Swing Time – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

Who’s ready to put on a show? Musical comedies were huge in the 1930s, and many studios were happy to deliver. One of the highlights of this era were the many films starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with Swing Time being looked as possibly the best of their collaborations. Winner of an Oscar for Best Original Song (for “The Way You Look Tonight”), the film has often been looked at as one of the best cinema has had to offer, and has even been entered into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress. Now the Criterion Collection has gone the extra mile in providing a brand-new digital restoration of the film, with plenty of terrific supplements to go with it.


Astaire stars as John “Lucky” Garnett a dancer and gambling man set to marry Margaret (Betty Furness), a woman from his hometown. However, due to some mix-ups caused by his friends, Lucky misses the wedding and is forced to prove to Margaret’s father that he’s the kind of businessman who deserves her hand in marriage. This leads Lucky to New York, along with his friend Pop (Victor Moore). Upon arriving, Lucky meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), a dance instructor who begrudgingly becomes his dance partner. As the two spend more time together, they also begin to fall in love.

I don’t shy away from saying golden era musical comedies are one of my more significant cinematic blind spots, but it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy what I have seen. One could probably switch out many of the characters and settings of Swing Time with others and get other similar musicals, but that’s not the point. While the film does have plenty of wit in its screenplay to function just as well as a Laurel and Hardy-style comedy as it does a musical, there is so much to admire in the production, the cast chemistry, and, of course, the spectacular choreography.

Not unlike an action film, Swing Time is made up of signature dance numbers occurring between the romantic comedy plotting. They are deployed at just the right time, designed to look as elaborate as possible, while shot in full frame with very little cutting, and are just a delight to watch. Astaire was well-known for putting in so much time in helping to design these numbers, where even the smallest gestures were a part of the plan. At the same time, as Rogers would say, she performed the exact same routines backward and with heels on. Between the two of them, you have a film that shows just how valuable they were to audiences as real performers.

It only helps to see a film around these terrific numbers that capture the screen presence they both possessed, along with the fun things happening around them. Moore’s Pop and Helen Broderick as Penny’s friend Mabel add plenty to the film, with the script doing plenty to keep everyone involved, delivering some sharp wordplay, let alone fun physical comedy bits. For a movie that involves the pressures of staying employed, gambling, and the consideration of true romance, Swing Time never feels less than light on its feet.

The songs are great too, of course, with Dorothy Fields and Jerome Kern earning plenty of respect thanks to their Oscar win, let alone the film’s legacy, since almost every song heard in the movie became a memorable hit. Honestly, it all comes together so well that I was more into researching the history of the “Bojangles of Harlem” number than feeling aggressively against it. Here’s a number that could come off as all wrong in watching Astaire paying tribute to tap dancer Bill Robinson by appearing in blackface (though not in an exaggerated way), and yet, while that wouldn’t happen today, it is easy to see where he was coming from, compared to other films far less progressive, even in their time. (Here’s a more in-depth read on the segment.)

There’s also a lot of joy to get out of the layers of comedic tension on display. So much of this film’s plot and character predicaments could be resolved if characters just stopped and talked things out for a minute. However, the screwball nature of this era means getting characters riled up for the sake of keeping things moving, no matter how much trouble is created, as it is all leading towards some sort of fittingly happy finale regardless. Given that Astaire and Rogers are performing at the top of their game in Swing Time, it only helps to have a screenplay that seems so affected as far as knowing how the game is played when it comes to mistaken identity-type situations and other aspects that an audience is already familiar with, but happy to watch any way.

Swing Time is like an incredible timepiece. It’s finely tuned to hit every mark perfectly, with an added amount of joy coming by way of what you’re getting at every time stop. The dancing is spectacular, the songs are lovely, the comedy inspires plenty of laughs, and the performances are all top notch (with some performed with Top Hats). I’m not sure if there are any other new angles to present with a film so often referred to as one of the true greats, but I am happy to know I won’t be forgetting about it anytime soon. Swing Time has everything it needs to have audiences pick themselves up and enjoy a fine romance.


Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1

Details: Swing Time has a new digital transfer created in 2K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director filmscanner from two 35mm fine-grains and a 35mm duplicate negative (the original negative is lost).

Clarity/Detail: Overall, the black and white image is about as terrific as it can be, given the work done for this transfer. Presented in its original aspect ratio, there’s no doubt the picture can come across a bit soft in close-up, but there’s so much to enjoy when watching the fluid action/dancing on display. The image is very clean, with a high level of detail to be seen throughout. We mostly see interior sets, and there is enough to grasp from a visual standpoint that can allow an excellent sense of clarity, without any issue beyond some unavoidable issues that come from age.

Depth: A proper handle on spacing keeps the image from ever feeling flat. The intricate work done with this restoration does such a fine job of showing the distance between characters, which is especially important in the film’s finale, where we see so much elaborate dancing in a multi-level environment.

Black Levels: The black levels are great. Contrast stands strong as we observe the various sets. It’s particularly notable in looking at the dancing stage, which is dark, while also showing the reflections of the dancers performing on it. The black levels are deep and inky, with almost no crushing, even with a somewhat soft look in some instances.

Color Reproduction: N/A

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive, despite issues with softness. Seeing Astaire’s big grin or the various looks from Rogers highlights what work has been done to clean up this film.

Noise/Artifacts: With so much work to deliver a strong new transfer of this film, there is little to complain about. There is a consistent level of grain that is to be expected, but this film is basically spotless, as all the dirt, damage, stains, etc. has been cleaned up.



Audio Format(s): LPCM 2.0

Subtitles: N/A

Details: The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from a 35mm fine-grain.

Dynamics: Swing Time features a solid mono track that does what is needed for a film featuring big musical numbers.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: N/A



Swing Time arrives on Blu-ray with an excellent set of extras that include archival interviews with Astaire and Rogers, along with a proper analysis of the work of director George Stevens, and further commentary on the choreography, a key sequence from the film, and more.

Features Include:

  • Audio Commentary with Author John Mueller – Recorded in 1986 with Mueller, the author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films
  • Ginger Rogers – Two Archival interviews
    • 1980 (HD, 21:06) – An audio interview with Rogers discussing her career with Fred Astaire
    • 1982 (SD, 4:09) – Conducted with George Stevens Jr., more discussion of the relationship with Astaire.
  • In Full Swing (HD, 40:56) – A new feature centered on the choreography and soundtrack of the film, featuring jazz and film critic Gary Giddins, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer.
  • George Stevens Jr. (HD, 7:21) – Son of legendary director George Stevens and founder of AFI (the American Film Institute), George Stevens Jr. provides a new interview discussing the evolution of his father’s career.
  • Fred Astaire (SD, 2:04) – An archival interview from 1982 with Astaire, conducted by George Stevens Jr.
  • Hermes Pan (SD, 5:04) – An archival interview from 1982 with choreographer Hermes Pan, conducted by George Stevens Jr.
  • Mia Mask (HD, 8:34) – A new interview with film scholar Mia Mask, who discusses blackface and the “Bojangles of Harlem” dance number. Here’s a solid feature when it comes to providing additional context.
  • PLUS – An essay by critic Imogen Sara Smith



Swing Time is an utterly fantastic film. It has the humor, heart, and great musical moments to stand up as a classic deserving of so many honors. If there’s any way to get into the films of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, this is undoubtedly a great entry point. The Criterion Collection release does proper justice to the feature in terms of the technical presentation, along with a nice set of extras to come with it. There’s no reason not to look into this release, as it’s satisfying on all fronts.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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