Swing Shift (1984): Jonathan Demme’s Pleasant, Harmless Tribute to Women in WWII, Starring Goldie Hawn and Christine Lahti

In this fictionalized version of “Rosie the Riveter,” Jonathan Demme looks at WWII from a slightly feminist perspective. The scenario, by Nancy Dowd, Bo Goldman, and Ron Nyswaner, describes what some women’s experienced during the War years, when their husbands were away from home in service.

Our Grade: B (*** out of *****)

Goldie Haw, whose company produced the film, plays Kay Walsh, a childish (infantile), easily excitable, highly dependent housewife, whose husband Jack (Ed Harris) is recruited for service.

Swing Shift

Out of both boredom and idealism, Kay responds to the media appeal for housewives to enter the work force. At the aircraft factory, she befriends other women like her and meets Lucky (Kurt Russell), a man whose heart condition disqualified him from service, and an affair ensues.

The most interesting sections are those describing the female camaraderie, specifically the bond that develops between Kay and her feisty neighbor Hazel (Christine Lahti), a liberated woman with “looser” sexual codes.

When Jack comes home for a visit and Lucky feels neglected, he is easily seduced by Hazel, leading to tensions and some melodramatic confrontations between the two women.

As Mimi White suggested, the final scene, when the men return home, shows that the reassertion of aggressive patriarchal dominance is not totally embraced. At a party with former co-workers, Kay signals to Hazel to meet her outside. They tearfully embrace as Kay asks, “Well, we showed them. Didn’t we The film ends with a freeze frame on a note of loss and nostalgia. And history will show that the next decade, the 1950s, sent women back to their place, the kitchen.

Even so, there are ideological cracks in the value system and things can never e the same. At the end, Kay is unwilling to assume the role of ideal subject of a similar but reversed media campaign to graciously or happily return to the home.

Like the protags of other movies of the early and mid-1980s, such as the “farm trilogy” (“Country,” with Jessica Lange, “The River,” with Sissy Spacek, and “Places in the Heart” with Sally Field), Kay starts as an immature, rather weak housewife before breaking through conventional domesticity and society’s rigid sexual segregation, and the movie shows her gradual transformation from ordinariness to extra-ordinariness as a result of social circumstances.

At the time, “Swing Shift” got a lot of negative publicity due to the reported conflicts between director Jonathan Demme and producer Goldie Hawn, who took the picture out of his control and reshot and reedited a number of sequences, including the upbeat finale.

Even so, Demme’s auteurist signature shows through his humanity and generosity towards all of the characters and his refusal to judge and blame them for any kind of misconduct, including engaging in adulterous affair.

Flowing naturally, without much drama happening, Swing Shift is a movie that lacks real excitement, or high and lows, even when major events are occurring in the outside reality (which are announced on the radio), or when Kay’s husband suddenly appears and confronts his wife about her illicit affair.

The other problem of the film is that we are not really convinced that leading lady Hawn is truly interested in (or in love with) either her legit husband (Ed Harris) or her lover (Russell).

If Swing Shift is pleasant to watch–sort of harmless entertainment–it’s largely due to the on screen chemistry between women.  Though underdeveloped as a character–playing the second banana, Lahti “steals’ every scene she is in, declaring herself as a major talent to watch.

Made on a decent budget of about $15 million, the movie was a commercial flop, earning only $6.6 million at the box-office, failing to recoup its expense.

Oscar Alert

Christine Lahti received her first and only Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress; the winner, however, was Dame Peggy Ashcroft for David Lean’s epic “A Passage to India.”


Kay Walsh (Goldie Hawn)
Lucky Lockhart (Kurt Russell)
Hazel Zanussi (Christine Lahti)
Biscuits Toohey (Fred Ward)
Jack Walsh (Ed Harris)
Annie (Sudi Bond)
Jeannie Sherman (Holly Hunter)
Laverne (Patty Maloney)
Violet Mulligan (Lisa Pellikan)
Edith Castle (Susan Peretz)


Produced by Jerry Bick.
Directed by Jonathan Demme
Screenplay: Nancy Dowd, Bo Goldman, and Ron Nyswaner

Cinematography Tak Fujimoto
Edited by Gib Jaffe, Craig McKay
Production design: Peter Jamison
Art direction: Bo Welch
Costumes: Joe Tompkins

Music by Peter Allen, Bruce Langhorne, Patrick Williams

Distributed by Warner Bros.

Release date: April 13, 1984

Running time: 100 minutes