Musical Monday: Swing! (1938)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
“Swing!” (1938)– Musical #598

Micheaux Pictures Corporation

Oscar Micheaux

Cora Green, Larry Seymour, Dorothy Van Engle, Hazel Diaz, Alec Lovejoy, Amanda Randolph, Trixie Smith, Carman Newsome, Doli Armena, Consuelo Harris, George R. Taylor, The Tyler Twins, Leon Gross & His Orchestra

Mandy (Green) works as a cook for a rich family in Birmingham, AL. Her husband Cornell (Seymour) says he’s a business man, but he takes all of Mandy’s money and spends it on Eloise Jackson (Diaz) who he cheating on Mandy with. After Mandy finds the two in a nightclub, Eloise moves to New York City and changes her name to Cora Smith and hopes to become an actress. Eloise’s husband Lem (Lovejoy) follows her to New York City, and Mandy moves to the New York as well when she leaves Cornell. Lena Powell also is from Birmingham and is now working for Ted Gregory, a stage producer. Lena helps Cora get a job as a seamstress for the show, which happens to be the show that Eloise is starring in.

– Written and directed by Oscar Micheaux. It was adapted by Micheaux’s story “Mandy.”
– “Swing!” is only one of two films Cora Green starred in. The other was “Moon Over Harlem.”
– “Swing!” is what is known as a “race film,” which is a film that has an all-African American cast and was released made between 1915 and 1950. These films were usually produced outside of the Hollywood studio system.

– Trumpet player Doli Armena

Notable Songs:
-“Bei Mir Bist di Schön” performed by Cora Green
-“Heaven Help This Heart of Mine” performed by Cora Green

My review:
During the classic film era, when African Americans went to the movies, they generally saw caricatures of themselves on screens. Often black actors were playing maids or janitors, and often giving demoralizing performances – like Willie Best who was afraid of his own shadow in many films.

African American filmmakers like Oscar Micheaux created films with all black casts and putting them as everyday people and not the caricatures seen in other films. “Swing!” (1938) is a musical example. However, though it is a categorized as a musical and has a title that would suggest a musical, “Swing!” is a drama in the first half of the film and in the second, a backstage musical.

In his introduction, former Turner Classic Movies film historian Robert Osborne calls the film a cautionary musical tale about people moving from the south to the big city. In a way it is, but not for all of the characters.

For the characters played by Hazel Diaz and Alec Lovejoy (Eloise and Lem), they move from Alabama to New York City and get into trouble. Though Diaz’s character becomes a performer, she drinks too much and is late for rehearsals. This ends up being her downfall – literally, she falls and breaks her leg. Her husband played by Alec Lovejoy, gets involved in crime. However, other characters find success. Dorothy Van Engle’s character of Lena has left Alabama, went to school and has a profitable job and her own apartment. Cora Green’s character arrives in the city down on her luck and broken-hearted but becomes a success on Broadway.

In a way, the story reminds me of “42nd Street.” The temperamental and spoiled star ends up breaking her leg and an unknown performer saves the show and becomes a success.

Many of the performers in “Swing!” were not stars and many were in less than five films, including the leads Cora Green, Hazel Diaz and Dorothy Van Engle. Green was a well-known singer in vaudeville and was in all African American musical revues. Others, like Van Engle, acted mainly only in Micheaux films, according to Disintegrating the Musical by Arthur Knight.

While Micheaux’s films were groundbreaking, he did also play into black stereotypes. For example, in “Swing!” the white “angel” who funds the show says the show name should be changed to “Ah Lubs Dat Man” with a lead singer “fum Bumin-ham.”

Along with changing the show name to something demeaning to the actors, Mandy – played by Cora Green – also goes back to her no good husband. These turn of events don’t feel like a happy ending to me, and I’m not sure if that was the goal.

Despite some issues with the plot, the film gives us the opportunity to see some great talent. Cora Green’s performance of the song “Bei Mir Bist di Schön” is a real highlight. We also get to see Doli Armena, also known as Dolly Jones, perform her trumpet on the film, which is a treat. Armena was the first female trumpet player to be recorded and “Swing!” was, unfortunately, her only screen appearance.

“Swing!” (1938) is an interesting film as it is part of Oscar Micheaux’s repertoire, and was towards the end of his career. Though the plot has some issues, I loved getting to see the talents of performers who I would not see showcased in other films.

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