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Public Domain Theatre: Swing High, Swing Low (1937)

Updated on May 29, 2014
Mitchell Leisen
Mitchell Leisen | Source

Welcome, fair readers, to Public Domain Theatre! This is where I review movies that, for whatever reason, have lost their intellectual property rights and therefore languish in the public domain. That means they can be copied on bootlegs with no repercussions, streamed online for free pretty much anywhere, and that you have little to no chance of seeing them restored to their past glory on a proper DVD release. According to Wikipedia, 1937's Swing High, Swing Low "[In 1965] the film entered the public domain (in the USA) due to the claimants failure to renew its copyright registration in the 28th year after publication (,_Swing_Low_(film)).

Swing High, Swing Low was directed by the now forgotten director Mitchell Leisen. Leisen was most notable for directing Olivia de Havilland in her Oscar-winning performance in 1946's To Each His Own. A director who specialized in romances and comedies, this was his third of ten film he directed featuring Fred MacMurray, and his third and final with Carole Lombard.

He blows at love, too.
He blows at love, too. | Source

Our film takes place in Panama, where ex-soldier Skid Johnson (MacMurray) meets cruise ship hairdresser Maggie King (Lombard) while she's visiting ashore. Both are brashly charming and outspoken, and there is an undeniable spark between them, even though Maggie has a kinda-sorta suitor back home who kinda-sorta wants to marry her. When Maggie's ship leaves without her, Skid allows her to live with him and his easy-going roommate, pianist Harry (Charles Butterworth). Maggie is appalled that Skid barely makes it from day to day, sometimes resorting to betting at cock fights to make quick money (one cute scene has him take an injured rooster home, with Maggie naming it "Butch"), but when she discovers that he is a whiz at playing the trumpet, she is able to finagle a job for both of them at a nightclub by pretending that they're married. Skid plays the trumpet, Maggie models skimpy clothes, and Harry plays the piano. The trio then become a musical team, composing music, writing lyrics and performing at the club, and Maggie even becomes a singer for Skid's music (that's really Lombard singing, by the way). Meanwhile, Maggie and Skid make it official and tie the knot, and all seems right with the world.

One day a talent scout invites Skid to lead an orchestra in New York, and since no one has any use for Harry and Maggie, they stay behind in Panama until Skid returns. But Skid immediately becomes drunk with success, hitting the town every night with nasty maneater Anita (Dorothy Lamour, in a pre-Road to… role), and barely keeping touch with his loving wife Maggie. When she calls him at Anita's hotel and he doesn't even recognize his wife's voice, a devastated Maggie files for divorce.

No, it's not that kind of movie.
No, it's not that kind of movie. | Source

It's here where this otherwise simple, touching film lost me. Maggie does what every other Old Hollywood movie heroine does, and gets herself engaged to her former beau (Harvey Stephens), even though she didn't want to marry him before. Skid begins a downward spiral of drink and self-pity, ruining his career and his health. It's a rather sloppy turn of events; after all, Skid never once contests the divorce, even though he has the reason and means to do so. He doesn't defend himself, apologize, or offer anything in the way of an explanation. He's not even sorry he was caught in Maggie's rival's hotel. It really makes you wonder how serious he was about Maggie to begin with. He also becomes a has-been seemingly overnight, which raises the question about how long all this has been going on. Months? Years? It's all rather vague.

I usually can set aside my politically correct, feminist sensibilities so I can enjoy old movies, but my issue with this movie stems not so much from feminism as it does from good old-fashioned common sense. Maggie, who starts out a smart, self-possessed woman with ideas and agency, dissolves into a weepy pile of goo after marrying Skid, and I just felt like bellowing at the screen, "lady, he's not worth it!" Which leads me to my next problem: Skid really isn't worth it. He is a frustratingly passive, arrogant character who allows these avoidable problems to happen, and he never takes responsibility for them. Yes, he suffers the consequences, but suffering the consequences isn't enough; a character should be aware of what he or she has done wrong, and Skid doesn't do that. There is none of the desperation of Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend, or the sympathetic pathos of James Mason in A Star is Born, Skid is just a sieve-brained lush in the vein of Louis Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman. He is completely unworthy of our heroine, or anyone else, for that matter. But the movie believes he's worth saving, and Maggie bravely, tearfully tries to get him back on his feet. Swing High, Swing Low doesn't give us much of a resolution: it's just as likely that Skid hasn't changed, and Maggie's poor dope of a fiancee isn't even treated to a Dear John letter. Open endings weren't exactly in vogue in the 1930s, so I have to give the movie props for that.

Take comfort in the fact that Barbara Stanwyck will straighten him out in 10 years.
Take comfort in the fact that Barbara Stanwyck will straighten him out in 10 years. | Source

At least Swing High, Swing Low made me curious to check out more films by Mitchell Leisen. The only other two I've seen are To Each His Own and Hold Back the Dawn. Both were extremely sentimental, but that's not always a bad thing. If I can sum up Leisen's style in one word, it would be "sensitivity". Even though I didn't care for the story in today's film, it is sensitively told, and Leisen doesn't try to pull back and recover his toughness. Even Vincente Minnelli's films, which were often accused of being too arty and sentimental, had a snarky edge to them, as if cautiously keeping critics at bay. There is something brave about Leisen's approach, and I'm eager to see more. Despite his not-so-great leading man role, MacMurray does quite well with what he's given, and it's at least fun to see the upstanding patriarch from My Three Sons raucous and unshaven as a musician who's hit rock bottom. Classic movie buffs will get a kick out of spotting that ever omnipresent character actor Franklin Pangborn as Maggie's miffed boss, and you can also check out a brief scene at the bar, featuring a very young Anthony Quinn as a Spanish lothario who tries to pick up Maggie.

Tiresome Rant of the Day: I also enjoyed Dorothy Lamour as the hissable "other woman" Anita. As much as I love the Road movies, I always found myself disliking Lamour in each one, finding her useless, boring, or downright horrid in each one, so it was nice to feel completely justified in disliking her for a change.

Carole Lombard's appeal was the fact that she, like her one-time husband William Powell, could go from poised and cosmopolitan to klutzy and screwball in the twinkling of an eye. From the few films I've seen her in, I've decided that I like Lombard better when she's smart rather then when she's dumb. I confess I never cared for the beloved classic My Man Godfrey, finding her spoiled woman-child Irene grating and shrill. I much preferred her in Nothing Sacred, as a small town girl who is conflicted about reaping the benefits of a lie, and who gets rough with Fredric March. But in Swing High, Swing Low, Lombard gets the chance to set aside her usual ditzy antics to play it serious for a change. The fact that she's utterly affecting and real as a girl wounded by love makes her premature death at age 33 in 1942 all the more heartbreaking, if only for the unrealized possibilities of her talents. Forever remembered as a guy's gal, Fred MacMurray had this to say about her:

"Carole Lombard was a wonderful girl. Swore like a man. Other women try, but she really did."


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