Turner Classic ran Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies all day today, which meant that I had the chance to watch my favorite, Swing Time, again. I probably was about nine when I first saw it, and no matter how many times I've seen it, I never pass up a chance to watch again.
There are so many things that are great about this movie--the dancing, the high Art Deco sets, the lovely Jerome Kern score. Let me tell you my three favorite parts:
The first is the scene where Astaire and Rogers meet not so cute. He's on the run from a wedding gone bad, so he's dressed in a morning coat and top hat, accompanied by his weird friend Eric Blore. She's a girl on her way to work. After they bump into each other, Penny (Ginger) thinks that Lucky (Fred) stole a quarter from her purse and asks a nearby cop to help her out. He takes one look at Fred dressed for high society and immediately dismisses Ginger's claim. When she persists, the cop threatens to arrest her for disturbing the piece. It's just a little piece of class-consciousness and Depression life that always caught my attention (and yes,was a major part of a paper I wrote in film school).
The next is the first major dance number, "Pick Yourself Up." Fred has followed Ginger to the dance school where she teaches, and signs up for a lesson. He pretends to be hopelessly clumsy, so bad that she tells him that no one could teach him to dance and he shouldn't waste his money on lessons. Her boss overhears and fires her for dismissing a paying customer, but Fred intervenes and asks to show what she's taught him, and proceeds to dance like, well, Fred Astaire. There's a great shot of Ginger's face reacting in pure delight when she sees what he can do, and then when she joins in, they do one of the blithest, lightest numbers ever put on film. But what makes this performance one of the premiere Astaire performances is that it shows his understanding that tap isn't just about dancing, but is also about being a musician. Astaire wrote songs on the side, played the piano, and the drums, and was one of the most underrated jazz interpreters of the era. He had a thrilling understanding of how to play with the beat and syncopation of a piece of music, which he really shows off in the choreography for "Pick Yourself Up." In it, he and Ginger don't tap along to the music so much as act as a counterpoint, banging out their own rhythm in between the song's own beats. I'm not sure I'm doing a good job describing this, as I have no background in jazz or musicology, or even dance criticism, but trust me--while there may be examples of tap that display more firepower, technique, and trickery, there are few others that show how music and dance can work together as equals, rather than as two separate art forms with one subservient to the other.
And finally, there is "Never Gonna Dance," number, where Fred and Ginger think they're saying goodbye to each other forever. This has the same seamless combination of music and dance as "Pick Yourself Up," but it also adds drama and a story. It's one of the finest dance numbers ever put on film (I also adore Ginger's gown in this one, and you can't ignore the sweeping staircases on the set). I think when people talk about the great dance moments in movies, this sometimes gets a little lost in the shuffle of famous technicolor MGM musicals of the '40s and '50s, but it's as good as anything you'll find in those movies. I love "Singin' in the Rain," but there's no dance number in that movie, nor in the somewhat overrated "An American in Paris," that has the depth of emotion as "Never Gonna Dance" (probably the closest is Fred and Ginger's "Let's Face the Music and Dance" from "Follow the Fleet; in the non-Ginger category it would be Fred and Cyd Charisse's "Dancing in the Dark" in "The Bandwagon," also a somewhat underrated movie).
So I just wanted to say all that. Again, I'm not a dance critic, music critic, or (barely) a film critic, but sometimes things are so wonderful you can't keep them to yourself.