Swing Shift: the unmaking of a masterpiece?

Watching Jonathan Demme’s original director’s cut of his WWII female factory workers drama makes clear what was lost in its re-editing at the hands of producer-star Goldie Hawn and her allies.

In tribute to the late Jonathan Demme. See also:
☞ Melvin and Howard review: dreams that money can’t buy
☞ The Silence of the Lambs and the rise of the 90s movie serial killer
☞ Philadelphia: un-packaging the Hollywood Aids drama
☞ Jonathan Demme on remaking The Manchurian Candidate

Steve Vineberg

Originally published as Swing Shift – A Tale of Hollywood in Sight & Sound Winter 1990/91

Kay Walsh as housewife turned wartime factory worker Kay Walsh in Swing Shift (1984), renounced by its director Jonathan Demme

Kay Walsh as housewife turned wartime factory worker Kay Walsh in Swing Shift (1984), renounced by its director Jonathan Demme

There are plenty of tales of Hollywood injustices – of the good work of screenwriters destroyed by directors, of great scripts dumped at the whim of powerful stars, of movies nipped and carved by producers and studio heads after directors had given them their final shape. This particular story, sad and revealing, is about Jonathan Demme, Goldie Hawn and Swing Shift.

Demme began shooting Swing Shift in the first half of 1983. Citizens Band (also known as Handle with Care) and Melvin and Howard had established his distinctly flaky, loose-limbed style, but this new project was the biggest of his young career. It starred one of Hollywood’s most bankable performers, Goldie Hawn – who also takes a strong hand in the production of her own movies – and featured Kurt Russell and Ed Harris. A big-budget period piece, Swing Shift would begin the day before Pearl Harbor, end just after V-J Day, and focus on the introduction of a women’s work force during the war; the action would take place in and around the MacBride airplane plant in Los Angeles.

The large, promising cast Demme assembled included Christine Lahti, Fred Ward, Holly Hunter, Sudie Bond, Patty Maloney, Lisa Pelikan, and a few of his friends: Charles Napier (the bigamous trucker in Citizens Band), Susan Peretz (of Melvin and Howard), Stephen Tobolowsky (in two small roles), playwright Beth Henley (in a walk-on) and – as MacBride, who isn’t glimpsed until late in the picture – Demme’s mentor, Roger Corman. If you’d seen Demme’s previous work, and you saw how graceful a touch he had with actors, the thought of what he could do with a sensational cast like this one was enough to make you salivate. And Warners, viewing the film as a prestige picture and a potential blockbuster, planned to put it out at Christmas. It finally opened in May, after a half-hearted, glossy publicity campaign that smacked of desperation. Demme renounced it, the press generally panned it and audiences failed to come out for it.

It takes a little digging to determine exactly how the Swing Shift that appeared in May 1984 (and can be widely seen, of course, on video) evolved; Demme, who pronounced it the worst experience of his career in interviews at the time, has long since stopped talking about it publicly. The film carries a screenwriting credit to Rob Morton, who doesn’t exist; at least four writers contributed at one time or another. Nancy Dowd came up with the original script, and since the story is so similar to Coming Home, which she also worked on, it’s easy to make the assumption – as I did when I reviewed the movie for Film Quarterly in 1984 – that she’s mainly responsible for both.

Hawn with Kurt Russell as Kay’s co-worker and trumpet player Lucky Lockhart

Hawn with Kurt Russell as Kay’s co-worker and trumpet player Lucky Lockhart

Kay Walsh (Hawn), the heroine of Swing Shift, is a housewife who grows out of her dependency on her husband Jack (Harris) when he goes off to war, and she gets a job in a factory and has an affair with another man, her co-worker Lucky Lockhart (Russell); in Coming Home, Sally, played by Jane Fonda, acquires a new set of values – feminist and anti-war – when her husband goes to Vietnam, and she signs up to do volunteer work in a vets’ hospital and falls in love with one of the patients. However, Dowd’s screenplay for Swing Shift was in fact heavily rewritten by Bo Goldman, and then Ron Nyswaner took over. The movie critic Michael Sragow reports that when he visited the set, researching an article on Demme for American Film, the shooting script bore Nyswaner’s name, and Demme was using it exclusively. (Nyswaner, a gifted screenwriter, later furnished Mrs Soffel.)

Goldie Hawn and her producing partner Anthea Sylbert, interviewed by Ben Brantley for a profile of Hawn in the September 1989 Vanity Fair, claim the problems began when Demme delivered his first cut to Warners and the executives didn’t like it. Neither did Hawn, who says she felt that “the arc of [Kay’s] character” wasn’t clear, that “Jonathan’s focus went off her at… very crucial moments…” According to Sylbert, Demme’s version made Hawn look like “this blonde extra who’d been overpaid’; Hollywood gossip had it that Hawn’s real beef was that Lahti, as Kay’s best friend Hazel, was stealing the picture. Jerry Bick was officially the film’s producer, but Hawn had approval rights, and she insisted on reshoots, over Demme’s objections. Scenes were rewritten (some by Robert Towne) and refilmed (it’s not clear who stood behind the camera – only that Hawn was overall supervisor); a new cut was prepared.

If you listen to Hawn and Sylbert’s version of the story, the release print of Swing Shift was the best job Hawn and her friends could cobble together under impossible circumstances. I’ve never met or spoken to Jonathan Demme, but anyone who’s seen the pictures he’s done since (Stop Making Sense, Something Wild, Married to the Mob) and the ones Hawn’s been involved in (Wildcats, Overboard, Bird on a Wire) might be wary of accepting her point of view over his on artistic matters. As it happens, though, there’s a smoking gun: a director’s cut, dupes of which have been circulating for years. And the Demme version of Swing Shift is extraordinary – one of the best movies made by an American in the 80s. Taken together, the two cuts are the most powerful lesson I’ve ever had in how a first-rate director works.

~

The first thing you notice is the difference Demme’s impeccable film sense makes. Stiff and static, the studio cut of Swing Shift seems embalmed in the creamy, sunlit haze of Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography; the movie dawdles, and the characters (especially Kay) have no apparent forward movement. Demme’s cut is the same length but seems to move much faster: his editing gives it a flying density.

Christine Lahti as Hazel and Fred Ward as her sometime beau Biscuits

Christine Lahti as Hazel and Fred Ward as her sometime beau Biscuits

You can spot the technical devices he relies on to achieve this effect (wipes in a montage showing the women getting accustomed to swing-shift life at the factory), and the way, in a workers’ jamboree scene, he preserves the separate rhythm of each section, leading gracefully from Kay’s reticence to join in the festivities to Hazel’s reunion with her old boyfriend, Biscuits (Ward). (Hawn’s editors intercut them.) The period markers Hawn took out – a speech by the factory’s first war widow, Jeanie Sherman (Hunter), commemorating the anniversary of her husband’s death; the moment when the women listen, teary-eyed, to eulogies for FDR – place the individual scenes in a personal and historical context. What remains (like the announcement of the battle at Guadalcanal) isn’t sufficient; it doesn’t seem part of some overall pattern.

Worse, the commercial print feels impersonal, with a slickness that reminds you of awful big-studio products of the 40s – only without their gleaming conviction. The cheery Big Band-ish score by Patrick Williams beats on relentlessly, like thick icing slathered over a poorly made cake. And when you see what’s been left out – almost every trace of Demme’s eccentrically democratic vision (that is, almost every sign of an artist’s sensibility) – you can understand exactly why the picture feels the way it does.

Demme’s version is full of glimpses of women and men caught off guard at work and play: MacBride employees playing guitar and singing on their break; a gangly supervisor (Tobolowsky) pursuing broad-beamed Edith (Susan Peretz) at the jamboree; a female cabbie yawning as she picks up an early-morning fare. There’s nothing emphatic about this; it’s all offhand. But it’s precisely this casualness – like having the embarrassed young Marine who has to deliver the bad news to Jeanie, and winds up with her weeping in his arms, say his last line (“I’ve never done this before”) off-camera instead of on – that makes Demme’s cut so un-slick and authentic-feeling about the lives of these wartime workers.

Swing Shift (1984)

The actresses who play Kay and Hazel’s co-workers have wonderfully expressive faces and bodies, but Demme’s cut gives us specific details about them at the beginning so we can keep track of them through the picture. Waiting on line to apply for jobs, the women strike up a conversation. Annie (Bond) mentions she’s used to farm work, while the diminutive Laverne (Maloney) says the best job she ever had was playing a Munchkin in The Wizard of Oz; later on we find out she came to MacBride from roller derby.

None of this finds its way into the Warners version. And since Demme crafted his, the omissions make for little peculiarities in rhythm and continuity. While the MacBride spokesman lectures the new workers, explaining that the jobs they’ve been given are ideally suited for them because “you women are used to repetitive tasks,” Demme cuts to a close-up of Laverne looking back at him – blankly – a shot that makes a point only if you know this woman’s background, and how preposterous his statement must sound to her.

At first, you can’t believe the people who put this cut together had any sort of constructive plan – they simply appear to be hacking away at Demme’s. But most of the changes are deliberate, and, since Hawn supervised them, most concern Kay’s character. The movie’s title doesn’t just identify the hours Kay and her friends work at MacBride (four to midnight). It also tells us what happens to her during the war: her values shift, swinging her into a more profound (and more adult) understanding of the world.

The Kay we meet in the opening scenes is sweet but a little drippy – a well-brought-up Iowa WASP who offers hot milk or tea and sandwiches in a crisis. She’s married to a guy who’s even straighter than she is. Jack finds the clothes Hazel wears to the dance hall where she works (as a hostess and sometime singer) “cheap’; to him, she’s a “tramp’. But Kay is drawn to Hazel, who has a toughness, a gutsiness she envies – and turns out to have a capacity for. She’s drawn to Hazel’s sexual forthrightness, which is a tacit encouragement to Kay to express her own sexual needs, during Jack’s absence, with Lucky.

Kay is a difficult role, but beautifully worked out in Demme’s version. She sometimes behaves badly, she’s inclined to revert to her old prissiness when she feels threatened, but she really does grow past Jack – past the point they’re at as a couple when he leaves in 1941. The filmmakers show us everything that’s inside Kay – how scared she is of going against the grain of old values the war and her new job are quickly rendering obsolete, how much it costs her every time she does, how much she gains by the risks she takes.

Hawn with Ed Harris as Kay’s husband Jack

Hawn with Ed Harris as Kay’s husband Jack

Hawn says her character got lost in Demme’s cut, but the truth is that all three of the other main characters in the movie are important mainly because of their relationships with her – because of the ways in which those relationships reflect the shifts in Kay. The effect of the rewriting and restructuring is to blur what happens to her, removing the ironic perspective through which we’re meant to get her vision of the world, and making it seem as if the movie shares that vision.

In Demme’s cut, we see Kay’s feelings for her husband most clearly the night before he leaves, when she touches his face tenderly as he sleeps. She dedicates herself to keeping Jack’s presence alive by writing to him, cherishing mementos of him, talking about him constantly – which, of course, is also her protection against the stirrings Lucky arouses in her. Lucky asks her out shortly after they’ve met, but she protests gently that she’s married; the next time we see him approach her, she staves him off: “You’ve been asking me out every week for the last three months and I keep having to turn you down.” At the jamboree, a stranger (Dick Miller) asks her to dance; when she automatically brings up the subject of Jack, he gets turned off and fades away. Lonely and blue, she listens to Lucky play trumpet on the bandstand and boldly approaches him on the pier afterwards, complimenting his performance.

He drives her home on his motorcycle, takes her inside (‘I think I just heard you ask me in,” he says, picking up on what she’s too scared to say), and what follows is as candid and deeply felt a love scene as you’ll find in any movie of the last decade. When Lucky begins to make love to her, she cries, frightened of her confusion about what she feels and what she thinks is right. She wakes up in the middle of the night to find him lying nude beside her, his arm across her chest; automatically, she pulls the blanket across him, as if someone were peeking in. It’s a delicately funny gesture. The next night, they go out to a restaurant, and when she spots a neighbour across the room she runs into the street. He follows, but she begs him to leave her alone. “I’m married,” she pleads. “Don’t you understand? Don’t you get it?’

Their relationship begins in earnest under the effect of exposed emotions after the funeral of Jeanie’s husband. Kay still has trouble reconciling her separate feelings for two men; she’s worried that her fellow workers know about her and Lucky and think she’s a tramp. But her self-sufficiency at the plant (she was promoted after saving another woman’s life) and the easy carry-over of her work situation, with Lucky and Hazel, to the leisure time the three of them spend together, break down her resistance. Then one night in 1944, Jack shows up on leave.

Hawn and Harris

Hawn and Harris

In the movie’s best scene, they walk on the beach, and she hears in every word he says an attempt to affirm a state of mind she no longer feels part of. She chafes when he derides Hazel, when he says his wife shouldn’t have to work, when he talks about his plans for their future; she keeps contradicting him. “Somebody’s been putting funny ideas in your head,” he tells her, bewildered. “I can’t even talk to you any more.” And she replies, “Do you really think everything’s going to be great?… You’ve been gone for three years.” Finally she turns to him, her back to the tide, and confesses she’s been seeing someone else.

Here’s how the story is told in Hawn’s version. We don’t see Kay in bed with Jack, so her strong sexual need for him is not as firmly established. When Lucky approaches her at work, she says, “You’ve been asking me out every week for the last five months” (you can actually see Hawn’s mouth “three” while her post-dubbed voice says “five”) – presumably so we’ll applaud her lengthier period of celibacy. Kay’s freak-out at the restaurant occurs before she sleeps with Lucky, so it looks like an outburst of terrified chastity rather than post-coital terror.

In the new order of scenes, Kay’s approach to Lucky on the pier appears more innocent; maybe she’s trying to make up for her outburst outside the restaurant. When he drives her home, he has to come inside, because it’s begun to rain and he’s getting soaked. The scene that follows is a dopey retread from dozens of screwball comedies: his clothes drying, he putters around in one of her dressing-gowns while he serves her one of his special omelettes. They end up in bed, but next morning they have a silly, unconvincing quarrel; she kicks him out; he comes back. Hawn strives hard to reduce the relationship between Lucky and Kay to something superficial and farcical. We’re supposed to think she’s making a mistake, but it’s all right, because she’ll go back to Jack in the end.

Hawn’s version omits some of the footage of Kay and Lucky and Hazel together, and includes an entirely new sequence, a confrontation between Kay and Jack that turns him into the victim of her carelessness. (Poor Ed Harris is strung up in this scene – he tries hard, but there’s nothing he can do to make it work.) Jack figures out Kay’s been having an affair with Lucky (though there isn’t a hint of recognition in his face when he surprises the three of them dancing and swigging beer over at Hazel’s), and Hawn makes a sad little face as she tells him, “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” When he leaves early the next morning, we hear Kay’s voice reading the note Jack left her, full of clichés about how the war’s taken its toll on both of them.

Russell and Hawn

Russell and Hawn

It’s clear what Hawn’s up to. She wants Kay to stay ‘nice’, committed to the values Demme and his writers have her reject for a more complex, challenging way of interacting with the world. Carly Simon sings over the front and end credits: “Someone waits for you / Who hopes you will come through…’ That’s the ideal Hawn wants Kay to embrace. I’m not trying to psychoanalyse Goldie Hawn; I have no idea how she really feels about fidelity and sexuality. But you have only to look at the movies she’s appeared in over the past decade and a half (after The Sugarland Express and Shampoo – the only previous ones where she plays genuine, three-dimensional characters) to see how she wants her public to perceive her, and how wary she is of veering from the huggable image she knows they adore.

Demme asked her to play a woman who sleeps with two men and likes it, a woman who isn’t always glamorous (certainly not in the scene outside the restaurant with Lucky, or the one where she cries when he touches her breast, or the one where she faces Jack and tells him she’s been cheating on him), but is always real. And she did it. But then she got scared and threw the performance away, reverting to something she must have thought would keep her fans happy. In the attempt, Hawn managed to turn her character into nonsense – you keep wondering why Kay can’t seem to make up her mind about anything. The irony is that Hawn didn’t just slash Demme’s canvases, but her own as well. Her performance in the unreleased version of Swing Shift is easily the finest work of her career.

Hawn has heartbreaking scenes in Demme’s cut that remind you how gifted an actress she really is – especially the ones with Ed Harris during Jack’s disastrous leave, where you see Kay’s misery at having to make him so unhappy and her sad understanding that she can’t continue to lie to him. And even when the scenes Demme shot are lifted whole into the version Hawn approved, they don’t mean the same thing; you lose the significance, the weight of some of her best moments. We all know that the director has a perspective the performer usually can’t have, and that a good director can shape a piece of acting; that’s why terrific actors are so often crucified by bad directors. But I’ve never seen so glaring an example of how the building of a character – that is, the overall editing of her scenes – can completely alter the way an actor comes across.

Russell, Hawn and Lahti

Russell, Hawn and Lahti

When Kay protests to Lucky (outside the restaurant) that he has to stay away from her because she’s married, you only grasp the complexity of the confusion Hawn is conveying if the scene comes after Kay has slept with him. Near the end, Lucky, hurt and angry at Jack’s reappearance, has a one-night stand with Hazel, and the two women make it up. But that night they go together to hear Lucky play at a local club, and Kay gets smashed and turns acerbic. The result is a screaming fight between the two women on the street, which ends with a drunken Kay, flat on the sidewalk, yelling after Hazel, “I was in love!’

A friend who watched the director’s cut of Swing Shift with me marvelled at the way Hawn played the fight scene, which had been so unmemorable in the release print; he could hardly believe it when I told him they were exactly the same. The difference is that in Demme’s cut, Lucky performs a second number – dedicated to “anyone who’s ever been in love, ever been hurt by love, and is still trying to figure it out” – and Kay, looking over at Hazel, sees an intense longing in her eyes that seems to suggest more than a one-night stand. (She’s misreading – understandably, in the circumstances.) Hawn is fantastic here; she looks dazzled by the pain of having lost, she thinks, her lover and her best friend at a single blow. That’s what her reading of “I was in love!” plays off; it changes the whole meaning of that line.

The release print does minimise Hazel’s influence on Kay. My guess, though, is that it’s less a case of jealousy over Christine Lahti’s treatment than another indication of Hawn’s doubt over the way her fans might react to Kay. The Warners version contains cutie-pie just-us-girls-together touches (like a shot of Kay and Hazel clowning in front of the mirror with cream on their faces), but no mention of the fact that Hazel coaxed Kay into buying a Victrola. After their fight, when Hazel, on her way home, pauses for a rueful moment in front of Kay’s house where music drifts from the parlour, we hear a ballad. Demme chooses the Andrews Sisters’ Bei Mir Bist du Schon, the song Hazel was blasting from her record-player in the opening scene, when Jack yelled at her to turn it down.

Swing Shift (1984)

The song is meant to remind us that Kay has changed irrevocably, largely through her friendship with Hazel, and to imply that the most important relationship in her life isn’t the one she returns to at the end with Jack (as Hawn and Someone Waits for You want us to believe), but the one with Hazel. On the whole, Hawn’s version of the movie doesn’t undercut Lahti’s performance; ironically, since we can’t finally make much sense of Kay, it’s Lahti’s Hazel who moves into the vacuum Hawn has left at the centre of the picture.

One change, however, does damage Lahti – from a misguided effort to soften Lucky (played by Hawn’s real-life live-in companion, Kurt Russell). A brief scene is omitted in which Hazel, seeing Jack smoking on the porch of his apartment and Kay moving around inside, takes it for granted that their domestic situation is back to normal. (She can’t know what transpired on the beach.) Then, out of the loneliness she’s felt since she broke up with Biscuits, she decides to accept Lucky’s invitation to hear him play trumpet that night. They wind up in bed together (Hawn cuts right to the morning after), as they both knew they would. The way Demme and his writers have it, though, it’s really Lucky who’s acting impulsively, out of anger: they’re careful not to include a scene where he considers his actions.

Kurt Russell suffers more than Lahti from the changes Hawn supervised. His role is better defined in Demme’s version, and he gets to play more low notes. That’s especially true in his farewell scene, where, having taken Kay home after her drunken explosion at Hazel, he waits for her to wake up and then says he’s leaving. We know he’s going to tour with a band; he’s already told her (in a scene left out of the Warners version) that she’s the only reason he’s still working at MacBride’s. (When she gives him a new mouthpiece for his horn as a birthday remembrance, the gift means more when we know what he’s giving up to stay with her. Of course, if Hawn doesn’t want Kay’s relationship with Lucky to have as much weight as her marriage to Jack, she wouldn’t want us to see her offering in that light.)

Hawn, Russell and Lahti

Hawn, Russell and Lahti

The way Demme has it, Lucky sits miserably in the corner of the room, drinking from a coffee cup with Jack’s name on it (it’s clear from this detail that he realises he can’t compete with Jack), and the camera pans slowly up Kay’s legs – from Lucky’s point of view, so we can see Lucky’s appreciation of what he’s giving up. In Demme’s version, sex has an emotional kick, the way it does in life; he doesn’t deny what it signifies to these characters, the way Hawn’s prudish version does. Before Lucky walks out, he takes a long look at himself in her bedroom mirror, as if he were both remembering his role in this room – in her life – and understanding it in a way he never has before. It’s a bitter departure. We know – as Kay does, reaching uselessly after him – that he’s wrong about how little he’s meant to her, but that’s something he may never believe.

Russell is magnificent here; much as I’ve loved watching him in Used Cars, Silkwood and Tequila Sunrise, I’ve never seen him pull off anything as affecting as this scene. But you have to be prepared to see a character you’ve been drawn to walk away harshly. Hawn evidently didn’t want to. In the studio cut, the scene begins when Kay wakes up; you can hardly see the letters of Jack’s name printed on the cup, and the look in the mirror is truncated. When Lucky tells Kay he’s going away, he asks her to come with him and she turns him down.

A couple of minutes before the end of the picture, Hawn inserts a brief sequence of Lucky riding through the countryside at night in a bus full of musicians, reading a letter from Kay (voiceover by Hawn) that – like the one we heard earlier, from Jack – is littered with optimistic clichés. “I’m hoping for the best,” she writes about Jack’s return from the war, and (by way of apology to Lucky), “Things got muddled in the end, but thanks.” You’d swear at moments like this that Kay – the prim Kay Goldie Hawn doesn’t want us to think the character left behind – wrote the script.

~

On some level, Hawn seems to have understood Swing Shift as a proto-feminist look at women on the work force in wartime. But feminism to her means Private Benjamin: women proving they can be as good as men and twice as cute. (It doesn’t mean, for example, sexual independence.) The studio cut omits the references to Laverne’s show-business career and Annie’s handling of farm machinery, but it makes a big deal about how working at the factory turns Kay into a stronger person because she makes a bigger salary than Jack and learns her way around equipment.

One montage Warners added includes a shot of Hawn in her kitchen fixing a coffee percolator; in another scene, a PA announcement advises the women to cut their hair or wear a hairnet (this is what they superimposed over Annie’s farm-equipment line). Presumably that’s so Kay’s decision to cut her long blonde tresses – presented in Demme’s version as one more indication that she’s trying on something new – will come across as determination to turn herself into the perfect little worker. (Since she has to wear a hairnet anyway, like all the other women, the change doesn’t make sense.)

Swing Shift (1984)

Of course, you don’t buy this airbrushed portrait of Kay as a role model for women of the 40s, which is presented in a fatuous, sitcom manner, reducing Jack to a male chauvinist so the movie can score easy points against him. (Hawn’s cut doesn’t like Jack very much: he just fills a role – the someone who waits for Kay.) When Jack arrives on leave, he fails to understand the significance of her ‘leadman’ shirt and complains that the factory equipment she’s brought home crowds his bedroom closet. Just what, exactly, is Kay doing with airplane parts in her closet?

We can’t believe in Kay’s growth when Hawn has undercut all evidence of it in her relationship with her husband. The homecoming sequence in the studio print features an extra scene where Kay opens the door to their apartment with her own key, rather than letting Jack take the lead. But the second change is far more revealing: as soon as they get inside, Kay tells Jack she’s planning a home-cooked dinner.

This unconvincing fake feminism substitutes for a genuine political subtext that is perhaps the most striking omission in the studio cut. Holly Hunter’s Jeanie plays a far more important role in Demme’s version. When her husband is killed, she becomes a convenient emblem for the war effort: her “cute, tear-stained face” (as one of MacBride’s men puts it) makes the cover of Life, and a year later, dedicating a runway to his memory, she gets to introduce a Marine who delivers a patriotic speech to the assembled workers (and whom she marries at the end of the picture). If it isn’t clear enough how the filmmakers feel about this kind of sentimental patriotic manipulation, Demme makes it clearer by cutting away from the speech – to Kay and Lucky, who are using the cover of this special event to talk clandestinely in the storeroom.

Swing Shift (1984)

Swing Shift (1984)

The Jeanie subplot works in tandem with the scene where the MacBride employees listen to the reports from Guadalcanal and then are coaxed to work harder for the boys at the front, as well as the key sequence where, as soon as the war is over, the women are laid off. With this subplot firmly in place, we can see that the movie is critical of the way the women were used and then discarded by the government and the factories. Without it, the lay-off scenes don’t have much resonance and the Guadalcanal scene reads as inspirational – exactly the opposite of what Demme intended.

Warners also cut a scene with Beth Henley as a Salvation Army woman handing out Bibles to the departing soldiers (which implies a connection between the two ‘armies’ – religion shoring up the war effort), and another where, outside the factory, Asian-Americans are carted off to internment camps while men on the street jeer, “Japs, go home where you came from!” And what substitutes for these missing suggestions of the movie’s political point of view? In a new scene between Kay and Jack the morning after Pearl Harbor – replacing their scene in bed together – he explains solemnly to her why he has to go to war: “They started it. We gotta finish it.”

I don’t think it’s fair to lay the political emasculation of Swing Shift entirely at Goldie Hawn’s door. Hollywood has always been terrified of attacking sacred cows; you could hardly imagine Warners enthusing over Demme’s take on World War II. At the end of the studio’s cut, Biscuits, reunited with Hazel, toasts each of the assembled couples and “No more war – one hell of a future.” If there’s any irony here, I missed it. I missed the irony in the women’s toast, too: “We showed ’em.”

Belinda Carlisle on stage with Hawn and Russell

Belinda Carlisle on stage with Hawn and Russell

Demme’s version, which is understated and moving, pays homage to the finale of William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It picks up Wyler’s tone of complex, tempered optimism in the vets’ discussion of the new real estate on the market, the now ex-factory workers’ philosophical attitude to the way their lives have turned around, and the fact that it’s Jeanie, MacBride’s cover-girl war widow, whose wedding they’re attending.

‘We showed ’em’ is echoed in the scene where Hazel and Kay reconcile: it means something different here – it’s a measure of personal growth. And instead of ending with a freeze frame of the two women hugging, Demme takes them down to the beach, and leaves them (in long shot) drinking beer and giggling and kicking up their heels. It’s the final affirmation that Kay has moved a lot closer to Hazel’s end of the spectrum than Jack’s. She still loves him, but if he wants the marriage to last, he’s going to have to work to catch up to her.

The Swing Shift story is a Hollywood tragedy. It echoes what RKO did to Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons. The difference though is that the Ambersons, in release and on video, botched or not, is still a masterpiece. No viewing of the release print of Swing Shift, however, will tell you what Demme and his writers were after – what, in fact, they achieved before their work was so emphatically undone.

 

Jonathan Demme in the Sight & Sound archive

Get access to our digital archive for more of our writing about the films of Jonathan Demme, including:

Caged Heat

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin December 1975, page 258

Crazy Mama / Crazy Ladies

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin April 1981, pages 64-65

Fighting Mad

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin August 1976, page 165

Citizens Band

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin November 1978, page 216

Last Embrace

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin November 1980, page 216

Melvin and Howard

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin April 1981, page 72

Swing Shift

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin December 1985, pages 390-391

The Perfect Kiss

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin September 1985, page 295

Something Wild

Feature: Sight & Sound Winter 1986/87, pages 30-31 (considered with True Stories and Blue Velvet)

+ Review: Monthly Film Bulletin July 1987, pages 217-219

Swimming to Cambodia

Review: Monthly Film Bulletin September 1987, page 284

Married to the Mob

Review: Sight & Sound Summer 1989, pages 210-211

+ Review: Monthly Film Bulletin July 1989, pages 209-210

The Silence of the Lambs

Review: Sight & Sound June 1991, pages 53-54

+ A.L. Kennedy column: Sight and Sound June 1995, page 34

Philadelphia

Review: Sight & Sound March 1994, pages 45-46

Storefront Hitchcock

Review: Sight & Sound January 1999, pages 57

Beloved

Review: Sight & Sound March 1999, pages 34-35

The Truth About Charlie

Review: Sight & Sound August 2003, pages 60, 62

The Manchurian Candidate

Review: Sight & Sound December 2004, pages 55-56

Rachel Getting Married

Preview: Sight & Sound November 2008, pages 24-32

+ Review: Sight & Sound February 2009, pages 69-70

Ricki and the Flash

Review: Sight & Sound October 2015, page 95

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