When new people float into my life, with the intention of being my friend or (god forbid) my boyfriend, there are certain paces I tend to put them through. There are pre-requistes; there are cultural requirements. At some point, I sit all new people down and I make sure they watch one of the nine films made at RKO during the 1930s starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
These are films that you can either sit through or you can't. You either loathe, or appreciate and even have a soft spot for the hokey humor; these dance numbers are either the sexiest things you've ever seen, or ... they're just not. But ultimately, it's an ideology thing. Throughout their ten films together, Fred and Ginger essentially tell the same utopian love story, one that repeatedly flounts the institution of marriage, whilst suggesting that the implicit sexual content of dance is a more potent form of infidelity than explicit sexual activity.
You're not going to go wrong with any of the films in the just-released Astaire & Rogers Collection (well, it should be said that The Barkleys of Broadway, Fred and Ginger's reunion after ten years apart, is clearly lacking when seen alongside the earlier works), and the special features – from scholarly commentaries to animated shorts – are ample and appreciated. But there's one masterpiece in this collection: everything that's valuable about the partnership between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers never seems more clear than in George Stevens' Swing Time.
In musical romantic comedy of the 1930s, marriage is, to borrow a line from Stanley Cavell, disappointment’s nihilist revenge – it’s what you do when utopia seems eternally out of each. It's an institution for the ordinary, our hero and heroine recognize themselves as extraordinary, and utopia is instead achieved through insurrection - there is a distinct rejection of domestic security in favor of forbidden attraction. Jane Feuer would refer to this kind of censorship as being ‘productive’ rather than destructive: it encourages formal experimentation in the name of contextual insurrection. It leaves a not entirely unpalatable mark.
Astaire plays John "Lucky" Garnett, a professional gambler/amateur dancer, who is all set to marry Margaret, a rich girl from his hometown—but due to the meddling of his gambling buddies, arrives at the wedding several hours late. Both Margaret and her father are up in arms over this show of disrespect (and disregard for marriage itself), so the three agree to a deal: only if Lucky goes to New York and comes back with $25,000 will the father allow the two to marry.
Margaret is clearly working out a daddy complex, looking at marriage not as a path to transcendence but an opportunity to replace the security and protection symbolized by her father with a younger model of the same. Lucky, meanwhile, has bought into the idea that marriage is not only inevitable, but inevitably spirit–crushing and disapointing. He's agreed to give up both dancing and gambling in order to have a "respectable" life with Margaret, even though those are clearly his twin true loves. “Hoofin’s all right, but there’s no money in it,” Lucky tells a friend moments before the aborted wedding, and he's resigned to it. That the $25,000 deal should even exist shows that marriage in these films is an institution that has crumbled into something easily exploited, easily wagered over, and easily avoided.
Once in New York, Lucky literally bumps into small-time dance instructor Penelope “Penny” Carroll (Rogers), accidentally gets her fired, and eventually uses his prowess on the dance floor to not only get her rehired at the dance school but also to land the pair a contract dancing at an upscale nightclub called The Silver Sandal. They fall in love, but his engagement nags in the back of his mind, and at first he rejects Penny’s blatant advances. It must not be assumed that this meeting, nor the possibility of conflating the pair’s nicknames into “Lucky Penny,” is in any way accidental—the Fred and Ginger comedy revolves around the principle that these two were always supposed to be together and could not possibly be with anyone else, but would never have known this if not for an accident of fate.
Fred and Ginger have no backstory together—they have actually (and especially, in the case of Fred) made it quite a way into their lives without one another, and even when they finally meet there are squabbles that preclude romantic identification. But when they dance, all is changed: where language leads only to misunderstandings, dance brings upon understandings of all kinds. Marriage doesn’t reify the way they feel about each other – they reify the way they feel about each other through a mutual admiration of their compatibility in dance.
Ginger Rogers as Penny is emblematic of a “new kind of woman” that can be seen floating through many of the films of this era. On the basest level, the character is a graduation from the kind of city-dwelling shopgirl popularized in films a decade before by the likes of Clara Bow, the teenage flapper grown up enough (and though it is never mentioned explicitly, hardened by the rough economics of the Depression) to take care of herself, yet still hopeful that true love is a possibility just around the corner. Penny, whilst on some level charmed by romance, is still beyond old-fashioned courtship: she is perfectly capable of expressing sexual desire, and does so throughout Swing Time. There's a slight melancholia to her that is a common aspect of the Rogers heroine in the Fred & Ginger films: Penny, like Dale Tremont of Top Hat and Mimi of The Gay Divorcee, is not an innocent virgin. She has loved men and left them, and she has been left, and her happy endings have somehow fallen apart. She's somewhat hardened by love. She’s a skeptic, and that means Fred has got a lot to prove.
In Swing Time, dance is a visibly transcendent act used as a post-Code container for both sex and play, and “Never Gonna Dance”, the final number of the film and a dance largely considered the most erotic of all the Astaire and Rogers sequences, is so intense that it necessarily reverses Swing Time's narrative path.
Upon dancing together at their first meeting, Penny had told Lucky “before you can learn to dance, you must learn to walk”. Now, at the end of the film, this is supposed to be their goodbye to one another – Margaret has come to town to ostensibly resume her engagement, and Penny has sought revenge by agreeing to marry Astaire's rival, Rikki. Now, knowing that they have to part, Lucky promises Penny that if he cannot dance with her, he will never dance again. Hand in hand, they walk across the room, resigned to the double sadness of a life without dance and without each other. Slowly, tenderly and trepidatiously, the walking turns into dance and escalates to a breathless climax, broken only when Penny spins right out of the room. Lucky is left alone, and the weight of what has just transpired hits him so hard that he grabs onto the wall as if, otherwise, he'd crumple to the ground.
With dance as a shortcut to utopia, both engagements are (predictably, but satisfyingly) easily discarded. “So you’re going to marry him?” Rikki asks Penny in regards to Lucky. “I guess so,” she answers, but she doesn’t seem at all sure. But this may have been just another bone thrown to the censors to legitimize the abandonment of two marriages in favor of one highly sensual affair. Anyone watching the film would get the message that Penny and Lucky don’t need marriage to validate their bond – that's what dance is for.