Wednesday, September 24, 2014

AFI Top 100: #90 "Swing Time"

Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers in Swing Time (1936)

The oldest film (so far!) in our AFI Top 100 marathon countdown is Swing Time from 1936, landing at #90 on the list. The dynamo song-and-dance duo of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers star in this their 6th of 10 pictures together.

Like many of their movies, the stars don't venture too far away from 'type': Astaire plays Vaudeville dancer and self-serving gambler, Lucky Garnett, whose wedding is sabotaged by his equally self-serving dance troupe. To win his lady back, he must earnor win$25,000 in the big city. In strolls Ginger Rogers as Penny Carroll, a spit-fire dance instructor who is conned by Lucky into dancing with him and... well, it doesn't really matter. They sing and dance their way from contempt to love, some problems arise forcing them back to hate and then of course, back to love again before the final curtain. And he doesn't think too hard about his fianceeoh right! her!much at all along the way.

Ginger offers sex appeal while Fred offers a bit of class (to paraphrase Katherine Hepburn), exactly what audiences came to expect from them. The choreography is perfection, and there's a reason these two continued to make movies together. There's a spark, and moreover, she could actually keep up with him on the dance floor. Astaire isn't a singer, and you can really tell, but he is forgiven his attempts at the high notes because he is just so earnest about it.

Swing Time is considered one of the pair's best films, and while I would argue that Top Hat (1935) is better, this movie certainly does have the most memorable dance sequences (the rumors surrounding Ginger's bleeding feet after 47 continuous takes of the "Never Gonna Dance" routine are legendary). I can even almost forgive the film its 'black face' number, because the "Bojangles of Harlem" staging is so brilliant, and I can acknowledge that my 21st century head shaking wouldn't have amounted to the same reaction in the '30s.

It can't be ignored that Astaire and Rogers found a winning formula, which helped RKO Pictures churn out film after film, banking on the chemistry of its stars. They single-handedly saved the studio from bankruptcy during the Great Depressionnot unlike Shirley Temple being the saving grace for FOX, and Universal digging themselves out of a hole with Deanna Durbinand for that, they are spectacular.

Yet while I could view the movie itself through the lens of 1930s U.S. history, and cite how beneficial it was for audiences to escape their lives by watching plots filtered with glamour and magic and nothing more than self-imposed character conflicts... that just isn't what me or this review is about.

Like the above-mentioned, Depression-era studio saviors, each of the Astaire-Rogers films were simply a vehicle for the stars, with plots geared towards showcasing their premiere talents. However, unlike the films of Temple and Durbin, the grand Fred and Ginger dance musical epics had very little substance. And objectively, taking into account cinema as a whole, they also aren't all that good.

I feel blasphemous even thinking that—these two are legends that I grew up with and were easily childhood favorites. The dance sequences are unparalleled, even today, and RKO spared no expense on the Art Deco set design, lighting, and Ginger's flowing gowns. But between quicksteps and Viennese waltzes and exquisite songs from Jerome Kern... there is a slapstick-y, nonsensical romantic plot that shudders and trudges through contrived "problems," with no real grasp of time and space. To quote my friend Matt: This movie is super bizarre.

The instinct to put a Fred & Ginger film in the Top 100 was not misguided; it would feel wrong for them not to be represented someway, somehow. But giving Swing Time a leg-up because its stars should get recognition? It just doesn't merit it. None of them do. While the Astaire-Rogers team may be considered one of the best pairings in cinema history, their movies alone certainly can't hold a candle to America's best.

Rating:  ★★½ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews]

Check back next week for #89 on the list, The Sixth Sense — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!


  1. Totally disagree with this reviewer. 'Swing Time' deserves to be ranked much higher than 90. It is probably the greatest musical/dance movie ever made just by virtue of the 3 mesmerizing dance numbers done by F & G. The plot is lightweight, and typical of all the Astaire/Rogers films, but that is minor compared to the incredible dance sequences.

    1. Hi there, thanks for your comment!
      I actually completely agree with you regarding the dance sequences. Personally, I think Top Hat is a far superior film, though, and would deserve to be ranked higher were it actually included. Fred & Ginger deserve stalwart praise and recognition!

      At the same time, we're talking about a list like the AFI Top 100, which by definition is comparing and ranking these films. Because of that, as much as I'd like to say "5 stars for song and dance!"... it's short-sighted to ignore the plot, which is seriously flawed -- I can't and don't ignore the plots of the other films being reviewed. Swing Time is, unfortunately for it, no exception.

      Worthy points of discussion though! :)



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