“He’s in the most entrancin’ business…
It’s what they call the ‘dancin’ business….” (Bojangles of Harlem,music Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields)
Fred Astaire’s tribute in SWINGTIME to Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson.
I love (nearly) everything about this number. The sheer exuberance of Astaire; the magic of Kern’s tune and Dorothy Fields’ catchy lyrics; the musical arrangement of the music; the choreography of Astaire and Hermes Pan and the wonderful chorus.
The full production number goes on for nearly 8 minutes, surely one of the longest on record.
Accompanied by 24 chorines ( 12 of them in silver outfits, 12 in black) ,with one wonderful moment when all of them and Fred tap in complete synchronisation.
Then Fred on his own dances in front of a rear projected image of 3 giant shadows of himself. The tap dancing heats up and finally the shadows cant keep up with Fred. They shake their hands at him and walk off! (There are no camera edits in this section and it is brilliant). Small wonder Hermes Pan was Oscar nominated in 1937 for Best Dance Direction.
Bill Robinson was regarded as one of the world’s greatest tap dancers. He was nearly 60 by the time Fred Astaire paid homage to him. He had been a big success in Vaudeville,Broadway, nightclubs and he finally made a few movies in the 30s,including several with Shirley Temple.
He was famous for his skill in tapping up and down a flight of stairs and can be seen doing a stairs routine with Shirley in The Little Colonel.
The US Congress made his birth date (25 May), National Tap Dancing Day.
As someone on IMDB said, ‘Bojangles of Harlem’ would have been just as great a number without the black face used by Fred and the dancers.Sadly, of its time.
Swingtime (1936) has an incredible number of memorable songs by Kern and Fields including ‘A Fine Romance’,’The Way You Look Tonight’, ‘Pick Yourself Up’ and ‘Never Gonna Dance’.