If Swing Time isn’t the pinnacle film in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers partnership, it surely has their pinnacle production number: “Never Gonna Dance,” with music by Jerome Kern and lyrics by Dorothy Fields.
At this point, our hoofer hero “Lucky” Garnett (Astaire) and his spirited partner Penny Carroll (Rogers) have admitted that their unrequited romance will remain that way, and so this performance traces a stirring emotional arc from feigned indifference to renewed interest to outright passion to painful regret. (It also necessarily works as a reprise, calling back to “The Way You Look Tonight” from earlier in the film.) Negotiating the twin, curved staircases of Carroll Clark and John Harkrider’s ravishing Art Deco nightclub set, Astaire and Rogers tentatively circle each other as individual beings until, without our even noticing it, they slip from stepping in unison to flowing, somewhat cautiously, in sync. (Their moves here achieve a sensuality that the couple rarely attained elsewhere, perhaps because they involve a certain reticence.) Then, when Lucky and Penny give in and the pacing picks up, we get Astaire and Rogers at their most audacious and technically proficient, gliding separately up the staircases to meet perfectly at the top, where Rogers is sent into a stunning series of spins. And just when you think they might unite for good, she suddenly goes twirling right off the screen and out of the room, leaving him with a lonely outstretched hand. Most of their numbers leave you wanting to applaud. This one produces a sigh instead.
Swing Time doesn’t really need much more than “Never Gonna Dance” (it’s that exhilarating), but the movie does also include the Bill Robinson tribute “Bojangles of Harlem” (at once problematic and psychedelic), the acrobatic “Pick Yourself Up” and comic supporting turns by Victor Moore, Helen Broderick and Eric Blore. George Stevens, meanwhile, directs, employing crane and tracking shots only when necessary so as to allow Astaire and Rogers to be the movie’s controlling movement. In “Never Gonna Dance” in particular, the result is glorious.