It wasn’t the first time they appeared in a film together. In Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), Johnson played the sailor of the title and Allyson played one of the pair of sisters who were in love with him. (They also both appeared in the 1946 Jerome Kern biopic Till the Clouds Roll By. I haven’t seen it, but I know that it features a cast of thousands, and I’m not sure if they shared any scenes.)
High Barbaree puts the two of them front and center. Their characters’ romance is unencumbered by comedy or contrived stumbling blocks. The title of the film and the poster art imply an exotic tale set in the South Seas, and the tagline of the poster — He wanted to stay in the arms of his first true love — but another woman claimed him! — implies that the film will be about a torrid love triangle. It’s neither of these things. It’s a sweet, earnest love story about two childhood sweethearts.
It’s a story told mostly in flashback. It’s WWII, and Lt. Alec Brooke (Johnson) and Lt. Joe Moore (Cameron Mitchell) are drifting in the Pacific, their plane shot down during a bombing run. Every other man in the crew is dead, and Alec and Joe will soon join them if they’re not picked up.
Their water supply dwindling and their bodies weakening, Alec reminisces with Joe about his childhood. Alec is a corn-fed all-American type from Iowa, and Joe ribs him about it, since he’s a typical cynical kid from Brooklyn. Alec recalls the girl he loved when he was little, Nancy Frazer (played by Gigi Perreau as a child, and by Joan Wells as a young girl). She fearlessly climbed the water tower with him when they were children, and later ran away with him to the circus, and witnessed his brief career as a bicycle-riding daredevil. (Alec is played as a child by Jimmy Hunt, and as a 14-year-old by Claude Jarman Jr., fresh off his success as the lead in The Yearling.)
By time passed, as it must, and Nancy and Alec lost touch. He abandoned his plans to become a doctor like his father, Dr. William G. Brooke (Henry Hull), and went into aviation. He got engaged to the wealthy blond heiress Diana Case (Marilyn Maxwell) and went to work for her father’s airplane manufacturing company. Everything seemed to be going his way until Nancy (played as an adult by June Allyson, natch) re-entered his life, and he realized how lost and unhappy he really was.
At some point in the midst of his recollections, Alec realizes that he and Joe and the wreckage of their PBY Catalina are drifting toward a spot marked on a map long ago by Alec’s vagabond uncle, Capt. Thad Vail (Thomas Mitchell). The spot marks a fabulous island called “High Barbaree.” Uncle Thad described it as a mysterious place that was always just over the horizon, but that was perfectly beautiful and serene. If only they can make it to High Barbaree, Alec says, they’ll be saved.
While the exotic island of High Barbaree gives the film its title, it’s not a central part of the story, the way Shangri-La is central to Lost Horizon. Most of the story takes place in Alec and Nancy’s hometown of Westview, Iowa, which is its own kind of dreamlike phantasmagoria. I’ve never been crazy about Van Johnson (I think his stage name really should have been Bland Johnson), but he and Allyson make an appealing couple, and his earnestness is hard to resist in this picture.
High Barbaree isn’t a great film, but it’s pretty good, and is recommended for anyone who’s craving an old-fashioned romance. It’s based on a novel by Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall. The review of the novel in the October 29, 1945, edition of Time magazine said that “It is plainly designed as a refuge for readers who have had enough of wartime realism.” The same can be said of the film.