The Fighting 69th

Gasser

The Fighting 69th (1940)

     One of the reasons I started blogging about the classic movies I am constantly watching is because I tend to forget what I have seen. Often movie titles reveal little about a movie’s actual plot and many of the scenarios blend together to the point that I found myself getting 15 minutes into Sinatra‘s Higher and Higher more than once before realizing I had already endured it. The same is true of James Cagney in The Fighting 69th. I sat through this entire movie the other day and eventually concluded that, indeed, I had seen it before yet had entirely forgotten it. And as the days passed since watching it last week I found again that it was becoming forgettable.

     I am not sure what makes a movie flee one’s memory banks. I’m sure the pedestrian nature of some stories or the unimpactful story of others makes a movie not worth remembering, but The Fighting 69th is not a story or a performance worth mentally abandoning. Cagney not only gives a great performance of an arrogant, if not obnoxious soldier, but it is one of only two movies I can think of that depict American war cowards (the other be For Me and My Gal). The ratio of war-hero to war-coward movies must be in the range of thousands to one and yet The Fighting 69th leaves only a fleeting impression on me.

     Cagney plays Jerry Plunkett who has joined up with an all-Irish New York military outfit that during the Civil War was known as the Fighting 69th. They maintain that title in World War I. During training stateside, all Jerry can do is complain about how he wants to see some action and slur sass at his superior officers, including Father Duffey, played by common Cagney costar Pat O’Brien.

     Even when the troop gets to Europe, Jerry tries to show his mettle by carrying multiple loads while the other men struggle to endure the endless walks in the mud. When the bullets finally start flying, however, Jerry becomes a royal screw up. He sends up a flare from the trenches one night that signals to the enemy their location, and the shell fire results in an underground cave in that kills many soldiers. Jerry continues to make spineless mistakes that result in the death of others to the point that he is imprisoned and set for execution. The man will thankfully redeem himself before his end.

     Cagney does a great job in this role that although it separated him from his gangster persona, still rings of a low life. The story is poignant in that it connects us with three brothers among the Fighting 69th of varying rank (Alan Hale, Dick Foran, William Lundigan). When one dies our hearts break as they do when the poet we’ve gotten to know also meets his fate. Although the reaction might vary by viewer, I did not feel remorse for Jerry’s loss as it became a necessary means to an end and solution that could pardon him from his past sins.

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Our Relations

Gasser

Our Relations (1936)

     With every Laurel and Hardy movie or short I watch, I warm more to their humor. Our Relations would be my favorite thus far and is just a riot of misunderstandings.

     Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy open the film at the dinner table with their wives. The two are best friends and when the women are away discuss their twin brothers, which Ollie’s mother writes have been executed after getting into trouble at sea. The rest of the film centers more around those relatives –Alf Laurel and Bert Hardy– and the trouble they create. It turns out that part of the families is in fact not dead, but still working on a boat. They have docked in the same town as their brothers but will not run into them until the film’s close. In the meantime, a shipmate has convinced the men to hand over all but $1 of their salary for him to “save and invest”. The bumbling duo is also tasked with picking up and delivering a package for the captain that turns out to be a rather large pearl ring. While at a restaurant, two young women notice the ring and assume the chaps are loaded, so when the couples join up for a meal, the gals order everything on the menu.

     Alf and Bert have already annoyed the restaurant waiter (Alan Hale) so when they attempt to leave to “get a change of clothes” and their money, the waiter requires them to leave collateral, so they offer up the ring. When they find the shipmate who is keeping their dough, Finn (James Finlayson), he refuses to give the money back … which leads to the stealing/hocking of Finn’s clothes … which progresses to the loaning of Alf and Bert’s clothes back to Finn … which leads to the men wandering about in sheets and towel turbans. I could go on for a while explaining the plot but it only gets more complicated. Eventually the paths of the twins overlap with Stan and Ollie and their wives suspect they’ve cheated on them with the two restaurant dames. The waiter is also taking things out on the wrong Laurel and Hardy, and the pearl ring is being handed off to all the wrong people.

     The first really funny moment for me was when Alf and Bert are initially in the restaurant. In order to talk over their money situation privately, they head for a phone booth. After squeezing in together to chat, the phone rings and a drunk chap carrying armfuls of goods also presses into the small box. Faces are smashed against the glass, Laurel is stepped on and milk is spilt on the men’s heads. Finally, the booth tips over and shatters with the drunk fellow never able to properly hold a conversation with his wife at the other end of the line. The scene was humor without words and really great.

     One scene toward the end has both sets of Laurel and Hardy in the same restaurant. Confusing interaction between the pairs has them mispaired at one point and the viewer starts to question who is who. The movie magic techniques used to place double the Laurel and double the Hardy in one scene at the same time is done in multiple ways. At this restaurant, obvious back projection has one set of protagonists walking behind the other two sitting at a table and vice versa. Other scenes involve body doubles, editing that switches back and forth between the pairs without showing them at the same time, and finally a split screen technique where the respective twins walk side by side without crossing the center line.

     I do not recall Hardy ever visually addressing the camera in Our Relations as he often did to share with the audience his frustration over whatever Laurel was putting him through. In this movie, the two are essentially in the same boat at all times with Laurel being only slightly dimmer than his companion.

Destination Tokyo

Ring a Ding Ding

Destination Tokyo (1944)

      I have never been particularly drawn to war pictures or those that pair Cary Grant opposite a bunch of men, rather than wooing a woman, but Grant made some great war pictures, and Destination Tokyo is certainly one of those (I need to revisit Operation Petticoat, which put me to sleep 7+ years ago when I bought it and has been collecting dust since).

     Grant plays the skipper of a WWII submarine that has been sent on a mission the day before Xmas to what the crew later learns is Tokyo –a city that has yet to be touched by American Navy or Air Force artillery. The crew picks up another soldier/meteorologist on the way who is fluent in Japanese and is the subject of the mission: the sub must deposit Officer Raymond (John Ridgely) on the shores of Tokyo where he and a couple crew members will assess the weather, military vessel formation and any other protections the area has so that the Air Force may move in well prepared to bomb the city.

     The mission is not as simple as that, however. When surfacing on their way to Japan, the submarine is attacked by two Japanese aircrafts who manage to lodge an explosive in the shell of the vessel. When attempting to ensnare one of the pilots after shooting down his plane, a member of the crew is stabbed in the back and killed before the youngest member of the crew fires upon the enemy. That crew member, Tommy (Robert Hutton) later needs an appendectomy just as the sub moves into the Tokyo harbor. The crew’s location is also discovered by the enemy after taking out an aircraft carrier and must escape the harbor amidst a barrage of bombs.

     Based on his other work, which essentially act to develop a general persona, Grant seems to me like the type of guy you would want to lead you into battle. Grant plays a totally relaxed, understanding and caring captain and never really asserts any power or engages in any arguments with his men, who after five patrols together seem to have the utmost respect for the man. Grant never went to war, being told he was too old to join the British Navy by the time WWII came about, but he has played a decent warrior in a number of films featuring a variety of conflicts (He also contributed some of his salary to American and British war efforts).

     The film is also fairly emotional. The submariners talk about their family, wives and children back home, and one cannot help but feel the mild, tearful twinge the characters convey. The audience also engages in true dread as Tommy must undergo surgery conducted by a pharmacist using a textbook as his guide. The way all crew members really support each other is touching and could not have been conveyed without the fine acting of a great cast.

     The film also does a great job of focusing in on the actual mechanics of running a submarine. The action was apparently so accurate that the U.S. Navy used parts of the film in its training during WWII.

  • Destination Tokyo is set for 10 p.m. ET May 27 on TCM.

Source: TCM.com, Cary Grant: A Class Apart

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