Swing Shift May 8, 2023
1 Hr., 40 Mins.
liked the version of Swing Shift (1984) I saw. It was the one handed off to theaters following a so-called hacking job by its producer-slash-star, Goldie Hawn, and her producing partner, Anthea Sylbert. Though after reading more about the World War II-era movie that might have been — the movie that director Jonathan Demme had envisioned before Hawn and Sylbert snipped much of it out on account of Hawn either not being
happy about getting upstaged by her co-stars or because she simply thought the movie “wasn’t working” — my initial good feelings started wilting into resentment.
The promising-sounding “Demme cut” on paper comes across like the movie equivalent of watching a juicy steak get prepared while you’re very hungry only to have to watch that juicy steak unceremoniously thrown away. (I should note that the Demme cut actually doesn’t purely exist as a tantalizing hypothetical: some fans have put together a bootleg version that basically reinstates what Demme had probably had in mind when he had started work on Swing Shift; common responses from those who have seen it are that the movie, as it was supposed to be, was a masterpiece, and that Hawn, if the rumors about her worrying about being upstaged or ruining her star image are to be believed, was only injuring a great performance of her own as she was snipping scores of scenes onto the cutting-room floor.)
I can’t help but think of Orson Welles when I think of Swing Shift. One reason for this is that Welles was a director who, like Demme, could relate to visions being cataclysmically tampered with by more powerful people who just didn’t get “it.” Another is that even when a mangled version of a Welles movie is in front of you, you can expect it to nonetheless be pretty good. The theatrical version of Swing Shift is pretty good, even if it ultimately doesn’t have the potency that could have been and stands mostly as a passably entertaining, soft-focused dramatic vehicle that would have worked perfectly in 1946 for somebody like Betty Grable.
The movie, set in Los Angeles, begins just as the world of husband and wife Jack and Kay (Ed Harris and Hawn) is rocked alongside the worlds of everybody else. We’ve barely settled into Swing Shift before news of Pearl Harbor's attack hits. Struck with an irrepressible need to fight for his country, Ed doesn’t hesitate before enlisting in the Navy. Though he tells her before he leaves that he doesn’t want her to work, housewife Kay, wanting both to occupy her time and do her part to support the war effort, gets a job at the nearby armaments factory.
Swing Shift’s visual lacquer resembles the kind you’d find in pristinely shot Hollywood Golden Age-era melodramas; the movie has a shiny bloominess that makes it possible for you to potentially enjoy it with the sound off, as if it were sort of a moving postcard. But the film eschews its era’s reluctance, cinematically speaking, to depict what women went through during the war as opposed to the men. Once Jack takes off, it’s the last we’ll see from him for nearly the rest of the movie. Swing Shift is more concerned with how Kay, used to only worrying about her husband’s needs, learns how to be self-sufficient — live on her own terms. (The original cut ostensibly put additional focus on her coworkers, who’re relegated mostly to memorable cameos — including one from an abruptly terrific Holly Hunter — here.)
Even though the circumstances leading to it are less than ideal, Kay seems to find true happiness in her independence, and forms what may be her closest adult friendship with her neighbor, Hazel (a movie-stealing-good Christine Lahti), a tough but gold-hearted lounge singer who quits her job (and her relationship with her lounge-owning boyfriend, played by Fred Ward) to also work in the armaments factory. But that positive development also comes with an indiscretion that feels too right not to give in to: an affair with Lucky (Kurt Russell), a boyishly handsome trumpeter who moonlights as a safety-control inspector, whose persistence in asking Kay out over a series of several months proves too powerful for her loneliness at home to fight against.
Swing Shift spans a little more than four years; its beginning and ending line up with the U.S.’s involvement in WWII. Rarely, however, does it have the feeling of emotional accumulation you’d expect from a movie covering that wide a window. It doesn’t hit you how much the movie has breezed by until Jack returns home unexpectedly and the emotional consequences of what Kay has done feel almost overwhelming.
Despite a rather clipped quality from one scene to the next, you come to care for its characters a lot anyway. That’s especially true of the women leads and the ways they uncover a new power in themselves and the camaraderie they forge; it makes the reality that their characterizations could have been even richer had the Demme cut been released feel even more painful. So often you watch a good movie and sense that, with some shuffling, it could have achieved greatness. Swing Shift, a plenty enjoyable movie even when mutilated, is made additionally bittersweet by the fact that a truly great version of it is out there somewhere, waiting for a proper release from its theoretical vault. B