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Fred MacMurray wasn't much of a dancer. The versatile star could do just about everything else, from screwball comedy to pitch-dark noir, but when Paramount cast him in Swing High, Swing Low (1937), based on a Broadway play called Burlesque, the protagonist's show-biz profession was changed from hoofer to trumpeter so MacMurray's inferior footwork wouldn't be a problem. This raises the question of why his character's nickname is Skid, a moniker more suitable for a sliding-and-gliding dancer than a young man with a horn. But that's less important than the quality of MacMurray's acting, and this semi-serious musical finds him in good form. Ditto for costar Carole Lombard, who made up for MacMurray's limitation by learning to tap dance before the camera rolled. She also makes her on-screen singing debut here, and while she doesn't exactly triumph in this department, her throaty voice is generally easy on the ears.
The story begins on a cruise ship passing through the Panama Canal, where part-time hairdresser Maggie King starts trading banter with Skid Johnson, a GI who'll return to small-time jazz playing after his discharge from the army in a few hours. She doesn't much like him, but he wheedles his way into her company by posing as a tour guide, and soon they're partying at a nightclub where Skid starts a brawl to make a masher stop pestering her. Next stop: jail and the local courthouse, where they're delayed long enough for Maggie to miss her ship's departure time. Stuck with no place to stay, she moves into the decrepit house that Skid shares with his friend Harry, a piano player. Maggie now begins to realize that the nightclub brawl wasn't entirely a result of chivalry on Skid's part he's polite and charming when he wants to be, but he also has a lot of bad habits, such as drinking and fighting and gambling. Hoping to boost his self-respect and jump-start his musical career, Maggie talks a saloonkeeper into hiring him as an act, and then she joins him on the bandstand, crooning a tune that Skid and Harry wrote in a rare moment of inspiration. A crisis looms when Skid gets too chummy with Anita Alvarez, an old flame of his, but all seems well when he proposes to Maggie and she accepts.
The future looks even brighter when Skid gets an offer to play in a sophisticated New York nightspot. Maggie pushes him to take the gig, promising to follow him as soon as he's successful enough to send for her. He heads north without delay, and a few eighth notes later he is Manhattan's biggest trumpet star. But there's still a cloud on the horizon: Anita Alvarez, who's appearing at the same New York nitery where Skid now plays. Hoping to steal him away from Maggie, she joins him in his drinking, encourages his gambling, and eggs on his irresponsibility, distracting him so much that he fails to send Maggie the boat fare she needs to join him. Maggie borrows the money and comes to New York on her own, sending Skid a telegram to say she's on her way. Anita intercepts the telegram and lures Skid into her hotel room; when Maggie calls up Anita to ask where he might be, the drunken trumpeter comes out of his alcoholic haze just long enough to answer the phone. The sound of his voice confirms Maggie's worst fears, and the rest of the story unfolds along familiar lines: Maggie demands a divorce, Skid goes on the skids, a friend gives him one last shot at success, and a final reprise of the special song accompanies a semi-happy ending in a decidedly minor key.
Swing High, Swing Low was the second movie adaptation of the stage play Burlesque; it was preceded in 1929 by The Dance of Life, where Skid was a dancer and comedian played by Hal Skelly, and it was followed by a 1948 remake, When My Baby Smiles at Me, with Dan Dailey and Betty Grable as troubled vaudevillians. Paramount wanted Irene Dunne and Gary Cooper to star in the 1937 production, but when Cooper demurred his part went to Bing Crosby in that draft of the screenplay Skid was a singer and then to MacMurray, who had worked well with Lombard in Hands Across the Table (1935) and The Princess Comes Across (1936) and would appear with her again in True Confession, another 1937 release. Paramount put solid resources into Swing High, Swing Low, signing the meticulous Mitchell Leisen to direct it and sending a technical crew on a two-month jaunt to Panama City for research before constructing the sets, which look reasonably authentic apart from some cheesy rear-projection scenes. MacMurray's mellow trumpet tones were provided by two members of Victor Young's orchestra, and Leisen took unusual care to match the musicians' on-screen "playing" with the overdubbed music on the soundtrack. The studio's investments of time and talent paid off nicely, making the picture one of the year's most profitable entries.
Although the play it's based on had its Broadway run in the 1927-28 season, before anyone knew a Great Depression was just around the corner, the mood of Swing High, Swing Low resembles that of other 1930s musicals the classic 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, for instance that combine feisty dialogue and catchy tunes with a Depression-era anxiety that festers beneath the surface and eventually bursts into the open. The opening scenes are pure screwball comedy, but it isn't long before Skid's dark side starts creeping into view, and just when you think Maggie has done away with his inner demons, they race right back and ruin everything in sight.
The film's most powerful scene is also the strangest: Maggie is mourning the death of their marriage when Skid barges into her hotel room, not alone and repentant but surrounded by friends and bursting with neurotic energy, chattering and joking as if a hefty drink and a raucous laugh were all he needed to win her back again. The subsequent scenes of Skid's decline seem tame by comparison, yet MacMurray's heartfelt acting and Lombard's quiet sensitivity make even these convincing. Important contributions also come from Charles Butterworth as Harry the pianist, a guy so laid back that Hoagy Carmichael seems edgy by comparison, and from Dorothy Lamour as Anita the home wrecker. (This was only Lamour's second movie, and Lombard immediately packed her off to makeup wizard Wally Westmore for emergency eyebrow work.) Anthony Quinn plays the Panamanian cad who goads Skid into the nightclub brawl, and Franklin Pangborn is his usual inimitable self as a harried hairdresser. Lending additional spice are Ted Tetzlaff's smooth camerawork and musical numbers by several good songwriters.
Burlesque was a prestigious Broadway hit in its day, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Oscar Levant in its original run and returning in 1946 with Bert Lahr and Jean Parker in the leads. But even with those credentials, it's hard to imagine the play being as odd and interesting as its 1937 screen version. MacMurray wasn't much of a dancer, but his chemistry with Lombard is fascinating to behold.
Producer: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Virginia Van Upp and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on a play by George Manker Watters and Arthur Hopkins
Cinematographer: Ted Tetzlaff
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Ernst Fegt
Music: Victor Young, Phil BouteljeSongwriters: Ralph Rainger, Leo Robin, Sam Coslow, Al SiegelWith: Carole Lombard (Maggie King), Fred MacMurray (Skid Johnson), Charles Butterworth (Harry), Jean Dixon (Ella), Dorothy Lamour (Anita Alvarez), Harvey Stephens (Harvey Howell), Cecil Cunningham (Murphy), Charles Arnt (Georgie), Franklin Pangborn (Henri), Anthony Quinn (The Don), Charles Judels (Tony).
by David Sterritt