Director: Mitchell Leisen
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Swing High, Swing Low has long been considered director Mitchell Leisen’s best film, but one whose reputation is based more on received opinion than actual experience. For the general public, the film was missing in action until the 1960s, when three reels of a nitrate distribution copy were found. The American Film Institute finally restored the film in the 1970s after Leisen’s own 16mm print became available from the director’s estate. Even so, the uneven quality of the cobbled-together print has made showings of the restoration few and far between.
Naturally, the Northwest Chicago Film Society stepped in to resurrect this gem from an undervalued director at its weekly Wednesday screening. As a fan of women’s films, I have a strong affinity for Leisen, who made weepies that avoid camp through their sincerity. Some classify Swing High, Swing Low as a screwball comedy, but there are few laughs, as Leisen chooses to focus on the deep, but troubled love between his lead couple, Maggie King (Carole Lombard) and Skid Johnson (Fred MacMurray).
Patrolling the Panama Canal locks on his last day in the army, Skid spies Maggie, a shipboard beautician, looking over a railing at the massive lock machinery instead of attending to her customer (Esther Howard), who is packed with mud and wired like the bride of Frankenstein to a permanent-wave machine. Skid chats Maggie up, but she’s not buying what he’s selling. Nonetheless, Maggie’s ship sinks with the lowering water level, forcing Skid to get down on his knees to keep her in view—this brief and clever image forms a potent metaphor for their relationship as the film progresses.
Skid, disguised behind a floppy hat, manages to entice Maggie’s friend Ella (Jean Dixon) with a bargain price to act as their chauffeur around Panama City. Soon unmasked, Skid picks up his roommate Harry (Charles Butterworth), a hypochondriac pianist, to make the outing “safe” for Maggie, though he really means to foist Ella off on Harry so that he can paint the town red with Maggie. At their final stop, Skid shows off his considerable skills with a trumpet, quieting Maggie’s complaints that she hates the trumpet, but ends up in a bar fight that has the pair thrown in jail just long enough for Maggie to miss reboarding her ship. Stuck in Panama for two weeks, until the ship comes back through, she temporarily moves in with Harry and Skid. Soon she and Skid, a good-time guy and womanizer, fall deeply in love and get married.
The couple works together at Murphy’s, a nightclub run by its no-nonsense namesake (Cecil Cunningham), where they are successful enough to draw the attention of a booking agent from New York (Arthur Stewart Hull), who wants to sign Skid, but not Maggie. Their love is severely tested when Maggie pushes Skid to accept the contract, and he becomes an overnight sensation so distracted by the limelight and the maneuverings of his old girlfriend Anita (Dorothy Lamour) to rekindle their flame that he neglects to send for Maggie. She eventually pays her own way stateside, only to learn that Skid has spent the night in Anita’s room. Although he was passed out on the couch, Maggie makes no effort to get at the truth and merely files for divorce. Distraught over losing Maggie, Skid becomes a flaming alcoholic. Of course, he gets one last chance to climb out of the gutter, but it’s up to Maggie to persuade him to go on.
Yes, it’s a set-up from the word go and one that descends into predictable melodrama. But this is first-rate melodrama that is very shrewd about the character flaws and incompatibilities that were bound to cause trouble sooner or later. Maggie was sailing to California to marry a rich farmer (Harvey Stephens) she didn’t love because she failed at some unspecified career in New York. Her love for Skid is genuine, but she wants a man who is wildly successful, rather than the man she married, who was content to be a hit in a backwater. Despite knowing that Skid’s old girlfriend is singing at the New York club where he will be headlining, she is so anxious to have vicarious success through him that she ignores the risk Anita eventually proves to be.
For his part, Skid is skittish about commitment and the responsibilities of success. He jokes with Maggie about reenlisting in the army if he falls flat, but the appeal is real because there he doesn’t have to take responsibility for himself, only follow orders. He tries to back out of working at Murphy’s, and only makes a go of it because Maggie is there, chatting up customers to buy drinks and singing with him onstage. Despite premonitions of disaster, he won’t say no to Maggie’s insistence that he go to New York without her. He falls back on Anita in New York to be his Maggie/mommy substitute, gullibly believing only the surface of the intentions of those around him. He lacks an internal sense of self that becomes downright deadly for him when he is out of the relatively forgiving atmosphere of Panama.
The performances Leisen pulls out of Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard are extraordinarily intense and nuanced. Some think Lombard’s is her best, and I’m inclined to agree. Aside from Charles Butterworth’s laconic obliviousness and a short comic turn by Franklin Pangborn as the head of the ship’s beauty salon, Leisen doesn’t make the screwball aspects of the film come to life, wasting Lombard’s considerable comedic abilities. But the glow of love on her face is more than skin deep, the defense of Skid she makes when Ella tries to put him down helplessly vigorous, and the hurt and tears that come when marriage ends before love does heart-rending. At Murphy’s and at the close of the film, Leisen brings his camera in tight on Skid as he encircles Maggie with his arms and accompanies her as she sings “I Hear a Call to Arms,” a marvelously intimate and original staging that perfectly communicates their closeness and the way Skid leans on Maggie for support.
MacMurray is a surprisingly sexy and sensitive costar. Leisen helps MacMurray build his character in interesting ways, for example, after overhearing Ella and Maggie argue about him, Skid deciding to act like the cad Ella thinks he is to test Maggie’s devotion. When he learns Maggie is to remarry, he storms into her hotel room, drunk and in a frenzy, feigning gaiety and congratulations as he blows the Wedding March on his horn. The scene is so true to his character and to life, as is the appalled pain Lombard communicates at seeing him so destroyed and out of control. The contrast between the cheeky soldier and the wasted drunk, his shakes realistic, his fear glowing in his eyes, is a shock, but we were prepared all along the way. The depiction of two such crazy-in-love people unable to connect lifts the film out of straight melodrama and into the realm of pure dramatic tragedy.
An admiring word must be said of Leisen’s mise-en-scène, particularly during the scenes in Panama. The frames are crowded with people, rickety shacks, and street life that, even in black and white, seem to throw off the heat of the tropics that makes love grow as fast and as large as the tropical plants edging the frame. I was aghast that Maggie would want to leave Panama for New York, which Leisen contrasts as a sped-up, disorienting place that is both luxurious and isolating.
The original songs include Al Siegel and Sam Coslow’s “I Hear a Call to Arms” and “Panamania,” a great nightclub number sung by Lamour, as well as Leo Robins and Ralph Rainger’s “Then It Isn’t Love,” sung by Lombard and communicating Maggie’s feelings. These songs are really quite good and are well-integrated into the story, something that can’t always be said of 1930s music films. The attention to this detail is indicative of the entire enterprise, certainly a labor of love for the relatively untested director. Add in a fun cameo by a young Anthony Quinn speaking nothing but Spanish and a chicken rescued from a cockfight, and you will find watching Swing High, Swing Low a labor of love yourself.