RSS Feed

Tag Archives: John Hodiak

Battleground (Nov. 9, 1949)

Battleground
Battleground (1949)
Directed by William A. Wellman
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

A lot of reviews of Battleground claim it was the first World War II movie to portray servicemen as fully human characters who experience fear and doubt, and not just as inspirational patriotic figures.

Whoever thinks this has probably not seen very many World War II movies made between 1941 and 1945. While Americans have never been great at understanding our enemies, we have always been good at exploring the vulnerability, fears, and doubts that our own soldiers experience in combat. Everything from Stephen Crane’s novel The Red Badge of Courage (1895) to Lewis Milestone’s film version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) presented nuanced views of men under fire.

During World War II, Hollywood films about the war tended to lionize servicemen and depict America’s involvement as vitally necessary, but the better ones, like Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) (with script by Dalton Trumbo), were also great human dramas.

I think the most significant antecedents to Battleground were two other films about men in the infantry: The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and A Walk in the Sun (1945).

A Walk in the Sun was directed by Lewis Milestone, the man who directed All Quiet on the Western Front. It attempts to depict the mind of the American infantryman, through both dialogue and rambling internal monologues (a technique Terrence Malick would later use in The Thin Red Line). In keeping with the POV of the soldiers, the viewer is kept mostly in the dark about the larger significance of the violence, which punctuates the film in terrifying and confusing bursts.

The Story of G.I. Joe starred Burgess Meredith as embedded combat reporter Ernie Pyle and co-starred Robert Mitchum as the commanding officer of Company C, 18th Infantry. It was directed by William A. Wellman, the man who directed Battleground. Just like Battleground, the scenes of violence were swift and brutal, but the focus for most of the film was on the infantrymen themselves, and the boredom, extreme physical discomfort, and drudgery punctuated by fear that everyone who serves in combat experiences. Also like Battleground, most of the extras in The Story of G.I. Joe were actual soldiers who had served in combat.

Johnson and Hodiak

The big studios dumped most of their existing war movies in theaters not long after V-E Day and V-J Day in 1945, rightly assuming that the public had little interest in war movies once the war was over. In the few years that followed, plenty of movies dealt with veterans’ homecomings (The Best Years of Our Lives, released in 1946, was the finest of these films), but I’m hard pressed to think of any American films from this period that directly dealt with the experience of combat. The only one I can think of is Mervyn LeRoy’s Homecoming (1948), but all of the fighting in that film was just the backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

So Battleground was unique in that it was a return to films about World War II that focused on the combat experience. Producer Dore Schary brought the project with him to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer when he left RKO Radio Pictures. It was a passion project for him, and he really had to fight to get it to the screen, since MGM head Louis B. Mayer believed that the public was still tired of war films.

Schary’s persistence paid off. His tribute to the “battered bastards of Bastogne” was a huge hit with audiences, and was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. (It took home two Oscars, one for Best Story and Screenplay, and one for Best Cinematography, Black & White.)

As I said earlier, Battleground is firmly in the tradition of humanistic portraits of ordinary soldiers like The Story of G.I. Joe and A Walk in the Sun, but it does go further than any films made during World War II depicting how scared many ordinary infantrymen really were, and how strongly they could desire to be far, far away from the fighting.

One character in Battleground is counting the days until he rotates out of the Army, and is furious when he’s told that they’re surrounded by the Germans, and he’s not going anywhere. But typically of the film, he steels his courage and eventually manages to make jokes about how the Germans are committing war crimes by shooting at him, a civilian. Another character has a full set of false teeth, which he loses and then tries to be given medical leave for a few days. (That character is played by Douglas Fowley, who really did lose his teeth in an explosion while serving on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.)

At one point in the film, two soldiers retreat and have to leave behind a wounded man, who hides himself from the Germans by crawling under the wreck of a jeep and covering himself with snow. The film never depicts any of the men’s acts as cowardly; they are badly outnumbered, and doing anything else would have been suicide for all of them.

The Oscar-winning screenplay of Battleground was written by Robert Pirosh, who served as a master sergeant with the 35th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge. Pirosh based his script partly on his own experiences, but the film details the exploits of the 327th Glider Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, so Lt. Col. Harry Kinnard, who had been the deputy divisional commander of the 101st at Bastogne, served as technical advisor. More than a dozen veterans of the 101st appeared as extras in the film and worked with the actors to ensure accuracy. (The film is relatively accurate except for a plot about German soldiers moving through the lines who are disguised as Allied soldiers, but this can be forgiven in the interest of creating suspense and tension. It is, after all, “only a movie.”)

SPAM

The actors are all great, and many of them had actually served in combat. James Whitmore, who plays Sgt. Kinnie and was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role, served in the Marine Corps in World War II. James Arness, who would go on to star in the 20-year run of Gunsmoke on TV, has a small role in the film, and was the most decorated soldier among the cast. (Arness was severely wounded at Anzio, and received the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart, the World War II Victory Medal, the Combat Infantryman Badge, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze battle stars.)

Consequently, Battleground is one of the most authentic World War II movies you will ever see, even though it might not seem that way to a viewer who has been weaned on the bloody CGI horrors of 21st-century war movies. However, if you’re conversant in the language of film, and can read what is being written on and off the screen, there’s one sequence that’s as brutal as anything you’ll ever see in a war film. Our heroes are surprised by German troops and in a fast-moving sequence, Ricardo Montalban rips a German soldier’s throat out with his teeth, Van Johnson stabs a German soldier to death with his bayonet, and John Hodiak bashes in the skull of a German soldier with the stock of his rifle.

I’ve read reviews of Battleground that refer to it as an “anti-war film.” I don’t know if this point of view springs from Steven Spielberg’s ridiculous assertion, made around the time that the philosophically incoherent Saving Private Ryan (1998) was released, that “every war movie, good or bad, is an anti-war movie,” but it couldn’t be further from the truth.

Although very few Hollywood films can simply be called “pro-war” films, a truly “anti-war” film would have to condemn any kind of armed conflict and celebrate pacifism as a viable and noble alternative. A truly “anti-war” film could not depict death and destruction in a highly aestheticized way, like Apocalypse Now (1979). And it could not celebrate the value of brotherhood under fire, as do Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down (2001). No film that celebrates soldiers nobly putting their lives on the line for the greater good can ever be called an “anti-war movie,” any more than The Passion of the Christ (2004) can by called an “anti-crucifixion movie.”

I’m not condemning Battleground because it’s not an anti-war movie. I even thought the short, moving scene in which an Army chaplain explains why he thinks America’s involvement in the war is vitally necessary was one of the best bits of the movie.

But today is Memorial Day, and I think it’s worth considering, as we honor the sacrifice of people who laid down their lives overseas, that no war movie can ever replicate the experience of combat. No matter how realistic, the viewer is watching from a position of safety. And every war film is a tale told by survivors. The dead no longer have a voice.

Advertisements

Homecoming (April 29, 1948)

Homecoming
Homecoming (1948)
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

If Mervyn LeRoy’s slick M-G-M romance Homecoming is to be believed, the entire European theater of operations in World War II was an elaborate backdrop for a passionate and illicit romance between Clark Gable and Lana Turner.

Gable plays a doctor named Ulysses Johnson. His friends call him “Lee,” but the beautiful nurse he befriends during the war calls him “Useless.” (That beautiful nurse is Lieutenant Jane McCall, nicknamed “Snapshot.” She’s played by Lana Turner, who was really good at playing beautiful women.)

Dr. Johnson is a noninterventionist who enlists to fight mostly because it’s “the thing to do.” Six year earlier this wasn’t our war, he says, and he doesn’t see how it’s any more our war now.

Lt. McCall tries to convince Dr. Johnson otherwise, which leads him to quip, “When women talk world politics it makes me laugh.”

McCall responds tartly, “Do the women of the bombed cities of Europe make you laugh, Major?”

Turner and Gable

Unsurprisingly, this sharp verbal exchange leads to more sharp verbal exchanges, most of them with a strong undercurrent of flirtatiousness.

Dr. Johnson has a wife back home, Penny (Anne Baxter), and McCall has a son to think about, but the more they try to keep things professional, the more the tension builds.

It should come as no surprise that Homecoming is more concerned with Dr. Johnson’s budding affair with Snapshot than it is with his moral and patriotic development. For instance, during the battle of Bastogne, the biggest trouble they face is having to abandon their jeep after it’s stuck in the mud. They have no difficulty locating an abandoned farmhouse in which to sexily and achingly hole up for the night. Try watching this movie immediately after watching the harrowing Band of Brothers episode “Bastogne” (Oct. 7, 2001). It will be really difficult to take Homecoming seriously.

Actually, Homecoming may be really difficult to take seriously even if you’ve never seen Band of Brothers and are totally unfamiliar with the history of World War II. But if all you’re looking for is a wartime romance starring a couple of members of Hollywood royalty, it fits the bill.

Desert Fury (Aug. 15, 1947)

For me, Lewis Allen’s Desert Fury is currently running neck and neck with Felix Feist’s The Devil Thumbs a Ride for the honor of “wackiest movie of 1947.”

But maybe I’m comparing apples to oranges. While The Devil Thumbs a Ride was a zany thrill ride with oddball characters and a lot of unexpected humor, Desert Fury is a ridiculously campy melodrama in which most of the humor seems unintentional.

Also, it has gay undertones that are strong enough to power a small city for a year.

The poster on the right implies that Burt Lancaster and John Hodiak spend the movie fighting for Lizabeth Scott’s love, but that’s not the case. More accurate is the tagline: “Two men wanted her love … The third wanted her life!”

Scott plays a beautiful 19-year-old girl who lives in a “cactus graveyard” in the middle of nowhere — Chuckawalla, Nevada. She lives with her mother, Fritzi, who’s played by Mary Astor (an actress from Hollywood’s Golden Age who was just 16 years older than Lizabeth Scott). Fritzi always calls Paula “baby.” Not in a sweet, maternal way, but the way a barfly might say, “Hey, baby! C’mere!”

Fritzi wants Paula to go back to school, but Paula wants to help her mother run the Purple Sage Casino. (Paula’s father was a bootlegger who was killed when Paula was very young.)

Burt Lancaster plays Tom Hanson, a former bronco buster who barnstormed around the country, but washed out of the rodeo and now works as a sheriff’s deputy in Chuckawalla. Fritzi wants Tom to marry Paula and make an honest woman out of her. He’d like nothing more than to marry Paula, but he doesn’t push, because he knows that her love for him is strictly platonic.

Into their lives comes runty, mustachioed gangster Eddie Bendix (John Hodiak) and his gunsel Johnny (Wendell Corey), and Paula — quite inexplicably — falls head over heels in love with Eddie.

The love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Tom is weak sauce compared with the love triangle formed by Paula, Eddie, and Johnny.

Johnny is more than just Eddie’s “muscle.” He’s his longtime companion, his best friend, and — just possibly — his lover.

Is he or isn’t he? Let’s look at the evidence. Eddie and Johnny form a tight unit, and seem to both know what really happened to Eddie’s first wife, who died in a car accident. Johnny hates Paula, and seems insanely jealous of her relationship with Eddie.

And how does Eddie explain to Paula how he first hooked up with Johnny?

“I was your age, maybe a year older. I was in the automat off Times Square about two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. I was broke, he had a couple of dollars, we got to talking. He ended up paying for my ham and eggs,” he says, a note of shameful resignation creeping into his voice.

“And then?” Paula asks.

“I went home with him that night. I was locked out. Didn’t have a place to stay. His old lady ran a boarding house in the Bronx. There were a couple of vacant rooms. We were together from then on.”

The relationship between Eddie and Johnny isn’t the only hint of a gay union. Paula and Fritzi are so close in age, and Fritzi’s attitude toward her daughter lacking so much maternal warmth, that they seem more like a lesbian couple than anything else. Fritzi seems like the older, more dominant one, and Paula seems like the younger, more restive one, who might also be interested in men. (In further defense of this reading, Lizabeth Scott and Burt Lancaster might walk off into the sunset at the end of the picture, but their lips never meet. The final — and most passionate — kiss of the film is the one Fritzi plants on Paula’s lips.)

There’s a lot of talent in front of and behind the camera, but that only counts for so much. For instance, compare Miklós Rózsa’s brilliant score for Brute Force (1947) with his score for Desert Fury. His score for Desert Fury is powerful, but without the dramatic underpinning of a great film, it just writhes and flails all over the place, seemingly in search of a better movie, or at least a more lively one.

The script by Robert Rossen (with uncredited assistance from A.I. Bezzerides), which is based on Ramona Stewart’s novel Desert Town, has a lot of snappy dialogue, but the story just doesn’t move with much intensity. Also, the Technicolor cinematography really undercuts some of the noir elements of the story and the situation.

Desert Fury is campy, and worth seeing if you’re into camp, but that’s about it. Also, if you’re a connoisseur of face-slapping, there’s plenty of that going around, too.

The Arnelo Affair (Feb. 13, 1947)

Arch Oboler’s The Arnelo Affair is a crime melodrama with so much voiceover narration that most of it can easily be understood and enjoyed by blind people.

Oboler cut his teeth in radio. His most famous work was for the horror anthology Lights Out, which is one of the scariest and most gruesome radio shows of all time. Oboler was a native of Chicago and the child of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. He was a prolific writer — one of the most talented in the medium of radio. His work as a film director is more hit or miss.

The Arnelo Affair, his third film, is based on a story by Jane Burr and takes place in Chicago. It starts out promisingly, with a lot of heat between its protagonist, Anne Parkson (Frances Gifford), and the magnetic, mustachioed nightclub owner Tony Arnelo (John Hodiak). Anne is married to a lawyer and all-around stuffed shirt named Ted (George Murphy), who’s such a drip that he won’t let their 9 year-old son, Ricky (Dean Stockwell), touch any of the tools in the room in their house marked “Ricky’s Workshop.”

The Parksons have been married for 12 years (which, if Gifford’s character is the same age as she is, means they got hitched when she was only 14 or 15), and Anne is clearly neglected and unloved. When her path crosses Arnelo’s, his persistence and menacing charm draw her to him.

Eve Arden, at this point typecast as the worldly and knowing friend of the troubled female protagonist (see also Mildred Pierce and My Reputation), plays Anne’s friend Vivian, who cautions Anne that “Canaries and hawks don’t make good playmates.”

She’s right, of course, and when Arnelo murders one of his other girlfriends in order to draw Anne closer to him, Anne will realize what a dangerous game she’s been playing.

Oboler’s script is perceptive about infidelity, and the dialogue is more believable than in most melodramas, but Oboler’s direction is flat, and he relies too heavily on voiceover narration by Gifford to explicate her character’s emotions. The Arnelo Affair isn’t bad, but after 45 minutes it loses momentum and never really picks up again. It might have made a better 60-minute B movie programmer from one of the small studios than a 90-minute maudlin MGM melodrama.

Somewhere in the Night (June 12, 1946)

Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Somewhere in the Night looks like a noir, talks like a noir, and walks like a noir. But when the credits rolled I felt more like I’d watched a light-hearted mystery farce than a noir. This isn’t to say that Somewhere in the Night is a bad movie. It’s actually a really fun one. But the dark journey promised by the film’s opening never pans out, and the plot twists grow increasingly ludicrous as the picture goes on.

The first few minutes of the picture are mostly shot in first-person P.O.V., as a man (played by John Hodiak) wakes up in an Army field hospital. Through voiceover and the images in front of his face, we learn that he has no idea who he is, and doesn’t remember anything leading up to this point. This opening presages Robert Montgomery’s ill-advised first-person P.O.V. extravaganza Lady in the Lake (1947). Luckily, unlike that picture, the technique is used judiciously in Somewhere in the Night.

Hodiak’s character has Army identification in the name of “George Taylor,” a Dear John letter (it’s really more of an “I Hate You, John” letter), and a letter of credit from someone named “Larry Cravat.” What’s a noir protagonist to do? Clearly, the best course of action is to head for the mean streets of Los Angeles and attempt to track down Larry Cravat, even though “Taylor” has no idea what he’s doing or who all these people are who seem to want him dead. Why should that stop him? Taylor is a Purple Heart recipient and seems to be able to handle himself. It doesn’t hurt that the briefcase he picks up in a Los Angeles train station contains a gun and a letter from Larry Cravat telling Taylor that there is $5,000 deposited in his name in an L.A. bank.

For the first half hour or so, Somewhere in the Night has a few things to say about the plight of returning G.I.s, in particular the disappointments handed them by the women they came home to (or didn’t come home to, in Taylor’s case), and the resentment some servicemen must have felt upon their return.

“You know there’s been a terrible shortage of men,” a beautiful young woman named Phyllis (Margo Woode) tells Taylor.

“Yeah, so we heard in the Pacific,” he responds. “This war must have been murder on you poor women. We used to cry our eyes out about it.”

But, as I said, the longer Somewhere in the Night goes on, the more plot points stack up, and the less time the film has to do anything but crank through its story.

When Taylor goes to the bank to try and collect his $5,000 he arouses the suspicion of the cashier and he ends up fleeing empty-handed. He follows leads to a Turkish bath and then to a nightclub. Set up at the club by the bartender, he ends up hiding from a couple of mugs in the dressing room of a pretty singer named Christy Smith, who is played by the 20-year old Nancy Guild (rhymes with “wild”).

Guild is fresh-faced, has a beautiful voice, and plays her role well. She’s not outstanding, but she does a good job, especially considering this was her first role in a film; not just as leading lady, her first film role, period. Apparently she felt out of her depth, and the production was a struggle for her. In later interviews, she credited Mankiewicz’s generous nature and sensitive direction, and said he was a real father figure to her.

Hodiak also does a decent job, but it’s a one-note performance. He sweats profusely and looks haunted, and does a great job with lines like, “I’m tired of being pushed around. The war’s over for me. I don’t have to live afraid anymore.” He sounds genuinely angry, and he also sounds as if he doesn’t believe his own words one bit.

It wasn’t until after I finished watching Somewhere in the Night that I learned that while Hodiak was born in the United States, he grew up in an immigrant family, spoke Hungarian and Polish at home, and always had to work hard at his English diction. “No part has ever come easily to me,” Hodiak once said. “Every one has been a challenge. I’ve worked as hard as I could on them all.” I never would have guessed from this film that his first language wasn’t English, but there is something about his delivery that is strange and stilted.

Luckily, Guild and Hodiak have wonderful support from two great actors who straddled the line between character actor and leading man; Lloyd Nolan and Richard Conte.

Nolan plays a police detective, Lt. Donald Kendall, who doesn’t eat lunch because it puts him to sleep and doesn’t drink coffee because it keeps him awake. He also wonders aloud several times why detectives in the movies don’t ever take their hats off. (He figures it out by the end of the picture.) And he has plenty of great lines, which he delivers in his trademark wry fashion, like “Big post-war boom in homicide.”

Conte plays a nightclub owner named Mel Phillips, who’s smooth without seeming oily, and whose motives aren’t initially clear. (If you had $5 for every time Conte played a nightclub owner in a noir, you could probably take your whole family out to a nice dinner.)

Somewhere in the Night is a good picture; well-made and a lot of fun. It was all just a little silly for my taste, though.

The Harvey Girls (Jan. 18, 1946)

In 1876, a 41-year-old entrepreneur named Fred Harvey opened a string of restaurants along the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway line. The eateries catered to middle-class and wealthy travelers alike, and at the height of the franchise’s success, there were more than 80 Harvey House restaurants. Harvey died in 1901, but the Fred Harvey Company continued to build restaurants into the 1960s.

A restaurant chain might seem an unlikely subject for a big-budget, Technicolor, Hollywood musical, but clearly the young, attractive waitresses in their crisp black and white uniforms were enough of a hook. The film opens with the following portentous prologue:

“When Fred Harvey pushed his chain of restaurants farther and farther west along the lengthening tracks of the Santa Fe, he brought with him one of the first civilizing forces this land had known … the Harvey Girls. These winsome waitresses conquered the west as surely as the Davy Crocketts and the Kit Carsons — not with powder horn and rifle, but with a beefsteak and a cup of coffee. To these unsung pioneers, whose successors today still carry on in the same tradition, we sincerely dedicate this motion picture.”

If all this is to be taken seriously, then who wouldn’t want to lionize these distaff settlers? I haven’t read Samuel Hopkins Adams’s 1942 novel that this film is based on, but it must have been a good story for Hollywood to want to pick it up. Or maybe it was just that Johnny Mercer and Harry Warren realized what a catchy rhythm the phrase “on the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” had.

After the prologue and credits, the film opens on a shot of a moving train. Susan Bradley (Garland) is standing on the deck of the caboose, singing a forgettable song about love. She is heading out west to marry a man whom she only knows from the florid love letters he has written her. When her suitor, H.H. Hartsey (Chill Wills), turns out to be a functionally illiterate cowpoke who had a friend play Cyrano for him by penning the letters himself, Susan parts with him (mostly amicably), and becomes a Harvey girl.

The dramatic conflict, such as it is, comes from the local saloon and gambling house, which also features dancing girls. The owner of the palace of sin, Ned Trent (John Hodiak), and his star attraction, Em (played by a young and foxy Angela Lansbury), fear that the opening of the Harvey House will usher in a new era of respectability and crush their business. In real life of course, Trent’s girls would have been prostitutes and Em would have been their madam, but in the world of 1940s M-G-M musicals, dancing the cancan for hooting and hollering cowboys was about as scandalous as they could get.

Garland and Lansbury both give good performances, and are backed up by a large and talented cast. Virginia O’Brien (as the Harvey girl “Alma from Ohio”) is tough and sassy, and Ray Bolger, most famous for playing the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939), here gets to play the Cowardly Homosexual, a popular character type in Hollywood pictures for decades. While his sexual preference is never identified outright, Bolger’s character’s effeminacy and fear of any butch labor (such as shoeing horses), as well as his spirited prancing, leaping, and tap dancing make it clear that he doesn’t have any designs on the ladies.

The Harvey Girls is an entertaining mix of musical and western. But if director George Sidney aspired for it to be anything more than breezy entertainment, it doesn’t show. Judy Garland is always a delight, but Vincente Minnelli’s ability to coax a nuanced performance from her and to tell an engaging story from beginning to end in a musical is sorely missed here. The Harvey Girls is enjoyable, but it’s no Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Also, aside from the standout song, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe” (which won an Academy Award for best song), no musical number in the picture really stands out.