A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1936 – Swing Time
Okay, some prefacing here. I originally, for 1936, had a certain film with a certain iconic image involving some gears. But then I realized, “Wait, I’m just putting that here because the image is iconic and nothing more. I mean, sure, it is iconic, and the film is iconic, but I talked about Chaplin twice already. I’d actually have nothing more to talk about except to just go on about other things. So I decided to alter my plans at the last minute.
Originally, I was going to put Top Hat as the 1935 film, but after deciding Modern Times wasn’t going to be the 1936 film, I looked at how best to switch things around. So Astaire and Rogers went here, since Swing Time is just as good, if not a better film than Top Hat (both are incredible and the best two they made, in my opinion), and I was able to talk about Shirley Temple for 1935. So it all worked out.
And now we get to talk about Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and the movie musical. Which, if you really thought we were gonna get through this list without these things being brought up, you were sorely, sorely mistaken.
To me, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are the gold standard for the musical film. Or rather, the song and dance film. That’s more appropriate. Because musical is different. That’s all singing. This is song and dance. I like Gene Kelly, and Singin’ in the Rain is a masterpiece, but Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were where it’s at. To me, it’s always about the pair. Kelly always made his movies about him, and his leading ladies barely even mattered. (Though kudos to Leslie Caron and Cyd Charisse, who did manage to stand out among the lot.)
The great thing about the Astaire and Rogers movies is that the plots were always great. The actual movies were terrific, and the songs and the dancing always felt like bonuses. You get invested in the story, and then they start singing and dancing, and you go, “Oh, yeah, they’re really good at that. That’s why we’re here.”
To give some background — Fred and Ginger were first paired in 1933’s Flying Down to Rio. They weren’t even the leads of the picture. The leads were Gene Raymond and Dolores Del Rio. Their story was the one that mattered in the picture. And when you watch it now, you don’t even give a shit about those scenes. Fred and Ginger completely steal the picture. They get to dance in the middle of it, and it’s easily the best thing about the movie.
So then RKO put together a series of films designed specifically for them to star in. And they got the top composers and songwriters to write songs for them, and they composed their dances, and they became the biggest musical stars in Hollywood for the next decade. Their first film together was The Gay Divorcee, which is more screwball comedy than musical, but features The Continental, which is something like a fifteen minute musical number as the climax of the film. It’s pretty great. After that came Roberta, which is also a film that’s not quite starring them, but also starring theme. Irene Dunne and Randolph Scott are in that one, but at least there, they know Fred and Ginger are the attraction, so it’s not as bad as Flying Down to Rio. Then they made Top Hat, which, along with this, is their best film. After Top Hat came Follow the Fleet, which is their worst plotted movie (not counting Flying Down to Rio), but features some of their absolute best dancing. After that came this film, then Shall We Dance (also terrific), then Carefree. Then they did The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, which is more drama than anything. There is some dancing, but it’s actually a really serious film. And then they didn’t work together for ten years before finishing their screen partnership with The Barkleys of Broadway, which is their only film in color.
The reason they were the best partnership in musicals is because she could handle the acting, do comedy, dance incredibly well, and looked terrific. It’s rare to have all of those things. Astaire was an incredible dancer and excelled at his type of acting, and it was tough to get people who could match him. But she could. You look at Gene Kelly, and you don’t really see an equal there, in both acting and dancing. But Ginger was always as good as Fred, and it makes the movies really spark. The way William Powell and Myrna Loy movies had that spark. You could watch them do anything together. And that’s more a testament to Ginger than anything. I think the two best quotes I’ve read about their partnership were Astaire saying how, of all the women he danced with, they all thought they couldn’t do it, even though they could. So they always cried. “All except Ginger. Ginger never cried.” And then the other thing I always loved was when someone (possibly even Ginger herself) said she could do anything Fred could do, except backward and in high heels. Which I fucking love as a quote, and as a great thing to teach women for the sake of gender equality.
So, anyway, with that, let’s get to Swing Time.
The plot is pretty simple. Fred Astaire is getting married. But the bride’s father wants to call it off. So Astaire is trying to get there to change his mind, but has no money. And he meets Ginger. The circumstances don’t matter, but essentially, she ends up not liking him. Miscommunication and such. You know. He tries to explain, she’s rude, and they both get angry at each other. Then, he tries to apologize. She’s a dance instructor. So he takes a lesson from her (even though we know he can dance). And the lesson goes horribly, because she’s still pissed at him. So she berates him, saying he’ll never learn to dance. And her boss hears this and fires her. And Fred feels bad, so he shows the boss how much she “taught” him. And they have this great dance number together. It’s one of their best. It’s so good. And then they go through a series of her getting mad at him and him winning her over. And they fall in love, and there are great songs and dancing, you know the deal.
It’s an incredible film. Do yourself a favor and see every film they made together. They’re all masterpieces. Even the bad ones. The dancing is so great. It makes you wonder why no one makes these types of movies anymore.
This film also features perhaps their most memorable song. The two are “Cheek to Cheek” and “The Way You Look Tonight,” which is the song featured in the Pic of the Day. (Not the actual photo, but the quote.) It’s one of the most beautiful love songs ever written. So, really, this film is the total package of what was happening in 1936. You have two of the top stars in the industry, two of the most iconic stars in film history (the first two names you think of when you think classic movie musicals), one of the most famous love songs ever written, by the top composers of the day, and just a great, great movie. This movie epitomizes the classic song and dance film. A genre I really, really miss. And along with the western, this is the type of movie I’d like to see come back most of all.