Saturday, March 22, 2014

Mill Creek Comedy Classics #76: "Swing High, Swing Low" (1937)

Love behind bars: Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray's  memorable first date in Swing High, Swing Low.

The flick: Swing High, Swing Low (Paramount Pictures, 1937) [buy the set]

Current IMDb rating: 6.6

Director: Mitchell Leisen (known for romantic comedies like Midnight, Remember the Night and Easy Living; directed three episodes of The Twilight Zone; was a costume designer on The Thief of Baghdad)

Charles Butterworth
Actors of note: Carole Lombard (Nothing Sacred), Fred MacMurray (My Love For Yours), Charles Butterworth (Forsaking All Others, Second Chorus, and Love Me Tonight; no connection to the pancake syrup lady), Jean Dixon (My Man Godfrey, Holiday, You Only Live Once; not to be confused with the famed psychic Jeane Dixon), Dorothy Lamour (Road to Bali), Harvey Stephens (Hitchcock's North by Nortthwest and Alfred Hitchcock Presents; plus Sergeant York, The Young Lions, Beau Geste, and more; not the Harvey Stephens who played Damien in The Omen), Charles Judels (The Villain Still Pursued Her), Franklin Pangborn (Hollywood & Vine, Meet the Mayor, All Over Town), Cecil Cunningham (despite the masculine-sounding name, an actress; The Awful Truth, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town), Anthony Quinn (Mexican-born Oscar winner for Viva Zapata! and Lust for Life; nominated for his signature role as Alexis Zorba in Zorba the Greek; varied film career includes La Strada, Lawrence of Arabia, The Guns of Navarone, much more)

Other notables: Among the contributors to the screenplay was Oscar Hammerstein II, half of one of the most successful musical theater writing duos of the 20th century. The pair's Broadway shows were frequently turned into movies, including Oklahoma!, Flower Drum Song, The Sound of Music, State Fair, Carousel, and The King & I. R&H compositions include "My Favorite Things," "Some Enchanted Evening," "People Will Say We're in Love," "Getting to Know You," "You'll Never Walk Alone" and dozens more. There are several songs in Swing High, Swing Low, but Oscar had no hand in writing them. This movie is actually based on a hit play called Burlesque, which ran on Broadway from 1927-1928 and 1946-1948 and whose original stage cast included Barbara Stanwyck.

Carole Lombard considers her romantic options.
The gist of it: Accompanied by her pal Ella (Dixon), Maggie (Lombard) works as a beautician aboard a passenger ship so that she can travel to California and meet Harvey (Stephens), a wealthy California "cattle baron" she doesn't love but who wants to marry her anyway. At a stopover in Panama, Maggie meets Skid Johnson (MacMurray), a hotshot trumpet player just out of the army. Maggie and Ella decide to hit the town with Skid and the trumpeter's piano-playing buddy, Harry* (Butterworth).

That night, though, one of the locals (Quinn) tries getting "fresh" with Maggie, and Skid decks him, setting off a full-scale melee. Maggie and Skid spend the night in the clink, so Maggie misses her boat and has to move in with Skid and Harry. Sensing the trumpeter's true talent, Maggie gets Skid a job at a prominent night spot owned by crusty old Murphy (Cunningham). To get the club owner's sympathy, Maggie tells her that she and Skid are already married, and the young lady starts working there herself as a showgirl, putting her in direct competition with singer Anita Alvarez (Lamour), a sharp-tongued vixen who has a romantic past with Skid. Anita lands a job at New York's El Greco Club and moves to the Big Apple, and Skid soon gets a contract to work at the very same place. This is his shot at the big time! He and Maggie, who have recently gotten married for real, much to Harvey's disappointment, tearfully depart with the understanding that the trumpeter will send for his bride as soon as he can.

Skid is a sensation in NYC, quickly being crowned "the King of the Trumpeters," but he gets distracted by the fast life and doesn't send for Maggie like he said he would. Maggie then asks Murphy to pay for her ticket and travels to New York herself. Scheming Anita, however, has intercepted Maggie's telegram to Skid, and he doesn't pick her up when her ship arrives in town. Instead, Skid goes clubbing with Anita and then falls asleep on her couch. When Maggie calls Anita's place and Skid answers, she assumes the worst and begins divorce proceedings against Skid. The trumpeter is devastated and goes into a career tailspin, and Maggie isn't too thrilled either, even though she plans to now marry nice guy Harvey. Can Skid and Maggie's marriage be saved? And what about Skid's trumpeting career? Harry has a band of his own now, and they need a trumpet player for a big radio show. But Skid might be too tipsy to make his big comeback.
* Confusingly, this movie has characters named Harry, Harvey, and Henri.

Screenwriter Virginia Van Upp
My take: I didn't know how my luck was going to break when I cued up Swing High, Swing Low. After all, Carole Lombard was the star of one of the films I'd liked best in this series, Nothing Sacred, while Fred MacMurray had toplined one of the flicks I'd truly despised, My Love for Yours (aka Honeymoon in Bali). The DNA of Swing High, Swing Low is actually much closer to that of the latter than the former. They even share a co-screenwriter, Virginia Van Upp. They have other elements in common, too: an exotic locale (Bali vs. Panama), a frumpy female best friend for the heroine (Helen Broderick vs. Jean Dixon), a vampy romantic rival for the heroine (Osa Massen vs. Dorothy Lamour), a wimpy romantic rival for the hero (Allan Jones vs. Harvey Stephens), and a pivotal song which reminds the hero and heroine of the good times they once had ("Mama Don't Want No Peas..." vs. "I Hear a Call to Arms"). Little wonder that both My Love for Yours and Swing High, Swing Low measure a 6.6 on the IMDb's own Richter scale.

But Swing High isn't nearly as objectionable as My Love for Yours, largely because it isn't so preachy and misogynistic. Fred MacMurray's character is again a smarmy, overconfident jerk whose personality should make the heroine run, not walk, in the opposite direction. But at least Swing High knows better than to treat MacMurray as a god among men. When Skid and Maggie's romance temporarily hits a rough patch -- as the central relationships in pretty much all romcoms must do at some point in the narrative -- it is Skid who really falls to pieces, becoming a penniless, zombie-like alcoholic who staggers around New York in a daze. And it's Maggie who comes to his rescue, even though she has a viable second option in dull but reliable Harvey.

Still in all, I didn't see why it was necessary for this movie to become so weepy and depressing on the back nine. Carole Lombard is a delightful screen comedienne, with a personality that's part Lucille Ball and part Dorothy Parker, and this movie would have been well-advised to emulate the anarchic, anything-goes spirit of Nothing Sacred. Instead, Lombard gets to have lots of fun in the opening passages of the movie, but the frivolity basically evaporates after Maggie and Skid get married. Although it's heresy to say so, I would have been fine if Skid had wound up with Dorothy Lamour's character, the slinky, sexy Anita, whose "Panamania" is probably the film's most arousing musical number.

Director Mitchell Leisen keeps things moving nicely but largely tries to stay out of the way and not make his presence overly felt. From the look of it, Swing High was a fairly low-budget picture, with generous use of stock footage and some not-too-convincing rear projection shots. None of this is helped by the fact that the film is in pretty terrible condition these days, obviously mastered from a video tape transfer of a scratchy film print rather than the original negative. Anyway, the public must have liked the Lombard-MacMurray pairing, as they made four other films together.

Is it funny: Tough to say. I didn't laugh much, especially during the film's soggy, melodramatic last half. The first half is pretty heavy on the rapid-fire 1930s romantic comedy banter, with MacMurray and Lombard trading scripted-sounding quips within seconds of their first meeting. But through most of this, I was just nodding in appreciation and thinking, "Heh. That's cute." Now, as I see it, "cute" and "funny" are not mutually exclusive, but they are distinct from one another. Swing High is one of those movies which gets along on its likability. The film is so darned ingratiating that many viewers won't actually notice that it really isn't that funny and that the jokes are just sitcom-type zingers done at twice the normal speed.

That said, I will allow I quite liked the scene in which Lombard tells MacMurray why she hates trumpet music ("It's just noise!")... only to learn that her date plays trumpet music. (Whoops!) And it's kind of funny that Maggie and Skid's first date lands them in jail and that their total incomprehension of Spanish gets them in further hot water with the annoyed judge, who keeps raising their fine each time they try to argue their way out of paying. There are some nice supporting turns here, too. When she's still on the ship, for instance, Carole Lombard tests the patience of her boss, our good pal Franklin Pangborn, with her total incompetence on the job. She's not really a beautician, you see, and she manages to burn off the hair of one of her customers -- an unfortunate situation she unconvincingly blames on the humidity.

Anyway, Pangborn does his usual long-suffering fussbudget routine, and it's about as funny as it always is. Charles Butterworth, too, manages to steal some scenes with his deadpan, detached bemusement as Fred MacMurray's unflappable buddy. I can't recall anything particularly funny that he says, but he says them in a funny-enough way. Oh, there's one weird little scene where he takes off his coat only to reveal a second coat underneath the first. It's just a nice little moment of unexplained absurdity. I would have prescribed a few more.

My grade: B-

P.S. - Just like My Love for Yours, Swing High is not too sensitive in its depiction of non-white characters. The actual Panamanians in the Panama scenes are treated as little more than gibberish-spouting primitives who must acquiesce to the English-speaking white characters, i.e. the only people whose lives truly matter. And the movie does use a subservient, "yes, ma'am"-type Negro in a Santa Claus costume as a quick visual joke. Again, the movie is not as heavy-handed in its racism as My Love for Yours. But modern-day viewers should expect to cringe a little at the depiction of Central American people in this film nevertheless.

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