Swing Time (1936) Review

Swing Time (1936) Director: George Stevens

★★★★★

Swing Time is a wonderful film, and may be Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’s finest movie. Together they made ten Hollywood films, and nine of which were musicals for RKO. Six of them were the top money-makers for RKO. As Katherine Hepburn once said, “He gives her class, and she gives him sex appeal.” Fred Astaire has been called the most influential dancer ever to grace Hollywood. While he remained a force and a legend on Broadway and in other musicals, later with MGM post Ginger Rogers, Astaire would never reclaim the heights of his fame and success during his time in the early Golden Years of Hollywood of the 1930s.

There is no greater example of the elegance and beauty of a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie than Swing Time. It is regularly ranked among their top films, along with Top Hat. The film was a hit, but marked a turning point for the Astaire/Rogers duo, as their films started to decline at the box office, never reaching their astronomical heights again. It was the sixth of their ten films together.

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It tells the story of John, or “Lucky”, who is a habitual gambler and dancer. In the beginning he attempts to court a woman named Margaret, however he shows up late to his own wedding only to meet her disapproving father. Her father will only be impressed if he makes some money – $25,000. Thus, Lucky and his bumbling but funny friend “Pop” head to New York City where they become entangled with Penny, via the dance studio where she works. Reluctantly, at first, Penny starts dancing with Lucky and they start auditioning their duet number, which leads Lucky back into gambling for their audition, as the band leader is in love with Penny and refuses to play for Lucky and Penny. He eventually wins the band leader’s contract, and they dazzle the crowd with their performance. The two start an innocent romance, which is paused when she finds out about his prior engagement plans, but in the end Lucky wins her back and they get married. Thus concludes the film.

Ginger Rogers had a successful career in Vaudeville and on Broadway before venturing into film. She was a supporting actress in 42nd Street. Her career took off when RKO paired her with Fred Astaire, the high class but unusually balding dancer. After the Astaire/Rogers films started to decline commercially, she starred in Kitty Foyle (1940) and won Best Actress for her performance. She was a lifelong conservative Republican, and a staunch and public opponent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. She was an only child, and remained close with her mother all her life, and she married five times, all of them ending in divorce. She was a Christian Scientist, and despite her stroke and paralysis in later years, she never went to a hospital or saw a doctor. She died of a heart attack in 1995. In 1998 at the Democratic National Convention it was announced that (paraphrased): ‘Fred Astaire was good, but remember that Ginger Rogers did all those dance routines, too, backwards and in high heels.’

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Astaire was an impressive man, known for his elegantly choreographed dance routines, and his perfection of the craft. He was a conservative lifelong Republican, though he rarely discussed politics. Like Bing Crosby and Ginger Rogers, Astaire was a founding member of the Hollywood Republican Committee. He was a churchgoer, military supporter, and was dismissive of the increasing graphic sensuality in films of the 1970s. He, along with Cary Grant, was known for being impeccably dressed  for every occasion. Personally, he married the daughter of a New York socialite family, Phyllis Potter, in 1933, despite his mother’s and sister’s objections. However, Phyllis’s death from lung cancer at age 46 devastated him. He was a golfer and a horse-breeder. It wasn’t until the age of 81, in 1980, that Astaire remarried Robyn Smith, a jockey 45 years his junior. He died in 1987 of pneumonia, and his last words were reportedly: “I didn’t want to leave this world without knowing who my descendant was, thank you, Michael”- in reference to Michael Jackson. His life was never portrayed on film, despite numerous offers to do so, and his will has a clause prohibiting any such portrayal.

While the plot leaves some things to be desired, and has a dated and unfortunate scene of blackface, Swing Time is nevertheless a marvelous and joyous film filled with wonderful song and dance routines, such as the famous “The Way You Look Tonight” by Jerome King – including a famous scene of Astaire singing the song alone at a piano, which one the film’s sole Oscar. Remarkably, the meticulous dance scenes were shot with only one or two stationary cameras, and very few, if any, cut scenes, leaving the magic of the cinema solely up to the dancers to perform. Swing Time is one of the greatest films, and my favorite of the Astaire/Rogers era.

The Broadway Melody (1929) Review

The Broadway Melody (1929)  Director: Harry Beaumont

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★★★☆☆

The Broadway Melody was the first “talkie” to win Best Picture and it was also the first musical to be released by MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), a studio which later became synonymous with spearheading extravagant Hollywood musicals. Notably, there is also a brief scene of technicolor in the film –an extraordinary moment that helped ignite the color revolution (unfortunately, this scene survives today only in black and white).

The Broadway Melody is hardly memorable today except on several key points: namely its novelty as the first “talkie” to win Best Picture, its technical cinematography, and its narrative which conveys a notable tone of underlying skepticism toward the glitz and glamor of Broadway. Perhaps small-town skepticism toward Broadway and Hollywood are as old as the institutions themselves. The Broadway Melody tells the story of two sisters who flee their town in pursuit of celebrity stardom on Broadway. After watching the film I was left to wonder if the characters should have simply remained in their hometown all along.

The Broadway Melody tells the story of two poor women, the “Mahoney sisters” from a proverbial town who travel to New York to pursue their dreams on Broadway. Harriet or “Hank” (played by Bessie Love who delivers a terrific and fiery performance for which she was nominated for Best Actress) and Queenie Mahoney (played by Anita Page) enter the city with wide-eyes only to quickly find their dreams dashed. They gain minor success performing a vaudeville duet routine but Queenie becomes the favored girl of the month on Broadway, and even Hank’s fiancee Eddie (played by Charles King) falls in love with her. Queenie and Hank’s duet is then dashed by a young blonde woman who sabotages their audition. Queenie is chosen to be the central performer instead of Hank. Eventually Queenie is pursued by a wealthy philanthropist and theatre sponsor, until she realizes how possessive he is and she is eventually rescued by Eddie. She and Eddie get married, further straining the relationship between the sisters.

In the end, Queenie joins a duet performance with the young blond who initially sabotaged their original audition. The film closes with a distraught Hank at the train station as her younger sister has stolen her dreams and her fiancee. It is an odd ending to a somewhat forgettable winner of the second Academy Award for Best Picture (Director Harry Beaumont was also nominated for Best Director). The award was given at the second Academy Awards ceremony held at the Ambassador Hotel at its renowned Cocoanut Grove nightclub (the hotel was later the site of the RFK assassination and today it is owned by the Los Angeles Unified School District to develop a school site). The ceremony was hosted by William C. DeMille (an old Hollywood screenwriter and brother of Cecil B. DeMille). At any rate in The Broadway Melody, there are a few great aerial shots of Manhattan, and some terrific little musical numbers such as “Give My Regards to Broadway,” though for being a movie about musical numbers there are surprisingly few song-and-dance routines. It was Director Harry Beaumont’s most notable film (he was mainly active during the silent era).

Click here to return to my survey of the Best Picture Winners.

42nd Street (1933) Review

42nd Street (1933) Director: Lloyd Bacon

“Come and meet those dancing feet,
On the avenue I’m taking you to,
Forty-Second Street.”

★★★☆☆

Both set and released during the Great Depression, 42nd Street is a quintessential “backdoor musical.” It offers a suggestive, innuendo-filled musical extravaganza like no other. Its success, following the release of MGM’s first sound film The Broadway Melody, revitalized the struggling Warner Bros. Studios, as well as the entire musical film genre. It was followed by two other successful musicals in 1933, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. Shot in Burbank for 28 days, we see Ginger Rogers in one of her break-out cinematic roles, albeit as a minor character. The two standout numbers for me in the film include: “You’re Getting to be a Habit” and “42nd Street.”

The film tells the story of a stage director named Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) who wants to end his career with a bang by producing a musical called “Pretty Lady,” however he is warned not to continue directing due to his high blood pressure. He begins casting the show for whom Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) will play the lead. In order to secure the show’s financing, she string along a lead investor allowing him to believe she loves him, while secretly dating another man. Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) is hired as one of the show’s dancers but after Brock rolls her ankle the night before the show, and after a mere 5 weeks of practice, Peggy is chosen to take her place. Nevertheless, the show is a hit and the film closes with hoards of audience members leaving the theatre in Philadelphia giving all of the credit to Peggy and none to the director. He listens quietly from the shadows.

Notes on the Isha Upanishad

In the Isha Upanishad (perhaps meaning hidden or enveloped in the lord or ruler), there is an acknowledgement of the distinction between the ‘transient’ and the ‘eternal.’ In the opening line, the eternal is identified as superior to the transient. One who dwells exceedingly on the latter will descend into darkness, but one who acts according to the former, and sees himself in light of all things in the cosmos, loses fear. Christianity embraces a like-minded dualism, though the self is not annihilated or subjugated to the greater universe.

Similar to the project embarked upon by Lucretius in his later Epicurean work entitled De Rerum Natura, the Isha Upanishad attempts to address man’s primal fear. This fear is best described as the terror of death in light of eternity, or the gripping fear that comes from an awareness of the cold, purposeless, and chaotic cosmos. The author advises us to see ourselves in everything, and thus to lose fear. Death is not unique, as it would be infinitely to the solipsist, but rather a part of the greater unfolding of all things. Another way of formulating the proposition is to say that fear grows from a demonstrative belief in the self alone, divorced from the rest of the cosmos. By shedding this fear, a “sage” can also necessarily depart from his delusions and sorrows.

The Isha Upanishad, although one of the shortest Upanishads, also advises against both “action” and “knowledge,” for both lead down a path to deeper darkness. Man is positioned at a great abyss -transience leads man into darkness, and knowledge and action lead man into an even greater darkness. However, curiously by knowing both, a sage can overcome death and reach immortality.

The Upanishad closes with a prayer to the spirit or god to “reveal” the hidden truth, and to the sun containing the sacred word “OM”, and a plea to shed the body so that it may become ashes in favor of remembrance of “past strivings.” As the scripture concludes, the author longs to follow the path of the good.


For this reading I used the Penguin Classics Edition translated by Juan Mascaro.