Swing Time A Gorgeous Film Complicated By Racism
By Alex Cranz
I’d always heard of Swing Time. My mother taught me a love of Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films at an early age. She preferred their early work. The breezy B-couple of Flying Down to Rio and their huge Rio-inspired dance number towards the end of Top Hat. As I slowly enveloped their entire collective filmography I found myself adoring the individual numbers of Follow the Fleet and the absurdity of Carefree.
Swing Time though, it wasn’t a film I’d seen. My mother wasn’t crazy about it but all the Astaire/Rogers enthusiasts you’ll find on the internet and in books absolutely adore it. I came into it a little nervous as to how I’d see it. Yet as I watched it I fell in love–with director George Stevens’s sharp handling of the comedy and the dance, with the tight editing of the “Never Gonna Dance” sequence that is somehow sweeping and epic but intimate all at once, and with the sweet childish romance of “A Fine Romance” (I once named a play I wrote in college after that song). It’s two people falling in love and hating each other but knowing that no one else can move them or make them move quite the same.
Ginger Rogers is brazen and down to earth and utterly charming–to the point that when she realizes she might love him it softens her alarmingly. She glows and becomes mesmerizing in that moment. Then she hates him again and spends the rest of the film waffling between frustration and adoration. Fred Astaire often comes close to being smarmy without ever actually getting there. When he declares he can never dance again because he’s danced with her your heart melts and swoons all at once and the goofy guy with the big ears because the most suave man ever on film.
Helen Broderick and Eric Blore, actors that have appeared in nearly all of the films Astaire and Rogers did together, play the same characters they’ve played in every single film. She’s kind of a jerk and he spends most of the film being in a snit, but they’re power roles are reversed. Usually she’s the wise best friend who dispenses advice while rolling around in money and he’s the wise butler who perfectly enunciates every syllable and ends up drunk at some point. Here he’s a greedy agent/dance school owner and she’s the secretary. It’s a little odd to see them play such different characters and the notable lack of Erik Rhodes and Edward Everett Horton further sets this film apart from the bulk of the Astaire/Rogers films. It makes it a little special.
“Never Gonna Dance” stands out to me amongst all the numbers. That includes “A Fine Romance,” the Oscar-winning standard created for the film: “The Way You Look Tonight” and the titular “A Waltz in Swing Time.” Those are great pieces written by Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern, but “Never Gonna Dance,” now that’s the summation of the intellectual love affair of Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. That’s the culmination of six pictures up to that point. While it’s about two rather ordinary lovers parting it also transcends that to be about two amazing performers who will never ever find another partner that so perfectly completes them on film. Notes from previous numbers in the film are referenced as they dance through an empty multi-story ballroom. The style switches from note to note but they are always perfectly in time–in sync.
The apocryphal story of Astaire and Hermes Pan forcing Rogers to dance until her feet bled is often attributed to this number. You’d never guess it though. She’s busy acting. Going from the girl next door of the story and transforming into a near perfect representation of the female half of dance. She longs for him. Desires him. There is sex in their movement, but she also becomes utterly untouchable in a twirl. And he’s transformed too. Astaire’s greatest weakness was his acting, yet when he moves line delivery is forgotten. He is the character and he is Fred Astaire and he is every man desperate to keep a girl he knows he has to lose.
The entire number–all 6+ minutes of it–are shown in only seven or eight cuts. We get the intimacy of their actions despite the camera being far away. When Stevens came in to shoot the sequence he had original envisioned the camera twirling about them and catching multiple angles and doing things up close and then from far away. Astaire stamped his foot and said “No, either the camera dances or I do.” So Stevens took his sudden limitations and made dance filmmaking perfection.
And that perfection extends to many of the other numbers. Only….there’s a problem. As deeply as I feel about this film, as much as I love “Never Gonna Dance” there is “Bojangles in Harlem.”
We’ve already talked about Bojangles aka Bill Robinson here. He stands as one of the greatest performers to ever live. Even in Stormy Weather when he’s in his fifties he was extraordinary to behold. He was, in fact, alive when Swing Time was released (a fact I suspect a lot of the number’s most ardent defenders aren’t aware of). Fred Astaire, being an amazing dancer with a big past in vaudeville desperately wanted to do a number acknowledging Robinson extraordinary abilities. The year before Robinson had changed history as the first black man to appear on-screen with a white girl in The Little Colonel and Astaire, being a fan, wanted even more people to be aware of the man.
So he decided to pay tribute. The number starts with a lot of women dancing in time. A jazzy bit of swing plays. Curtains pull back. The women start singing of the wonders of Bojangels…in thepast tense. Then more curtains pull back to reveal a caricature of a black man.
Only wait. Those are actually his shoes. The shoes part, the camera moves in and there’s Fred Astaire in black face.
What follows is an absolutely wonderful dance number. The multitude of women try to keep up with Astaire. They can’t. So shadows of him (using travelling mattes, the precursor to the green screen) take over, and even they are incapable of keeping of with Astaire when he’s dancing by himself. It is awe-inspiring. It is breathtaking.
But Fred Astaire is in blackface. He did it as “homage” to Robinson. And yes, he came from vaudeville where blackface commonly appeared. Yes in 1936 blackface wasn’t racist. That’s because it was still being used as a tool to undermine black performers. I mean, lets face it, if Fred Astaire loved Robinson so much he could have just insisted that he appear in a dancing duet with him. Astaire was part of the most popular and lucrative cinematic couples in history and he was at the height power in Hollywood. Instead he dons blackface and dances to a song that makes it sound like Bill Robinson died years before.
There is no avoiding the fact that the number, despite being one of the most technically delightful dances Astaire would ever do, is absolutely racist. Defending it. Trying to say it is “less racist” or “subversively anti-racist” like this “critique” in the New York Times last year is just…no. It isn’t “less racist.” It is racist.
I love Swing Time. I will continue to love Swing Time. I will marvel at the dancing, worship George Stevens’ direction (he also directed future FemPop Flashback subject Giant), nurse a crush on Rogers as she butchly asks for opinions on her dress and sit in awe of Astaire’s skills and his work with fellow choreographer Hermes Pan, but I won’t defend the blackface in the film.
Swing Time is currently available on Netflix via DVD.