Swing Time, by Albert W. Vogt III

One of the things I always remember about my first tour of the main building on the campus of Flagler College, formerly the Hotel Ponce de Leon, is the main entrance.  If you ever visit St. Augustine, Florida, it is worth a moment or two of your time.  You do not even need to pay for a guide, unless you want more information beyond what I am about to tell you.  Built by the railroad magnate near the end of the nineteenth century that gave his name to the school, Henry Flagler, this one room, and much of the rest of the structure to this day have the kind of opulence befitting the fortunes amassed during the so-called Gilded Age.  That is a long and laborious way of saying it is pretty stinkin’ spectacular.  Men of Flagler’s ilk had some rather interesting beliefs.  Among them is the notion that only God is perfect.  This is a true enough statement, but it extended into how they did things.  Take the hall I have been describing.  In order to keep it from being like God, there is one small tile out of place.  This is a metaphor for today’s film, Swing Time (1936), though that one incongruity will not be what you think.

The American Film Institute’s (AFI) ninetieth greatest movie ever is Swing Time.  If you think that has to do with the musical genre of the same time, that comes later.  For now, John “Lucky” Garnett (Fred Astaire) is part of a tap-dancing troupe that has made a stop in his home town.  The rest of his colleagues are not keen on this because it has led him to meet up with a former romantic interest of his, Margaret Watson (Betty Furness), and now they are due to get married that day.  This means losing Lucky’s talents.  The ceremony is set for after their latest performance, but they manage to waylay him by, among other things, suggesting that his pants need cuffs.  It ends up delaying him to the point where he misses the wedding.  Margaret’s father, Judge Watson (Landers Stevens), is furious.  What gets him to calm down is Lucky talking about his business plans in New York.  Thus, the Judge relents on condition that Lucky make enough money to be with his daughter.  Thus, it is on to the Big Apple with his magician friend, and con-artist, Edwin “Pop” Cardetti (Victor Moore).  When they arrive, Pop is dying for something to smoke, but all they have on them is a quarter.  At the cigarette machine, they meet Penelope “Penny” Carroll (Ginger Rogers), who gives them the change for the quarter.  Lucky and Pop end up getting a bunch of packs of cigarettes, and extra change to boot, and Lucky attempts to track down Penny to retrieve his quarter.  The coin is the source of his name, but she is not keen to let it go.  Pop manages to sneak it out of her purse, but she soon notices.  Incensed, she reports it to the police, who will not believe that a well-dressed person like Lucky (who is still in his tuxedo from the aborted ceremony) could do such a thing.  She again storms off, and this time Lucky tracks her down at a dance studio where she is an instructor.  All Lucky is trying to do is talk to her to apologize, but she wants nothing to do with him.  To have the conversation, he employs her for lessons, but they only lead to her being fired when it appears that she has taught him nothing.  This gives him the opportunity to get back in her good graces by showing her boss, Mr. Gordon (Eric Blore), that she has done a great job with him, revealing to her that he is more than a match for her skills on the floor.  So impressed is Mr. Gordon that he arranges for them to have a rehearsal at a local club.  Look, there is a whole history about this that I am not going to get into, but just know this was a thing at this time.  Unfortunately, Lucky manages to screw it up, with Pop’s help, when he tries to gamble to win the appropriate attire.  A week of picketing in front of her hotel room, and the influence of Penny’s friend Mabel Anderson (Helen Broderick), convinces her to give him another chance.  They run into more difficulty, though, at the venue when the band leader, Ricardo “Ricky” Romero (Georges Metaxa), refuses to play for them.  The problem is that he is in love with Penny and wants to marry her, being jealous of anyone else being that close to her.  Lucky’s solution is to win ownership of the band, and essentially the club, from its owner.  Pop’s abilities with the cards help in this matter.  Thus, Lucky and Penny are free to strut their incredible proficiency on the dance floor to the delight of a nightly packed house.  At the same time, they are developing feelings for each other, though Lucky’s engagement has him conflicted.  He tries to keep her at arm’s length, but a romantic, snowy afternoon in the country has him admitting his situation to Penny in order to get past it and be with her.  As one might expect, she is initially put off by the fact that he has had a fiancée this entire time.  Yet, on an evening when he is supposed to do a big number as the blackfaced “Mr. Bojangles” (HINT!), they finally admit their love for each other.  He would seem to have everything but for two developments.  First, Pop inadvertently reveals the trick he pulled that brought Lucky the contract for the establishment.  Secondly, Margaret shows up.  Lucky can survive losing the club and the band, but Penny is hurt by Margaret’s presence because he has yet to tell his fiancée his intentions.  Hence, she leaves the room, goes to Ricky, and accepts his proposal.  The next day, Margaret finally catches up with Lucky to tell him she has moved on, which is welcome.  What is less welcome is the fact that Penny’s wedding is supposed to be that day.  Yet, Lucky and Pop are able to put a halt to the proceedings by pulling the same pants cuffs gag on Ricky.  Ricky resigns himself to the fact that Penny is in love with Lucky, and it all ends with the pair kissing.

What I want to say about Swing Time is that I wish more movies were like it.  What gives me pause is the blackface routine.  Go ahead and argue with me that it was just how things were back then, and that nobody thought differently.  By the way, there is an actual African American in the film, and his brief appearance is not racially uplifting, either.  It is hard to be critical of the overall picture because these objectionable portions are not major pieces of the plot.  Thus, let us pretend they do not exist.  Since this is a musical, I find this to be a little easier because they are not integral to the story.  Instead, I would like to focus on another brief moment with a better message.  The first number performed by Astaire and Rogers is “Pick Yourself Up.”  It comes first from Penny in response to Lucky’s feigned clumsiness.  While listening to it, I could not help but think that it is a great way of thinking about sin.  For some of the faithful, sin can be an anchor around the neck, sinking one ever lower.  The thought is that if I sin, I am not worthy of God’s love, and therefore I might as well keep going.  I can speak on this because I know I have had similar thoughts.  Of course, this could not be further from the truth.  Of course, sin is a separation from God’s love.  At the same time, whatever ground is lost can be regained just as quickly by simply turning back to Him, by earnestly repenting.  Sometimes this seems too simple, but it is not.  Though Lucky and Penny do nothing so serious, I find the phrase a good one to keep in mind.

Swing Time should be criticized for its racist content.  To add to what was said in the previous paragraph about this being only a sign of the times, that argument does not fly.  There were plenty of people around who knew better.  Having said that, we are also called to forgive.  We do not necessarily forget, but we should forgive.  If you can do this, the rest of the movie is worth watching.

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