Thursday, June 16, 2011

Swing Your Lady (1938)

Penny Singleton and Humphrey Bogart.
Oh my, oh my. I knew I would like this one from the first painful twang of the opening credits, which in addition to Bogie include such luminaries as "The Weaver Brothers and Elviry," all displayed against a background of crude line drawings of hillbillies. If this doesn't promise to deliver a ho-down and somebody named Pappy, I thought to myself, then my name's Mud.

I'll leave you in suspense about Pappy for a moment, because I'd like to use this occasion to say something about B-movies in general. I didn't realize when I started watching Swing Your Lady just what I was in for, but have since discovered it has about as bad a reputation as Rizzo and the other Pink Ladies put together. Among other distinctions, Harry Medved included it in his 1978 book, The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. In my mind this is definitely something in its favor, but I do feel this statement deserves some clarification.

Here at Spellbound Cinema we spend a lot of time watching poorly rated movies, and we don't always do it looking for things other people have missed, hidden underrated gems that deserve a second chance. We also never watch anything just to mock it, like those who say the best way to watch a bad movie is to get a bunch of people together, get trashed, and laugh at all of its flaws. No, if ever I am tempted down that road I like to remind myself that a bunch of people got together, spent months of work and a whole lot of money and made a movie, and that's a hell of a lot more than I've ever done. So I like to approach any discussion of a film, however ridiculous it may appear, from a position of respect.

Nat Pendleton and Louise Fazenda have their own,
peculiarly robust, form of chemistry.

Why watch movies I know are going to be terrible? A fair question, certainly. You know how they say it's a fine line between love and hate? Well, I think it's the same way with film. Swing Your Lady may be terrible, but thank god, at least it's not average. I like movies that surprise me, that offer unexpected plots and combinations of motifs that just don't quite go together. B-movies may be terrible, but they're almost never dull.

So, back to Swing Your Lady. Bogie is Ed Hatch, a wrestling promoter trying to build the career of his new fighter Joe Skopapolous, a lumbering oaf played by professional wrestler Nat Pendleton. Things aren't going so well, and so the team find themselves in back-woods Missouri, looking to drum up a local match. The only likely candidate is a burly lady blacksmith named Sadie (Mack Sennett veteran Louise Fazenda). The trouble is, Joe falls for Sadie like a ton of bricks and refuses to fight her, but an alternative solution presents itself in the form of Sadie's sometime paramour Noah (Daniel Boone Savage), a screaming hairy overall-wearing monstrosity that makes Big Foot look tame.

Everybody, grab your partners!

Along the way we get a lot of ridiculous hillbilly caricatures and 77 minutes of general silliness, including an appearance by Ronald Regan. Hatch's girlfriend Cookie (Penny Singleton, who would later supply the voice of Jane Jetson and star in 27 Blondie films) has a few surprisingly good musical numbers accompanied by The Weaver Brothers folk band, a ramshackle collection of unlikely instruments that are actually not half bad. The dances are by Bobby Connolly and are also rather nice, and the requisite ho-down is everything I hoped it would be (the guests check their hats and shotguns at the door). Cookie sings "Swing Your Lady/Mountain Swingaroo," a phenomenal pastiche of swing, square dancing, and vaudeville that is good, toe-tapping fun. We even get a little satire in the mix as Ed and the others sit down the fighters (who are real enemies by this time, and clawing to get at each other) to rehearse the fight, which has all been scripted in advance.

Bogie rolls with the punches with a smoothness that suggests he hadn't actually read the script. Considering that he is not in most of the silliest scenes in the film, including all of the musical numbers, that may actually be a possibility, although I imagine what we see here is more slick professionalism than happy ignorance. He acquits himself well, lending as much dramatic integrity to the role as the story allows, and mostly plays the straight man to the goof ball antics of the rest of the film. Of course, as a straight wrestling drama, even with Bogart in the lead, Swing Your Lady would be all but unwatchable, and so it is Penny Singleton and Louise Fazenda and to a lesser extent Nat Pendleton who carry the film, and Bogie's character, although ostensibly the lead, is all but forgettable.

As for Pappy, he doesn't personally make an appearance but Elviry and crew sing a whole song about him and his favorite apple tree, which was there for all the momentous occasions of his life, right up to the time he was hanged from its branches. Dear old Pappy. In the end, "it all just seemed to go together, like ho-cakes and hominy."

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