Maggie King (Carole Lombard) is on a cruise ship traveling through the Panama Canal when she catches the eye of Skid Johnson (Fred MacMurray), a soldier on patrol who sees the ship passing by and notices the beautiful woman standing on the deck.
When Maggie disembarks from the ship, she and her friend Ella (Jean Dixon) are driven into Panama City by Skid, who wants to introduce them to his piano-playing roommate Harry (Charles Butterworth). They head out to a club to celebrate Skid’s last day in the army… and become involved in a brawl.
Delayed by the small matter of being thrown in jail over the brawl, Maggie misses her ship and is forced to stay in Panama City. With nowhere else to go, she moves in with Skid and Harry.
So, Harry plays the piano, Skid plays the trumpet, and Maggie is a talented singer… what are they to do but start up a new act and perform together? Maggie is in need of a job with little hope of leaving Panama City any time soon after missing her ship. They manage to book a gig at a local night club, but will they find success?
Swing High, Swing Low was directed by Mitchell Leisen and is based on the Broadway production Burlesque, which was also adapted to film in 1929 and 1948. This film is one of four in which Carole Lombard and Fred MacMurray co-starred. (With this viewing, I’ve seen all four, so stay tuned for a post where I rank the Lombard-MacMurray collaborations!)
Swing High, Swing Low captures both the excitement and the peril of rising fame and success. *MILD SPOILER* Skid becomes known as the “king of trumpeters” and moves from Panama to New York to play the big-name clubs, but in the process completely destroys his relationship with Maggie. The success goes to his head in a big way, to his own detriment and that of many of the film’s other characters. *END SPOILER*
The saga is told with a touch of melodrama, though the tone never becomes super dark, despite the dramatic turns taken by the story. There are a few emotionally impactful scenes, however, with Carole bringing the film’s most memorable moments.
Lombard is always one of my favorite actresses to watch, and I expected no less than a wonderful performance from her. With MacMurray she has very good chemistry, another thing I expected when tuning in for this film as it’s true for all four of their collaborations. As for MacMurray’s performance, it’s solid, though I would consider Lombard to be the definite star here. She captures the audience more than anyone else in the film.
Even better, the film gives Lombard a chance to flex both her lighter romantic muscles and her tearfully dramatic muscles, with the film making an emotional shift in the second half. And she sings! Her own voice is used (to my own knowledge and according to TCM’s article on the film); it’s quite deep and very pleasant to listen to.
All in all, Swing High, Swing Low is a decent watch, lacking the story “oomph” to be a truly great musical drama, but well worth the time of Carole Lombard fans, to be sure. The transition from a lighter screwball opening to a story of heartbreak adds an element of interest when comparing this to the other Lombard-MacMurray films. The score: 3/5