seiberg, and Dorothy Field’s biographer Deborah Grace Winer all of whom discuss the excellent choreography in the film, the musical numbers and the chemistry between the stars. Produced exclusively for Criterion in 2019, this clocks in at forty one minutes.
In an interview with George Stevens Jr., conducted exclusively for Criterion, the founder of the American Film Institute and son of the famous director discusses his father’s career and legacy. There is a two minute archival segment with Fred Astaire, as conducted by George Steven Jr. in 1982. There are two more archival segments with Astaire, one with cinematographer Hermes Pan by Stevens Jr. in 1982, and another nine minute interview with film scholar Mia Mask who discusses the infamous blackface number with “Bojangles of Harlem.” Finally, there’s an archival audio commentary with John Mueller author of “Ashtray Dancing: The Musical Films,” conducted in 1986. The Criterion case comes with an illustrated leaflet along with an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith, as well as technical credits.