Not Rated. Boy, I was asking how this one slipped under the family radar. It's got fun dancing, some wackiness. I should recommend it to ev--THAT'S FRED ASTAIRE IN BLACKFACE! WHY WERE '30s MUSICALS SO RACIST?
DIRECTOR: George Stevens
This was an actual moment I had. (I'm going back to the blue section where I talk about the rating. Sorry, I'm all over the place already.) I had started the movie indoors. My wife had some work to do on the computer and I didn't want to distract her, so I took the movie to my outdoor movie theater. (How fancy!) It's just my garage with some speakers, movie screen paint, and a projector. I was really loving the movie. It was way funnier than I thought it was going to be and I was enjoying the dancing. (Old timey tap numbers...I'm a sucker for 'em!) That's when it started. "Bojangles from Harlem." Way to throw something inexcusable into your movie, Swing Time. It was bad enough that you are one of the many musicals from this era with a criminally generic name, but then you had to get mega-racist. Do you understand how it makes me a bad person to have to critique the rest of the movie mostly positively knowing that you are subverting a very large part of society? You suck, Swing Time and the early-era-of-American-film-to-a-certain-extent.
This kind of racism is never excusable. Again, teaching the class means I have to run into a lot of different films that are overtly racist, often with the use of blackface. I can't whitewash history, nor should I. All I can do is give it a swift kick in the pants, publicly condemn it, and then review the rest of the movie assuming that bigoted jerks didn't love tasteless entertainment. (On a side note before I lose my podium, what was it about blackface in old movies? Was it, like, the most hilarious thing at the time? There are SO many old movies with blackface musical numbers. I know that the minstrel show was a kind of entertainment, but why was it SO gosh darn prevalent? There's nothing interesting about them. I'm going to continue to type on my future machine from the future as I ponder this from a point of chronological exile.)
I didn't realize that this movie was directed by George Stevens. The title card flew by and I simply assumed it was directed by Joe Nobody because a lot of these movies were directed by for hire schlubs who didn't really care. Either that, or they were directed by the star of the film, although we're a little early in history for that. George Stevens is a genius overall. Look at his IMDB credits. He directed Giant, Shane, a handful of other good movies, and a ton of movies you have probably never heard of. Regardless, to have a few real classics under your belt means that you have a bit of talent behind you. The weird part is that this movie is better than the musicals of this era. I commented on the generic title (which I haven't let off the hook yet..along with the racism) and I hate that (see!). These generic titles were always hard to remember if you had seen the movie because they were always good...for the era. It made it hard to remember which ones I had seen because the title gives you no indication about which generic plot is going to be used in conjunction with the descriptorless title. I say that these movies were good, but I have to stress for the time. We hadn't really gotten to the big musicals that would knock my socks off. But Swing Time really seems to be the precursor for things like An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain. (Two Gene Kelly ones, so what?) The story, like its compatriots, is very generic. But Stevens and company crafted it into something that made me quasi-character about the outcomes. Sure, I knew that Astaire was going to fall for Ginger Rogers. It's a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers vehicle. They're famous for that. But the jokes and the pacing really work for the film. It turns a very formulaic story into something that kind of matters. Sure, calling a movie from the 1930s "formulaic" doesn't make sense considering that the formula is in its developmental stage, but this wasn't exactly George Bernard Shaw. (Honestly, I couldn't get "George Bernard Shaw" without looking it up because I had the name "Francis Scott Key" stuck in my head. I swear, I know Shaw.) But treating the movie with a bit of value gives these moments some weight.
I do find it funny that Lucky is the protagonist because he is not a good man. I suppose that it is weird that I'm mad at rampant racism when there is some pretty horrible sexism to be had in this movie as well. Lucky is a bad dude, mostly because he constantly ignores his moral compass. I always find it interesting to find out what a character's moral compass is because it should determine whether the character thinks that he is a good person or not. Not so much with Swing Time. Swing Time has Fred Astaire's Lucky acknowledge the right and the wrong in each situation and then he proceeds to ignore it. But he still thinks he's the right guy for Penny. There is a sequence in the film where he is avoiding his fiancee' (right!) because he's falling in love with Ginger Rogers. He tells his buddy, Pop, to not leave him alone with Penny because he's falling in love with her. But he has also spent the movie intentionally finding reasons to not go back to his fiancee so that he can continue being with Ginger Rogers. He has acknowledged the evil is committing, told someone to stop him from committing more evil, avoided restitution for his own selfish gain, and still committed the evil. Yet, after all of that, he still considers himself to be the good guy. He sees himself as saving Penny from Ricardo, who is a jerk, but hasn't actually done anything wrong. He has simply avoided doing the right thing. This isn't to say that Lucky has to go back to his fiancee, but he does have to break it off with her. These things in romantic comedies always bother me. There's always a proper solution, but the tension is raised through the avoidance of the easiest possible solution. Regardless, I know how to stuff all of those complex moral questions into my hat and I know how to enjoy a movie. Pop might be the devil. Who knows? The movie also has a really weird attitude towards gambling that I'm not really sure what the message is supposed to be. (Bee-tee-dubs, this isn't Lucky's only moral weirdness. I just don't feel like going into all of these moments.)
I keep saying that this movie's pretty good, but I'm going to keep complaining about it. I first mentioned that it was wildly racist. Then I talked about how the protagonist is morally bankrupt. Now I'm going to talk about how the music is largely forgettable. The movie is famous for one song, "The Way You Look Tonight." I had to Wikipedia this one because this movie did actually create the song. The song has become way more famous than the movie. I get the vibe that the movie knew it had a hit on its hands because the instrumental for a lot of the movie is "The Way You Look Tonight." The rest of the songs, however, leave something to be desired. This was kind of the vibe of the '30s: a lot of spectacle and not a lot of substance. I don't know if the songwriters knew that "The Way You Look Tonight" was going to be the hit was going to be and just decided to phone in the rest of the numbers, but the other numbers are so almost narrative and boring to the plot that I just got befuddled. There's one song that Lucky sings about never dancing again because he can't be with Penny and then proceeds to end the song by dancing with Penny. I feel like Stevens should have said something about that before actually allowing that to happen. But I never really thought of Astaire as a necessarily good singer. I always watched him for the dancing. There's a reason that there is a chain of schools named after him because he's pretty awesome. (Even in the truly racist "Bojangles in Harlem" sequence. Do you understand how bummed I am that they threw all the money and spectacle at that song? What a choice!) I feel like I've seen a ton of Fred Astaire movies, but only a handful of Ginger Rogers movies. Maybe I'm the sexist. Astaire always finds a way to make dancing hilarious (okay, not always...), but Ginger Rogers has to be awarded for her sense of comic timing. There are a lot of characters who are solely comic relief characters, but Rogers nails the jokes probably better than a lot of her co-stars. It's kind of a shame because she doesn't get too many jokes to play with. What she has she nails. Then she's sidelined into the role of love interest.
So really, I'm just critiquing old timey stuff. That's a bit broad of me, but I'm picketing pretty hard. The movie is overall pretty good. The jokes, with the exception of the racism, really land. The romance is pretty good. It's a good dancing movie. Sure, it has a very forgetful title, but tell me one other musical from this era that really sell the title well. Should you watch it? Yeah. I love some Marx Brothers movies too and those get really racist as well. We can't necessarily forgive the past, but there might be something beyond ignorance.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.