Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)


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Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold…

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Christmas-tery: Deanna Durbin in LADY ON A TRAIN (Universal 1945)


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Deanna Durbin was the best Christmas present Universal Studios ever received. The 15-year-old singing sensation made her feature debut in 1936’s THREE SMART GIRLS, released five days before Christmas. The smash hit helped save cash-strapped Universal from bankruptcy, and Miss Durbin signed a long-term contract, appearing in a string of musical successes: ONE HUNDRED MEN AND A GIRL, THAT CERTAIN AGE, SPRING PARADE, NICE GIRL?, IT STARTED WITH EVE. One of her best is the Christmas themed comedy/murder mystery LADY ON A TRAIN, one of only two films directed by  Charles David, who married the star in 1950, the couple then retiring to his native France.

Our story begins with young Nikki Collins travelling by train from San Francisco to New York City to visit her Aunt Martha, reading a murder mystery to pass the time. Nikki witnesses a real-life murder committed through a window, and after ditching her wealthy…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)


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A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train…

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The Fabulous Forties #17: Gung Ho! (dir by Ray Enright)


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The 17th film in Mill Creek’s Fabulous Forties Box Set was the 1943 war film, Gung Ho!

Gung Ho!, which is filmed in a documentary style and features a narrator, opens with a series of job interviews.  A tough lieutenant (J. Carrol Naish) is recruiting Marines to serves in a special unit, one which will only take on the most hazardous of assignments.  The narrator reminds us that the interviews are taking place just a few weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor and we listen as each interviewee is asked whether or not he is okay with killing members of the Japanese army.

Some of the interviewees hesitate and some don’t but ultimately, all of them are okay with killing.  One (Rod Cameron) explains that he’s already a murderer, having killed someone back in Kentucky.  Another says that he fought in the Spanish Civil War and that he sees his service as being a continuation of the fight against fascism.  Another Marine (Alvan Curtis) says that he’s an ordained minister but he’s willing to do what has to be done.  A Marine named Pig Iron shows up and, since he’s played by a young Robert Mitchum, we know that he’ll get things taken care of.

And then we get to the final interviewee.  He doesn’t have a big role in the film but his one line makes a big impression.  When asked why he doesn’t mind the idea of killing, he replies, “I just don’t like Japs.”

AGCK!

That’s a line that would definitely not make it into a modern version of Gung Ho!  Or, if it did, it would be followed by the interviewee being admonished and then kicked out of the office.  But Gung Ho! was made in 1943, at the height of World War II and in the shadow of Peal Harbor.  As uncomfortable as it may make us today, “I just don’t like Japs,” was probably Gung Ho‘s big applause line when it was originally released.

And really, that’s the main value of a film like Gung Ho!  It’s a well-made but predictable war film but ultimately, it’s most important as a time capsule.  If you want to know the truth about an era’s culture, as opposed to what you may want the truth to be, look at the art.  Read the books.  Watch the movies.  You may not always like what you find but you owe it to yourself to do so.

Anyway, as far the rest of Gung Ho!, it plays out exactly as you would expect.  Under the eye of Lt. Commander Thornwald (Randolph Scott), the men train for combat.  They visit Pearl Harbor and see the sunken remains of ships that are still smoking after being bombed.  And finally, the men fight the Japanese on an island.  Some survive.  Many more of them die.  And the fight continues.

Gung Ho! will probably be best appreciated by fans of war films, which admittedly I am not.  That said, it is an interesting time capsule of 1943 America.  Plus, it features Robert Mitchum!  Admittedly, it’s a small role but he does get two great scenes and … well, he’s Robert Mitchum!  How can you not enjoy watching Robert Mitchum?

And guess what?  You can watch Gung Ho! below!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sergeant York (dir by Howard Hawks)


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The 1941 film Sergeant York was the American Sniper of its day.  A biopic of Alvin York, one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War I, Sergeant York was not only a huge box office hit but it was a film that celebrated American patriotism in the type of unabashed fashion that you would never see in a film made today.  Though Sergeant York went into production at a time when the United States was officially pursuing a policy of international neutrality, it was released shortly before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and, whether intentionally or not, Sergeant York served as a strong recruiting tool.  According to Wikipedia (and we all know that Wikipedia is never wrong), there were reports of young men going straight from the movie to the nearest military recruitment office.

Clocking in at nearly two and a half hours (and running at least 40 minutes too long), Sergeant York is two films in one.  The second half of the film deals with the military career of Alvin York (Gary Cooper), a plain-spoken and honest Tennessee farmer who, because of his strong religious beliefs, unsuccessfully attempts to register as a conscientious objector.  Forced into the Army, York is, at first, dismissed as a simple-minded hillbilly.  (His fellow soldiers are amused to discover that York doesn’t know what a subway is.)  However, to the shock of his commanding officers, he proves himself to be an expert marksman.  As he explains it, being from the country means that he’s been shooting a rifle his entire life.

On the basis of his skills as a marksman, York is given a promotion but he still says that he refuses to kill.  It’s not until his superior officer reminds him of the sacrifices that past Americans have made that York starts to reconsider his position.  Then, a gust of wind opens York’s bible to a verse about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and York realizes that he can go to war and, if need be, he can kill.

And it’s a good thing that he can!  Because World War I is heating up and York may be the only guy around with the strength and confidence to single-handedly defeat and capture over 170 German soldiers.

The army section of Sergeant York is predictable but well-done.  As you’d expect from a film directed by Howard Hawks, a lot of emphasis is put on how the soldiers work together.  York is portrayed not as being super human but instead as just an honest man who is exceptionally good at his job.  There’s nothing surprising about the second half of Sergeant York but Hawks keeps the action moving and Cooper gives a good performance.

To be honest, I preferred the first half of the film, which examined York’s life before he joined the Army.  When we first meet Alvin York, he drinks too much, he fights too much, and he’s totally irresponsible.  It’s not until he falls in love with Gracie Williams (Joan Leslie) that York starts to change his ways.  The scenes of York in the backwoods of Tennessee had a lively feel to them and it was enjoyable to see Cooper play a somewhat disreputable character.  Cooper seemed to be having fun playing a ne’er-do-well and, in the scenes before York finds God, his bad behavior was a lot of fun to watch.

Considering its success at the box office, it’s not surprising that Sergeant York was nominated for best picture of the year.  While Gary Cooper won the Oscar for best actor, the award for Best Picture went to How Green Was My Valley.