On the eve of World War II, women represented 25% of the American labor force. By 1944, the peak year of female wartime employment, they constituted 36% of the work force. How did these women handle responsibilities outside the home? What was the reaction of men who worked side by side with them in defense plants? And how did the experience of working alter the women's view of themselves and their future?
These questions and others are dealth with lightly in Swing Shift, a nostalgic and laid-back romantic drama set in California during World War II. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Jack (Ed Harris) enlists in the Navy, leaving his straight-laced and submissive wife Kay (Goldie Hawn) behind in their Santa Monica cottage. Inspired by a news reel proclaiming how women can aid the war effort by working in defense plants, she takes a job as a riveter at MacBride Aircraft.
Kay and her feisty next-door neighbor Hazel (Christine Lahti) become friends at the plant. Ignoring sexism on the job, they enjoy their newfound independence. Hazel, a former dance hall singer, introduces Kay to a wider world than she had experienced as a housewife. Lucky (Kurt Russell), a foreman at the plant exempt from the draft because of a bad heart, seduces Kay, and despite her loyalty to Jack, she begins an affair with him. Hazel covers for her friend, pretending she is Lucky's girlfriend to suspicious neighbors.
Jonathan Demme, whose directorial credits include Handle With Care and Howard and Melvin, orchestrates this film nicely by giving tender loving care to both the characters and the artifacts of the 40s. He convincingly captures the workers' pride in their labors, the suffering brought by death notices from overseas, and the escape from anxiety to be fonud doing the fox trot in dance halls.
Swing Shift effectively clarifies how the war changed men, women, work, and family. When Jack learns of Kay's adultery during a leave of absence, she must choose between the two men she loves. And when Hazel beds Lucky after Kay refuses to see him anymore, the two women must renegociate the terms of their friendship.
The film ends on an ironic note. Following the conclusion of the war, the working women are dismissed by MacBride Aircraft and told to go home where they belong. For Kay and Jack and for millions of others, the war made it impossible for them to resume the status quo; their lives would never be the same again.