Swing Time

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Swing Time is a 1936 RKO musical comedy film set mainly in New York City, and starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It features Helen Broderick, Victor Moore, Eric Blore and Georges Metaxa, with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields. The film was directed by George Stevens. — Wikipedia [read more]

Excerpts from WICN.org’s Song of the Week feature:

Swing Time was the sixth of ten Astaire and Rodgers musicals, and is considered by many to be their best. The film was a commercial success and “The Way You Look Tonight” won the 1936 Academy Award for Best Song, beating out stiff competition that included Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under my Skin.”

Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields were in top form when they composed the score for Swing Time. In addition to the romantic ballad “The Way You Look Tonight,” the score included two other hits, “A Fine Romance” and “Pick Yourself Up.”  For the 1930s Kern and Fields were an odd couple songwriting team. Kern was 20 years older than Fields and generally recognized as the father of American musical theater. Between 1904 and 1939 he contributed to 113 shows, a record that remains unmatched by any other composer. On Broadway Kern had collaborated with outstanding lyricists Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II, but when he moved from New York to Hollywood seeking work during the Great Depression, he began working with Fields. At that time Fields was virtually the only successful female songwriter. She was 30 years old when she began working with Kern, but in her twenties she had already produced such hits as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love (Baby)” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street.” By the time she began working with Kern, her reputation as a top lyricist was established and she was in demand. William Zinsser, in his book Easy to Remember, had this to say about their working relationship: “The young lyricist drew out of the famously intractable older composer a score of unusual zest.”

“The Way You Look Tonight” has no verse, which is not unusual in songs Kern wrote for films, but it is a long song at 44-bars.

See also the following Songbook pages on two standards introduced in the film:

The descriptions/reviews of the key songs and dance numbers are from wikipedia unless otherwise cited. As for recordings, I’m going to limit the recordings in this feature to the film soundtrack as long as I can find quality videos. Covers of the standards will be handled in separate pages.

All songs are composed by Jerome Kern with words by Dorothy Fields except for the Kern instrumental Waltz in Swing Time which was “constructed and arranged by Robert Russell Bennett” according to IMDb. However, wikipedia’s article credits also Astaire’s rehearsal pianist Hal Borne for contributing to both Waltz in Swing Time and Bojangles of Harlem (source uncited).

Pick Yourself Up: The first of Kern’s standards is a charming polka  first sung and then danced to by Astaire and Rogers. One of their most joyous and exuberant numbers is also a technical tour-de-force with the basic polka embellished by syncopated rhythms and overlayed with tap decoration. In particular, Rogers recaptures the spontaneity and commitment that she first displayed in the “I’ll Be Hard to Handle” number from Roberta (1935).

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(Below) This video contains the opening credits, an abrupt jump to the action leading to the Pick Yourself Up number, the number, followed by a portion of Never Gonna Dance.

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The Way You Look Tonight

From WICN.org’s Song of the Week feature:

Fred Astaire, accompanying himself, sings “The Way You Look Tonight” to Ginger Rodgers while she is in another room shampooing her hair. Charmed by his declaration of love, she emerges from the bathroom in an old robe and stands behind him at the piano, forgetting that her head is covered in soapsuds (actually whipped cream from the RKO commissary). As he sings the last line, “Just the way you look tonight,” he turns and is startled to see her there with her lather-covered head. When she realizes how she must look, she flees from the room in embarrassment, providing an amusing end to a romantic moment, a frequent occurrence in an Astaire/Rodgers film. Swing Time was the sixth of ten Astaire and Rodgers musicals, and is considered by many to be their best. The film was a commercial success and “The Way You Look Tonight” won the 1936 Academy Award for Best Song, beating out stiff competition that included Cole Porter’s “I’ve Got You Under my Skin.”

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Waltz In Swing Time: Described by one critic as “the finest piece of pure dance music ever written for Astaire”, this is the most virtuosic partnered romantic duet Astaire ever committed to film. Kern – always reluctant to compose in the Swing style – provided some themes to Robert Russell Bennett who, with the assistance of Astaire’s rehearsal pianist Hal Borne, produced the final score. The dance is a nostalgic celebration of love, in the form of a syncopated waltz with tap overlays – a concept Astaire later reworked in the similarly impressive “Belle of New York” segment of the “Currier and Ives” routine from The Belle of New York (1952). In the midst of this most complex of routines, Astaire and Rogers find time to gently poke fun at notions of elegance, in a delicate reminder of a similar episode in “Pick Yourself Up”.

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A Fine Romance: Kern’s third standard , a quickstep to Field’s bittersweet lyrics, is sung alternately by Rogers and Astaire, with Rogers providing an object lesson in acting while a bowler-hatted Astaire appears at times to be impersonating Stan Laurel. Never a man to discard a favourite piece of fine clothing, Astaire wears the same coat in the opening scene of Holiday Inn (1941). – Wikipedia

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Swing Time (1936) Bojangles-4a

Bojangles Of Harlem: Once again, Kern, Bennett and Borne combined their talents to produce a jaunty instrumental piece ideally suited to Astaire, who here – while overtly paying tribute to Bill Robinson – actually broadens his tribute to African-American tap dancers by dancing in the style of Astaire’s one-time teacher John W. Bubbles, and dressing in the style of the character Sportin’ Life, whom Bubbles played the year before in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Dorothy Fields recounts how Astaire managed to inspire the reluctant Kern by visiting his home and singing while dancing on and around his furniture. It is the only number in which Astaire – again bowler-hatted – appears in blackface. The idea of using trick photography to show Astaire dancing with three of his shadows was invented by Hermes Pan, who also choreographed the opening chorus, after which Astaire dances a short opening solo which features poses mimicking, perhaps satirising, Al Jolson – all of which was captured by Stevens in one take. There follows a two-minute solo of Astaire dancing with his shadows which took three days to shoot. Astaire’s choreography exercises every limb and makes extensive use of hand-clappers. This routine earned Hermes Pan an Academy Award nomination for Best Dance Direction.

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Swing Time (1936) Never Gonna Dance-Ginger Rogers-1-c2-t50-d15

Swing Time (1936) Never Gonna Dance-3a

Never Gonna Dance: After Astaire sings Field’s memorable closing line: “la belle, la perfectly swell romance” of Kern’s haunting ballad, they begin the acknowledgement phase of the dance – possibly their greatest – replete with a poignant nostalgia for their now-doomed affair, where music changes to “The Way You Look Tonight” and they dance slowly in a manner reminiscent of the opening part of “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” from Follow the Fleet. At the end of this episode, Astaire adopts a crestfallen, helpless pose. They now begin the denial phase, and again the music changes and speeds up, this time to the “Waltz In Swing Time” while the dancers separate to twirl their way up their respective staircases, escaping to the platform at the top of the Silver Sandal Set – one of the most beautiful Art Deco-influenced Hollywood Moderne creations of Carroll Clark and John Harkrider. Here the music switches again to a frantic, fast-paced, recapitulation of “Never Gonna Dance” as the pair dance a last, desperate, and virtuosic routine before Ginger flees and Astaire repeats his pose of dejection, in a final acceptance of the affair’s end. This final routine was shot forty-seven times in one day before Astaire was satisfied, with Rogers’ feet left bruised and bleeding by the time they finished.

vocal sequence:

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dance sequence:

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1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Larry Baucom
    May 19, 2012 @ 11:05:17

    Without a doubt the greatest dancing that has ever been created by two, Fred, & Ginger! I’m sure they are performing in the present of the Lord at this moment for eternity! Love them, & still have, & enjoy all their ten dancing movies, plus all their other movie! The Essence of Quintessence are Fred, & Ginger! Amazing Talent with Beauty! His servant, Larry Baucom

    Reply

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