When America marched off to war, the women marched into the factory. From then on…nothing was the same.
Sometimes, no matter how many great people you jam into a movie, you can still end up with a clunker, and Swing Shift proves it. This film, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, is one of the earliest screen efforts by director Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia), and is jam-packed with wall-to-wall talent. But, in the end, it just doesn't add up to much.
Facts of the Case
The film opens on December 6, 1941, as Kay Walsh (Goldie Hawn, Town & Country, The Banger Sisters) and her husband Jack (Ed Harris, The Hours, A Beautiful Mind) are content with their idyllic and peaceful suburban existence. A day later, America is at war, and Jack, feeling a duty to his country, is quick to enlist, signing up for a position in the Navy. When he finally ships out, Kay is left feeling stranded and bored, with no source of income other than what she is sent by Jack, and no friends of any great significance. So she decides to get a job, and ends up working with a number of other wives in a factory assembling airplane parts and other war-related machinery, the idea of which makes the existing male factory workers uncomfortable, to say the least.
It's through this new job that Kay meets and becomes friends with Hazel (Christine Lahti, Chicago Hope), a single, second-rate lounge singer to whom Kay has been a neighbor but has never met, and with Lucky (Kurt Russell, Dark Blue, 3000 Miles to Graceland), a lead man in the factory who immediately becomes attracted to Kay. She resists his advances for a while, but soon succumbs, and the two begin a torrid and wind-swept romance that carries on throughout the war. But when Jack finally arrives home expecting to find his wife waiting for him, everyone—especially Kay—finds out just how much they've grown in the turbulent years since that fateful conflict began.
The postproduction story of Swing Shift is a long and troubled one (recently chronicled by intrepid movie columnist Jeffrey Wells—see the related article at Movie Poop Shoot, linked from the Accomplices section of the Scales of Justice). The film was shot and edited by its director, Jonathan Demme, and was subsequently taken out of his hands by Warner Bros. and recut in order to make the characterization of star Goldie Hawn appear a bit more flattering. It is this retooled version that was released into theaters in 1984, and has now found its way onto DVD. And since it's likely that most of us will never see the Demme-preferred cut of the film (which Wells recently saw and found lacking in its own right, but which writer Steve Vineberg claimed was light-years better than the release version in a 1990 article in Sight and Sound Magazine), we're left to wonder what might have been while viewing what is. And as for that…well, it ain't pretty.
Actually, "not pretty" isn't exactly the terminology I'd use to describe the release version—in fact, pretty might be all it is. Shot by longtime Demme collaborator Tak Fujimoto, the film's beautiful cinematography, which captures the sun-drenched World War II atmosphere with striking clarity, appears to be the only thing of substance to have safely survived the extensive recutting of the film. The rest, I'm afraid, is a jumble: a mishmash of thinly sketched characters—most of whom are lacking in dimension—and ill-conceived plotting that attempts to gloss over a relatively long period of time (four or so years) in only 100 minutes. I'm not sure how much the Demme version rectified this (supposedly it runs roughly the same length), but what I do know is that this one just doesn't cut it.
The first question that comes to mind is, just how much reworking of the Hawn character was done? Her Kay begins the film as something of a dolt, and is supposed to mature throughout the course of events as she's swept into the affair with Russell's Lucky. But the effect of her growing maturity never really blossoms, and her motivations throughout the film are almost always self-serving and immature, so that by the time the ending rolls around, there has been very little "growth" in evidence. Late in the film, Lahti's Hazel character calls Kay a "whore," after she herself is caught—by Kay—sleeping with Lucky. In effect, Hazel is absolutely right, because while Hazel is in fact sleeping with her friend's lover, Kay fails to see the hypocrisy in her argument, as she has been cheating on her husband with Lucky the whole time. Because of this, the final reconciliation of the characters feels false, as Kay, who is supposed to have grown and matured in some way, hasn't really grown at all.
It is, in fact, Christine Lahti who gives the film's best performance, even if she's shafted somewhat in the screen-time department. Lahti was honored for the film with a Best Supporting Actress nomination at the 1984 Academy Award™. Had her role been given a bit more room to breathe (as it supposedly was in the Demme version), Lahti may have actually won the Oscar. Her Hazel character is everything that the rest of the characters are not—sincere and rounded. Hazel's dreams of love and success are far less self-righteous than Kay's pithy messing around, and it is her character, not Hawn's, that provides for the release version's only genuinely heartfelt moment, when she is reconciled with her former lover, Biscuits (Fred Ward).
The rest of the women in the factory (among them a young Holly Hunter) are all caricatures, and appear to be there only to provide a backbone for the film's major events. None of them are given anything resembling character shading, so in their more tender moments, as when one is informed of her husband's death in the war, the sentiment is rendered meaningless because the characters are so thinly drawn. The men, on the other hand, are similarly thin, especially Ed Harris' Jack, who is given so little shading that we feel zero sympathy for him when he finally is told of his wife's affair. It's all done to make Hawn look better, but as mentioned previously, the effort is largely unsuccessful.
At best, the release version of Swing Shift represents what happens when studio tinkering gets in the way of a director's vision, though this case might have been helped had Warner Bros. been able to put the Demme cut of the film on the same disc. As it is, the film remains a failed effort in most respects. Anyone considering renting it should do so only out of curiosity to see what happens when a director's work is taken out of his or her hands and reworked to fit the needs of the studio that's producing it.
Warner's DVD release of Swing Shift faithfully reproduces Tak Fujimoto's luscious photography with crystalline clarity, making for the best-looking print of the film to be seen in ages, without question. Though there are noticeable amounts of grain in certain instances, the 1.85:1 digital transfer sparkles, and if I didn't know it, I'd have no idea the film was made twenty years ago. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono (with an alternate French recording), and it's a decent if unremarkable track that nevertheless gets the job done. Subtitles are included in English, French, and Spanish, and the film's only extra is its original theatrical trailer. This represents something of a disappointment, as it would've been nice if Warner had thrown together a 10-minute documentary detailing the sordid history of the film, in which they might have called Demme back in to argue his case. Was the company too timid to reveal its own former bone-headedness? Alas, we'll never know. C'est la vie.
If you happen to come across the Swing Shift disc in a video store and read director Jonathan Demme's name on the credits, be warned—this is not a Demme film. Despite a gorgeous DVD reproduction, nothing can hide the fact that the movie remains substantially unremarkable, made more so by the studio's resistance (or simple inability due to lack of the proper film elements) to releasing the director's original version on disc, or at least explain the history behind the film. As it is, discriminating viewers are urged to avoid the disc, except in cases of curiosity.
Producers of the DVD are let off on a technicality (the lovely transfer), but the studio remains guilty of tampering with a director's work, whether he was considered great at the time of release or not. Case dismissed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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