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Warner Home Video presents
Swing Time (1936)

"No one could teach you how to dance in a thousand years."
- Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: August 29, 2005

Stars: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers
Other Stars: Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness, Georges Metaxa
Director: George Stevens

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:43m:26s
Release Date: August 19, 2005
UPC: 053939725926
Genre: musical


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A BBB+ B

DVD Review

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made nine classic films together at RKO during the 1930s. All of them feature slight, silly plots, sumptuous sets, toe-tapping tunes from the era's most esteemed composers, and—oh, yeah—some of the most breathtaking and perfectly executed dance routines ever burned onto celluloid. Although each film remains rightfully revered, Swing Time possesses one essential ingredient the other Astaire-Rogers musicals lack—director George Stevens. The man who would later helm such serious projects as A Place in the Sun, Shane, and Giant injects warmth and emotion into the Fred-and-Ginger formula, and imbues the featherweight material with a sophisticated artistry that helps make the movie arguably the duo's best.

Of course, the lilting score by Jerome Kern (with lyrics by Dorothy Fields) contributes greatly to Swing Time'ssuccess. The mix of witty duets (the incomparable A Fine Romance), bouncy dance tunes (Pick Yourself Up), and a killer ballad (the timeless The Way You Look Tonight) adds vital substance to the rather thin story of John "Lucky" Garnett (Astaire), a hoofer with a second-rate vaudeville show, who decides to chuck his career in favor of marriage with society girl Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). His fellow dancers, however, don't want him to leave the troupe, and they craftily sabotage the wedding. In order to win back his miffed fiancée, Lucky promises to buckle down and achieve some form of financial security before reclaiming Margaret's hand.

Bereft of any funds (once again, thanks to his "loyal" fellow thespians), Lucky and his sidekick Pop (Victor Moore) hop the first freight train to New York, where they encounter dance instructor Penny Carroll (Rogers) on the street. After a typically frosty introduction, the two strike up a rapport on the dance floor, and begin a tentative romance, complicated by Lucky's gambling, some mildly deceitful behavior, and Penny's jealous suitor, Ricky Romero (Georges Metaxa). All's well that ends well, of course, as dance proves to be the tonic that heals all ills.

In every Astaire-Rogers film, the story is but a thinly disguised device to get the stars tapping, twirling, and gliding across impeccably waxed and gleaming parquet floors. Swing Time is no exception, but Stevens meshes the dramatic and musical scenes so seamlessly, there's never a break in the film's flow. The songs don't necessarily advance the story, but the Astaire-Rogers dances do, and as a result, their numbers together produce a palpable emotional impact often absent in their other pictures. Topping the list is the exquisitely performed Never Gonna Dance, an intricate, involving routine shot in just two lengthy takes. The lack of cuts allows us to become fully immersed in the awe-inspiring precision and perfection of Fred and Ginger, as they evoke feelings of love, loss, hopelessness, and despair. Rarely can one classify a dance as "powerful," but this number earns the distinction, leaving the audience breathless and dazzled.

Yet as thrilling as Never Gonna Dance (at one time the film's working title) may be, it's only one in a series of showstoppers performed by the illustrious ballroom team. Pick Yourself Up stands as one of the duo's most ebullient and easygoing routines, while the more formal but equally bright Waltz in Swing Time (shot in just one take) proves how comfortable Astaire and Rogers had become with each other after co-starring in five films. Never again would the pair seem so unified, connected, and blissfully relaxed. Even in the two songs that don't evolve into dances (The Way You Look Tonight and the deliciously sarcastic A Fine Romance), their chemistry is undeniable.

Astaire's one solo number, Bojangles of Harlem, ranks as another of the film's many highlights, and marks the first time Fred employed special effects to enhance one of his routines. In this instance, Astaire frenetically taps in front of a trio of blown-up shadows, creating a striking image. His blackface makeup adds an uncomfortable element to the number, but because he pays tribute to legendary dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, it's more forgivable than the standard minstrel routines found in other films of the period.

The supporting cast, led by the acid-tongued Helen Broderick, clumsy Victor Moore, and delectably droll Eric Blore, takes care of comic relief, but when you've got Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers tearing up the dance floor, who wants relief? Swing Time spotlights the team's exquisite talent like no other film, and remains the high point of their peerless partnership.



Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: B

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Swing Time could certainly benefit from a full-scale restoration, but the transfer Warner proffers enjoys excellent clarity and a wide gray scale that adds texture and depth to the image. Blacks are inky and rich, contrast is quite good, and close-ups exude a lovely warmth that enhances the film's romantic feel. Grain is noticeable but not overpowering, and though a flurry of white specks, scratches, and faint lines can be detected, they're never bold enough to cause alarm. Although a spotless transfer would have been preferable, Swing Time has never looked better, and will surely please Astaire-Rogers fans.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglishno


Audio Transfer Review: Warner technicians seem to have spent more time dusting off the audio than the video, and the result is a surprisingly clean mono track with very few pops, crackles, and other sundry defects that often afflict Golden Age films. The vocals sound a little thin, but then again, so do Fred and Ginger, but distortion is thankfully absent, and the considerable background music comes through clearly.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+

 

Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 27 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Astaire biographer John Mueller
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Musical short, Hotel a la Swing
  2. Classic cartoon, Bingo Crosbyana
Extras Review: Warner dresses up this classic musical with plenty of old and new supplements, but the results are, at best, a mixed bag. First up is a serious but involving commentary by John Mueller, author of the immensely rewarding tome, Astaire Dancing. Mueller knows his stuff, and presents solid information in a mildly engaging manner. In addition to analyzing the Astaire-Rogers musical numbers, he drops in production tidbits, discusses the score, and relates the film to the musical genre as a whole. It's well worth a listen.

The new featurette, The Swing of Things: Swing Time Step by Step, follows, and features a host of colleagues, critics, and admirers weighing in on the Astaire-Rogers magic. "Just in terms of dance," historian Leonard Maltin opines, "this film is tough to beat," and the 15-minute documentary shows us why, dissecting each number and explaining how Fred and Ginger's storytelling technique made each dance a mini-drama that advanced the plot. A couple of perky stand-ins even demonstrate some of the basic steps the legendary pair used in the film. Former Astaire partner Barrie Chase and choreographer Hermes Pan (in an archival interview) are among the experts and collaborators who offer their perspective on Astaire and Rogers' enduring magic in this breezy, entertaining piece.

The vintage short, Hotel a la Swing, shows us how a bit of be-bop can transform a drab, run-of-the-mill New York lodging into a sleek, syncopated pit stop for weary travelers. Eddie Foy, Jr. and the Mullen Sisters headline this rather tedious 21-minute novelty that's long on music but short on style. Not much better is the eight-minute Merrie Melodies cartoon, Bingo Crosbyana, in which a group of bugs (one of which croons like Der Bingle) battles a spider in a residential kitchen.

The original Swing Time trailer completes the extras package.

Extras Grade: B

 

Final Comments

If you only see one Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie, make it Swing Time. With memorable Jerome Kern standards, smooth direction by the great George Stevens, and a host of dazzling dance routines, this vintage musical remains forever young. As usual, Warner honors the material with a nice transfer, fine audio, and a good complement of extras, making this tuneful, terpsichorean treat easy to recommend.

 


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