The plots in most of the films, during their Heyday of the 1930s, are very similar to each other:
(A) they meet and Astaire falls in love;
(B) after some persistence on Astaire’s part, Rogers falls in love;
(C) a complication arises that drives them Apart; and
(D) they are reconciled to live Happily Ever After.
Now, this is the plot structure of a good many romantic comedies, and we see it employed (again) in the Rogers-Astaire Swing Time (1936).
Astaire plays a gambler who must raise $25,000 in order to marry his fiancé (Betty Furness), a price established by his prospective father-in-law. Therefore, Astaire hops on a train to NYC (where else?) to find Fame and Fortune, and meets Rogers, a dance school instructor.
Swing Time is a measured comedy of win and lose, following the ups and downs of love and Chance. For example, Astaire wins $200 in a craps game, but friends appropriate it. His friend (Victor Moore) wins him a tuxedo, but Astaire loses the pants in a card game.
In his biggest – and most unlikely – gamble, Astaire bets his casino winnings against a band leader’s contract, and ends up winning a nightclub. But this, too, is only temporary.
What is not temporary is his love for Rogers, which is explored through the film’s dance sequences.
Included in our 2003 DVD version of Swing Time is a bonus featured entitled The Swing of Things: Swing Time Step by Step, an examination of the Rogers and Astaire dance numbers by Broadway choreographers and performers.
The choreographers agree that Fred Astaire was not “just” a dancer. He was a storyteller who used his body as an instrument. The dances themselves reveal the characters’ emotions.
Choreographer Melissa Ray Mahon explains the unique step used in Swing Time: “Fred created a signature step that he performs every time he dances with Ginger,” she says. “But he did it three different ways to illustrate their developing relationship.”
The first time this step is used is shortly after Rogers and Astaire meet, when Astaire pretends to enrol at the dance school where Rogers works. This is the “Pick Yourself Up” number:
“In ‘Pick Yourself Up’ [Astaire] created a… ‘Get to Know You Step’,” explains choreographer Jeffrey Denman, which he calls a combination of tapping and ballroom dancing.
But it’s more than that. The step chronicles the story of two people falling in love, as shown by the next dance, “Swing Time”:
Here Rogers and Astaire are falling in love. “This is a celebration,” says Mahon. “It’s romantic and spontaneous.”
She explains the step “is modified for ¾ time and is performed with much more abandon.”
A number of the choreographers in Step by Step call this dance “surprising” and not typical of Hollywood choreography. It’s an homage to swing as a popular dance form*.
The last number with this step is “Never Gonna Dance”, when the couple breaks up. They’re Finished, but they’re still in love. This is a dance of longing and heartbreak.
“Notice how the choreography has a more desperate abandon,” says Denman, “before they return once more to the signature step.”
“Never Gonna Dance” was an arduous shoot. Rogers’s feet reportedly bled through her shoes, and it wasn’t until 10:00 pm that filming finally ended, to cheers from the crew.
Of Rogers and Astaire, Roger Ebert wrote: “[W]hat Fred and Ginger had together, and what no other team has ever had in the same way, was a joy of performance. They were so good, and they knew they were so good, that they danced in celebration of their gifts.”¹
Swing Time is that kind of celebration, of dance, love, and good (or bad) fortune. There’s lots of laughter from the characters, and from us, too, in the audience.
This film ranks 90th on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest American Films Of All Time. We hope you’ll treat yourself to what many consider to be the seminal Rogers and Astaire film.
Swing Time: starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore. Directed by George Stevens. Written by Howard Lindsay & Allan Scott. RKO Radio Pictures, 1936, B&W, 103 mins.