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SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (Paramount, 1937) directed by Mitchell Leisen, is
not necessarily a Tarzan flick, but a reworking of an old Broadway
stage play, "Burlesque" (1927) that brought forth to the screen THE
DANCE OF LIFE (1929) with Hal Skelly and Nancy Carroll, and a second
remake, WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME (20th Century-Fox, 1948) starring
Betty Grable and Dan Dailey. While these films were simply backstage
stories, this second version takes a different turn set in night clubs,
featuring non singers/ dancers Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray as a
couple whose musical act consists of he trumpet playing and she
talk-singing some "hot" songs.
The story opens on a ship passing through the Panama Canal Zone where Marguerite "Maggie" King (Carole Lombard), a singer, earning passage money as a manicurist, traveling with her companion, Ella (Jean Dixon), to California with Maggie planning to surprise Harvey Dexter (Harvey Stephens), a wealthy rancher and fiancé of three years. During a rest stop, the girls spend the day in Panama where they encounter "Skid" Johnson (Fred MacMurray), an ex-Army man posing as a tour guide wanting to get better acquainted with Maggie. They soon land themselves in jail after Skid's fight with a Spanish speaking Don (Anthony Quinn), for trying to pick up Maggie, leaving the nightclub in shambles, thus, causing Maggie to miss her boat leaving port. After Skid's bungalow roommate, Harry Rankin (Charles Butterworth), the "hottest piano player in Panama," pays their bail, Maggie, stranded and broke, becomes their new star boarder, shortly followed by another, a chicken named Butch. Posing as husband and wife, Maggie and Skid obtain jobs at Murphy's (Cecil Cunningham) café and bar, he trumpet playing and she as dancer and hostess. In spite of warnings regarding Skid's bad reputation, Maggie not only forms a successful act between them, but marries him in the process. Things go well until Anita Alvarez (Dorothy Lamour), one of Skid's ex-girlfriends and singer at Murphy's, interferes. She soon leaves for a better jib offer at the El Greco in New York, much to Maggie's delight. However, when Georgie (Charles Arnt), a talent scout, offers Skid an big opportunity trumpet playing in New York, Maggie encourages him to take the offer against his wishes. At the advice of Georgie, Maggie agrees to remain in Panama until Skip makes a hit for himself and sends for her, a decision she would live to regret when Skid becomes a sensation at the El Greco with Anita as his new partner.
Songs include: "Swing High, Swing Low" (sung by chorus during opening title credits) by Burton Lane and Ralph Freed; "Lonely Little Senorita" (instrumental/trumpet play by Fred MacMurray); "Panamania" (sung by Dorothy Lamour) by Al Siegel and Sam Coslow; "I Hear a Call to Arms," "I Hear a Call to Arms," "I Hear a Call to Arms"; "Then It Isn't Love," "Then It Isn't Love" (all sung by Lombard) by Ralph Rainger and Leo Robin; "Swing High, Swing Low" (instrumental/trumpet) and "I Hear a Call to Arms" (finale/Lombard).
For their third time on screen together, Lombard and MacMurray, best known for comedic roles, demonstrate themselves as fine dramatic actors, particularly during the second half of the story. While the movie is a fine blend of comedy and drama, the musical portion comes as a letdown. With the exception of the title tune, the songs are uninspired. There are no production numbers to back them up and frequent high notes on the trumpet gets to become headache inducing after a while. Dorothy Lamour's "Panamania" is lively enough but her vocalizing is interrupted with cutaways of spoken dialog, and never heard through once. Lombard, a fine comedienne in her own right, doesn't cut it as a singer. She made this clear earlier in the story in responding about her singing, "Not very good." Her vocalizing comes off as sultry in the Marlene Dietrich manner, but with MacMurray's trumpet playing, it drowns her out. MacMurray's performance comes off best as the egotistic trumpet player who rises to fame only to lose everything except his trumpet, and roaming the streets a broken down unshaven derelict. Although MacMurray's performance wasn't recognized to be nominated by the Academy as Best Actor, Dan Dailey's interpretation of Skid Johnson in the 1948 remake was.
For years, WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME was the better known of the three adaptations due to frequent television revivals.Just as it slowly faded away by the 1970s, the nearly forgotten SWING HIGH, SWING LOW got into the swing of things when it sufficed in the 1980s, notably on a weekly public television series called "Sprockets." A victim of public domain, SWING HIGH, SWING LOW suffers from poor quality prints, ranging from too dark to fuzzy, and available at different running times. (Goodtimes Home Video from the 1980s was the most accurate with its 95 minute run time). Having been shown on several cable networks throughout the years, including the Nostalgia Channel in the 1990s, Turner Classic Movies premiered SWING HIGH, SWING LOW August 17, 2006, an all day tribute to Carole Lombard as part of its annual "Summer Under the Stars." Expecting to finally see this restored to clear picture and sound quality, it's surprising to find the TCM print to not only be of poor quality, but 15 minutes worth of missing material. At present, DVD copies circulating are this shortened 81 minute cut.
SWING HIGH, SWING LOW may occasionally hit some high notes, but is of sole interest today mainly for its leading players than anything else. (***)
'Swing High, Swing Low' is a semi-musical, based on a Broadway play
(not a musical) called 'Burlesque' which was originally filmed as 'The
Dance of Life' when censors wouldn't approve the original title. The
play and the original film took place in vaudeville and burlesque: this
remake, surprisingly, spends most of its time in Panama City (well away
from the Keith-Orpheum circuit). About all that remains of the original
is the male anti-hero's name: Skid Johnson. In the original story, the
nickname 'Skid' made sense because he was an eccentric dancer. In this
remake, Skid Johnson is a jazz trumpeter ... so why is he cried 'Skid'?
Fred MacMurray got typecast as nice guys, but just occasionally he got a chance to show his acting ability in nastier roles. He gives an excellent performance as Skid Johnson: brash, bragging, conceited, yet nagged by self-doubts. But in this version, some of Skid's motivations are highly contrived. When Skid first meets unemployed singer Maggie (Carole Lombard, less impressive), he straight away starts bragging about what a wonderful guy he is. Oddly, he trumpets himself constantly yet he never says a word about his abilities as a trumpeter. There's an extremely contrived scene in a Panama nightclub, when MacMurray casually picks up the trumpeter's horn and blows a few licks. (Yes, professional musicians always leave their instruments lying about so the customers can have a go.) It turns out that Skid Johnson is a brilliant jazz trumpeter. So, why is this braggart so very modest about his one genuine talent?
There's a soap-opera plot line when Skid becomes 'The King of Trumpeters' in Manhattan while Maggie is growing Spanish moss in Panama. One of the cast members of the Broadway drama 'Burlesque' was Oscar Levant, who got to play piano onstage and fire off a few wisecracks. Levant repeated his stage role in the film 'The Dance of Life', but his part was seriously cut. In this remake, Levant's role is expanded again, but regrettably not played by Levant this time. Charles Butterworth plays Skid's pianist buddy Harry. I've never liked Butterworth, whose screen roles usually include some very contrived business to make Butterworth a 'character'. In this movie, he wears winter clothing during a Panama heat wave. Very credible, I don't think.
Maggie is courted by Harvey Dexter, a self-made millionaire who sincerely loves her. But this is one of those annoying movies in which the gal gives up the steady level-headed guy in favour of the unreliable bum who's handsome and charming, and we're supposed to approve her choice. There are bad motivations elsewhere, too. In the first scene, MacMurray is a soldier who talks on sentry duty ... because it's his last day in the army, so they can't fire him. (No, but they can extend his hitch while they give him a nice long sentence in the stockade.)
For all its faults and forgettable songs, 'Swing High' features some extremely impressive montage sequences: the best I've ever seen in a Paramount film. (Though not up to the standard of Warners.) Franklin Pangborn appears very briefly, playing his usual cissy role, but he gives here one of his most energetic performances: he twirls frenetically, he taps his fingertips together impatiently. This is one of Pangborn's very best performances, buried in an obscure film. Dorothy Lamour sings pleasantly here but wears a very harsh makeup. Fred MacMurray gives Anthony Quinn a punch in the nose. Any movie where Anthony Quinn gets punched in the nose is fine with me.
There's a good performance by Jean Dixon as Lombard's 'seen it all, dearie' pal. Dixon wisecracked her way through several major Broadway roles, but never caught on in film. There's also a good performance by an actress with the mannish name Cecil Cunningham, who plays a nightclub landlord known only by the mannish name Murphy. Cunningham was the ex-wife of vaudevillain Jean Havez, who wrote Groucho Marx's song 'Everybody Works But Father'. That song would have livened up this movie. I'll rate 'Swing High, Swing Low' 5 points out of 10.
The third Fred MacMurray/Carole Lombard film is a bit more serious than
Hands Across the Table and The Princess Comes Across. It's yet another
adaption of the play Burlesque which apparently was popular back in the
The original play Burlesque ran on Broadway in the 1927-1928 season for 372 performances and it's the role that Carole Lombard plays that Barbara Stanwyck originated on Broadway that brought her to Hollywood. A version starred Nancy Carroll in the early days of talkies and later on Betty Grable and Dan Dailey did still another version of it in When My Baby Smiles At Me.
In fact I have a vinyl album of a radio version that Al Jolson and Ruby Keeler did for the Lux Radio Theater. That's an interesting work, believe me.
Anyway MacMurray and Lombard do fine by the old chestnut, the story is now set in a nightclub where Lombard is a singer and MacMurray is a jazz trumpeter. Note a nice performance by Dorothy Lamour as the Latin vixen who gets between Fred and Carole. Also Anthony Quinn is in one of his earliest films as a wolf on the make for Lombard.
Swing High, Swing Low holds up real nice today and I wouldn't be surprised if we see yet another version of Burlesque for the Twenty First Century.
I am quite the Mitchell Leisen fan so it was a great anticipation that I rented this movie but the print I got was extremely bad, so worn down from use and scorched seemingly beyond repair, the movie was so dark. So dark that in certain scenes that are cinematographed in the dark, you can't see a single thing. That said, I believe I share the same opinion as the first review of this movie. It starts out unusually and does not tote the lines and rhythms of your typical Hollywood 30's movie. Heck, not even your typical Hollywod movie of any era. It seems the director has been influenced by the Europeans because there is a certain caustic realism to the proceedings from the opening shot which is so crafted in camera movement and placement as Maggie (Carole Lombard) and Skid (Fred Macmurray) meet. You half expect them to start singing "Make believe" from Show boat.It starts with a few laughs and poor Anthony in a one scene role where he speaks not a word of English gets slapped around by Freddie. Skids is a bum who doesn't care that he's a bum. That's why he signs up in the army where he can hide from the world. He's just been released though and in a set of screenplay shenanigans, she misses her boat for New York. This is when the movie kicks into high gear and we begin to get those French movie of the sixties vibes to the whole proceedings. The scenes are so well acted by Lombard and Cecil Cunningham, the movie gains a pulse. MacMurray is good too as he and Lombard fall for each other as she nurtures his talent for the trumpet. Then the temptress arrives in the form of Dorothy Lamour. Enough with plot. The movie has fantastic montage sequences that dazzled me. They are very good. And Lombard scores a home run in this movie but in the second half, a bit more is called of Freddie and he fails to deliver the goods. With a heavily melodramatic ending and an actor you don't believe, the movie falls short but since it is not your typical movie in structure, set design, and direction. It is worth a look. For what is what it was one of the 37 hits of the 1936-37 season. I don't know its exact rank though.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I first came across this film when I read a book (written in the 1970s)
about the career of Mitchell Leisin. I have to admit that over the
years I have watched many of his films and find his best work really
high quality. SWING HIGH, SWING LOW was supposed to be one of his best.
While it did not bore me, it did not impress me as much as HOLD BACK
THE DAWN, DEATH TAKES A HOLIDAY, KITTY, or even GOLDEN EARINGS. I
suspect it just dates too much now to be well liked.
Working at Paramount Leisin had a problem in those films that he did which were musicals. Most of the scores he worked with were fairly mediocre. It's true that twice standards appeared in his films, but they were really rare cases: "Cocktales for Two" appeared in MURDER AT THE VANITIES, and "Mona Lisa" came out of CAPTAIN CAREY, U.S.A. But the rest of the score for MURDER AT THE VANITIES was forgettable. "Mona Lisa" was the only tune in CAPTAIN CAREY. It shouldn't have been this way - Leisin's studio had Rogers and Hart working for it in the early 1930s. Why couldn't he have been assigned to a project with them? The score for SWING HIGH, SWING LOW, is pleasant but forgettable. Unfortunately, the movie is centered in the entertainment world, as Fred Macmurray demonstrates great talents as a trumpet player (he even works Carole Lombard into his act by looping his arms around her when he blows his trumpet). The song (sung by Lombard) about how her lover's playing thrills her, is important to the plot. It works in the film, but it would have been better if the song was more memorable.
There is a picaresque style to the film - it begins on an ocean liner that Lombard works on, as a manicurist. She is constantly being bullied by her boss Franklin Pangborn (the ship's barber). Then the ship is entering into the Panama Canal, and we see MacMurray as a soldier, who's enlistment is ending shortly. Their first scene together has a nice Leisin touch in it: MacMurray is talking to Lombard, she on the deck of the boat and he on the edge of the wall of the lock. Nice way to keep the action going while the dialog hits a dull bit.
The film follows the rise and fall of the Skid Johnson (MacMurray) as he meets Lombard, and begins his reputation as a trumpet player, but meets the "other woman" in the film, Dorothy Lamore. The best moments in the film deal with the collapse of the relationship with Lombard, and his collapse as a jazz trumpeter (his appearance and need for alcohol is very untypical for a MacMurray character - even his darker figures like Walter Neff or Mr. Sheldrake or the naval officer who pushes the Caine Mutiny did not demonstrate a reliance on alcohol.
Lombard is good as the woman loved but wronged by MacMurray. Lamore has little to really do - possibly the film had more scenes with her in it, but one stands out is her attempt to get MacMurray onto the wagon again. In his opening bit Pangborn is fine. Rarely noticed in films, small part actor Carl Judels is effective as a fair weather fan/friend of MacMurray, who drops him as he goes under (though he gives him a hand-out).
Charles Butterworth is as trivial in this film as usual, but he does have one moment when he looks sheepishly at his hands on the keyboard of a piano in the rooms he, his girlfriend, MacMurray, and Lombard share - his red faced appearance is due to embarrassment about a lie that MacMurray is insisting is true. It was a nice, subtle moment. If only his subtlety had been in his acting rather than his moments of diffident humor.
... so what's in those missing 10 minutes that were so horrible they had to cut them out from the original film? We were three years into the film production code... Barbara Stanwyck had starred in the original play, but here, Carole Lombard plays Maggie King. Co star Fred MacMurray is probably best known for "Double Indemnity", with Stanwyck, as well as his hit TV show "My Three Sons". Keep an eye out for a young Dorothy Lamour (Bob Hope movies) and the too-fabulous Franklin Pangborn, who spiced up just about every film put on tape. Of course, he works in the beauty salon on the ship! Add the sublime Charles Butterworth and Anthony Quinn. Good timing and clever banter at the beginning. Maggie's buddy Ella is played by Jean Dixon, who was the best friend in "Holiday" and "My Man Godfrey". In "Swing High", Maggie the tourist meets a soldier who is leaving the army. Maggie misses her boat when it leaves port and gets tangled up with the soldier. The dashing 20-something Quinn has a small scene at the local bar in Panama where Johnson (MacMurray) has been playing the trumpet. Maggie, Harry (Butterworth), and Skid band together and try to figure out how to get back to the States. Some good singing by Lamour. Good (but brief) acting performance by Cecil Cunningham as "Murph", the wise, helpful owner of the local saloon in Panama. While others have lamented at how bad it is, it wasn't so awful, and is even a little exotic, with the fake Central America locale setting for the first half of the film.
I loved it! Fred MacMurray is wonderful as Skid Johnson, a somewhat conceited, proud yet at the same time very vulnerable saxophone player who is in love with Maggie (Carole Lombard), who's always there for him. They meet in Panama after Maggie comes off a ship and end up in a bar with Anthony Quinn. Tony gets punched in the nose after her insults Maggie by thinking her a loose woman - all because she took off her hat in public. Big brawl and Maggie ends up stuck in Panama. Romance. Carole and Arthur are great together. Maggie is always there for him whenever he needs her. She urges him to go to NY where (well watch the movie and find out). They have these wonderful scenes together where she sings in his arms while he plays the saxophone. I definitely recommend it.
Cruising through the Panama Canal, pretty Carole Lombard (as Maggie
King) resists the advances of date-hungry Fred MacMurray (as Skid
Johnson), who is celebrating his last day in the US Army. When Ms.
Lombard jumps ship, Mr. MacMurray manages to put himself in her
driver's seat. The couple fight and bicker while dating, which you can
safely bet means love and marriage are on deck. Credit the film will
putting a little delay in that department, however. Lombard gets
interested when MacMurray pulls out his trumpet. He turns out to be a
professional musician. Eventually MacMurray's boozing "Skid" hits the
The stars are an attractive couple with natural chemistry, but there is too little spark in this middling story. Moreover, MacMurray plays a character written with little appeal. Lombard's character seems not too bright. You can tell "Skid" has a problem. It's too bad, because MacMurray's performance is fine. Watch for a young and handsome Anthony Quinn to try to pick up Lombard, and brawl with MacMurray. Also, lovely young Dorothy Lamour (as Anita Alvarez) plays the exotic other woman. Charles Butterworth (as Harry) is MacMurray's loyal male pal, and Franklin Pangborn appears too briefly. It's cast high, but swings low.
****** Swing High, Swing Low (3/12/37) Mitchell Leisen ~ Fred MacMurray, Carole Lombard, Dorothy Lamour, Charles Butterworth
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've always liked Fred MacMurray, andalthough her career was
tragically cut shortI think Carole Lombard is fun to watch. Pair these
two major and attractive stars together, add top supporting players
like Jean Dixon, Anthony Quinn, Dorothy Lamour and Charles Butterworth,
give them a romantic script, team them with noted director Mitchell
Leisen and you get
a mediocre movie experience.
Skid Johnson (Fred) and Maggie (Carole) "meet cute" during her visit to the Panama Canal, and spend the next few weeks falling in love. Skid's a great trumpeter, so he embarks on a musical career, which is predictably meteoric in both its rise and fall. During his climb to musical stardom, he neglects Maggie, who later inspires him to start over after he's hit rock bottom. Ah, yes it's the true Hollywood happy ending, which comes none too soon.
Stars and a director of this caliber should guarantee success, but this movie is so predictable and slow-paced that it's difficult to watch at times. The early scenes set in Panama are so draggy that they seem to go on forever, and later an alcoholic Skid just wanders endlessly in New York. Fred and Carole try their best, but the tired script and S-L-O-W direction just don't give them a chance. Even the final scene, in which Maggie encourages Skid to rise from the ashes of alcohol and disappointment, just doesn't ring true.
This movie should be seen once to watch some early performances from stars MacMurray and Lombard. However, I guarantee that watching it will seem to take about 48 hours.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There's a lot of seriousness amidst the comedy of the Broadway classic
"Burlesque", and in its three movie versions, the plot was altered for
various changes in structure. "Swing High, Swing Low" is a semi-musical
with Fred MacMurray as a trumpet player who marries the pretty Carole
Lombard but drifts apart from her as his career soars. Along the way,
he meets Latin spitfire Dorothy Lamour who has no hesitation in going
out of her own way to seduce MacMurray, leading to the conclusion
Lombard believes to have MacMurray cheating on her with Lamour. She
moves on to a potentially more loyal partner, but he's more than
determined to get her back.
The film starts off amusingly with Lombard and pal Jean Dixon (not the famous psychic of the later day 1900's) working as beauty experts on a cruise ship and getting into trouble when they get distracted while working on someone's hair. What is distracting them? Crossing the Panama Canal, and MacMurray's wisecracks towards Lombard as he tries to get the perky Lombard to go out with him. Of course, she eventually agrees (sort of having no choice being dismissed from her job) and they end up working in a shady nightclub run by Cecil Cunningham. MacMurray leads the band with his trumpet and she sings, but he gets a big opportunity to go to the Big Apple and that's where the scheming Lamour takes advantage.
A great cast helps this sometimes slow-moving and somewhat overlong comedy up to being better than it would have been with less talented performers. In addition to Lombard, MacMurray, Dixon and Lamour, there's the always funny Ben Blue, a very young Anthony Quinn and an amusing Franklin Pangborn as the beauty shop boss on the steamship. In some ways, this reminded me a lot of "Young Man With a Horn", particularly one dramatic scene where MacMurray is desperately trying to pawn his trumpet to get some money. A lavish look provided by the excellent director Mitchell Leisen adds to giving the film some style. Unfortunately, it's missing the spark to be consistently enjoyable, lacking substance and much needed more music.
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