By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
A mix of light comedy and dark drama defines Swing High, Swing Low, the third movie to team Carole Lombard and frequent co-star Fred MacMurray and the only one that might be classified as a drama. At the beginning we see what looks to be a screwball comedy in the vein of the team’s earlier Hands Across the Table, until the story takes a complete turn in the second half during which it proceeds to deal with large themes such as divorce, fallen stardom, and alcoholism in an unusually frank manner.
Maggie (Lombard), young stowaway on a ship to California via Panama is courted by Skip (MacMurray), a young soldier on his final day of the army, and she reluctantly agrees to go on a date with him at a local Panamanian bar. After a brawl between the soldier and a local caballero, they land in court and while humorously trying to break the language barrier they keep getting fined more and more money for contempt. During their struggle they hear Maggie’s boat leaving, and she is stuck in Panama and forced to move in with Skip and his musician roommate until the next boat. She discovers Skip’s talent for the trumpet and encourages him to play professionally. The three of them form a small group with the roommate playing the piano, Skip playing trumpet, and Maggie singing at the bar, where there is also a sensual dancer by the name of Anita Rodriguez (Dorothy Lamour) who has her eye on Skip. By this time, Skip and Maggie have fallen in love and marry, Maggie leaving her desire to stow away on the next ship to California.
Skip receives an offer to go to New York to play at the El Greco, and leaves a forlorn Maggie behind in Panama. She writes him every day, but never receives a reply. Eventually she sails to New York to find him, and learns that Anita also appears in Skip’s show at the El Greco. Suspecting infidelity, she calls Anita’s room at the hotel and her worst fears are confirmed when Skip answers the phone. She writes him a letter informing him of her intention to get a divorce, and this sends Skip into a deep depression. He loses his job at the El Greco, and turns to alcohol to numb his pain. He tries to rejoin the army, but they won’t take him due to his alcoholism. His old roommate tries to get his career back on track with a radio spot for their old band, and the program director contacts Maggie who has just returned from getting the divorce in Paris to see if she would help. Hearing Skip’s plight, Maggie goes to find him and the band plays together again with Skip leaning on Maggie for support, ending the film on a hopeful note for Skip’s future.
The issue of divorce was a tricky one in the 1930’s, and most movies that deal with divorce during that period end with the decree not going through. Swing High, Swing Low is different. Not only does Maggie obtain the divorce that she sought, but she does not romantically involve herself with Skip again in the end. Instead, Maggie is shown as a sympathetic character who was correct in filing for divorce from the man who wronged her, but who has the dignity and confidence to care for him when he is in need. This greatly surprised me as not only does it validate divorce, a very risky move under the code, but it also validates a woman’s judgment regarding the infidelity of a man and paints her as the man’s saving grace at the end, instead of the reverse.
This is certainly not the best of Lombard and MacMurray’s four pairings, but to me it may be the most interesting due to the thematic switch halfway through and the gender role reversal that ends the film. The acting by MacMurray is marvelous, and Carole Lombard is given the ability to show her talent for both screwball comedy and for drama. Given the versatility she showed in her movies I often think that if Carole Lombard had lived longer, she may have proven to be one of the most versatile actresses of her day, equal to the likes of Irene Dunne and Barbara Stanwyck. A poignant thought.
See you next time!