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Disappearing Into A World Of Top Hats, White Ties & Tails


The other night I happened to turn on the TV and saw that an old Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie from 1936 called Swing Time was playing.

I vaguely remembered it from many years ago, but couldn’t tell you the plot to save my life. And to be honest, a number of their movies have blended together over time. But I hadn’t seen one in a while, so I thought it would be fun to watch.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Like most of their films, the story is pretty much one contrived scene after another, excuses to get the two of them on the dance floor where the real magic is.  It’s pretty light in the story department. We’re not talking Long Day’s Journey Into Night here.  But when it was made, it was a perfect escape for a movie-going audience needing a break from the Great Depression.

And what an escape! Who wouldn’t want to disappear into a world of champagne, top hats, tails, and swanky art deco nightclubs where witty, good looking people can also sing and dance? It’s a fantasy served up with style to spare, and for me, just as immersive as running off to Middle Earth or The Matrix.

The extended dance sequences in that movie are just as fun to watch as any of the movie eye candy of this summer.  One camera. No cutaway shots. All one take without a single mistake. Truly flawless.

Astaire was a master, with Rogers matching him step for step.

And then there’s the music. Pick Yourself Up, A Fine Romance, Never Gonna Dance, The Way You Look Tonight.

When you throw it all together it makes quite a delicious thing to savor.

I always tell people that when I watch one of these films from decades past that I’m putting on my “old movie hat.” I time-machine myself to another era where I accept the stilted script and the one-note acting jobs. Some of these old movies are just quaint pieces of fluff. But when they’re made well, they’re just as entertaining, if not better, than a good chunk of what comes out today.

Whether it’s Swing Time, The Barkleys of Broadway, or Top Hat, the years haven’t diminished the power of these movies to take you to a stylish world where white ties and platinum blondes rule the dance floor. Where orchestras swell and audiences swoon over two dancers moving as one, high above a glittering Manhattan skyline.

Tim was an online producer on VPR's digital team.
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