Friday, November 30, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Swing High, Swing Low (1937) at UCLA

It was back to Westwood tonight for another marvelous evening in UCLA's Mitchell Leisen series, "That Signature Style."

Tonight was a particular treat, 35mm prints of HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941), starring Olivia de Havilland, Charles Boyer, and Paulette Goddard, and SWING HIGH, SWING LOW (1937) starring Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray. With those casts, entertainment is pretty much guaranteed.

I had only seen HOLD BACK THE DAWN once before, when it was briefly available on YouTube; like many Paramount films of the early '40s, it's not out on DVD and is very difficult to see, so it was a real thrill to see it in a lovely print on a huge screen.

An extra-special treat this evening was the presence of Olivia de Havilland's daughter Gisele in the audience. I've been privileged to watch films this year with the children of Spencer Tracy, Alan Ladd, Macdonald Carey, and Geraldine Fitzgerald in the audience; I always wonder what it must be like to watch one's parent "alive" on screen decades ago. Happily, Olivia de Havilland is still very much with us and at last report in excellent health at age 96.

Watching HOLD BACK THE DAWN for the second time, my impressions were much the same as the first viewing -- a lovely, surprisingly undated film with an exquisite performance by de Havilland.

I rather think that Rosemary DeCamp merited a Supporting Actress nomination for her role as an Austrian refugee in HOLD BACK THE DAWN; she creates an indelible impression in just a few scenes, and while the role may seem deceptively simple, if one watches other DeCamp films, her unique ability to believably convey a variety of accents and ages is much more apparent. Watching DANGER SIGNAL (1945), PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1945), FROM THIS DAY FORWARD (1946), and NORA PRENTISS (1947), along with HOLD BACK THE DAWN, gives an excellent overview of her range and remarkable talent. DeCamp's warm, glowing performance adds much to HOLD BACK THE DAWN.

Leisen biographer David Chierichetti returned to UCLA this evening and provided an introduction. He said this was the first theatrical screening of SWING HIGH, SWING LOW in Los Angeles since its initial release in 1937.

SWING HIGH, SWING LOW was a remake of THE DANCE OF LIFE (1929), which was in turn based on the 1927 Broadway show BURLESQUE, starring Barbara Stanwyck. Chierichetti explained that when Paramount sold the rights to Fox for the Betty Grable-Dan Dailey remake WHEN MY BABY SMILES AT ME (1948), Paramount even sent Fox its print of the original film, which was not preserved. Eventually the Library of Congress was able to reconstruct the film, with missing scenes provided from Leisen's personal print.

I found SWING HIGH, SWING LOW an entertaining, if imperfect, film with a weak final act; the marvelous cast goes a long way toward making up for the film's flaws. The cast combines with the film's distinctive visual and musical styles to leave a strong impression.

Maggie (Lombard) is stranded in Panama City and takes up residence with Skip (MacMurray), a trumpet player recently discharged from the U.S. army, and his friend Harry (Charles Butterworth), a pianist. The trio work in a nightclub where Skip and Maggie are a great success performing numbers such as "A Call to Arms."

Skip and Maggie marry but their marriage is nearly defeated by a combination of his irresponsibility and the machinations of Anita (Dorothy Lamour), who wants Skip for herself.

The leads are very appealing, and it's to MacMurray's credit that his character remains likeable even when he's a jerk. The film's biggest flaw is its wrap-up; MacMurray's Skip is so devil-may-care that when he becomes a success in New York he doesn't bother to write his wife, let alone send for her -- yet conversely when she leaves him he is utterly destroyed. The 92-minute film wraps up a little too patly, given the amount of sturm and drang which precedes the ending, but despite the film's downer final section and the unanswered questions left by the ending, the film is still very enjoyable.

Typically for a Leisen film, the set design is excellent, including a quirky Panama City apartment (complete with a hen named Butch), a bar with a streetfront roll-up entrance, and an Art Deco nightclub. The music is somewhat unusual and atmospheric, with numbers like "A Call to Arms" are memorably staged; Lombard did her own singing, as recounted at Carole & Co.

Jean Dixon plays Maggie's friend Ella. Dixon is one of those '30s supporting actresses, like Ruth Donnelly and Helen Broderick, who makes any film better. Sadly she left films after her excellent role in HOLIDAY (1938).

One of the pleasures of a film of this era is spotting the up-and-coming faces which unexpectedly turn up. Anthony Quinn is easy to find in an early role as a Spanish-speaking bar patron who tries to pick up Maggie, but I was also tickled to discover Lee Bowman in a bit part as a tuxedoed nightclub-goer.

Dennis O'Keefe appears as a purser in one of his many '30s bit parts. O'Keefe had over 150 credits as a background extra or bit player before finally breaking into leading roles in MGM "B" films like THE BAD MAN OF BRIMSTONE (1937) and HOLD THAT KISS (1937). THE LEOPARD MAN (1943) and his leading roles in various film noir titles were still a few years away when this film was made.

The supporting cast also includes Franklin Pangborn, Harvey Stephens, Cecil Cunningham, Charles Arnt, and Charles Judels.

SWING HIGH, SWING LOW has been shown in the past on Turner Classic Movies. It is also available for free streaming to members of Amazon Prime. The film seems to have fallen into the public domain, with numerous DVD and VHS releases which have a reputation for being poor quality; IMDb also indicates that a 2005 DVD release was 10 minutes too short.

Mitchell Leisen: That Signature Style continues Sunday evening at UCLA with NO MAN OF HER OWN (1950) and THE MATING SEASON (1951).


Blogger dfordoom said...

I'm pretty sure I have a copy of Swing High, Swing Low floating around somewhere. I always enjoy the teaming of Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray. I must have a search for this movie and then sit down and watch it.

5:56 PM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Wow that must have been very neat to see Olivia de Havilland's daughter at the screening. This sounds like a fun experience even with the poor final act. Which film did you see with Spencer Tracy's daughter? Or was it his son?

I love reading your posts about the screenings you go to. They are always a delight to read.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I hope you enjoy it, DforDoom!

Raquel, thanks for your question -- Susie Tracy was at INHERIT THE WIND last January. Pretty neat! Sadly, her brother John died a few years ago -- here's an obituary from the Los Angeles Times.

Thank you so much for your feedback! I feel privileged to have been able to attend so many screenings in recent months and only wish some of my classic film friends from across the country could experience them with me!

Best wishes,

3:34 PM  

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