Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some movies you want to like so badly, they're entertaining even when they don't work too well.
Swing Shift is a Goldie Hawn vehicle with an exceptional cast that should have transcended
itself and become a classic. Alas, it's an enjoyable but underachieving piece of fluff with a
murky production story.
When Pearl Harbor hits, factory worker Jack Walsh (Ed Harris) ships out with the
Navy, leaving his wife Kay (Goldie Hawn) behind. She becomes an aircraft worker and with other
'Rosie the Riveters' enjoys the pride and rewards of meaningful employment. This wins her new
friends like neighbor Hazel (Christine Lahti) and an unwanted romance with factory lead man Lucky
Movie stars are great, especially when they're as enchanting as Goldie Hawn. Goldie is almost always far better than the films she winds up in, and her lovable personality usually wins us over immediately. For instance, she's the one bright element in Woody Allen's leaden Everyone Says I Love You, singlehandedly giving the movie an uplift. She's the definition of a movie star -- she lights up the screen just by being there.
In the case of Swing Shift something didn't work. The media wrote it up as a troubled production in which director Jonathan Demme lost control to his star. A few rewrites and reshoots later, the movie is what we have now, a flat drama punctuated with lively characters forced into stock situations and predictable events.
The movie dramatizes the plight of America's female war workers who took the factory jobs and filled in
for the boys fighting overseas. Goldie and a wonderful Christine Lahti keep the tale afloat with a pair of
genuinely interesting characterizations. They are in some ways 'liberated' by their work but still must
operate under the old rules -- the men are in charge and when the husbands and boyfriends come back from
the war, the temporary changes will abruptly stop. Goldie's slow surrender to a new romance with Kurt Russell
is nicely charted, as is Christine's frustration at having her own dream of becoming a band singer denied.
The finished film jams this all together with a tiresome connect-the-dots feel. The girls go to work. Boorish male workers discriminate against them, as personified by Demme regular Charles Napier.
There's an attempt to be realistic - the sweet midget lady is a desirable employee because she can work in
small spaces. A black job applicant cleverly presents her high school diploma after being told
it's the only prerequisite, but it's a tiny detail that might slip by. There are almost no
details, really, and no subtleties in the atmosphere. Instead we have broad strokes, the continuous intrusions of narrated montages telling us the progress of the war. The girls become seasoned workers through more montages, and the whole thing is smothered in period swing music.
A lot happens that doesn't really gel. We're given plenty of moments where the girls are patronized
but not a lot of reactions. There are too many lame scenes, such as when Goldie saves another
worker from a falling engine block, a gag similar to one in the classic White Heat. The film
has a nice factory set with rows of airplane fuselages being assembled, but it all seems cheap
anyway. The lighting and blocking put everything up front and nothing has depth. Big production scenes
look small and small scenes look tiny. At this stage in his career Jonathan Demme doesn't yet have the
the sure sense of camera placement he worked out with his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto. The most successful
scenes are the intimate ones in Kay and Hazel's little court apartments (which I think are located
in Santa Monica, very near Santa Monica College).
I believe this was the film where Goldie met her longtime partner Kurt Russell, and they do have
some chemistry as lovers. Beyond the sensitive Lahti, Fred Ward and Ed Harris have one-note characters
written to behave (realistically enough) in an unsympathetic manner. Goldie's work pals include Holly Hunter,
who is given one hysterical breakdown scene that's strongly acted but not particularly well shot.
Maybe it's just me, but I found many of the costumes to be distracting, particularly several of
Goldie Hawn's cutsie outfits. Like the rest of the art direction, everything looks too bright and
It's easy to put the blame on Goldie, casting her as the overriding producer reshaping a
possible hit into a profitable, forgettable vehicle like Private Benjamin. That was
the preferred story from the media back in 1984. I don't know the facts in this case, but
Swing Shift has similarities to the later Mermaids. That film had an enchanting script,
and I saw several terrific scenes that were sacrificed when the film was tilted from a drama to a
kooky comedy with pop songs on the soundtrack. The word had it that star Cher didn't like the
director or the focus, and used her clout to have them both changed.
Lord of the Rings fans will be interested in knowing that Viggo Mortenson was once in Swing Shift, but his scenes were excised. Part of the restructuring of the film? Who knows?
Warner's DVD of Swing Shift can't be blamed for not having a commentary track or docu dishing all the production dirt. The DVD docu format has the obvious limitation that unkind or personal issues aren't going to be discussed, and the debacle that was Swing Shift is twenty years old now. Demme's not the kind to dredge up this kind of stuff; he likely feels the experience helped him toward the string of hits that led to his Oscar triumph The Silence of the Lambs only six years later.
As we've come to expect from Warners discs, the transfer glows, with an enhanced widescreen image that looks far more balanced than the flat version shown on cable television.
Another film about WW2 women on the home front that I'd like to see on DVD is Jack Fisk's Raggedy Man. It's a 1981 Universal film with Sissy Spacek and Eric Roberts loaded with meaningful drama and evocative period atmosphere, and Swing Shift always reminds me of it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Movie: Good -
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 20, 2004
An informative revision letter from Ira Hozinsky, 1/21/04:
Thanks, as usual, for an informative and entertaining column. Regarding Swing Shift, a 1990 Sight & Sound article described the differences between Demme's original
cut and the release version, based on a videotape of the Demme cut. That article can be found on the
Storefront Demme website here,
as well as the transcript of the
1998 Demme interview at the NFT in which he
refers to the article and videotape.
Alas, it seems likely that the videotape is the closest anyone will come to seeing
the director's cut. Regards, Ira Hozinsky
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson