Essential: AWAY ALL BOATS (1956)

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!

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.16.14 PM.jpeg

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.37.31 PM.jpeg

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.43.15 PM.jpeg

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.24.38 PM.jpeg

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.

JL: Yes.

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.53.38 PM.jpeg

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

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.16.14 PM.jpeg

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.28.42 PM.jpeg

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 SuspenseEscape 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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.27.08 PM.jpeg

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.24.02 PM.png

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.26.36 PM.jpeg

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.24.23 PM.jpeg

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.

Screen Shot 2019-08-23 at 4.25.43 PM.png

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.

Essential: THE SECRET OF DR. KILDARE (1939)

screen-shot-2019-07-08-at-12.30.03-pm.jpeg

Though the scenes are somewhat slowly played out, a lot happens in the third installment of MGM’s Dr. Kildare series. First, I should say that Lew Ayres’ character does have a secret– namely that he’s a doctor, which is kept from a debutante he’s helping. Meanwhile, his father, the elder Dr. Kildare (Samuel S. Hinds), also has a secret– that he might have a heart condition. However, only Dr. Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) is brought in on that, since he is conferred for a second opinion; and much to the relief of Mrs. Kildare (Emma Dunn), there is no real heart condition, and everything will go back to normal.

screen-shot-2019-07-08-at-12.26.42-pm.jpeg

Added into all that drama, we have young Dr. Kildare pretending that he does not want to work with Gillespie to find a cure for pneumonia. He does this so Gillespie will take some much-needed time off, and also so he can treat the debutante who has a case of hysterical blindness.

Screen Shot 2019-07-08 at 12.27.32 PM.png

Plus there’s the continuing story of Nurse Mary Lamont (Laraine Day) becoming more smitten with Kildare; as well as the ongoing battles between Gillespie and head nurse Molly (Alma Kruger), which manage to convey some tenderness despite their mostly adversarial interactions.

Screen Shot 2019-07-08 at 12.29.35 PM.png

What makes this entry in the series so good is that all of the introductions that took place in the first two films are out of the way. And the series hasn’t been run into the ground yet, so the ideas still seem fresh. These ideas were probably relevant back in the day, even if some of the medical dialogue seems hopelessly outdated now. There are some implausibilities, like Gillespie thinking he can end pneumonia. Or young Dr. Kildare doing a make-believe eye operation on the debutante so she can see again.

Screen Shot 2019-07-08 at 12.27.05 PM.png

However, I think the series does a decent job conveying the fact that these people are working to solve the medical and psychological problems their patients face. And despite the conflicts that may occur among the staff, there is a sense of team work and people believing in the same cause. I also like the sense of humor some of the characters have; and no matter, how you slice it, Gillespie is a lovable curmudgeon. Barrymore plays his role to the hilt, but he’s not too off-putting. I especially love how Gillespie and his protege seem to outfox each other, when they approach cases from different angles.

Screen Shot 2019-07-08 at 12.29.45 PM.png

The Kildare and Gillespie movies feature a fine assortment of character actors and actresses. Marie Blake doesn’t have much screen time but when she’s on camera, she always has a funny line at the switchboard. Nat Pendleton is fun in his role as a thick ambulance driver. And Walter Kingford is great as Carew the hospital administrator, a man that has his own tug of war going on with Gillespie. The series is expertly produced, and in this instance, Harold S. Bucquet’s direction is excellent. It’s not a secret these films were big money-makers for MGM. 

screen-shot-2019-07-08-at-12.26.32-pm.jpeg

THE SECRET OF DR. KILDARE may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Essential: RED BALL EXPRESS (1952)

Part 1 of 2

TB: This month Jlewis and I will be discussing three war films that were produced by Universal International in the 1950s. The first two pictures star Jeff Chandler, and the third one stars Rock Hudson. I think readers will enjoy these reviews, and it is my hope that if someone hasn’t seen them, they will check them out. All three titles are currently available on YouTube and easy to find.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.41.55 AM.png

TB: So let’s get right into our discussion about RED BALL EXPRESS. It’s a WWII story made at the height of the Korean conflict. It was photographed in black and white, but this was still an “A” budgeted picture. It aired once on TCM some years ago, and I feel it should be rebroadcast. There’s a lot going on in this one.

JL: I had mixed feelings about this one, but it is an entertaining war programmer with very nice production values. I guess part of my problem is that I have seen so many WWII films, plus countless newsreels, that sometimes certain novelties fade through repetition. Many films of the “good war” that were made during the more complicated wars of Korea and Vietnam tended to be constructed like the standard westerns of the same decades with its standard heroics.

TB: Do you care to elaborate on that?

JL: As comedy relief to the blood-and-guts in both genres, we either get jokes in a bar setting between two rivals showing off their guns or we get jokes involving lower soldiers trying not to be too sarcastic in front of their superiors. Jack Lemmon milked this to the bank in MISTER ROBERTS and, early in RED BALL EXPRESS, we get the usual: Major Gordon (Howard Petrie) is questioning why a tank isn’t moving and accuses the occupants for having a poker game and, moments later, a teenage soldier gets caught laughing at a comic spoofing him and must do an about-face. We also get some western style fist fights here, one of them even in a bar setting resembling a western.

TB: Obviously, they used sets that would have been redressed for the studio’s westerns. So the bar, stools and tables in this particular scene do look a bit familiar.

JL: One aspect to these films that always works well are the surprise scenes like the unexpected gunfire when soldiers think their environment is safe or the truck explosion barbecuing an innocent soldier inside. This is what war is all about. The unexpected. Also plenty of death. This ties RED BALL EXPRESS to the more graphic war films of more recent decades like THE HURT LOCKER.

TB: I agree. I would also say this film has deceptively quiet moments…only for us to be jolted back to reality as the horrors of war re-present themselves. In that regard, it’s very effective.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.43.31 AM.png

JL: One other thing I love about the black and white war movies put out by Universal-International, Paramount and 20th Century Fox in particular is the ample stock footage from this trio’s newsreels. To a lesser degree, RKO and Warner had Pathé material to work from and MGM had Hearst’s “News of the Day,” but often they were a little less masterful with such slick editing of the real and the staged involved. You often can’t distinguish between a newsreel truck in action and a studio set one close-up. When full color CinemaScope and VistaVision took over war movies, much of this you-are-there feel got lost with all of the new widescreen prettiness and focus on explosions.

TB: Good comment. And I do think this film does a good job of alternating between staged drama and actual footage. Not only is it difficult to distinguish between the two, but it makes the Hollywood elements of the picture seem a bit more real.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.47.28 AM.png

TB: Let’s discuss Sidney Poitier and the other African American actors in this movie.

JL: RED BALL EXPRESS is somewhat different than others in that it features some racial social commentary with its integrated army. This is due to the subject matter itself: the Red Ball Express was a truck maneuvering campaign that happened to employ a lot more black soldiers than usual.And not necessarily for reasons in their best interests, as suggested here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Ball_Express_(film)#Controversy

TB: Apparently 75% of the Red Ball Express involved African American soldiers because they had a lower ranking in the military and were considered more “expendable” for such a risky mission.

JL: We often forget that many (Caucasian) Americans who were in power and making such executive decisions were hardly more enlightened about the different races in mid-1944 than the Germans they were fighting. It was only after seeing the great atrocities in the concentration camps the following year than there was this great “waking up” moment. I personally feel that the Holocaust did serve a noble purpose in the end. Each death in a gas chamber or by execution saved a future life thanks to all of the civil rights progress made in the 1950s and beyond after the entire world learned about it. Had there not been a Holocaust and America getting exposed to the atrocities, would the Jim Crow laws continue longer than they did? Would we have had gay liberation as well?

TB: Certainly something to ponder.

JL: We can also thank the surprise success of the Stanley Kramer production of HOME OF THE BRAVE in 1949 for getting the major studios more interested in showing multiple races together in wartime.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.43.53 AM.png

TB: There is a more integrated feeling, and the idea that team work occurs across racial divides is nicely explored.

JL: I was a little disappointed that director Budd Boetticher and his team didn’t elaborate further than they could have. At first I thought they would in the scene that introduced Sidney Poitier as Andrew Robinson. A joke made among two soldiers about being “an end man in a minstrel show” prompts a very cynical Andrew to respond with “then why don’t you tell a joke?” His buddy, played by Bubber Johnson, replies “Oh come on, he was only kidding”. I actually liked his performance more than Sidney’s here and the equally under-used Davis Roberts, whom we didn’t really get to know before his untimely misfortune. Bubber gets to show multiple facets of his personality in his short scenes, assisting the driving of a truck and playing invisible drums. I guess some modern viewers might also consider him “weaker” than Andrew since he is more accepting of the way things are.

TB: But I think his character might have been a bit more realistic, at least for the times.

JL: Yes, we do get a little more to Andrew’s story as he debates on whether to get transferred. I am not saying that they ignore the racial social commentary aspects. Yet more could be developed here. Little trivial note of interest. Poitier’s Andrew is often referred by his last name of Robinson or “Robbie,” same as the legendary Jackie. He is also a sports writer. Sports, like music (Bubber’s specialty), was one arena many were trying to get through racial barriers.

TB: Tomorrow, Jlewis continue our discussion about RED BALL EXPRESS. We finish addressing the racial aspects of the story, and we also talk about the film’s star, Jeff Chandler. Join us..!

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.41.39 AM.png

Part 2 of 2

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.45.29 AM.png

TB: What did you think about the scenes where the men were singing while they worked? Did it have a chain gang sort of feel? Or did it just seem like jovial team work?

JL: I sensed some solidarity between the races with the singing. I also think it impacted Andrew to a degree, this sense of everybody committed to a common goal regardless of differences. Singing is a very common bonding moment in many war movies. Examples include the drunk singing in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (even if it happens pre-Pearl Harbor) and singing to Smokey Robinson and the Miracles in PLATOON.

TB: It was more than blacks being grouped together and put into one big job. Instead they were working in a broader sense, with other soldiers of different nationalities, towards victory.

JL: Yes.

TB: A quick aside here. I was reading a user review…and it was something written by an African American man. He recalled going to see this movie in the theater in 1952, when he was a kid. He said his dad had been a member of the Red Ball Express during the war, so his dad was eager to go see the film. The whole family went to watch it that night at the theater. However, he and his family had to sit upstairs in a sectioned off part of the balcony, where the ‘colored folks’ were seated. So even though the movie shows how integrated the races could be, the American viewing audience was still quite segregated. I thought I’d throw that out there, because it gives us a bit more historicity.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.43.40 AM.png

TB: Okay, so what did you think about the star of RED BALL EXPRESS– Universal’s big box office attraction, Jeff Chandler?

JL: A little too much of this story seems focused on Jeff Chandler’s Chick and on Alex Nicol’s Red (for me, but maybe not for you and other viewers). We had their rather murky backstory in which one was accidentally responsible for the other losing his brother and there is a grudge that must be overcome in the line of duty. Even if it isn’t much of a story (or maybe I am just missing a lot of details here), I felt the screenwriters were still more interested in them as characters than they were with Poitier and his fellow “token” black stars…or the women who were merely added as love interests in what would otherwise be an all-male show. There are a few nice wide-cracks coming from actresses Judith Braun and Cindy Garner, but they still don’t get to do much.

TB: Well I would say that’s because Universal’s goal was to showcase Jeff Chandler to some extent, since he was their biggest moneymaker (before Rock Hudson took over). And they were also grooming Alex Nicol to be a leading man. As for the women, I thought they did well with their limited screen time.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.42.18 AM.png

JL: I had hoped that Antoinette Dubois (Jaqueline Duval) would have a much meatier role, but she is just there as love interest. Although it is established that American GIs have met her before, I am a little surprised that Chick doesn’t show more concern for Pvt. Ronald Partridge (Charles Drake) “socializing” with French girls he doesn’t know well and doesn’t even mention by name. Remember that Paris has yet to be liberated and not everybody can be assumed to be part of La Résistance. Most 40s-50s war stories on both screen and radio make a bigger fuss over this (i.e. listen to the classic CBS radio episode of Escape “Operation Fleur De Lys”).

TB: Despite my liking Chandler, Nicol and Poiter, I have to say that Charles Drake was my favorite performer in this film. He gets to play the romantic storyline, and he has several amusing moments (especially when he must use a bicycle across dangerous terrain to rejoin the other men). The sequence where Pvt. Partridge meets the girl’s family almost feels like a different film, which I like, because in these moments, we glimpse a different view of life overseas. We see how the girl’s family had little food but offered him something to eat. Their appreciation for the American soldiers was obvious. And of course, it quickly leads into a blossoming romance.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.41.26 AM.png

JL: In the French house, I was humorously thinking Partridge was worried about getting poisoned with the food and wine just as he was worried about getting shot. My soft criticism of Chandler’s Chick not questioning him being out and about with the natives might have been a story question they, the screenwriters themselves, were aware of, so they at least showed him aware that he can’t assume all is safe even with a girl he is attracted to and her family. Compare this to the scene of the soldiers getting bored by the side of a road and then surprised by German gunfire.

TB: Let’s talk about the film’s big action sequence. Where they are driving the trucks along a winding road through fire. I thought it was particularly suspenseful.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.43.06 AM.png

JL: This sequence is the big show-stopper. We see trucks carrying much needed supplies to Patton’s forces through a burning sector of town. All of this is well done if a bit short in time and action. Maybe that is a good thing? Had this film been made today, it would have been a “CGI” overkill and taken much longer on screen then it did even in 1944.

TB: I agree that it would be extended, overloaded with computerized special effects, if the movie was remade today. And all the advertising (trailers) would include clips from this particular sequence to play up the action element of the film.

JL: In the end, we get a happy ending with our narrator Pvt. Partridge and his future French wife. The movie satisfies in what it sets out to do. It provides a gritty war story but also give audiences some happy feelings to go home with.

TB: Thanks Jlewis for sharing your thoughts about this motion picture. And we want to remind our readers that RED BALL EXPRESS may currently be viewed on YouTube.

Screen Shot 2019-08-16 at 8.41.55 AM.png

Essential: PENGUIN POOL MURDER (1932)

This month I thought it would be interesting to look at B movies with strong characters. Of course, who better to start with than Hildegarde Withers, the central figure in several delightful mysteries at RKO.

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 7.39.57 AM.png

PENGUIN POOL MURDER is the first of six films the studio made in this series. It introduces us to Miss Withers, a persnickety schoolteacher turned amateur sleuth (Edna May Oliver). Although Oliver only appears in the first three movies, she is very memorable and often the one most associated with the part. Helen Broderick’s interpretation of the character just as enjoyable in the fourth picture, and so is ZaSu Pitts’ more comedic portrayal in the final two installments. They’re three very distinctive performers, and each one brings something unique to the character of Hildegarde Withers. But of course, Oliver provides the most stylized performance, and she’s superb.

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 7.39.32 AM.png

Interestingly Hildegarde does not appear until after the 8-minute mark in PENGUIN POOL MURDER. It’s only a 65-minute film, so a considerable amount of time is taken to set up the murder. We learn that a wealthy businessman has financial ties to the director of a city aquarium. There’s a bit of blackmail going on, and the businessman is killed. The culprit might have been his unfaithful wife (Mae Clarke) or one of her many lovers.

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 6.25.09 PM.jpeg

The murder occurs at the aquarium around the same time Miss Withers brings her class by on a field trip. She has a very memorable entrance, sticking out her trademark umbrella to trip a thief who has run off with a lady’s purse. Of course, while this is happening, they are unaware that a more serious crime (the murder) is occurring elsewhere inside the aquarium.

screen-shot-2019-07-02-at-7.41.31-am.jpeg

The kids are funny in this movie, and they represent different ethnic types that Miss Withers must deal with during the course of her work. But they’re a helpful bunch, especially when she has lost a hat pin that someone else has found and used to stab the victim through the ear. In the course of helping Miss Withers find the hat pin, one boy sees the dead body floating in the penguin pool. It’s a very vivid sequence, startling to say the least. But it sets Miss Withers on course to solve the crime, after the children are sent home.

screen-shot-2019-07-02-at-7.42.46-am.jpeg

At this point we meet Inspector Oscar Piper (James Gleason) who will match wits with Miss Withers. His entrance is also memorable, arriving through a side door at the aquarium and instantly sizing up the situation. Initially he considers Miss Withers a suspect, but that is quickly ruled out. He considers her a hindrance to his investigation, until he realizes she has darn good instincts and can actually help him solve the case. Of course, Inspector Piper will take credit for anything that Miss Withers learns about the crime.

Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 6.04.44 AM.jpg

The dialogue in these scenes is very snappy, and the actors get some good zingers in as the main characters try to figure each other out. At one point, Inspector Piper says Miss Withers is someone who takes charge of everything, except her pupils. And Miss Withers’ retorts are more along the lines of chiding the inspector for the way he conducts his job, then sarcastically encouraging him when he seems to be acting like a real policeman.

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 7.40.26 AM.png

Most of the action in the first third of the picture takes place at the aquarium. We don’t see Miss Withers’ home until the second act. But it’s good that her domestic surroundings aren’t revealed to us right away. Otherwise, she might have come across softer and warmer than she does in the beginning. We need to know that this is a smart, no-nonsense gal who doesn’t let emotions get the best of her when she’s snooping for clues and tracking down a killer. This is not to say Miss Withers doesn’t have her tender moments. In fact a recurring theme in RKO’s series is that she roots for the young couples involved in these cases, even if they seem mismatched and don’t end up together!

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 7.47.06 AM.png

As for Miss Withers herself, the story’s author, Stuart Palmer, based her on a spinster teacher who had taught him in high school. He went on to write over a dozen books about Marple-esque Miss Withers. But she is too busy in the stories to find time for a romance of her own. However, RKO did paste a happy ending on to PENGUIN POOL MURDER. The coda for this film, after the mystery is solved and the killer has been brought to justice, is for Miss Withers and Inspector Piper to decide to get married. The final scene has them rush off to find the nearest Justice of the Peace. But in the second film, no mention of their marriage is made; and they are back to being single and sparring with each other again on the next case. But they have definitely become friends. Partners in crime. There’s no mystery about that.

Screen Shot 2019-07-02 at 7.39.06 AM.png

PENGUIN POOL MURDER may currently be viewed on YouTube.