When it started making talking pictures, Hollywood intensified its plundering of Broadway.
No, really. Hollywood, pressed for dialogue and actors that studios felt were trained to deliver it, began luring Talent to California with promises of sunshine, opportunity and Money.
Although Broadway has long been a place where Hollywood shops for ideas, the advent of sound escalated things: Now there was Talking! Singing! Dancing!
As expected, some plays made for good films; others were, well, uneven.
One of the latter is Swing High, Swing Low (1937), starring Fred MacMurray and Carole Lombard. This is the story of a talented musician who lets his ego Run Amok, and the poor sap of a woman who loves him.
The pair meet in Panama, where Lombard is on furlough from her cruise ship job. When she misses her boat’s departure, one thing leads to another…and she and MacMurray get married.
MacMurray is a talented trumpet player, content to entertain folks in the local night club. However, when he catches the eye of a Broadway producer, Lombard persuades him to go to New York – with the proviso he send for her when he starts earning Real Dough.
Alas! Nightclub performer Dorothy Lamour, who’s also in love with MacMurray (and who can blame her?) runs Interference. It doesn’t take much for MacMurray to be dazzled by Lamour, wealth and fame. Too bad about ol’ what’s-her-name, stuck in Panama.
You might think Lombard is Better Off without that schmuck MacMurray, and normally we’d agree. However, MacMurray has a way of gaining your sympathy and – even though you want to smack him up the side of the head – you wish he and Lombard would reunite.
Swing High, Swing Low is adapted from the 1927 Broadway play, Burlesque, which ran for 372 performances. In the play, the male lead is a dancer, but the character was changed to a musician in the film, because MacMurray wasn’t the dancing type.
As the title suggests, the film opens on a high – a screwball comedy, even, and the witty banter is a treat.
For example, early in the film, Lombard’s cruise ship stops in the Panama canal. She calls down to MacMurray on shore, asking him to move so she can see the scenery down there. He replies, “I am the scenery down here.”
But what goes up must come down, and when the script decides to get All Serious, the sparkles vanish, leaving us with Lombard’s anxiety and MacMurray’s manic behaviour.
Now, this drama sounds unappealing, and it would be if it weren’t for one thing. As wonderful as Lombard is, it’s MacMurray’s performance of a man fuelled by Ego, then Despondency, that keeps us engaged.
One of the first signs of MacMurray’s ego Taking Over is the scene in a café where he sees a sandwich has been named after him. He asks what’s in the sandwich and is told, “Ham and cheese.” The pre-fame MacMurray would have found this amusing, but the famous MacMurray doesn’t.
When Lombard finally arrives in New York – no thanks to MacMurray – she announces she’s getting a divorce and going to Europe. This pushes MacMurray Over The Edge. He throws a surprise farewell party to show he doesn’t Care, at which he talks too loudly and behaves strangely.
After Lombard decamps, he loses interest in music, and life, and wanders the streets, rumpled and unshaven. He’s politely escorted out of clubs and restaurants because proprietors don’t want him around the “nice” customers. Even the army turns him down when he tries to re-enlist.
MacMurray is utterly convincing as a sunken man, lost in depression. His eyes are soulless, his body lethargic, as though he’s neither alive nor dead.
Although he treats Lombard with callous disregard and proves himself a Real Jerk, we can’t help but feel for him. “Pull yourself together,” we want to shout. “You can do it!”
Swing High, Swing Low isn’t the best film Carole Lombard or Fred MacMurray ever made, but it does have many wonderful moments. We recommend it, if you don’t expect too much.
This post is part of the FRED MacMURRAY BLOGATHON hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies.
Swing High, Swing Low: starring Carole Lombard, Fred MacMurray, Charles Butterworth. Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Written by Virginia Van Upp & Oscar Hammerstein II. Paramount Pictures, 1937, B&W, 92 mins.