Review: Swing Time (1936)

swingtime1I wondered to myself, after watching Swing Time once again, if anyone else might have easily taken Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ places as films greatest dancing couple, and then I quickly discarded this heretical idea. They appeared in 10 films together with this film directed by George Stevens being there six pairing. By now they’re a well-oiled, beautifully elegant dancing machine.

As with many of their films the genre is a hybrid of a screwball comedy and a musical which of course most importantly showcases their legendary dancing prowess.

Astaire is the carefree gambler and hoofer “Lucky” Garnett who gets duped out of his marriage by his buddies and must head to New York to prove himself to his fiancees’ father. He goes off with his faithful friend “Pop” (Victor Moore), who also has a penchant for card tricks. They have nary a penny in their pockets and he meets a pretty young dance teacher (Ginger Rogers) over a stolen quarter.

From her point of view, he just won’t stop leaving her alone and he just wants to get the chance to dance with her. Astaire and Rogers’ first number together, “Pick Yourself Up,” is a peppy piece that sets the bar for the rest of the film. They swivel, glide, and sway, perfectly in sync, orbiting one another. And for the rest of the film whenever they dance together they never seem to lose that innate connection.

As far as the screwball aspect goes, Lucky is tight on money resorting to gambling for some new duds, but his chance to dance with Penny is his big break. They just need an orchestra to accompany them. The only problem is someone else owns the orchestra and the orchestra leader Ricardo is also madly in love with Penny. In a shady set-up all across the board they draw cards for the contract and “Lucky” wins. He and Penny have a growing connection, but he still feels guilt based on his attachment to his fiancee Margaret. And of course his life catches up with him and Penny finds out while simultaneously the orchestra is taken away from him.

It must happen this way so they can realize how much they mean to each other and share one final dance together. Out of all the misunderstandings comes a lot of big laughs and in the end, everybody thinks it’s funny. Since Ricardo loses his pants, Penny decides to marry Lucky after all and everything is right in the world of Astaire and Rogers.

You don’t necessarily watch a film like this for the acting, but thanks undoubtedly to the studio system we have a colorful supporting cast including the two-timing but lovable Pop, Mabel is a wisecracking riot in her own right, and although his screen time is short, Eric Blore is enjoyable as the hissy dance studio boss Mr. Gordon.

“The Way You Look Tonight” is an absolute crooner classic and aside from the initial number it can be heard throughout the film in refrains. The same goes for “A Fine Romance” which feels antiquated, but it still manages to be thoroughly enjoyable in all of its reprises. But the main attraction is, of course, the dancing, from the personified joy of “Waltz in Swing Time” to the graceful gliding of “Never Gonna Dance.” If you set aside the unfortunate blackface for a moment the Bojangles shadow dance is a stroke of creative genius that gives off an amazing result while showcasing Astaire’s individual skill.

From someone with two left feet, this film makes me want to at least attempt to dance because Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers turn dancing into an almost mystical experience. How does he prance and twirl so effortless on the floor? How does she do it equally as beautifully and in heels no less? It looks like they’re having so much fun and yet, in reality, they practiced for hours upon hours to get it right.  Amazing stuff.

4.5/5 Stars

Talk of the Town (1942)

0db8e-the_talk_of_the_townThis comedy-drama begins with a rather stark montage chronicling how the unfortunately named Leopold Gilg (Cary Grant) was accused of arson, murder, and finally imprisoned by one owner of a mill named Holmes. After escaping from prison and an imminent conviction, in a torrential downpour, the hampered Gilg seeks asylum in a nearby house. It just happens to belong to Miss Nora Shelley a local teacher in Lochester and an acquaintance of Gilg. She reluctantly allows the injured fugitive to hold up in her attic, but then her new tenant arrives a day early, the distinguished professor Lightcap (Ronald Colman).

After Gilg finally reveals himself to Lightcap as the gardener Joseph, what forms is an interesting triangle with the two men on the sides and Ms. Shelley in the middle. Both men take a liking to each other despite their difference in opinion on justice. Lightcap is much the academic and he goes by the book. “Joseph” on the other hand has a more practical approach.

It does not matter much until the professor finally learns Joseph’s true identity and now he feels it is his duty to report Gilg no matter his affinity for him. But after Gilg gets away once again, the professor is finally coaxed to look into the case that he has been so reluctant to involve himself in. Both men make concessions out of respect for the other. The professor involves himself, buys some borscht, and cuts his beard, while Gilg turns himself in. It almost drives Ms. Shelley up the wall with grief. You see she loves both of them.

In his final search, Lightcap finds something very interesting indeed. The town mob bursts into the courtroom as Gilg stands trial again, but the professor shows up with a surprise of his own. He ends up as the next Court Justice, a very happy man and Ms. Shelley and Gilg are very happy for him. They don’t have much to complain about either.

George Steven’s film has a bit of a contrived plot much like The More the Merrier. Things certainly feel set up, but that’s okay because the cast is so wonderful it makes the set-piece work. Jean Arthur is in top form when she is exasperated and sneaking about making little white lies as people file in and out of her home. Gilg seemed like a rather odd role for Grant, but he pulled it off with his usual charm and charisma. Someone else might have made Lightcap unbearably stuffy, but Colman’s portrayal is always tolerable and very often charming. This had a lot more drama than I was expecting, but it was not short on the comedy either. My only complaint is that it ran a tad long, but it just meant more screen time for the leads. That’s not so bad. They were The Talk of the Town after all.

4/5 Stars

The Best Films of George Stevens

1. Shane
2. Giant
3. Swing Time
4. A Place in the Sun
5. Gunga Din
6. The More the Merrier
7. I Remember Mama
8. The Talk of the Town
9. Woman of the Year
10. The Diary of Anne Frank
11. Alice Adams
12. Vivacious Lady
13. Penny Serenade

Giant (1956)

This is an epic film that stars Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with direction by George Stevens. It shows the ongoing conflict between a rancher (Hudson) and his former hired hand who becomes rich off oil (Dean). As Jett Rink (Dean) exclaims, he becomes even richer than the rancher Bic Benedict (Hudson) ever dreamed. The relationship escalates when Rink makes a rude remark to Leslie Benedict (Taylor), and some punches are traded. From this point on the three main characters slowly grow older and the Benedicts have children. In his final screen appearance, Dean’s character is suppose to give a speech at a large banquet. However he is so drunk he falls flat on his face a complete wreck. Giant was ahead of his time by giving commentary about the race relations with Mexicans. It also took young actors and progressively made them look older, something that was quite unusual. Although this was Dean’s final movie I think it can be said he came full circle. He began as a youth in East of Eden and by the end of Giant he was a old man.

4.5/5 Stars

A Place in the Sun (1951)

In this film starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, and Shelley Winters, with George Stevens directing, a young man (Clift) tries to rise up in his uncle’s company. He is poorly-educated yet ambitious and he slowly moves up in the Eastman business. While he works George begins to fall for a modest girl (Winters) who also works in the assembly. They slowly begin to show romantic feelings for each other because they face the same hardships. With a new found postition George begins to interact with people of higher social status. Although he feels out of place there, he meets the beautiful and rich Angela (Taylor) who he begins to fall in love with. As he begins to get more involved with Angela, he learns that his former love interest is pregnant and therefore wishes to marry him. Faced with a dilemma, George makes a decision that will ruin him forever, whether he goes through with it or not. A hard-hitting drama, and an adaptation of “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser, the latter half is the best part, including the chilling finale.

4/5 Stars

The More The Merrier (1943)

e0052-the_more_the_merrier_-_posterDirected by George Stevens and starring Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea, and Charles Coburn, this comedy makes light of the housing shortage in Washington D.C. during WWII. Retired millionaire Benjamin Dingle comes to D.C. as an adviser for the housing crisis. Unfortunately he cannot find a place to stay right away. By chance he happens upon an ad for a room the only thing is that the other tenant is a young woman. Mr. Dingle will not take no for an answer and despite her misgivings she agrees to let him stay. It soon proves to be a hilarious situation and it gets even more complicated when Dingle rents half of his half to a Sergeant Joe Carter who is about to ship out. Of course he doesn’t tell Connie. There is initial conflict however Dingle tries to play matchmaker. The only problem is that Connie is already engaged to a bureaucrat. Then Dingle oversteps his boundaries reading Ms. Milligan’s diary to Joe. Dingle accepts the responsibility and leaves but Connie allows Joe to stay since he will be gone soon. Through a series of events the newspaper gets a hold of the situation so Mr. Dingle advises them to get married to stop a scandal. As Joe gets ready to leave they realize they really do care for each other and Dingle was right Connie finally gave into her true feelings. All the main players were good and I think Charles Coburn was really the standout because he was the character who kept the whole story together. As is his motto, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”
 
4.5/5 Stars

Gunga Din (1939)

ac5f5-gungadinStarring Cary Grant, Victor MClaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. with Sam Jaffe in the title role and director George Stevens, the film follows three men in Her Majesties’ Forces. They soon have a run in with a violent cult but they narrowly come out in one piece. However, after that things quiet down and one of the three plans to leave the service so he can get married. Another follows the water boy Din and happens upon a golden temple. Then the cult takes him prisoner while Din flees to get help. His tow buddies come alone only to be captured as well. After putting up a fight they watch in horror as their troops start to fall in the same trap. The wounded Din sounds the alarm just in time, allowing the forces to defend themselves and then lead an offensive attack. Miraculously the three friends come out alive and Din dies a hero. This film is a great combination of action and humor. As Kipling would say, “You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din.”

4.5/5 Stars

Swing Time (1936)

0c747-394px-swing-time-1935Starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers with director George Stevens, this light film is like a screwball romance with a lot of added dancing. Astaire is a man who has missed his wedding and he agrees to go off to the city with a friend so he can make money to bring back. There he meets a fiery dance teacher accidentally and then they begin to perform together. As “Lucky” (Astaire) and his friend try to survive by gambling with the little money they have, he begins to fall for Penny (Rogers). However, she does not find out until later that he already has a fiancee. When she realizes the situation she goes to marry another. In the end everything is all a big mistake full of laughter and of course everything is made right again. There is no denying that Astaire and Rogers are not only good dancers but good performers. Many of the numbers they dance and sing are memorable like “The Way You Look Tonight,” Pick Yourself Up,” and of course “Waltz in Swing Time.”

4.5/5 Stars

Director of the Month: George Stevens

One of the great, if often unheralded American directors, it is astounding when you look at the breadth of George Stevens work. His catalogue of films rivals those of the other American greats such as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and William Wyler. His films also evolved over time as he changed with the times.

Stevens got his start working at the company of Hal Roach as an assistant cameraman where he worked on B-westerns and the comedy productions of Laurel & Hardy. This training with the camera would influence him later as a director because he would also pay close attention to details. The mise-en-scene and the relationships between his characters were of the utmost importance to him. Despite, these aesthetic aspects he never lost sight of the humanity in his films.

Soon Stevens had moved on to directing and his credits include the quintessential Astaire-Rogers vehicle Swing Time (1936), along with the swash-buckling thriller Gunga Din (1939). Then during the early years of the war he had a string of solid films including the comedies Women of the Year (1942), The Talk of the Town (1943), and More the Merrier (1943). In the waning years of WWII he would begin to shoot footage of the war and concentration camps as well. This reality would deeply impact Stevens and as a result his post-war films were also impacted. His so-called “American Trilogy” included the tragic drama A Place in the Sun (1951), the western Shane (1953), and the epic Giant (1956). In these three films we see signs of a man disillusioned who turned away from the comedy and crafted films with a heavier tones and more complex themes.

With these films Stevens solidified his legacy as an American Film Legend and despite what anyone might say it would be difficult to take that away from him. Other notable films of his include: Vivacious Lady (1948), I Remember Mama (1938), and the Diary of Anne Frank (1959).