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. (***)