Battleground (1949): Bastogne and The Screaming Eagles

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“We must never again let any force dedicated to a super-race or a super-idea, or super-anything become strong enough to impose itself upon a free world. We must be smart enough and tough enough in the beginning to put out the fire before it starts spreading.”  ~ Leon Ames as the Chaplain

This is the story of Bastogne in 1944 and the renowned Screaming Eagles. Admittedly, if you’re like me, this means very little, but fortunately, we are in good company because the men we get to know over the course of two hours didn’t know anything about the city either when they first arrived. This was not the Battle of the Bulge; it was simply a stepping stone or a weigh station on the road to their future destination. That is until it became, you guessed it, a battleground in its own right.

For the time being, they can be found drilling in smartly executed formations and getting ready for an unnamed assignment ahead. This is our chance to feel them out before they get in the thick of everything.

Director William A. Wellman does them a service in the first full scene together spread out in their cots. There’s barely enough room for the dust to settle but within the close confines, camaraderie is immediately palpable as is each man’s personality.

What a great group of guys they are covering a lot of the bases of humanity. Van Johnson and even a Don Taylor are easy to pin down because of their broad appeal and charm. They make most any armed forces picture a little more affable. Among their finest traits is exuding good old-fashioned Americanism.

There’s old college grad Jarves (John Hodiak), who gets jeered for his presumed stuffiness. There’s the gruff cynic (Douglas Fowley) always playing around with his set of false chompers like his most prized possession. (They kind of are because without them he can’t eat). Squished in with them is the gangly and drawling southern boy (Jerome Courtland), who feels like an easy trope to target in these pictures. The new recruit (Marshall Thompson) can be found nervously bed-hopping from cot to cot trying to find one he can take.

In something genuinely unusual for the period, even a Latino from L.A. (Ricardo Montalban) is represented. His best bud Pops (George Murphy) all but has a ticket home on a hardship discharge. A young Richard Jaeckel rounds out the band along with a chaw chewing James Whitmore, acting as their weathered drill sergeant.

What is meaningful about these relationships is how they reach outside the confines of the film with this inferred history we don’t know explicitly, and yet we can read into it. We know what guys have a bone to pick with the army and the ones who are trying to make the best of it.

The perilous journey ahead is riddled with enemy planes overhead, and the fog of war is quite literally laid on thick, complimenting the mud the army trucks slog through on the road. One minute they’re diving into ditches at the sound of sniper fire, and the next they are tasked with the backbreaking toil that goes with digging in for the evening, only to be pulled away on revised orders.

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There’s absolutely nothing permanent aside from the constant patrolling, lack of sleep, and perpetual snow. Battleground is one of the snowiest war movies I can recall, at times, deeply striking and equally relentless

Private Holley scores quite a cache of eggs, dreaming of the scramble he’s whisking up in his helmet time and time again — only to get pulled off for another assignment. Watching the yolk drip from his helmet is one of the defining images of the film for me as is his utter indifference. You’re never clean so why even bother.

As a fitting inflection of the Cold War, we have Germans in G.I. uniforms sneaking behind Allied lines to wreak havoc and sabotage important strategic assets like bridges. More than anything, it continually triggers this terrifying threat of infiltration. Thus, one cannot help but draw a connection to the Chaplain’s stirring speech later on (reference at the top of this page).

Amid the paranoia, it’s almost hilarious to think that the best way of telling friend from foe is baseball terms, idioms, Terry and the Pirates references, and the relationship status of the war’s favorite pinup Betty Grable (Note: Cesar Romero is out for Harry James).

When they do come upon the Krauts, Wellman captures the firefight and the subsequent hand-to-hand combat in a stylized manner to conform to the Hollywood production codes. Regardless, he manages to accentuate the rough-and-tumble brutality through boots pounding on the snow and violent inferences.

Battleground leaves unabashed sentimentality behind and it is not squeamish about death. People get picked off one by one leaving a trail of dead and wounded in their plucky company. This carnage hurts because of the rapport we build up. But even in the face of these micro-tragedies, there is no time to mourn, and their stand against the Germans proves a gutsy one. There’s no other alternative in their minds.

As we bunker down, it’s true the ensemble melds together nicely with no one actor totally upstaging the others. Certainly, Van Johnson is just left of center, if not the undisputed headliner, but even he has to navigate conventional feelings of fear and loathing when it comes to military service. He is by no means impervious to the toils of war.

In a moment of duress, Holly looks all but ready to turn tail ignominiously, but he finds his courage in the urging of another man who looks up to him — as they double back on the German lines and catch them off guard. They’ve girded their loins about them now and when ceasefire agreements and surrender are suggested by the enemy, they unceremoniously scoff at the very idea.

As alluded to already, in the thick of the hard pelting enemy artillery fire, the Chaplain holds an impromptu service. He’s of a certain denomination, but a very succinct point is made of the fact his service and his message is all-inclusive. In fact, it’s hardly a spiritual homily at all but a candid rallying cry against the forces of evil. It’s one of the most blatant examples of the film getting on any sort of didactic soapbox.

In response, each man kneels down to pray in his own way the enemy artillery fire still bursting in the background. The results are a stirring image of solidarity. They have not yet begun to fight.

Even in the simulated soundstage action, there is a compelling commitment to the atmosphere, which aids rather than hinders the story being told. It brims with the elements and forces of nature on all sides. In a last-ditch effort, all the terminally ill are moved out of the makeshift hospital, and the walking wounded are brought in for one final stand of desperation.

There is a slight sense Robert Pirosh’s script skipped over what might have been the most rousing scene. Wellman tackles the counterattack from the rallied forces with their new batch of airlifted ammunition, gasoline, and K rations in only an extended montage.

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Although the ending of the war is a foregone conclusion, it very nearly could have been a letdown that we don’t get a more pronounced action scene. However, it’s quickly salvaged by the effectiveness of the final scene. It says all the same things and exudes all the same battered but resolute emotion with one simple drill, leading them off toward the rear. The men sound off with a renewed vigor knowing theirs was a job well done.

In my book, James Whitmore is the unsung hero of the picture because his grizzled mug brings so much understood texture to the world of the movie. Van Johnson is the vision of what an idealized American G.I. is and Whitmore is the more likely reality. And in the final minutes, he’s the one who leads them to the finish line. He maintains an unswerving grit and pride as tenacious as anyone.

Battleground is quite the sensational war picture while also holding the distinction of being one of the most high profile WWII films following the conflict’s cessation. It allows for this strange limbo of sorts where the war is still fresh and within grasp of the collective consciousness, but there is enough wiggle room to begin looking back in hindsight.

Surely it’s not a complete portrait, but it does well to blend shades of action with the everyday gumption needed to make it through such a conflict. What a pleasure it is to be reminded each of these soldiers is a singular human being.

It’s refreshing to have their warmth and their fears in plain view along with their courage. It feels like we can look them in the eyes and truly marvel because they are not a whole lot different than us in many ways. Their courage is extraordinary in just how ordinary it appears.

4/5 Stars

The Harvey Girls (1946): The Painted Desert Meets The Musical

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It was during a pit stop along a cross-country trip through the Petrified Forest that I first became aware of The Harvey Girls. Because you see, The Painted Desert Inn is a bit of a relic of the past, and it preserves a history of the famous waitresses who helped pave the way for a certain brand of civility in the Southwest. They brought the sensibilities, respectability, fine china, and world-famous sirloin steaks from back east to forsaken lands normally ruled by saloons and brothels.

So while The Harvey Girls (1946), a cheery musical directed by George Sidney, does not have the same mythological quality in the taming of the West as a John Ford picture, the same process is being captured, albeit in more practical (and more musical) terms.

We get a taste of where all these girls come from thanks to the very catchy, “On the Atchison, Topeka, and the Santa Fe,” which suggests the vital importance that the transcontinental railroad played in such an endeavor. The recording would prove a viable hit for star Judy Garland and many others, taking on a subject akin to “The Trolley Song” out of Meet Me in St. Louis.

In that regard, Garland is out of sorts residing on the pioneering prairie with their dive saloons and floozies of ill-repute. But that’s exactly her charm. She traveled to this far-off, unknown destination as a mail order bride; her only correspondence with her future matrimonial partner is through letters.

He’s quite eloquent with a pen and yet she meets the colloquial but good-natured H. H. Hartsey (Chill Wills) and receives the shock of her life. All of a sudden they’re both a bit flustered and decide to dispense with the marriage on amicable terms.

As a result, Susan decides to join The Harvey Girls in their newly formed restaurant to bring entertainment and quality diversions to this godless territory of Sand Rock. Their main competition comes from a man named Ned Trent (John Hodiak) who runs the local watering hole replete with gambling, drinking, a whole host of dancing girls. One of them, Em (Angela Lansbury) is deeply in love with him, and it shows.

Trent conveniently has a partnership with the local Judge who has made it a practice to scare off anyone with a smidge of decency. He even ran a preacher out of town and his scare tactics include a gunshot fired into the Harvey Girl dormitory.

Though only a recent recruit, Susan soon mobilizes the women who are trained up by (Majorie Mann) ready to fight back against their opposition. Her distaste and inexperience with guns are endearing just as her plucky fearlessness gains her a certain amount of admiration.

Trent proves to be a far more complex man than he’s given credit for even as he tries to distance himself from the Judge and push the Harvey Girls out fair and square. It’s still a competition, but at least it’s honorable. Simultaneously, Em begins to see the twinkle in his eyes as he becomes enamored with Susan. Her principles and feisty nature are attractive, but Ems not about to lose him without a fight nor does Susan particularly fancy Trent. The romantic triangle is firmly in place.

In one sense, Lansbury feels poorly miscast, no fault of her own because they all but dubbed her singing voice to make her seem American. Her charm has to do precisely with the fact she is not one of us. And yet remarkably, she does a fine job as a sympathetic antagonist, if you will, that we grow to admire.

John Hodiak is easily clumped with actors of the 40s like Brian Donlevy or Cornel Wilde who are not quite buried in obscurity. However, because there is nothing that can be deemed electric about them, it’s easy for them to get lost in the fray. All that being said, I rather like Hodiak opposite Garland. He’s both slightly antagonistic but genial when he has to be.

“It’s a Great Big World” provides a fine showcase for Garland and her companions to dream together. On her own, Virginia O’Brien provides a comic aside singing “Wild Wild West” and giving the town’s jumpy new blacksmith (Ray Bolger) a capable helping hand. I must say I hardly recognized the young Cyd Charisse who earned her first speaking role to kick off a shining career in Hollywood as one of its preeminent dancers.

The most comedically gratifying scene has to be when the two rival factions resort to physical catfights to exert their dominance and show that they have a right to stay. The Harvey Girls also throw a party where Bolger’s length on taps is positively charming. It’s the old story that a dancer must be highly skilled to make their style look so very idiosyncratic, and I kept on thinking how I would never in a million years be able to pull of such a routine.

What follows is a Waltz that has everyone dancing even as the town is plagued further by arsons and a heated fistfight to right a few wrongs. We are getting down to the wire. However, with the outbound train about to leave, decisions must be made and one could wager that our leads make the right one, though fate and Em give them a helping hand in the end.

The Harvey Girls, produced by the Arthur Freed unit, and blessed with the song-smithing of Harry Warren and Johnny Mercer, delivers a repeatedly delightful western musical experience, despite the very fact that it was not initially supposed to be. However, a drama earmarked for Lana Turner got a facelift and pulled Judy Garland away from working with Vincente Minnelli and Fred Astaire to score her a low-stakes, lightweight hit.

To make things even better, she would finally get her chance to work with Astaire two years later in Easter Parade (1948). For now, let’s relish this one for the frothy pleasures it affords. My sojourning through the painted desert was almost 10 years ago, so it’s a pleasure to finally get around to see The Harvey Girls. 

3.5/5 Stars

Somewhere in the Night (1946): John Hodiak and Amnesia Noir

Somewhere_in_the_Night_-1946-PosterOf the plethora of returning G.I. films and film noirs, this one reflects their fears most overtly and for this very reason, it might be generally the most forgotten today. That and the assembly of a lower-tier cast. Most of these names have been lost to time.

The one name remaining fairly enduring and bright in the annals of cinema is Joseph L. Mankiewicz who while still early in his career, was carving out a name for himself as both a writer and a director, following a stint producing. Somewhere in the Night is an early showcase for his skills.

He brings us an amnesia plot from the POV of a wounded veteran who has no idea about his own past. The soldier’s wartime injuries made sure of that and while he cannot speak, his mind is alive — an opportune moment for Mankiewicz to call on some illuminating voice-over. If anything it tells us how little this man knows and sometimes that is enough.

George Taylor (John Hodiak) finally returns to New York trying to start afresh and piece his life back together. All he has to go on are a few stray belonging from his former life. Everything, from his previous residence at the Martin Hotel, to a letter, and $5,000 deposited in his bank account, seem to lead to someone named Larry Cravat.

For the audience, we’re up for the mystery but in Taylor’s case, his identity hangs in the very balance of this question. He has to know and so he hits the pavements poking around. Henry Morgan can always be counted on in a bit part, gruffly pointing the direction to a local watering hole, The Cellar.

There a reticent Whit Bissell stands behind the bar. His face suggests he has something to say, but there’s hesitance when Taylor starts peppering him with inquiries. The bar has ears and two thugs lurk nearby. Our man doesn’t wait around to get acquainted, fleeing the scene. Instead, he wanders into the first room that happens to be open, a pretty girl’s dressing room (Nancy Guild).

The meet-cute has been sprung upon us out of necessity. Full disclosure, her singing is alright and she fits the good girl persona, but her piano playing leaves something to be desired. One must also question how easily Nancy falls in love with her deceased best friend’s former beau (This is how they connect with one another). Regardless, in watching her affable turn, you wonder why Guild never got a bigger break.

Since a good girl is never found without her foil, by pure ‘chance’ another pretty girl wanders into Taylor. It’s literally the complete inverse of the prior scene except this dame meant to be there. We don’t know why yet. The events keep on stacking one on top of the other until he’s forcibly taken for a rendezvous where he is told to stop poking around.

The story stalls when it gets talky, though it might seem a necessary evil to lend some clarity to the myriad of events. Up to this point, we have no true frame of reference. Mel Phillips (Richard Conte) becomes one anchor, as Christy’s boss who looks ready to help in any way he can. Also, Lloyd Nolan turns up as a steady police detective with an inside scoop. It turns out at the center of this entire web is hot Nazi money priced at $2,000,000. Of course.

We have mysterious messages left on windshields, house calls involving a belligerent Sheldon Leonard, Double Indemnity references, and a very familiar face; along with another ominous character. Another man named Anzelmo checks all the boxes for sleaze with his foreign accent and dubious reputation but he is only a piece in this puzzle. If this is all very oblique it’s meant to be in staying the film’s own tendencies. 

By this point, our plot is either overwhelming or monotonous as Taylor meets a homely woman sharing in a cryptic conversation that proves also deeply sentimental. Again, it is these long-winded moments that are to the story’s detriment. While Larry Cravat remains an important trigger word, one Michael Conroy is also a person of interest.

Somewhere in The Night earns its title outright around this juncture. When a character wanders into a building at the dead of night and goes down a long, low-lit corridor in search of some unnameable thing, we know we have arrived in the heart of film noir territory. There is no doubt. It feels like one of the turning points in The Big Sleep when Marlowe, snooping around, winds up finding a dead body on a carpet. An analogous outcome happens here. 

There’s a meeting of the minds in one final powwow to collectively assemble all the primary players for the long-awaited reveal.  But the final act’s twist is so obvious, it makes all the labyrinthine whirly gig leading up feel somewhat empty. However, it is often said it’s not about the outcomes but the road along the way. Taken in this light, Somewhere in The Night has its moments of genuine intrigue.

It is easy to write off the cast for their relatively forgotten status. Even Lloyd Nolan has high billing (the man most well-known for playing a detective) for a relatively minor part. But I would argue Richard Conte is an unsung hero of film noir, while the picture does give allowance for some intriguing roles in support.

Hodiak is not the ideal to hold a movie together, but he is not in this alone. It also turns out the movies were right. Detectives do always keep their hats on. Just in case they’ve got to shoot someone — it helps keep their hand’s free — makes sense enough.

3./5 Stars