Swing Shift

Dir: Jonathan Demme, 1984. Starring: Goldie Hawn, Ed Harris, Kurt Russell, Christine Lahti. Drama.
Swing Shift

Usually when movie lovers talk about legendary lost works in which auteur directors had their films taken from them and butchered by the American studios that produced them, they’re referring to “holy grails” of cinema such as Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924) or Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). But I recently stumbled across an account of another supposed lost classic, Swing Shift—Jonathan Demme’s tribute to America’s “Greatest Generation” of World War II and the women on the home front who found a new sense of self and independence by working for the war effort in the factories.

I actually really love the movie Swing Shift as it is but I hadn’t seen it in years. I remember my mom taking her mother to see it and letting me tag along. My grandma was part of that generation of women who did what they could for the war effort, whether it meant volunteering at the local USO or planting a Victory Garden in their backyards. By 1984, when the movie was released, that generation was elderly while I was only six. Seeing the movie as a kid, I think I just really loved the sentimental look at the U.S. during the 1940s. Taking place in Southern California, in Santa Monica, between the attack on Pearl Harbor and VJ Day, the film has a melancholic feel, with the sky looking perpetually overcast and the music usually something slow and beautiful, such as one of Jo Stafford’s torch songs. And though I don't remember if Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade" is on the soundtrack it really should be.

Goldie Hawn is charming as Kay, a naive young housewife living in one of several identical tiny Santa Monica courtyard bungalows. When the attack on Pearl Harbor stuns the nation, her husband, Jack, played by Ed Harris, signs up the next day. Kay’s neighbor, Hazel, played by the wonderfully tough Eve Arden-esque Christine Lahti in full-on Andrews Sisters get up, lives across from Kay. At first Hazel eyes Kay with disdain because Jack used to call her a tramp for being a nightclub singer (Jack’s kind of a loser). Eventually, once they start working at a local munitions factory together they form a tightknit friendship. When cool guy jazz trumpeter Mike “Lucky” Lockhart (Kurt Russell) takes a shine to Kay, she initially resists but soon falls in love with him. Complications, inevitably, arise.

Watching the movie again for the first time in years I am certainly aware of the film’s notoriously bad pacing. Scenes that might explain where things are going seem missing. In fact, they were missing. A complicated love triangle comes to a bizarrely quick end. Once Jack comes home he quickly forgives Kay and everything is back to normal with Lucky conveniently sent out of the picture. With so many plot holes, it’s hard to get a read on Lucky. He’s charming, though not terribly sympathetic. Things wrap up too neatly to make a whole lot of sense. Audiences must have thought so, too, because the film was quickly forgotten.

What happened, supposedly, is that Goldie Hawn didn’t like Demme’s ideas for directing, and since she had approval over every scene, she cut his version of the film down to whatever she felt made her look best. It’s really tragic because some who’ve seen the director’s cut say it was one of the best films of the 1980s. Still, I can’t regard it as a total loss. It’s a lovely, if uneven, film. Demme is one of the great humanist directors of our era (with the exception of Silence of the Lambs, I suppose). He loves depicting community and he is one of the best directors of women I have ever seen. It’s a nostalgic film, sure, but the small triumphs and tragedies of this group of Americans so overwhelmed by what was happening in their world but determined to do their part are rendered beautifully. Despite its problems the film is a wonderful tribute to them.

Posted by:
Jed Leland
Jun 9, 2014 5:36pm
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