George Stevens’ Swing Time returns to the Criterion Collection with this new Blu-ray edition, presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on a dual-layer disc. The new 1080p/24hz high-definition master comes from a brand new 2K restoration, scanned from two 35mm fine-grains and a 35mm duplicate negative. The original negatives are long gone (their original LaserDisc notes written back in 1986 state the negatives by that point had so badly deteriorated by that point they could not be used).
The source does hold things back a little bit, but all things considered the presentation does look rather phenomenal. If there is one little disappointment it’s the fact the image isn’t as sharp and detailed as I would have hoped. Things can look a wee-bit soft and fuzzy around the edges, the finer details rarely sticking out all that much. Some sequences can look softer than others and I’m sure this comes down to the materials they used. Despite this one (rather minor) hold-up the image really has a wonderful film-like quality to it. Even if the details within the film aren’t as crisp as one would hope, grain is rendered superbly, looking fine and never like noise. Contrast really looks wonderful with lovely looking grays, bright (but not blooming) whites, and rich blacks that still deliver the shadow detail.
The restoration has really cleaned things up fabulously as well. Regarding the source print very little damage remains, and the issues that do pop up are very small, limited to almost unnoticeable scratches and tram lines, along with the occasional hair popping up. The Bojangles sequence, which (according to the included commentary) employed some effects work, still looks a bit off with a few more blemishes, and the gray scale around Astaire looking more washed out. This ultimately comes down to the effect and the limitations of the time, and nothing to do with the restoration.
The source limits a few aspects but I still found the final picture film-like and pleasant, and an improvement over the Warner DVD. 8/10
All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.
The Criterion Collection had previously released Swing Time on LaserDisc back in 1986 (with a few re-issues to follow), as spine #6. They included a few supplements on that edition, only one of which gets carried over: an audio commentary by John Muller, author of Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films. This is one of the first commentaries to be recorded, and there is a certain rawness (I guess you could say) to it that is a bit charming, if frustrating on occasion. The track isn’t entirely screen specific, with Muller taking plenty of opportunities to talk generally about the production, as well as about the two stars (like how they would come to team up) and their films, and uses those films as a reference to point out the usual formulas that are repeated (or even broken) in this film. He also gets into some of the quirks of the two stars (like Astaire’s aversion to kissing onscreen) and other tidbits that sound to come to mind at that moment. Admirably, he also addresses the film’s weaknesses, which in turn leads him to stating how wonderful home video is as it allows you to fast-forward to the good parts (and I’m sure some will take offense to that, but one should keep in mind in 1986 home video was still a pretty new concept). The only time Muller really gets into what is going on onscreen is during the dance numbers, where he breaks down the dances, focusing on the choreography and the moves, and admiring how the two work together. These can get a bit mundane as he can fall into the trap of just simply explaining what we’re seeing, but in the end what he seems to be really trying to do is to get you to appreciate the work that went into this material.
Overall the track is good, and I would say worth a listen, but I will again forewarn it is an early track, one of the first, so it can be a bit a rough around the edges, with some unnecessary material and a number of dead spots. The Warner DVD did feature a commentary by Muller as well, which I never listened to it, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they used this same track.
Criterion then digs up a couple of archival interviews featuring Ginger Rogers, including a 21-minute audio one recorded in 1980 and a 4-minute video interview recorded in 1982, the latter recorded by George Stevens, Jr., the son of Swing Time’s director. The first features Rogers talking about her career, from how she got into dancing to signing her first studio contract. She talks about a number of her films but spends a good amount of time talking about her work with Astaire and how the two ended up partnering up onscreen. The second interview has Rogers focus specifically on the film’s director, George Stevens, and what it was like working for him (she gelled with his sense of humour, which she didn’t get out of directors during the making of other films). The second is disappointingly short but together they offer a terrific overview of Rogers and her work.
Criterion then provides a new 41-minute documentary on the making of the film called In Full Swing, featuring interviews with jazz and film critic Gary Giddens, dance critic Brian Seibert, and Dorothy Fields biographer Deborah Grace Winer. This is an all-encompassing feature covering the evolution of the Hollywood musical (with early ones more interested in production design rather than choreography), Astaire’s and Rogers’ work, and Swing Time itself. While it goes over the dance numbers and the work that went on behind them the three also get into detail about the film’s music, written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, with Robert Russell Bennett (described here as a “fix-it man”) coming in as well. Touching on other subjects on top of the more technical aspects (including the film’s use of blackface for the Bojangles number) it really covers all areas of the film, its production, and those that worked on it. I really enjoyed it.
Criterion then adds a handful of interviews. George Stevens Jr. pops up for 7-minutes to talk about his father’s work in different genres and how he brought his past comedy experience to the comic and musical aspects of Swing Time. Criterion also includes a couple of more interview excerpts filmed by George Stevens Jr. in 1982: a 2-minute one with Fred Astaire and another with choreographer Hermes Pan, running 5-minutes. Both talk about their experience working with Stevens and the freedom he allowed them. Pan also talks about the effects employed for the Bojangles number and also recalls the numerous takes (47 is the number thrown around throughout the features) for the final dance sequence.
Criterion then adds a new 8-minute interview with film scholar Mia Mask, who talks about the blackface employed by Astaire during the Bojangles number. Mask explains the history of blackface and the “minstrel performance” and how it was used to lampoon and undermine black people and the treatment of slaves, and how it has been used in Hollywood and in this film. She clearly explains how its use is offensive and, whether it was meant to or not here, erases the accomplishments of Bill Robinson, who the number apparently pays tribute to.
The release then closes with an insert featuring an essay on the two stars and their work together, with special attention paid to Swing Time unsurprisingly. Criterion does not carry over everything from the Warner Disc, which included a featurette on the dance numbers (covered in other areas of the features) and the animated short Bing Crosbyana. Criterion also doesn’t carry everything over from their LaserDisc edition, missing a photo gallery and an excerpt from the Bill “Bojangles” Robinson film Hooray for Love.
Though I would have hoped that Criterion would have actually put together a whole Astaires/Rogers set loaded with stuff, this individual release does cover a lot and deliver a lot of material. It’s a well-rounded, insightful collection of extras, all worth the time to go through. 8/10