Oeuvre: Demme: Swing Shift

Oeuvre: Demme: Swing Shift

Swing Shift was infamously hacked to pieces at the behest of both Warner Bros and Goldie Hawn, who found the director’s original cut too serious and broadly focused.

The most notorious film of Jonathan Demme’s career, Swing Shift was infamously hacked to pieces at the behest of both Warner Bros and Goldie Hawn, who found the director’s original cut too serious and broadly focused. The crux of both versions is the same: meek and obedient housewife Kay (Hawn) sees her husband, Jack (Ed Harris), off to war following the attack on Pearl Harbor, and while he is away she takes a job as a riveter and begins to fall for co-worker Lucky (Kurt Russell). Eventually, Jack returns on leave, only to discover what has transpired in his absence, and Kay must navigate the fallout of her situation as well as her evolving sense of self and increasing sense of independence.

The first half of the film remains mostly intact from Demme’s original vision, albeit with editing that throws off the fast rhythm of the workprint. We still get, though, a glimpse of Jack and Kay’s conservative life, loving but informed by his chauvinistic attitude. Demme’s style is on heavy display in early scenes of Kay looking for work at a local factory, standing in line with a group of women who, as the camera moves past them, reveal so much about themselves in only a few lines, such as Jeannie (Holly Hunter) poring over a letter from her deployed husband or Annie (Sudie Bond) mentioning that she’s used to farm work. Their lives contrast hilariously with an orientation from a condescending manager who tells them that women are suited to rivet work because they “are used to repetitive tasks,” a remark met with no audible reaction but a host of poker faces from women trying to hide pithy smiles or more hostile eyerolls.

We also still get the budding friendship between Kay and her neighbor, Hazel (Christine Lahti), a wannabe singer dismissed as a tramp by Jack. Initially hesitant to interact with the woman whose husband insulted her daily, Hazel eventually warms to Kay’s sweet, friendly demeanor, and in turn Kay uses Hazel as a catalyst to manifest her own growing frustrations with her pre-war life. Both women find themselves on a path toward self-actualization through work, and their relationships with the respective men in their lives mark an interesting contrast. Whereas Kay quickly stirs to the freedom offered by Jack’s deployment, Hazel’s seemingly standoffish attitude masks a loneliness exacerbated by the callous way she is treated by her beau, Biscuits (Fred Ward).

Things start to fall apart in the theatrical cut when Kay begins to be seduced by Lucky. The re-cut draws out Lucky’s attempts to woo Kay to preserve her sense of propriety, but this has the effect of making her seem like a wall beaten down by a storm, with Lucky coming across as almost predatory for refusing to acknowledge her protests of being married. The theatrical cut even doubles the amount of time that Lucky has tried to ask her out, overdubbing a line about him asking her for three months to make it five. As intended, Kay finally lets her feelings for Lucky be known after seeing him perform jazz at a company jamboree, and he takes her home and invites himself in. In the theatrical version, however, numerous attempts are made to prolong this moment, including moving a scene of Kay freaking out about their tryst from after their hook-up to before, changing its meaning from a moment of paranoia and shame to one of resistance, yet another scene that makes Lucky look like a complete creep and negates their later romance.

The net effect of these changes makes Kay more broadly sympathetic only in the most regressive sense, chaining the film’s throwback period design to an equally old-fashioned sense of morality. More importantly, it spoils the truly remarkable performance that Hawn gives. In the workprint, Hawn fits Kay within her usual type as the innocent naïf whose pluck sees her through uncomfortable situations while also keeping the character’s evolution grounded. Kay’s arc may be linear but the character isn’t, and Hawn flecks moments of independence and decision with small hesitations and tremors of fear, Kay pulling back as if dipping her toe into a bath that was too hot. We’re given Kay as a complete human being, whose desires and hang-ups hold equal attention and render her progress with messy realism. Here, however, Kay simply comes across as scrambled, with the reordered scenes actively forcing her to retread every single step. It’s one thing to stumble along the way to change, another to just be whatever the scene calls for in that moment. This Kay has no sense of self.

That addled personality contributes to the theatrical cut’s chaotic, half-assed second half that undoes the carefully laid character arcs in favor of simplistic resolutions and conflicts. Jack’s return, in particular, is a farce in the theatrical cut, with him immediately guessing that Kay is having an affair (in the original cut, she confesses on a beach after first standing up for both herself and Hazel) then moping in several added scenes that exist solely for Kay to prostrate herself for forgiveness, further sanding away the character’s complexity but also rendering the final stage of her arc nonsensical. Mere minutes after these displays of weepy remorse, she jealously attacks Hazel and Lucky for shacking up, her understandable jealousy nonetheless conflicted by how completely she seeks to reconcile with her husband.

Enough of Demme’s spark remains in the released version to make Swing Shift entertaining, and there are still glimpses of his wide-ranging curiosity and human interest. Yet in restricting the focus as much as possible onto Kay, the theatrical cut ironically reduces her, makes her a character rather than a person. The true cut of the film would stand out as one of Demme’s finest works, suggesting a rich political and social commentary beneath a non-judgmental multi-character study. As it is, the film is an occasionally enlivening misfire, one that might have set Demme back artistically had he not released a masterpiece a mere fortnight later.

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