Old Hollywood Songs: The Way You Look Tonight

Today's song is The Way You Look Tonight performed by Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936).

Swing Time (1936), the sixth Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musical, is one of their best films. It features the typical Astaire-Rogers formula of a breezy plot, comic sidekicks (in this case Victor Moore and Eric Blore), glorious dancing and wonderful songs composed by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields. TCM will air Swing Time at 8 p.m. July 25 as part of its The Essentials series. 

The Way You Look Tonight is the standout in Kern and Fields' beautiful score that includes "A Fine Romance" and "Pick Yourself Up." Kern wrote the music while Fields supplied the lyrics, and she recalled in an interview quoted on TCM's website that she was overcome with emotion the first time she heard the haunting melody. "I had to leave the room because I started to cry," she said. "The release absolutely killed me." Once Fields recovered, she wrote simple, but beautiful lyrics that tapped into thirties slang: "When I'm awfully low/When the world is cold/I will feel a glow/Just thinking of you/And the way you look tonight."

Ginger Rogers
Ginger Rogers in a gorgeous publicity still for Swing Time (1942).
The Way You Look Tonight is heard twice in Swing Time. The first performance features Astaire singing a simple rendition to Rogers while she is washing her hair (clip above). The second time Astaire and Rogers perform a beautiful dance to a medley of songs including The Way You Look Tonight (clip below).

Swing Time was a huge hit, and Kern and Fields deservedly won a Best Original Song Academy Award for The Way You Look Tonight. Other artists quickly recorded it including Bing Crosby and his first wife, Dixie Lee and Billie Holiday (clip below). However, The Way You Look Tonight continued to be associated with Astaire and Rogers. There is even a joking reference to the song in the Cary Grant-Ginger Rogers romantic comedy, Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942). 

The Way You Look Tonight hasn't been out of the spotlight since the 1930's. It seems like virtually every singer from Frank Sinatra to Elton John has recorded it, and it's been performed in dozens of movies and TV shows. The Way You Look Tonight has transcended almost every musical genre: It's been covered by boy bands (Westlife), indie rock 'n' rollers (Tellison) and several jazz musicians including Oscar Peterson and Thelonius Monk. Both The Lettermen and The Jaguars had R&B hits with The Way You Look Tonight in the 1950's and 1960's (The Jaguars version is below).

Swing Time is available on DVD and video on demand.