I love these Blogathons. It gives me an opportunity to view a Hollywood classic that I might have missed. Swing High, Swing Low (1937) is an example of a delightful Lombard movie that I missed. Since, Carole Lombard’s work is always a joy to view, I really need to thank Laura from Phyllis Loves Classic Movies http://phyllislovesclassicmovies.blogspot.com/ and Crystal from In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood https://crystalkalyana.wordpress.com/for hosting this blogathon which is a tribute to one of my favorite actresses, the Profane Carole Lombard.
This particular Lombard movie, Swing High, Swing Low (1937), is the third of four movies she made with another charming actor, Fred MacMurray. Not only do these two incredible actors have superb screen presence and are very easy on the eye, they share that rare quality of lovely chemistry to boot. This is a cinematic treat.
For me, Swing High, Swing Low is not your typical “screwball romantic comedy” where boy meets girl, boy loses girl, and boy finds girl again. This movie has some buried treasures in it that makes it even more fun to watch. One treasure is near the end. It has a darker twist that you would not expect in a movie of its genre.
The film begins with some terrific footage and set designs of the Panama Canal. Maggie King (Lombard) is excitedly looking out the port hole of a cruise ship that is going through the locks. This is impressive probably because director, Mitchell Liesen (Death Takes A Holiday, 1934) was a costume designer and set designer before becoming a director. When learning about Mr. Leisen as a director, two words come to mind, underrated and meticulous. His work was sadly ignored until the 70s which is why this film went into Public Domain in 1965. It astounds me that this director could be ignored who claims everything he knows about directing came from working with Cecil B. DeMille. Oh well, Hollywood politics.
Maggie encourages a customer, whose head is under a hair dryer, to join her while looking at the workings of the locks. The lady patron, with mud on her face, assures Maggie she has seen it all before. Maggie’s friend, Ella (Jean Dixon) comes in and reminds her to check the customer’s hair when the timer goes off. They both rush over to the Mrs Mudface and find a catastrophe. Her hair looks more like burnt spaghetti. As a matter of fact, Maggie lifts one of the hair spirals cleanly off the patron’s head. When the manager comes in and sees the hair fiasco, he tells them that after they clean up their mess to see him, immediately.
This situation is what is referred to as a “screwball comedy.” As a matter of fact, Lombard worn the crown of Queen of Screwball Comedy with as much pride as Clark Gable did the title of King of Hollywood. To be honest, I do not think this title does Lombard justice. Screwball has a bit of negative to it. It says, it is funny because it so stupid…Lombard was many things but dumb was not one of them. Her delivery of comical lines reminds people of classic Hollywood actresses like Jean Harlow and Mae West. For me, she is the female version of a Ryan Reynolds (Dead Pool, 2016). They sarcastically deliver their lines in such a way that the other person is the butt of the joke. We, as an audience, laugh with them, not at them.
When Maggie was hanging out the edge of the ship’s port window and before Ella walks in, she hears someone calling out to her from the docks. It is a patrolling American solider, Skid Johnson (Fred MacMurray). Maggie says to the soldier: I hope you are not talking to me perchance? A very brass Johnson replies: No, on purpose! Maggie reminds him that he is on duty and not suppose to be talking to her. He asks if the rest of her is as pretty as her face. She replies that she weighs 200 pounds and is barefoot. He laughs and tells her this is his last day in the Army. He wants her to celebrate with him and he begs her to meet him on the dock under the moon at Balboa. He claims that he would be in his civvies and wearing a gardenia in his shirt pocket; so, she would know him. Maggie replies: Mister, I wouldn’t know you if you had a rose behind your ear!
During the meeting with the manager of the ship’s beauty salon, we learn Maggie is a hairdresser imposter, who is helped by her friend Ella. Why? She did not have enough money to buy a ticket to California. Maggie worked at a night club, not as a singer, and did not make much money. I keep thinking she might have been a cigarette girl who walks around trying to sell club patrons cigars or cigarettes. Maggie needed to go to California to do a background check on a wealthy cattle rancher who proposed to her. She knew him for over three years; but, now he wants to marry her. Perhaps, Maggie has been burned before or just a cynic or both, either way that is her reason for her deception. Yes, the reason sounds a bit screwball.
Next we see Ella and Maggie trying to find a taxi. Ella says cabbies want $3.00 but if either one of them can find a cabbie for $2.00, “holler.” Yes, times has changed, one of the joys of watching classic Hollywood movies. Ella is approached by Skid Johnson with a fake Spanish accent, he tells her: $1.00. Ella hollers for Maggie. Then, we see the girls sight seeing in the backseat of a convertible Rolls-Royce with Skid as their driver. He is pretending to be their guide. The girls should have known something wasn’t right just from the expensive car being a cab. This is before, Uber.
Skid reads aloud from a guide-book hidden on the front seat. As Skid reads the wrong description to one of their stops which is a 15th century Cathedral, Maggie realizes he is actually reading the description of the President’s palace. She readily tells him, he is a liar and not a real guide. Skid readily tells her she is a liar for she does not weigh 200 pounds; and, she is wearing shoes. Besides, he tells her, he wore the rose behind his ear.
Charmer that he is, he tries to convince the ladies to celebrate his last day in the Army. Skid explains that his friend Harry (Charles Butterworth) can join them as Ella’s date. He then hypes the advantages of Harry being a date. He tells them that they are riding in Harry’s car; he lives with Harry, and Harry is the hottest piano player, ever. Maggie tries to slow down Skid’s rhetoric when she asks: Hey, you talk awful fast. Have you ever tried to sell anything? Skid relies: Sure! me! Maggie replies: Well, if you had something good to sell, you would be really wonderful at it. Ella tells Maggie that they are going to this celebration.
When Harry meets Ella, he is wearing a trench coat and suffering from a sickness. He then offers Ella a quinine pill. Ella asks him why he was offering her a quinine pill. Harry clumsily replies: you know, we are in the topics? Ella, who is annoyed with Harry, says: N0, thanks. If you are my date, I already have my pill. I just have to say, I love Charles Butterworth’s laid back characterization of Harry. His performance reminds me of another Harry (Adrian Scarborough) on HBO’s Blunt Talk. Both Harrys are very easy-going and extremely loyal to their friends. They are always supportive no matter how crazy the scheme. Both performers are incredible and wonderful to watch.
The first stop of their the date is for a bite to eat before they celebrate at a local club. While eating fresh seafood cooked on a dock near an open market, Harry discovers his oysters do not agree with him. Even though this is a black and white film, I swear Harry looked green. Unfortunately, Ella and Harry have to leave Maggie and Skid on their own.
So Maggie and Skid end up at a swinging Jazz/Latino nightclub. Maggie was not in a great mood. She and Skid argue over the notion that a trumpet could sound romantic. Maggie argues she loves music; but, not impressed with the trumpet. So, Skid goes over to the band and picks up a trumpret. He masterfully plays the sweetest sounds which wooes our cynical Maggie. This is a great scene and perfectly directed. However, I wondered why it was decided that Fred MacMurray should play a trumpet in the movie instead of a saxophone? I mean MacMurray started in the business as a vocalist and saxophone player. Why not the sax? Hands down, the saxophone is dead to rights, sexy. MacMurray could have played the saxophone himself. Instead, two other musicians dubbed his playing the trumpet in this film. Then, I found another treasure.
There are two playwrights for this movie: Virginia Vann Upp (Cover Girl, Gilda, Affair in Trinidad, Here Comes the Groom…) and Oscar Hammerstein II (The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma, State Fair, Carmen Jones…) Well, if Hammerstein thought the trumpet is a sexy instrument for wooing a person’s heart, who am I to argue or disagree? Having Hammerstein II working on this film might explain why the music is so good in this movie. For the sake of an argument, I wanted to see if I could find another trumpet player who could play as sexy as I heard in this movie. It didn’t take me long to find one. If you have the time or just curious, you can hear for yourself that the trumpet is definitely a sexy instrument. Check out Chris Botti playing My Funny Valentine in the link under references at the end of the post. He is playing To Trudie Styler (aka Mrs. Sting). No question to the validity of a trumpet’s romantic sounds. As they say, I stand corrected.
While Skid is playing his heart out, and Maggie is getting all toasty warm, she removes her hat. This catches the eye of a very handsome and suave looking Latino. His smooth Spanish voice is inebriating to Maggie; until, he tries to guide her away from the bar. She refuses to go; and, he becomes very angry. Skid jumps in to her rescue. Apparently, the misunderstanding has something to do with local custom. A lady who removes her hat at the bar means she is available. A fight issues; police are called, and Maggie and Skid spend the night in jail while her ship sails away.
Here is another treasure. That suave Latino is no other than a very young Anthony Quinn. I don’t believe he spoke a word of English in this movie. Even though this was a very small part, you had to notice him. He had worked on other Lombard films, so; Lombard even considered him a friend. There is a Hollywood story that Lombard needed an escort to a Hollywood event; and, she asked him to take her. He never showed up. Can you believe it? He stood up the most glamorous woman in Hollywood at the time. When she ran into him later, she really let him have it, vagaries and all. He explained that he was very poor; and, he was too ashamed to tell her. By the time, he finished his story, Lombard was in tears. She made sure he had a raise from the studio and a tailored suit.
So, here is Maggie with no money, no job, and no place to live. Skid has a solution. She could live with Harry and him. She would possess the only key to her bedroom. They would help her get a job at the club; until, she could save the money to buy a ticket to go home. This sounds so familiar. Maggie eventually convinces the club owner that Skid, Harry and she wrote a great song. It was so good that it should performed at her club. The owner agrees.
Another treasure, Carole Lombard debuts her singing voice in this movie. She can really sing too. Her voice sounds similar to Marlene Dietrich, especially on certain low notes. Oddly enough, I found this old advertisement with Carole Lombard selling Lucky Stripe cigarettes. Cigarettes do alter the voice into a raspy, lower octave. While singing at the nightclub, Maggie meets another singing act, Anita Alvarez (Dorothy Lamour). Another treasure, this was only Lamour’s second movie. She played the home wrecker type since she was Skid’s past lover. Her motto might have been “if I can’t have him, neither can you!” There’s another Hollywood story about Lombard and Lamour. When Lamour showered up on set, Lombard marched her to a make up artist to fix those eyebrows.
While living with the boys, Maggie discovers Skid’s more serious character defects like gambling, drinking, fighting, and lack of self-esteem. Despite this, she and he fall madly in love. Of course, this love must be tested. Skid asks her to marry him. And on the day of their nuptials, her ex friend/fiance shows up. He apologizes for taking so long to find her; but, he just found out a few days ago where she was. As soon as Ella got back, she told him everything. Before Maggie can tell this poor fella that she is getting married to another guy, Skid happily waltzes in and invites Maggie’s guy friend to their wedding. How do you spell, awkward? This sad cattle baron actually goes to their wedding.
Eventually, a New York City agent catches their act and offers Skid a job in a Night Club in New York. He only wanted Skid because female singers were “a dime a dozen.” After all, this was during the Great Depression. Many people were out of work and would do anything for a job. Skid with his low self-esteem, must be convinced by Maggie that this is his chance to make it big, be famous, get rich, and make his mark on the world. Once he settled in, he would send for Maggie to be at his side. That was the plan…
Remember that home wrecker, Anita Alvarez? She is now Skid’s singer in the New York night club. Remember, his character defects, gambling, drinking, fighting, and low self-esteem? Well, all of this keeps him from communicating with Maggie. Meanwhile,the club owner in Panama, feels sorry for her and gives her the money to go find Skid.
She telegrams him to meet her at the docks. He never received the message from her, thanks to the home wrecker, Anita. Maggie waits hours at the docks. Finally, she gives up and gets a room. She tries to get a hold of Skid. He is not in his room because he passed out in Anita’s room. Frustrated, Maggie finally calls Anita to try to find her husband. Hungover, Skid answers the phone.
This is where the film begin to have a very dark twist. Lombard is so desolated by hearing Skid voice over the phone, she is speechless and hangs up. Her performance is so intense in this scene, you feel that your heart is ripped out with hers. Maggie sends Skid a message that she was the voice over the phone. She wished him well and said good-bye. She gets a divorce and marries again,and moves out of the country. Skid completely falls apart. He literally drinks away his life and career.
But, remember this is a movie made during the hardest economic times in United States history. People paid good money, they don’t have, to feel good again. So, the ending of this “screwball comedy” will have the typical happy ending that they expect. But, it conveys a serious warning about what is truly valuable in life.
A biblical reference sums it up nicely: What do you gain, if you have all the treasures in the world, but lose your soul?” Skid lost his soul when he had it all because he forgot what was truly valuable. The message is clear: no matter what hard times come your way, always remember to treasure those who truly love you, friend or family. See, I told you there was treasures to be found in this movie.
Chris Botti: My Funny Valentine link
The whole movie Link
Some links used for reference
Harris, Warren G. Gable and Lombard. Published by Greymalkin Media Las Angeles and New York, 1974