Part 1 of 2
TB: Okay, this week we’re going to focus on another Universal war film from the mid-1950s. Like our previous selection RED BALL EXPRESS, it features Jeff Chandler in the lead role. I love this movie!
TB: AWAY ALL BOATS is a sharp-looking motion picture. The studio spared no expense, filming it in Technicolor with outdoor scenes done on location in Puerto Rico…and it’s in VistaVision.
JL: I did not realize that Universal-International made use of VistaVision, this being mostly Paramount’s process. Of course, many movie buffs already know that Warners used it for THE SEARCHERS and MGM used it for NORTH BY NORTHWEST, the two primary non-Paramount fan favorites seen most frequently with the VV-logo displayed. The advantage of the process was its horizontal projection allowing for a larger image within the 35mm frame and, thus, the images tend to look sharper than most average movies. Of course, this also creates a greater contrast with the incorporated 16mm Kodachrome footage shot by wartime cinematographers of such major battles like Kwajalein, Saipan, Guam and Okinawa.
TB: The on-location filming in AWAY ALL BOATS gives viewers a little something extra. It would not have had the sort of grand effect it has, if it hadn’t been in VistaVision…and if most of it had been recorded on the studio backlot or inside a soundstage with a phony backdrop.
JL: Doing a bit of my homework on this one: the principal photography took place between March and July of 1955, some of this period coinciding with the decade anniversary of Okinawa. Don’t know the full production story here, but I suspect that its delay in release (to August 1956) was due to too many WW2 “ship flicks” being churned out all at once by rival studios.
TB: Or if they were still filming in July ’55, they might not have been able to complete all the post-production editing within a month, as well as roll out an advertising campaign to get folks into the theaters to see it.
JL: Warners released MISTER ROBERTS in 1955. It was very different in tone and did not have major battle scenes like this one, plus it was a comedy with big name stars (Henry Fonda and James Cagney were bigger draws than Jeff Chandler). By delaying the release until the following summer, Universal could let moviegoers have their fill of a slapstick ship-flick and by 1956, they were now ready for a ship-flick with a more serious tone. AWAY ALL BOATS would overcome its high production costs, and it did quite well at the box-office.
TB: I think it made about three and a half million, against a budget of two million. So it almost made back double what the studio paid to produce it.
TB: So what did you think of the ship? It’s nearly a character in its own right!
JL: I was surprised to learned that the USS Belinda didn’t exist. It sure felt like a “true story,” but is actually based on a novel that incorporates true events with different names and situations– author Kenneth M. Dodson working on the USS Pierce. In close-ups, the USS Randall and Sanborn posed as the Belinda. The studio had some good cooperation with the U.S. military. They, in turn, benefit with a positive screen image and, hopefully, increased recruitment during the peaceful Eisenhower years. The military was struggling a bit after the Korean conflict ended and, thus, you see a an awful lot of pro-army and navy recruitment pieces on fifties screens.
JL: Like MISTER ROBERTS, this film does not shy away from the fact that being at sea can be quite boring at times and sometimes fights break out among crew members who desperately need a “release.” Getting the mail from another transport ship is always a big deal, especially if you are having a kid and can’t be there with your wife; one joke involves an expecting father not sure of the gender and “how many” due to the letters all arriving in a mess. So is playing baseball games on islands to keep your morale up.
TB: I loved the baseball game sequence and think it helped break up the monotony, getting us off the ship for awhile. Also, when the men start fighting during the game, we see how emotional they are underneath their usually cool exteriors. So we know that even though they are well trained, they are vulnerable and at a moment’s notice, things can descend into chaos.
TB: Let’s discuss some of the film’s cast. Starting with George Nader.
JL: Of the supporting players, George Nader’s character of Lt. David MacDougall is the one who gets the most screen time. We get his full backstory, about how he’s married to Nadine (played by the only actress featured in the story, Julie Adams). They have a little boy at home. We get the usual happy home life tale that is disrupted by Pearl Harbor and it always tickles me how so many of these fifties WW2 films show people lounging in their pajamas and relaxing in their living rooms when the radio breaks out with that ominous Sunday news.
TB: You’re right. Life is always so idyllic when war breaks out.
JL: Of course, the whole point of all of this is so that we root for Nader’s character to survive through the end…. and he does. Amusingly a shot of her letter “reading” to him (while posing in an inside studio “sunset beach” shot) is edited just before a shot of Jeff Chandler’s Captain Jebediah S. Hawks getting kissed by a pet Rhesus monkey. Since Jebediah does not have “two people who adore you to come home to”, we know right away that he is “expendable.”
TB: It’s clear that like Chandler and Nicol in RED BALL EXPRESS, Chandler and Nader are the main box office draws here. Lex Barker, who has the other key role, had already made an impact in those earlier TARZAN pictures, so he was a name star. But clearly given a supporting role here. I liked how his character left about two-thirds of the way into the story, where he was transferred out and given his own ship. It added some realism, that not everyone would make it to the end of the movie, and not necessarily because they would be killed off.
TB: To me, the greatest indicator that Chandler would get killed at the end, was the fact he had no (human) girlfriend and no wife or loved ones back home. We didn’t even get a flashback that he had loving parents or siblings, sending him letters, praying for him to return safely. He’s kind of a loner in this movie, which gives him more dimension that some of Chandler’s other roles in other U-I pictures.
JL: Oddly his furry “girlfriend” only appears in two brief consecutive scenes, then suddenly disappears for the remainder of the movie. It is as if Johnny Carson’s Jim Fowler suddenly came to retrieve her right after the kissing scene. Was she expelled from the set for unscrewing a camera lens or something?
TB: Who knows!
JL: The monkey in this movie reminded me of the one in ROBINSON CRUSOE ON MARS, which was made a few years later. Where it functions as the lead hero’s main companion, a symbol that he still had someone to talk to, when he had nobody else.
TB: Perhaps the monkey disappears from this movie, because the filmmakers didn’t want to address the fact that it probably would have been killed on board the ship when the men were under enemy attack. Killing an animal, especially a cute furry one, would have made the movie less commercial.
Tomorrow Jlewis and I continue our discussion about AWAY ALL BOATS. Please join us…
Part 2 of 2
TB: Okay, we were talking about the film’s cast yesterday. Especially some of the supporting players that were under contract to Universal-International. Julie Adams is shown briefly at the beginning, before the U.S.S. Belinda goes out to sea. She’s seeing her husband (Nader) off at the dock. Then she appears in a later flashback segment when we learn more about Nader’s home life. Adams was lucky if she had a total five minutes worth of screen time. But I can see why the studio wanted one of its leading ladies to do what is otherwise a thankless role, because there had to be a female presence in the film. And it had to be someone who looked glamorous and was worth Nader surviving and reaching home in one piece.
TB: John McIntire, who did supporting roles in Universal’s movies and lead roles in the studio’s TV westerns, is basically a glorified extra in AWAY ALL BOATS. I figure he was probably between meatier assignments and did this as a favor to the director, Joseph Pevney. Maybe he enjoyed the camaraderie of this group of actors and asked to be inserted into a few scenes. However, McIntire isn’t playing an essential part in the story, though he does provide some valuable narration. Mostly he just adds a bit of flavor as the old man.
JL: John McIntire is most famous for his minor role in PSYCHO, but we old time radio buffs remember him in many classics of Suspense, Escape and so forth for the CBS network.
TB: Right. But AWAY ALL BOATS is a Jeff Chandler picture, so of course, most of the audience attention focuses on him.
JL: Jeff Chandler does a good job in his square-faced role, but sometimes he looks bored on screen and not just because his character is supposed to be “lonely” as others describe him. Maybe too many similar roles that decade were wearing him out? I discovered that he negotiated with the studio to try some independent projects, given that his exclusive contract with them was expiring right about the time this title reached theaters.
TB: I don’t think it was boredom as much as it was fatigue. He’d been making three or four pictures a year for Universal since 1949, and he also had radio series work for much of that time. He was probably exhausted! But I would say he gives a very credible performance, and he does well with his costars. He’s quite good with the comic relief scenes. Not just the stuff with the monkey, but also those moments where our captain must deal with the ship’s garbage man.
TB: The garbage man takes particular pride in his job, and despite clashing with Chandler’s no-nonsense authority figure, they gradually forge a mutual respect for each other as the story moves towards its conclusion. These kinds of films are good at showing team work, and how everyone has a key role in the success of the whole unit. In this case, all the way down the chain of command to the garbage grinder.
JL: I am trying to remember the garbage guy’s name and the actor. He had the Andy Griffith type role as a southern hillbilly boy who tells-it-like-it-is.
TB: I think it was James Westerfield, who later appeared on episodes of The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies.
TB: What did you think of Chandler’s character saying he had to be a common object of hatred, to unify the men and prevent infighting? Besides the monkey, Chandler’s prized possession was his makeshift sailboat that he had the men build, while they were angry at him.
JL: I didn’t think Jebediah was necessarily hated, but it was talked about that he must maintain some aloofness with his crew and I wonder if that was the common protocol for the military at that time. Playing a bit of Cagney’s role in MISTER ROBERTS was that one Felix Unger type (can’t remember the actor and character name) who was nitpicking everybody as their “officer.” These are the characters that the pro-Navy films of the era wanted you the viewer to hiss at because Uncle Sam wants you to be disciplined but not TOO disciplined, resulting in you losing sight of you working with fellow American servicemen united for a common cause.
JL: In regards to Chandler’s character, a good shortie to watch later on as a companion piece of interest is Encyclopædia Britannica Films adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, released in February 1973 and starring David Soul in his pre-Starsky & Hutch period. It runs only a half hour, but is an interesting take on captains becoming so aloof with their crews that they develop very strange attachments
TB: Let’s discuss the final half hour of the movie, where everything sort of comes together.
JL: Okinawa’s battles and the crew saving a sinking ship provide most of the action in the third act. Also the deaths we expect as a cost of war with a kamikaze plane directly hitting. Loved Chandler’s line of “get your filthy plane away from my ship!!!” Classic. The special effects are pretty realistic here, plus all of the technical talk coming from these engineering minds trying to keep a damaged ship afloat.
TB: I’m glad you mentioned the harrowing final sequence and how realistically staged it was. It’s definitely the most exciting part of the movie, and as you indicated, Chandler does get to utter that classic line. He’s dying, the ship’s falling apart, but he’s not going to let the enemy win. These kinds of “we can still kick butt” scenes are what make a war movie popular with American audiences. I also wanted to say how earlier in the film, we are told what the phrase ‘Away All Boats’ means and we see drills where the men learn how to cooperate to put the U.S.S. Belinda first. So I think it makes the ending more believable, that although Chandler’s character won’t survive, he has ensured the others will.
AWAY ALL BOATS may currently be viewed on YouTube.