Blu-ray Review: Swing Time (Criterion Collection)

Over a span of sixteen years–1933 to 1949–Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made sixteen films together. Released in 1936, Swing Time their sixth pairing, is considered by many to be their best. The wait to see them dance is a special kind of torture, but as director George Stevens (Shane, The Diary of Anne Frank) and his collaborators–including screenwriters Howard Lindsay and Allan Scott and legendary songwriters Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields–knew, the payoff is pure magic.

The plot involves the kind of screwball comedy that would Preston Sturges proud. As the film opens, gambler/dancer John “Lucky” Garnett (Astaire), is set to marry Margaret (Betty Furness), but his dancing buddies create a ruse that ruins the ceremony. In an attempt to patch things up with Margaret’s father, Judge Watson (Landers Stevens, the director’s father), Lucky to go to New York City and earn $25,000, before marrying his daughter. Clad in his wedding tuxedo, Lucky hitches a ride on the back of a train, with his friend “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore) a magician and a con man, in tow.

Once Lucky and Pop arrive in the Big Apple, the plot becomes increasingly ridiculous. Almost immediately, Lucky runs Penny (Rogers) a tough city girl who doesn’t fall for his line. Naturally, he later finds out she’s an instructor at a dance school. However, when Lucky’s shenanigans get Penny fired, he turns on the talent, twirling her around the dance floor to “Pick Yourself Up” in a bid to right the wrong. Ultimately, the two pair up as dance partners. Problem is Lucky falls in love with Penny, complicating his efforts to earn $25,000 and go back home to marry his fiancée. This results in a lot of scheming and lying on Lucky’s part, and if that weren’t bad enough, he’s gambling his way into debt. How will this all end?

Despite this rather forgettable plot, Swing Time is delightful.  Much of that credit goes to the film’s stars. It’s easy to see why Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers are the most popular dance team of all time. Their chemistry is undeniable. Whether it’s Fred pretending to be a klutz when they first meet at the dance school, or the utter beauty of “Waltz in Springtime,” the two make magic together. “Bojangles of Harlem,” featuring Astaire alone, is probably the most popular in the film. A tribute to the legendary black tap Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. The dancing is phenomenal and the use of shadow tricks amazing. As an African American, I admit to always finding Astaire’s appearance in blackface jarring. Was it necessary for the performance? Obviously not. It’s helpful to remember that Swing Time was made in 1936; blackface was still a widely accepted practice. One can also hope that some who might be seeing Swing Time for the first time, investigate Bill Robinson through his own work in film, most famously with Shirley Temple.

The supporting cast is enjoyable. Victor Moore’s Pop and Helen Broderick’s Mabel–Penny’s older, co-worker and friend–are both quirky and watching their relationship is fun. Moore’s constant muttering is a slight annoyance, but his charm makes that forgivable.

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were at their best here. Flaws in the plot are easily forgiven, because their chemistry seems so easy and realistic. With any Astaire/Rogers film, it’s the dance sequences that carry the day, and on that score, Swing Time hits a home run.

Presented in the 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Criterion’s Blu-ray is a new 2K digital restoration of the film. Picture quality is pristine throughout. Blacks are deep and inky, and the gradients of gray reveal a nice level of detail. The whites really pop. Facial textures are a bit soft occasionally, but it does nothing to mar the overall presentation. Viewers should be pleased with this transfer

The monaural soundtrack is outstanding. The beautifully orchestrated musical numbers sound truly dynamic. It seems that the arrangements always emphasize the drama of the dance. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise throughout.

English SDH subtitles are included.

Criterion has provided a nice array of new and archive extras:

  • Audio Commentary: Recorded in 1986, John Mueller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films, provides a detailed analysis of the dance routines. He clearly knows this film very well.
  • Archival Interviews:
    • Fred Astaire (SD, 2:04) Conducted by George Stevens, Jr. In 1982, Astaire offers some brief memories of working on the film.
    • Ginger Rogers (HD, 21:06) In this audio-only interview from 1980, Ginger Rogers reflects on her experiences working with Fred Astaire.
    • Ginger Rogers (SD, 4:09) In this 1982 interview conducted by George Stevens, Jr., Ginger Rogers provides more memories of working with Fred Astaire.
    • Hermes Pan (SD, 5:04) Conducted by George Stevens, Jr. in 1982, the famed choreographer discusses working with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
  • In Full Swing (HD, 40:56) Produced for Criterion in 2019, film and jazz critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer discuss the film’s dances, songs and direction.
  • George Stevens, Jr. Interview (HD, 7:21) Conducted for Criterion in 2019, the director’s son discusses his father’s career, and this, his first musical.
  • Mia Mask Interview (HD, 8:34) In this new interview, the film scholar discusses Astaire’s “Bojangles of Harlem” number from a 21st century perspective.
  • Pamphlet: Includes an essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith.

Swing Time (1936)
Swing Time (1936)

Movie title: Swing Time

Director(s): George Stevens

Actor(s): Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers , Victor Moore , Helen Broderick , Eric Blore , Betty Furness

Genre: Romance, Musical, Comedy

  • Movie
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras
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