On August 27, 1936, swarms of people lined up outside the Radio City Music Hall. They stood patiently to see the latest film of the greatest dance team the movies had created, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Swing Time, would be their sixth pairing in less than three years.
Swing Time is musical film perfection. The terrific score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields has left us with two lasting standards A Fine Romance and The Way You Look Tonight, the 1936 Academy Award winner for best song. The supporting cast included past Astaire-Rogers’ series regulars Eric Blore, as a fussy dance studio owner and Helen Broderick as Ginger Roger’s wise cracking friend. Musical stage veteran Victor Moore, new to the series, played Fred Astaire’s bumbling magician side kick buddy. Also in the cast, George Metaxa as the band leader who rivals for Ginger Rogers affection. Betty Furness, as Fred Astaire’s fiancée and Landers Stevens the father of the jilted fiancée and off-screen the father of the film’s director, George Stevens.
Then there is the dancing. Pick Yourself Up, is the hot duet. This was a feature of their films starting with The Gay Divorcee. Where as the previous hot duets had several changes of tempo, Pick Yourself Up, has only one. A very driving, exciting tempo. The dance culminates in the pair lifting each other back and forth over the dance floor’s low railing.
Waltz in Swing Time is the dance that is up next and like Pick Yourself Up, it too is in one tempo. Arlene Croce wrote in The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Book (1972) about Waltz in Swing Time: “. . . the Waltz has no special story to tell. It is pure white: pure vision and sound. Nevertheless, it is one of those grand, impassioned moonlit dances, and it just flies – it’s the brio of romance. Two minutes and 45 seconds of unspeakable delight.” As Fred Astaire says just before this number – “This is the moment I’ve been waiting for!” And so has the audience.
Fred Astaire’s big solo dance number is Bojangles of Harlem, a tribute to the famous dancer, Bill Robinson (1878-1949). Hermes Pan, Astaire’s dance assistant since Flying Down to Rio in 1933 created this Academy Award nominated number. In a career spanning 77 years it is his only appearance in black face. Not to condone the use of black face, at least this number attempts to rise above the stereotypical caricatures of the time. The number tries to be a respectful homage of one artist to another. But it makes it difficult for present day audiences to appreciate. Astaire gives an interpretation of not Bill Robinson but rather of John W. Bubbles (real name John William Sublett). Astaire considered Sublett the greatest tap dancer of the time. Sublett even gave tap lesson to Astaire in the 1920’s. For Bojangles of Harlem Astaire dresses and dances in the style of Sublett’s character of Sportin’ Life from Porgy and Bess. Bojangles of Harlem is a number in three sections. First the chorus girls dance out from behind sliding doors. Another set of doors open to reveal a pair of gigantic legs, the chorus girls part the legs and we see Astaire sitting on top of a miniature “Harlem”. Astaire and the girls dance. The first section ends with the girls dancing off into the wings.
The second section starts with the last set of doors opening up to a movie screen. Onto the screen three giant silhouettes of Astaire fade into view. Astaire, in front of the screen dances in and out of synch with the silhouettes. With Bojangles of Harlem, Astaire-Pan employed trick photography for the first time in a dance routine. The shadow idea came to Pan one day on the sound stage while waiting for Astaire to arrive. Three lights at the top of stage cast three shadows on the wall. When Astaire entered the stage Pan showed him the shadows and said it would be fun to add that to the number. Astaire wondered how they could accomplish the effect. Vernon L. Walker, RKO special effects specialist explained “All you do is get Astaire in front of a screen and photograph his shadows first. Then we take those shadows and make a split screen, and then we photograph Astaire doing the same routine in front of them.” According to the American Film Institute Catalog entry for Swing Time: “Astaire first danced in front of a blank white screen onto which a strong Sun Arc lamp projected a single shadow. Then he performed the “foreground” dance under normal lighting and in front of another blank screen. This dance was combined optically with the shadow dance, which had been tripled optically in the lab. Simultaneity was achieved by having Astaire watch a projected version of the shadow dance while he performed the foreground dance.” Knowing the Bojangles of Harlem special effects process would require extra time, the number was shot after regular shooting wrapped. It took three long days to film.
After the silhouettes leave the screen, Astaire begins the final section of Bojangles of Harlem. For this section Astaire taps and claps his hands in two different rhythms that are off rhythm with the music. Before the audience has a chance to grasp the complexity of all of it, Astaire wraps it up and exits the stage. It is an amazing routine.
The ultimate number in the film also became the ultimate number of the entire Astaire-Rogers series. Never Gonna Dance is the most complex dance routine of all their films. The song itself cannot exist outside the context of the film, but it sets the mood for the dance. To quote again from Croce: “In the film it is the end of the affair, in life it is the end of Astaire and Rogers’ Golden Age. On two stage levels linked by glistening staircases there now takes place the supreme dramatic event of the series, a duet moving through a succession of darkening emotions and abrupt rhythmic changes in which we see unfold in dance the story of the film.” Because of the complexity of the dance, Never Gonna Dance became the last sequence shot for Swing Time, in the regular shooting schedule. In previous dances Astaire and Rogers had danced over furniture or up and down a few steps. With this dance they danced up two long flights of stairs on opposite sides of the set. Filming went on all day and then into the early hours of the next morning. Half way through the filming, Rogers’ feet began to bleed. All wanted to call it quits, but Rogers insisted that they finish that night so they could rest the next day. The 47th take was the charm.
At the helm of Swing Time was George Stevens. At the time Stevens was the top director on the RKO lot. The year before he successfully directed Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams. Up to this time Mark Sandrich directed most of the Astaire-Rogers films. Pandro S. Berman, RKO production head, originally intended that Sandrich and Stevens would alternately direct these films. Berman’s plan did not come to fruition and Swing Time became the only one directed by Stevens. Stevens’ began his career as a cinematography and later a director at the Hal Roach Studio. He learned his craft well and this training served him in a career that would last over forty years and include such classics as Gunga Din (1939), Woman of the Year (1942), A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956).
Van Nest Polglase head of the art department at RKO and his assistant Carroll Clark designed the sets of all the Astaire-Rogers film up to 1938’s Carefree. And all the films through 1937 had one huge set piece. Affectionately known as the “big white set”, this always served as the background for the big dance number. “Big white set” examples are seaside hotel of The Gay Divorcee, the fashion salon in Roberta and the Venice set of Top Hat. The big set pieces in Swing Time are loose adaptations of some actual night clubs. The Silver Sandal in the film derives its name from the Manhattan prohibition era club, The Silver Slipper. A remodeling of the club, midway through the film gives it an even more sleek, moderne appearance.
On screen credit for the second Silver Sandal set and the Bojangles of Harlem costumes went to John Harkrider. That credit is only somewhat true. Harkrider only “designed” the part of the set seen in the Bojangles of Harlem number. A number photographed on a different stage from the Silver Sandal set. Credit for the Silver Sandal sets goes to Polglase and Carroll.
Club Raymond is an amalgam of two actual night clubs The Clover Club and The Rainbow Room. The Clover Club on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood did offer its patrons illegal gambling, like Club Raymond. But the obvious inspiration was The Rainbow Room, the very swank restaurant on the 65th floor of the RCA Building. Even the view from Club Raymond was the view from the Rainbow Room.
Aside from the art direction the sets featured some of the best designs in moderne style furnishings. Fred Astaire’s character’s dressing room among all the other Art Deco items has a terrific chrome tube chair. The chair made by the Lloyd Loom Manufacturing Company was a creation of the industrial designer KEM Weber.
The desk lamp, prominently featured in this scene is a product of the Markel Corporation of Buffalo, New York. This lamp today sells between $500.00 – $1,000.00.
Other wonderful sets and furnishings include, George Metaxa’s suite. A very sleek bachelor apartment.
And the dance studio, the obvious place for the romance to start in an Astaire-Rogers film.
Swing Time marked the artistic high of the RKO musicals of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. But the financial high had already been hit with Top Hat the year before. Swing Time would be the last film to use the formula that had started with The Gay Divorcee (1934) and repeated in Top Hat. Roberta (1935) and Follow the Fleet (1936) shared a different plot formula. Starting with 1937’s Shall We Dance the writers looked for inspiration outside of the insular world of the previous Astaire-Rogers films. While all the RKO Astaire-Rogers films are good at worst and near sublime at best, Swing Time marks the end of the Golden Age for the series.
Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys)
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