Following her Oscar nominated turn opposite William Powell in My Man Godfrey (1936), Carole Lombard reunited with Fred MacMurray in 1937 to make their third film together, Swing High, Swing Low. It also reunited them with director Mitchell Leisen.
The film began its life as the Broadway play Burlesque, which ran for eleven months in 1927-1928. It was Barbara Stanwyck’s first leading role on Broadway, made a year before she would come to Hollywood and begin her own legendary film career.
Paramount bought the rights but was forced to change the name to Swing High, Swing Low in order to appease the Hollywood censors.
Fred MacMurray had married his first wife in 1936 (they were married for 17 years before she died of cancer) and though their wedding was still two years off, Carole Lombard was in love and fully committed to Clark Gable (they were married for just 3 years before Lombard died in a plane crash.)
Both flush with love, Lombard and MacMurray threw themselves into the roles of Maggie King and Skid Johnson.
Swing High, Swing Low barely qualifies as a comedy at all. It starts out light and funny enough—Maggie King is a (terrible) hairdresser on a ship traveling through the Panama Canal. She meets Skid Johnson on his final day in the army, and he pesters her until she agrees to go out on a date.
While out together, Skid impresses Maggie first by playing the trumpet, and then by punching out a man who insults her. The problem comes in when they’re thrown in jail for the night when the incident escalates into a bar brawl and she misses her boat.
Broke (but with a wealthy fiancé waiting for her in the States) Maggie moves in temporarily with Skid and his derelict friend Harry. Enamored with Skid’s trumpet playing, she tells two lies to get him a job playing in a nightclub: that they’re married and have a joint act.
Both become true eventually, and the first half of the movie is filled with laughter and charm. Lombard and MacMurray ooze their particular chemistry, and you can understand why Maggie would fall for someone who in many ways is not a catch.
Her friend Ella tries to talk her out of falling in love by pointing out that Skid is not exactly reliable:
Ella: “Say you were sick. You’d send Skip for a doctor.”
Maggie (indignant): “Skip would get me a doctor!”
Ella: “Sure, he’d get you the best doctor in town…so long as he didn’t pass a crap game along the way.”
Instead of denying it, Maggie huffs, “Well if he did, he’d win.”
Skip overhears the conversation and vows to be a man worthy of Maggie. He proposes, they marry, and they live in wedded bliss in Panama doing their act together every night.
Then a talent scout wants to send Skid to New York for a big break playing his trumpet. Skid doesn’t want to go—he’s happy down in his Panamanian paradise. They don’t have enough money to both travel to New York, so Maggie would have to stay behind until he made enough money to send for her.
Skid is afraid to go—afraid to be separated from Maggie, afraid that he’ll revert to his old drinking and womanizing ways and ruin his marriage.
But Maggie has faith—perhaps too much faith—in him, and insists he go.
In the second act, the comedy falls completely away and we’re left with a tragedy. Skid falls apart without Maggie, just as he knew he would. Their marriage ends, even if they never do fall out of love with one another.
Without Maggie, Skid regresses into a pathetic drunk, running his career and his life.
As for Maggie, she takes up again with the rich guy who wanted to marry her at the beginning of the film, but her heart isn’t in it.
It’s only a matter of time until she finds her way back to Skid, but does she arrive in time to save him from himself?
Watch for yourself to find out.
Though not as well remembered as some of Lombard’s most famous heroines, Lombard said that Maggie King was her favorite role, and it’s easy to see why. The role gives a glimpse into the dramatic actress she surely would’ve become if she’d lived beyond the age of 33.
And Fred MacMurray, a talented musician before he became an actor, is perfect as Skid.
The shame of Swing High, Swing Low is that it’s difficult to get a high quality copy of the film. It’s currently available on Amazon Prime and You Tube, and though it’s a little grainy (especially in the early scenes), you’ll be rewarded if you stick with it.
So far, Lombard and MacMurray are 3/3. Next week we’ll conclude this series with their final film together, a true screwball with a heroine as zany as My Man Godfrey’s Irene Bullock.
- Swindell, Larry. Screwball: The Life of Carole Lombard. 1975.
- “Fred MacMurray: The Guy Next Door.” The Hollywood Collection. Documentary.