There is no cinematic iconography more emblematic of the Hollywood musical than the dancing figures of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In Stevens’s film, dance is used as an expression of romantic developments, a device typical of musicals of the 1930s. In the film, Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire), a dancer and sometime gambler, arrives late for his marriage to Margaret Watson (Betty Furness) only to find that her furious father, the judge (Landers Stevens), has called off the wedding. The judge challenges Lucky to go to New York and earn $25,000 in order to win back Margaret’s hand. In New York, Lucky meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor, who loses her job as a result of their chance encounter. The pair are, however, sent to audition at the Silver Sandal nightclub, where they eventually dazzle the patrons and are hired. When Margaret arrives in New York to tell Lucky she has met and fallen in love with another man, Lucky and Penny are free to pursue their relationship as lovers and dancers.
Swing Time marks the introduction of special effects into Astaire’s dance routines. In the “Bojangles”number, Astaire dances with huge shadows of himself. To achieve this effect, the dance was filmed twice under different lighting conditions. The version with the strong shadow was then optically tripled in the lab and combined with the film made under standard lighting.
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999.
George Stevens started in the movie business and worked throughout the 1920s as a cameraman. In 1927 he joined Hal Roach’s studio, where he shot many of Laurel and Hardy’s best short films, among them Two Tars (1928), Big Business (1929), and Hog Wild (1930). By 1933 he had moved to RKO and graduated to feature directing. RKO’s biggest box office stars in the mid-1930s were Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and although Stevens was not a director of musicals, he had garnered enough critical and popular success with his film of the previous year, Alice Adams (1935), that he won with the director’s chair on the pair’s sixth release. Swing Time centers on the on–again, off–again relationship between Lucky (Astaire), a small-time hoofer and sometime gambler, and Penny (Rogers), a hard–working dance instructor—roles that allowed the team plenty of opportunities for their iconographic dancing. Years of experience in two-reel comedies allowed Stevens to draw fine performances from veteran supporting players Victor Moore and Helen Broderick, and the score by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields provided the perfect setting for some of Astaire and Hermes Pan’s most memorable choreography.
Publication excerpt from Steven Higgins, Still Moving: The Film and Media Collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, The Museum of Modern Art, 2006, p. 167.