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Swing Fever (1943) may be far from a great movie, but it remains of interest as a true product of its time and as a showcase for familiar character actors, a popular-at-the-time bandleader, a superstar guest vocalist, and even a bit player who went on to become one of the screen's most entrancing beauties. The story is a silly trifle involving a prizefighter, a manager, and a composer with a hypnotic eye -- and it's all simply an excuse for several musical interludes featuring the music of Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, with vocalist Marilyn Maxwell also getting the chance to act.
Damon Runyon once said of Maxwell, "She's one of those girls who set a guy's pulse to racing by the merest glance in his direction." Forgotten today, Maxwell flirted with stardom for most of her career but never quite made the jump. Her full birth-name was Marvel Marilyn Maxwell, and in 1942 she shot screen tests at Paramount and MGM. MGM offered her a contract, but only if she would change the name "Marvel." She simply deleted it, going with her middle name instead. She was then placed in a string of small roles over the next couple of years, but some of these pictures were quite notable, such as Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), Thousands Cheer (1943), Pilot #5 (1943) and Best Foot Forward (1943). Later she had bigger roles in Summer Holiday (1948) and the exceptional films Champion (1949), made on loan-out to United Artists, and New York Confidential (1955), a Warner Brothers release. Through all this time, Maxwell remained a popular radio player and nightclub entertainer.
The Kay Kyser band, with whom Maxwell performs in Swing Fever, was featured in a few other films in the early 1940s, sometimes just for a number or two. Audiences definitely knew Kyser, however: he was such a pop culture phenomenon that his weekly radio show drew an estimated regular audience of 20 million. Swing Fever was Kyser's first film after spending 18 months touring Army camps and playing for WWII servicemen.
The one and only Lena Horne also pops up here to sing one song. Horne was placed in specialty numbers in lots of movies during this period, usually in such a way that the numbers could be deleted from prints shown in southern locations. The singer was also treated with makeup to try and lighten her skin tone. Horne later said of these days at MGM: "I was always told to remember I was the first of my race to be given a chance in the movies, and I had to be careful not to step out of line, not to make a fuss. It was all a lie. The only thing that wasn't a lie was that I did make money; if I didn't, they wouldn't have kept me."
Swing Fever was shot under the title Right About Face, and the title change must have come extremely late in the game, for some trade reviews exist under the original title. In any event, critics were not kind. The New York Times said, "Lena Horne sings one song, 'Indifferent,' which is a comment upon the whole show." Variety thought the film "misses fire because of flimsy scripting and absence of effective gag situations." The critic added, "Maxwell flashes an exceptionally attractive profile, though not quite as fetching when facing the camera."
A ubiquitous screen presence in the 1930s and early 1940s, Nat Pendleton appears here as "Killer" Kennedy, one of his final movies before retirement. The role was strictly business-as-usual for a character actor who specialized in dim strongmen and befuddled cops. Off screen, Pendleton was actually highly educated -- and sometimes embarrassed by the "dem 'n dose" dialogue he was asked to spew. Later he recalled taking his grandmother to one of his pictures. "The way I murdered grammar," he said, "almost murdered Grandma!"
Elsewhere in the cast, look for prolific character actors William Gargan and Morris Ankrum, fan favorite Mike Mazurki as a wrestler, and last but certainly not least, 21-year-old Ava Gardner as a receptionist, one of many uncredited bit parts the beauty had in the early 1940s.
Producer: Irving Starr
Director: Tim Whelan
Screenplay: Nat Perrin, Warren Wilson (screenplay); Matt Brooks, Joseph Hoffman (story)
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Stephen Goosson
Music: George Stoll (uncredited)
Film Editing: Ferris Webster
Cast: Kay Kyser (Lowell Blackford), Marilyn Maxwell (Ginger Gray), William Gargan ('Waltzy' Malone), Nat Pendleton ('Killer' Kennedy), Lena Horne (Herself), Curt Bois (Nick Sirocco), Morris Ankrum (Dan Conlon), Andrew Tombes (Dr. Clyde L. Star), Maxie Rosenbloom (Rags), Clyde Fillmore (Mr. Nagen).
by Jeremy Arnold