RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Van Johnson

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

State of the Union (April 30, 1948)

Sixty-four years ago there was a Democrat in the White House facing reelection in the fall, and there was no single heavily favored Republican candidate as the days marched on toward the Republican National Convention.

That Democrat was, of course, Harry S. Truman, and he had faced a bitter rebuke two years earlier when the Democratic Party lost 11 seats in the Senate and 54 seats in the House of Representatives in the 1946 midterm elections (a landslide for Republicans similar to the 2010 midterm elections). I’m tempted to keep drawing parallels to the present day, but I’m afraid that if I do it’ll devolve into me spewing a bunch of meaningless facts, like how the 1948 Summer Olympics were held in London, just like the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Suffice it to say that this was a good time for me to watch Frank Capra’s State of the Union for the first time. And if you’ve never seen it before, then it’s a good time for you to watch it, too.

Adolphe Menjou plays a brilliant Republican party strategist named Jim Conover, who works with the young but equally brilliant Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) to split the Republican primaries in order to get their own dark-horse candidate the nomination for the presidency. Kay is the ruthless publisher who owns the Thorndyke Press, which was bequeathed her by her equally ruthless father.

Van Johnson plays campaign manager “Spike” McManus, a devil-may-care sort who’s happy to tell anyone who will listen that they have no hope of unseating Truman. Instead of coasting on his million-dollar boyish charm, Johnson engages in some “acting” in State of the Union, which didn’t always work for me, but it didn’t ruin the picture either. (And we have to cut Van Johnson a little slack, since in State of the Union he’s acting opposite four absolutely brilliant film actors who are all at the top of their game.)

In response to the assertion that there’s no real difference between the Republicans and the Democrats, Conover exclaims, “There’s all the difference in the world. They’re in and we’re out!”

With this “win or die” attitude, Conover, Thorndyke, and McManus approach the plain-speaking Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) to be their candidate. Matthews is a wealthy and successful airplane designer who has a “hang the politicians” attitude and thumbs his nose at political divisiveness with statements like, “Either we all pull together or we’ll be pulled apart.”

On the other hand, he’s in the midst of a long-standing extramarital affair with Kay Thorndyke, and when he launches his campaign for the presidency, it’s the first time he’s seen his wife Mary (Katharine Hepburn) in four months.

I’m not sure why this film isn’t talked about as much as Capra’s earlier films, like It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Despite its cynical view of our two-party system, I think State of the Union is every bit as hopeful about humanity as Capra’s earlier films.

It’s also a very funny film, which I wasn’t expecting. Even when movies about politics are labeled “comedies” I usually find them more depressing than funny, but State of the Union features a cast of characters who are genuinely interesting and likable (and when they’re unlikable, it’s done in a natural and believable way). Capra’s direction is smooth and assured, with shot constructions that are occasionally brilliant, but there are a lot of jump cuts, too, as though Capra cared more about getting the right flow and combination of dialogue takes then setting up his shots seamlessly.

State of the Union is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse that ran on Broadway from 1945 to 1947. The dialogue in the play was changed slightly from week to week to reflect the current political reality, which is obviously not something that can be done once a film is completed and released into theaters.

It could be this “trapped in amber” quality that has led to State of the Union being relegated to second-tier status among Capra’s films. If that’s the case, I think that’s sad and short-sighted. Despite the fact that State of the Union is entirely about the 1948 election for president, its depiction of our two-party system, the personal and moral compromises a presidential candidate must make, and the corrupting influence of big money in politics is just as relevant today as it was 64 years ago.

High Barbaree (May 1947)

High Barbaree

High Barbaree (1947)
Directed by Jack Conway
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Jack Conway’s High Barbaree pairs America’s boy next door, Van Johnson, with America’s girl next door, June Allyson.

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.

Easy to Wed (July 25, 1946)

Easy to Wed is a remake of Jack Conway’s 1936 comedy Libeled Lady, which starred Jean Harlow, William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Spencer Tracy. No actors of that caliber appear in Edward Buzzell’s update, which is a lightweight affair from start to finish.

I haven’t seen Libeled Lady, but it was nominated for an Oscar for best picture, and is generally well-regarded in the pantheon of screwball comedies. Easy to Wed is generally regarded as a crummy piece of fluff, and that’s exactly what it is. Like the last MGM Technicolor extravaganza I saw, Ziegfeld Follies (1946), this movie is too long, is jam-packed with everything but a compelling plot and interesting characters, and its humor is mostly of the “painfully unfunny” variety.

The plot can be synopsized on the back of a cocktail napkin. Warren Haggerty (Keenan Wynn), the publisher of the Morning Star, is all set to marry his girl, Gladys Benton (Lucille Ball), but he and his paper are being sued for $2 million by J.B. Allenbury (Cecil Kellaway) after a story they published insinuated that Allenbury’s daughter, Connie (Esther Williams), is a nymphomaniac who goes after married men. The soundest plan Haggerty can come up with is to finagle his star reporter, Bill Chandler (Van Johnson), into a compromising position with Connie so they can produce photographic evidence that she is, indeed, a nympho who goes after married men. The only hitch is that Chandler is single, so Haggerty needs to hand off Gladys to him for a sham marriage for the duration of his assignment. Ridiculous? Sure.

At the time of the film’s release, one of its biggest draws was its leading man, Van Johnson. His appeal mystifies me. There’s nothing wrong with him, but I find his blandness overwhelming.

It’s not that I don’t like movies he’s been in — Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), in which he plays a heroic bomber pilot, was one of my favorite World War II movies made during the war — but I’d never go out of my way to see a movie just because he was in it, which makes me different from approximately every single woman living in America in the 1940s. I mean, check out that poster above. “Van! … Van! … Van!” What?

Intellectually, I can understand his appeal for the distaff post-war zeitgeist. The metal plate in his head may have kept him out of the war, but he was in enough war movies to give the impression of a returning hero. And unlike the haunted, shell-shocked, sweaty protagonists of countless noirs, Johnson projects nothing but good-natured cheer. He’s the young man you want your daughter to marry, or the even-tempered buddy you introduce to your sister.

The main selling point of Easy to Wed for me was Esther Williams. There are none of her signature water ballet numbers, but she does spend a lot of time in the water. (Her first kiss with Johnson even takes place underwater.) She is beautiful and sexy, and emerges from the water many times in the picture, sleek and dripping, her makeup still perfect. But she’s beautiful on land, too, and looks great in Technicolor, whether she’s playing a board game by the fire or fully decked-out, singing and dancing in one of the film’s several passable musical numbers.

Besides Williams, the only thing I really liked about Easy to Wed was the crazily outfitted Ethel Smith, who performs a wild musical number at the organ. It’s a scene that borders on the surreal, and I loved it.