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Jack and Kay Walsh are typical of many couples of the 1940s, where he is the breadwinner and she the housewife dependent upon him to do the man's duties around the house. Jack believes one of their neighbors in the housing complex in which they live in Los Angeles is white trash - he letting her know so at every opportunity, while Kay is quietly curious about her. That neighbor is streetwise Hazel Zanussi, an aspiring singer who does get a chance to sing on occasion at the club managed by her casual boyfriend, Biscuits Toohey, although he relegates her to being one of the taxi dancers more often against her wants, while he cheats on her behind her back despite truly having feelings for her. Hazel just wants to make an honest living. Their worlds are turned upside down on December 7, 1941 when the US enters WWII with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Jack immediately enlists in the Navy, and while he will send money home, his decision leaves Kay largely to fend for herself. Against...Written by
"Swing Shift," director Jonathan Demme's sensitive story about women who went to war with a rivet gun, begins the night before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Living in modest California bungalows, Kay Walsh (Goldie Hawn) and her husband, Jack (Ed Harris) live a simple and enjoyable life. Everything is suddenly changed with the Sunday afternoon announcement of the devastating assault on the Pacific Fleet and the Army Air Corps bases in Hawaii.
Jack enlists immediately as do many of the couple's neighbors and friends. Alone, bored and motivated by genuine patriotism Kay goes to work at an aircraft plant that builds the tough, reliable SBD carrier-borne dive bomber. She strikes up, awkwardly at first, a friendship with neighbor Hazel (Christine Lahti), a woman with a nightclub-owning boyfriend. Jack had made some nasty not sotto voce cracks about her before he left for war.
Kay takes to the assembly line and enjoys being productive. But she's also lonely - it was a long war. Her "leadman," a sort of foreman, is "Lucky" (Kurt Russell). He and she begin a friendship that culminates in one of those wartime affairs that happened very often and is realistically portrayed by Hawn who is torn between marital fidelity and loneliness (and, obviously, dealing with separation-enforced abstinence).
Lucky is a 4-F. That meant he was "physically, mentally or morally unfit" for military service. In his case - phew - it's a latent heart condition.
The affair goes through various stages, punctuated by Jack's surprise arrival on a forty-eight hour pass. Whatever suspecting his wife is having it on with Lucky may do to him, he's also both bemused and confused that as a "leadman," (she's been promoted) she earns more in a factory than he does serving in the Fleet. Harris's portrayal is of a man on the cusp of a social change he feels but can't really identify.
There are a lot of ups and downs in this story but Hawn and Lahti in particular deliver strongly emotional and convincing performances. This was long before women could rise to general officer or flag officer rank and assume major wartime responsibilities. Hawn is Rosie the Riveter, the patriotic but largely uneducated and unskilled patriotic American female. There were tens of thousands of such women employed in every type of industrial work.
Obviously the absence of husbands and the surfeit of available albeit older or not totally fit men aided the initiation of extramarital affairs. But "Swing Shift" also subtly conveys the reality that the women who went to work were empowered by the global conflict. Despite an ending that affirms the women's promise and duty to relinquish employment to returning veterans (the promise was unnecessary since both law and custom insured their rapid dismissal), American women were fundamentally changed by the liberating reality of serving their country by working (often for the first time) and earning money. The political, economic and social reverberations would be felt for decades. "Swing Shift" is fine entertainment but it's also a chronicle of an important aspect of America's Home Front.
A fine movie. Available on DVD in a good transfer with no real special features.
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