Every expert has gaping holes in his knowledge. High school English teachers who’ve never read Hamlet, wine connoisseurs who’ve never tasted Veuve Clicquot, TV critics who’ve never watched Breaking Bad.
They’re not frauds. There’s just too much for anyone to watch, read, and do it all.
And me? I had the audacity to dub myself an “amateur classic film historian” without having seen a single Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers collaboration.
Swing Time is a frothy confection that goes down smooth and doesn’t ask much of the viewer but to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Astaire and Rogers do all the work for you. It is the fifth of the ten movies they made together, and the one that made the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest American Films of All Time.
Astaire plays John “Lucky” Garnett, a dancer and gambler who must earn $25,000 to regain the approval of his future father-in-law after he is late to his own wedding. Broke but confident, Lucky and his friend hitch a train to New York, where they immediately meet Penny Carroll (Ginger Rogers), a local dance instructor.
Lucky immediately falls in love, and soon he is doing everything he can to not earn $25,000 and a ticket back to his forgotten fiancé. Penny eventually returns his affections, and a series of contrived plot twists keep them temporarily apart before the inevitable happy ending.
The plot is silly and merely an excuse to get Fred and Ginger dancing.
No one is complaining. Not me, and not the audiences of 1936, who were well acquainted with the particular charm that is Fred and Ginger on the dance floor, so much so that the film set an all-time record for opening day ticket sales at Radio City Music Hall.
After their first nine films together (made over a six year period; the tenth was a reunion made a decade later), Ginger moved on to more dramatic roles and eventually won a Best Actress Oscar for Kitty Foyle. Fred kept making musicals and found new dance partners—Rita Hayworth, Paulette Goddard, Lucille Bremer. Some may have had superior technique, but all paled in comparison to his collaborations with Ginger.
If you want to understand their enduring magic, you don’t need to watch all nine films. You don’t even have to watch all of Swing Time.
Less than a quarter of the way into the film, Fred’s character is pretending not to know how to dance so that Ginger’s Penny will teach him. After his bumbling around, she declares him a hopeless case and advises him not to waste his money on lessons. Overhearing this, her boss fires her on the spot.
To save her job, Fred promises to illustrate how much he’s learned in just ten minutes with Ginger. She’s annoyed and skeptical, but he leads her into the number “Pick Yourself Up” and they glide and tap around the dance floor in perfect sync.
Except for two quick flash reaction shots of Ginger’s boss (unusual in an Astaire/Rogers number, but absolutely necessary for the plot), it’s all one long take.
The filmmakers—and Fred and Ginger—are confident enough to let the dancing stand for itself.
No close-ups of their feet or faces, no cuts to cover a misstep. Fred and Ginger go out there and tap dance their hearts out. It’s full of joy, and fun, and whimsy.
For us. For Fred and Ginger, it took an exceptional work ethic, a persistence for perfection, and dozens upon dozens of grueling takes.
Their genius is that you don’t see the labor. You see charisma, originality, and a magic that goes beyond technical mastery into something that can never be duplicated.
Despite their long careers apart, the two are first and forever linked together. There is a combined Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Wikipedia page (an honor not showered upon such famous Hollywood screen duos as Bogart and Bacall, Myrna Loy and William Powell, or Joan Crawford and Clark Gable.)
So it was no surprise that when Fred Astaire won an honorary Oscar in 1950, it was Ginger Rogers who presented it to him.
And when they were announced at the 1967 Oscars as the “undisputed king and queen of the musical” no one disagreed.
No one ever will.