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Swing Shift

Jonathan Demme doesn't talk about Swing Shift (1984). As an up-and-coming young director with the surprise hits Citizens Band (1977) and Melvin and Howard (1980) under his belt, Demme's sweeping WWII picture was his chance to direct a film with a large cast and a really big budget. But there were rumors of problems during production, the film's release was held several times (originally ballyhooed as a major Christmas release, it was finally delivered to theaters in May) and Demme told interviewers at the time that it was the worst experience of his still-young career. He's barely acknowledged it since. The script (credited to one "Rob Morton," a pseudonym for Coming Home scribe Nancy Dowd, it was rewritten by Bo Goldman, then rewritten again by Ron Nyswaner, then tweaked yet again by Robert Towne) begins the day before Pearl Harbor and ends after V-J Day, following housewife Kay Walsh (Goldie Hawn) as she becomes an independent woman after her husband, Jack (Ed Harris) goes off to war. Kay gets a job in a factory, makes friends with her sassy co-worker Hazel (Christine Lahti), and has an affair with charming-but-4F, trumpet-playing Lucky Lockhart (Kurt Russell). Having finally come into her own as a fully formed human being, Kay has to ultimately choose between her husband and her lover and step back into her role as helpmeet when the war ends. Word around Hollywood during the production of Swing Shift was that Hawn — who was a major league star at the time and had full approval of the finished film — thought that Lahti was stealing the picture. So the film was not only recut several times, but new scenes were shot and added (who did the re-shoots, Demme or another director, is something of a mystery), making it into almost another film entirely from what Demme had intended. And, as good as much of Swing Shift is, unfortunately all this monkeying around shows on the screen to even the most casual viewer. There are excellent scenes in the film and an intriguing story — the two triangles of Kay/Lucky/Jack and Kay/Hazel/Lucky are mature and well thought out — but much of the film is overly slick and sitcom-ish, with characters often behaving in ways that make little sense removed from the context of the original film and a choppy edit job that makes something of a well-intentioned mess of the final product. Throughout, the acting is uniformly excellent, which makes the end-product seem even sadder — Lahti is, indeed, very good, as is the always-dependable Harris and Fred Ward as Hazel's flaky boyfriend. Kurt Russell, riding his impressive '80s career wave that started with Used Cars, Escape from New York,, The Thing, and Silkwood, plays Lucky as a sexy, complicated and conflicted man in yet another underrated performance. Even Hawn looks pretty good here, although — like many a movie star at the height of her fame — her attempt at playing an "ordinary" person translates into her behaving in a dull and lifeless manner … until her transformation into empowered womanhood is signaled by her snapping into full-on Private Benjamin mode. Bootlegs of Demme's director's cut have been circulating for years, and his version is, according to Sight and Sound's Steve Vineberg, "extraordinary — one of the best movies made by an American in the 80s." Vineberg also argues (in his 1990 piece "Swing Shift: A Tale of Hollywood") that Hawn's changes really did less to hurt Lahti than to hurt Hawn and Russell — and that it may have not been jealousy over Lahti that inspired her to demand the changes at all, pointing out that just looking at the films in which she was a controlling force behind the scenes (Wildcats, Overboard, Bird on a Wire) shows where her artistic sensibilities lie. So it's too bad that Warner's DVD release doesn't offer both versions of the movie — or even acknowledge the project's checkered past in any way. The anamorphic transfer here (1.85:1) is only just adequate, sometimes grainy, sometimes soft, and sometimes sharp, but still doing justice to DP Tak Fujimoto's rich, amber-hued color choices. The monaural Dolby Digital audio (in English or French, with English, French or Spanish subtitles) is clean but, again, only adequate. Unsurprisingly, given the film's history and the lackluster presentation here — oh, for a commentary track! — there are no extras beyond the theatrical trailer. Snap-case.
—Dawn Taylor



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