An unsung gem: Swing High, Swing Low (1937)

Swing High, Swing Low is arguably one of Carole Lombard’s most complex, yet least discussed films. It was the third of four titles that she made with Fred MacMurray (their second pairing with director Mitchell Leisen), and in my opinion, the one that has garnered the most unfairly maligned reputation. As the second film adaptation of the hit George Manker Watters-Arthur Hopkins play, “Burlesque” (1927), Swing High, Swing Low was a critical and box office success when it was released in March 1937. Today, its reputation has fallen dramatically, largely because of the poor state of the available prints. The film entered the public domain in 1965, and for years has circulated online and in different home video formats with abysmal sound and picture quality, almost to the point of being unwatchable. I don’t share Leisen’s biographer David Chierichetti’s opinion that Lombard gave her finest performance (1995 pg. 95) – that designation is reserved for Nothing Sacred – but I think it ranks among her most captivating and self-assured. The film suffers from some pacing issues (particularly in the second half), but is salvaged by gorgeous high contrast cinematography, rich performances from Lombard and MacMurray, and a powerful story about the dark side of fame.

First, a short synopsis. Swing High, Swing Low chronicles the tumultuous relationship of singer, Maggie King (Lombard) and trumpet player, “Skid” Johnson (MacMurray). They meet on an ocean liner in the Panama Canal, and eventually settle in Balboa in a one-room apartment with Skid’s friend, Harry (Charles Butterworth). Maggie lands a job as a showgirl at an Irish bar, Murphy’s, run by a stern but sympathetic eponymous landlady (Cecilia Cunningham). Maggie and Skid are in dire straigts financially, so she convinces Murphy to hire him for her nightclub band, and even lies about them being married. Maggie becomes jealous after she discovers that Skid’s former girlfriend, Anita (Dorothy Lamour), also works at the club. Anita eventually leaves Panama for New York and Maggie and Skid get married. Skid’s popularity grows, and Maggie encourages him to move to New York to advance his career. Skid embarks for New York alone, and lands a job in the same nightclub as Anita; he soon becomes intoxicated by fame, fortune, and her affections. Maggie borrows money from Murphy to sail to New York, but Anita sabotages her plans by hiding a letter notifying Skid of her arrival. When Skid does not greet Maggie at the port, she tracks him down in Anita’s hotel room, drunk and disoriented. Maggie files for divorce and leaves for France, which sends Skid into a drunken spiral that costs him his career. Months later, Skid is reunited with Maggie on Harry’s radio show, and with a little encouragement, he finds the confidence he needs to once again play his trumpet.

Swing High, Swing Low went into production in the fall of 1936 with a budget of nearly $740,000. It was produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr. and co-written by Virginia Van Upp and Oscar Hammerstein II under the working title, “Panama Girl.” Allegedly, both Gary Cooper and Bing Crosby were briefly considered to play Skid before the role ultimately went to MacMurray. It was newcomer Dorothy Lamour’s third film, and in her memoirs My Side of the Road, she reveals that she was starstruck by Lombard, whom she describes as one of her favorite actresses. Lamour commended Lombard’s down-to-earth demeanor, explaining that “within minutes, I felt like I was working with a good friend instead of a big star…” Lombard apparently sensed Lamour’s nerves on set, so she “deliberately kept ‘blowing her lines'” until the neophyte felt at ease (1980, pg. 57-58).

Unlike Lamour, by 1937 Lombard was a seasoned Hollywood veteran, and Swing High, Swing Low was the penultimate film that she made during her seven year contract with Paramount. By then, her screwball comedy persona was firmly established thanks to such films as Twentieth Century (Hawks, 1934) and My Man Godfrey (La Cava, 1936). At first glance Swing High, Swing Low appears to have been an unusual career choice; the film has its light-hearted moments, particularly in scenes with Maggie, Skid, and Harry in their apartment, but it is far more somber and down-beat than what audiences would’ve expected from a Lombard vehicle in the mid-1930s. It’s worth noting that Lombard was sensitive to how she was perceived by the public, and as I’ve previously written, she took a hands-on approach to her own publicity. Despite the fame and critical acclaim that resulted from her screwball films, as the film went into production she was beginning to feel that she was being typecast. Swing High, Swing Low was therefore a pivotal film in Lombard’s career, for it marked the beginning of her slow shift away from straight comedy roles and her beloved screwball persona. Lombard completely abandoned her comedy comfort zone a mere two years later to try her hand at melodrama, appearing in four back-to-back titles: Made for Each Other (Cromwell, 1939), In Name Only (Cromwell, 1939), Vigil in the Night (Stevens, 1940), and They Knew What they Wanted (Kanin, 1940).

Swing High, Swing Low is memorable for another reason, too: it is the one and only film to feature Lombard’s real singing voice. She had previous been dubbed in such films as Brief Moment (Burton, 1933); in this film, she sings the Sam Coslow-Al Siegel jazz number, “I Hear a Call to Arms.” She first sings the song in a sexy, dimly-lit scene that takes place in Murphy’s bar. Framed in close-up, Lombard croons while nuzzled into Fred MacMurray’s chest. He accompanies her on trumpet with his arms wrapped around her shoulders, and their body language captures the intimacy of their musical bond. The song is reprised at the film’s conclusion when Maggie wills Skid to once again play his trumpet. This time, however, he relies on her for physical and emotional support and the song’s title and lyrics take on literal significance.

Maggie and Skid reprise “I Hear A Call to Arms.”

Lombard took singing lessons with Siegel before the film went into production, but was still apprehensive about using her real voice. According to Mitchell Leisen, “she didn’t think she could do it and she begged me to have somebody dub her numbers, but I said nobody could have the same quality of voice and it would be unbelievable. So she did it and it came out beautifully.” Lombard was no Jeanette MacDonald, but her poor vocals do not detract from Ted Tetzlaff’s intimate camerawork and emotional gravitas of both scenes. Nor did they dissuade Paramount from capitalizing on her performance: the studio produced sheet music as a merchandise tie-in, and used her image to promote Lucky Strike cigarettes’ throat-soothing properties.

Lombard does a fine job balancing her high-energy, expressive performance style with the subtle restraint required in the film’s dramatic moments. In one of my favorite scenes (which happens to be a critical turning point in Maggie and Skid’s relationship), Maggie waits longingly for Skid to come home from his night on the town. She stews in bed, listening intently for any sign of his arrival. The shallow focus and tight framing that Tetzlaff uses to photograph Lombard’s face is sublime. Mosquito netting creates a gauzy, dream-like texture along the edges of the frame, while her rickety window blinds cast a noirish shadow, almost like worry lines, on her face. The evening moonlight illuminates Lombard’s eyes, betraying Maggie’s nervous apprehension. Even in this washed out print, the scene evokes a haunting estrangement that alludes to their fates; I suspect it must’ve looked gorgeously moody in the original release prints.



When Skid finally arrives home, Maggie tells him that her friend, Ella, has encouraged her to take a job in New York. Of course, she has no intention of leaving Panama, but wants to test Skid’s commitment and affection. The camera cuts to a medium-close up of Skid laying in bed in the other room. He is partially blocked by his bed frame, and like Maggie, is swathed in mosquito netting. He sits up, and after a pause says, “Now you’re getting some sense. You should’ve done that weeks ago.” It’s not the answer Maggie had hoped for, and as the camera cuts back to her room, we see her bury her head into her pillow in frustration. Sorrowful music swells as the camera cuts to Skid, who calls out, “Maggie…aren’t you gonna ride me about not coming home?” Cutting back again to the initial close-up in Maggie’s room, she shakes her head through tears, turns onto her back and whimpers, “Goodnight Skid.” His nonchalant attitude is the confirmation Maggie needs that her love has not been reciprocated. She does not realize that he wasn’t being truthful, and that deep down he only wants her to be happy. Disjointed spaces and obstructed framing are symbols of Maggie and Skid’s miscommunication; they love each other, but perhaps out of self-preservation, they are too afraid to be honest about their feelings.

This scene is reminiscent of a moment in Lombard and MacMurray’s first Leisen film, Hands Across the Table (1935), in which Regi (Lombard) locks herself in her bedroom to hide her amorous feelings from her temporary houseguest, Ted (MacMurray) (see photos below). Leisen’s masterful use of the close-up reveals Regi’s and Maggie’s deep-rooted vulnerability and the pain that comes when love is taken for granted. Notably, in both scenes MacMurray’s character is kept at a greater distance, either through framing or with objects blocking our view. Leisen relies on these visual cues to create sympathy with Lombard’s characters by approximating their loneliness and heartache.

There’s an undeniable charm to Lombard and MacMurray’s other screen collaborations, and their opposing performance styles formed the basis of the ideal screwball couple dynamic; passion and capricious on the one hand, logic and patience on the other. The tangled romances in Hands Across the Table and Swing High, Swing Low tap into a unique character dynamic, allowing them to meet somewhere in the middle. Opposite MacMurray, Lombard’s Leisen heroines take on a maturity and introspection that is equally matched by a lightness that he draws from her.

Lombard is the focal point of this website, but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that Swing High, Swing Low is Fred MacMurray’s movie. In spite of the slogging pace of the film’s second half and the way it belabors the effects of Skid’s drinking, MacMurray delivers what I consider the richest and most assertive performance out of all of his Lombard pairings. Without an ounce of star vanity, MacMurray was not afraid to come across unsympathetically when Skid’s drinking gets the best of him. Fame and fortune goes to Skid’s head and he becomes egotistical and, at times, even vicious. There’s a certain degree of character self-awareness in the way MacMurray plays Skid, as if he knows he’s made poor choices but doesn’t know how to stop himself. Perhaps because of MacMurray’s honest, all-American star persona, it is not hard to feel pity for Skid. Played another way or by another actor, Skid might’ve become a total self-absorbed monster, but MacMurray adds just enough humanity to his performance to save him from going over the edge.

Swing High, Swing Low opened on March 12, 1937 to generally positive critical reviews, with Motion Picture Review Digest calling it “one of the brightest cinematic candles on Paramount’s 25th Birthday cake” (1937 pg. 102). MacMurray received praised for giving what the The Hollywood Reporter observed as “undoubtedly his finest performance in his best opportunity to date” (March 10, pg. 3), while The Film Daily described it as an “ideal” Lombard-MacMurray vehicle (March 15, pg. 18). During its premiere week, it earned roughly $16-17,000 each in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco (Variety 1937, pg. 10), while The Film Daily reported that it broke “attendance and money records in all parts of the U.S.,” and that it was on track to be on of their highest grossing films of the year (March 16, pg. 4).

A proper restoration of Swing High, Swing Low is sorely needed, but may just be next to impossible. According Chierichetti, when 20th Century Fox bought the rights to “Burlesque” in the 1940s they may have obtained the original negative from Paramount. In the 1980s, the American Film Institute inquired about the film since the copy they had in their collection was missing three reels. After exhaustive searches in both studios’ archives, Paramount was allegedly only able to produce an incomplete nitrate release print. The version that currently circulates online and in home video format was supposedly assembled from that print plus three reels from Leisen’s personal 16mm copy, which were blown up to 35mm (1995 pg. 104).

Since it has been about 40 years since AFI’s inquiry, I recently contacted both Disney (Fox’s current owner) and UCLA (where Paramount’s archives are housed) to inquire about the missing negative. Admittedly, it was a bit of a Hail Mary on my part given the prior unsuccessful attempts, but I figured it was worth a shot. UCLA got back to me within 24 hours and confirmed that they have one reel of a 16mm safety print in their collection – sadly, not the camera negative. Disney, on the other hand, did not answer my inquiry. I have written about Disney for about 10 years so I am all too aware that access to the company archive is notoriously challenging for non-“cast members” (their term for employees); when permission is seldom granted, it usually comes with strict caveats. Alas, if the original negative is buried somewhere in the Fox archive, I have little hope that Disney will cooperate with a restoration project given the limited profitability of such an endeavor.

It is understandable that some fans may have written off Swing High, Swing Low – the quality alone makes it difficult to watch. But even with the print issues, it is a remarkable film with vibrant aesthetic choices (from what I can tell) and a solid range of performances. Maggie is indicative of the type of role Lombard saw herself playing in the next phase of her career: cheeky, headstrong, and brimming with emotional sensitivity. She and MacMurray flourished under Mitchell Leisen’s guidance because he gave them the space to draw upon otherwise underused acting skills and subvert their established star personas. Swing High, Swing Low marked the beginning of a “new” and mature Carole Lombard, proving that she was more than just the queen of screwball comedy.

WORKS CITED

Chierichetti, David. Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director. New York: Photoventures Press, 1995.

“Comparative Grosses for March.” Variety. April 14, 1937, pg. 10.

The Film Daily. March 15, 1937, pg. 18.

The Hollywood Reporter. March 10, 1937, pg. 3.

Lamour, Dorothy and Dick McInnes. My Side of the Road. New York: Prentice Hall, 1980.

Motion Picture Review Digest. June 26, 1937.

“‘Swing High, Swing Low’ Setting Theater Records.” The Film Daily, March 16, 1937, pg. 1, 4.

2 thoughts on “An unsung gem: Swing High, Swing Low (1937)

  1. Terrific piece. I really sympathize with you about the preservation issue. It seems like films are always turning up in the Netherlands- maybe a collector somewhere…looking forward to reading your book.

    Like

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