Swing Shift (1984): Underrated Classic with Caveats

Swing_shiftAside from films actually produced during the war years, I’m not sure if I can think of a film that highlights the homefront to the degree of Swing Shift. The soundtrack is also perfectly antiquated (sans Carly Simon) fitting the era and mood to add another definite dimension. It effectively takes us back with the auditory cues of Glenn Miller, Hoagy Carmichael, and the rest.

We read in our history books about Rosie the Riveter and women gaining a newfound freedom as they fell into work formerly held only by men. But here this reality is put into practice in a manner that makes tangible sense.

The events of the war happen to them as they walk along the pier, sit in their living rooms, or do their work. Instantly they become current events.

We understand the certain amount of independence women would have been allowed in this time, where they were given a part to play in the struggle against the Axis powers. War can simultaneously cause deep wells of tragedy and bring us the greatest joys.

Our relationships become entrenched with a profound camaraderie and yet we can hurt the ones we love. We change and they change. Things very rarely remain the same after something so cataclysmic.

There are several intentional and formative relational dynamics in Swing Shift. It is about two working women: Goldie Hawn and Christine Lathi. They are by each other’s side through the thick and thin of friendship. Putting in a solid day’s work and then getting dolled up to go out on the town. They’re inseparable. However, sometimes it’s relationships like these that can suffer the most.

It is about a husband (Ed Harris) and a wife (Hawn): one going off to war and the other staying behind — prepared to walk alone. This isn’t what they were planning, but it’s happened and they move forward through the paces of it the best they can. And yet life gets in the way — where time and space separates them — and makes the waiting and the worry all the more difficult.

It’s about a woman and a man who cannot contain the genuine feelings they foster for one another (In real life Kirk Russell and Goldie Hawn fell in love and never looked back). Because he is present, in the flesh, good-natured and available in a way her husband never was — even when he was around. And yet Lucky (Russell), when he’s not riding his motorbike or playing the trumpet, is a wounded soul in his own right. War only works to exacerbate the clouded emotions of the day and that goes for all these relationships. They are interconnected issues.

But I think this is the best compliment that can be paid to the story. Because sometimes it looks a bit like a TV soap, and the story doesn’t always fall together, and yet there is a broader sense of what this movie is and what the focal points must be. This I believe we can attribute to Jonathan Demme. It’s meant to be more than conventional romance and we get tastes of that.

I say tastes because Swing Shift also has to be one of the most notorious cases of artistic tampering, right up there with The Magnificent Ambersons or Terminal Station. Warner Bros., at the behest of Goldie Hawn, edited the movie and reconstructed the story after Demme had finished principal photography.

Aside from story or continuity questions causing a few head scratches, the issues seem to go deeper still. I am by no means an insider, but from what I can gather, Hawn’s version tried to center the story around her and Russell. There’s an obvious reason for this. They have more than chemistry. They have romance. However, it also attempted to simplify her image and rectify any conflict we might have with her character. In essence, the goal was to make her more likable.

It causes her to maintain some sense of moral dignity and still the movie ends on an unfulfilling, empty note. It’s as if some kind of greater catharsis was possible, and we are robbed of it all with a final tear and a whimper. The resolution is not quite a cop-out as it is an exercise in indecision. The picture dissolves when something more complex, something more evocative, was probably called for and just waiting to be excavated.

Someday I hope the Demme version might go back into circulation, not just so we can see the movie as it was meant to be seen, from the untarnished vantage point of its creator. That’s part of it. But there’s also a sense Demme attempted to develop something more full-bodied and well-contoured.

Hollywood is always obsessed with primary action — the characters at the center of the story — but so often what is most interesting is what remains on the periphery. The supporting characters or the elements of the world that make it come off the screen and feel real.

One is reminded of the moment a smartly dressed soldier boy comes up to one of the swing shift members (Holly Hunter). He’s there to give her the horrible news, and she knows it before the words leave his lips. She falls onto him and he apologizes — he’s never done this before. How horrible and pitiful and lovely it is because it feels so innocent and honest.

Moments like these are a testament to a movie with so much to offer, bubbling up under the surface. It’s a shame it was so badly mangled. We must be thankful for what we have and hold out that someday we might get to see the cut that kept to Demme’s vision. Here’s to hoping. For what, it’s worth, Swing Shift might well be an underrated classic with a couple substantial caveats to include.

3.5/5 Stars

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