In the mid-1940's Hollywood went to war. By then the rest of the country had already followed suit. While business turned out the planes, tanks and munitions necessary for America to enter the European conflict plug and play, the mass produced armaments the dream factories turned out were a far more potent and, in retrospect, lasting contribution; their glamorization of valor and conflict – an intoxicating ‘yanks are coming’ proliferation of romanticized propaganda. The more grim realities were left on the cutting room floor; the product becoming all-star ‘why we fight’ prologues that expounded on the Allied platitudes and doctrines. Danger and death were excluded, periodically addressed as third party deified reflections from the perspective of those left behind to pick up the pieces. War was hell, perhaps, but kept a safe distance from the cinema goer, and made glossy, glorious and oh so tantalizingly patriotic.
In Hollywood’s mind there was never any doubt who would win the war, despite an initial hesitation on the part of the dream merchants to address Hitler in any sort of negative way – mostly to keep the profitable floodgates of the European market wide open. But with 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) Hollywood’s attitude toward the Axis became more proactive and anti-Nazi. By 1942 it didn’t really matter anymore. Half of the European hemisphere had been consumed in that blacked-out theater of war, the legitimate movie houses off limits to Hollywood. On the home front, audiences needed constant reassurances that America’s involvement was not only necessary but also making a difference.
At the height of this infamous hullabaloo MGM released perhaps the most whimsical of all wartime entertainments; Victor Fleming’s A Guy Named Joe (1943), a schmaltzy and patriotic melodrama extolling the virtues of America’s fly boys. Unlike practically every other Hollywood war movie of its vintage, death is at the crux of A Guy Named Joe – dealt a supernatural hand in which even God seems to have enlisted on the Allied side. The Almighty is, of course, never referenced directly; most likely to avoid any accusation of being a sacrilege from the Catholic League of Decency; then a powerful governing body in the censorship of Hollywood’s product. But A Guy Named Joe is brimming to the skies with American values, American sentiment and American stars doing their best to make us forget their uniquely American perspective on life as a go-getting/no nonsense pursuit where the fittest not only survive but excel – even after death.
A Guy Named Joe is long overdue for rediscovery – a movie whose reputation was briefly resurrected when director Steven Spielberg announced he would be doing a remake in 1988 - Always (1989). Spielberg had long been a fan of Fleming’s original. In fact, snippets of A Guy Named Joe were played on the television set in Poltergeist (1982); a movie that Spielberg produced. Yet in updating the premise and contemporizing its characters, Spielberg made several blunders that effectively robbed Always of any sort of ethereal quality. Reviewing Always today makes one appreciate A Guy Named Joe all the more; the understated performances of Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne and Van Johnson – never better, perhaps; the superior handling of the central themes of living with loss and the promise of love eternal and boundless through time and space, the transcendental quality of love itself in comparison to its earthly pleasures of the flesh. In many ways Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay is far more prophetic about the postwar fallout yet to proliferate and sink into the public’s collective consciousness at war’s end; the guns falling silent becoming an ominous and persistent reminder that some who had left home a scant four to six years earlier would never be coming back.
A Guy Named Joe begins with a dramatic aerial sequence; squadron leader Pete Sandidge (Spencer Tracy) a daredevil pilot coming in for a crash landing in his B-25 Mitchell bomber. The harrowing emergency landing is observed with trepidation by Pete’s commanding officer Nails Kilpatrick (James Gleason) and best friend, Al Yackey (Ward Bond) and a small flock of British children who have come to the field to admire the dramatic maneuvers of this gallant American eagle. Pete is all too eager to regale the kids with tales of his daring deeds. In point of fact, he’s a good guy but with an ego the size of Texas and willing to take chances that place the rest of his squadron in peril simply to prove that the impossible can be achieved. Al admires Pete’s guts. But Nails is unimpressed by Pete’s disregard of protocol and chastises him during a debriefing afterward. The two engage in a heated argument that ends only after Pete reminds Nails he once took his chances in combat, affording him his current military ranking. Nails softens his hardline approach. But after Pete leaves he decides to file a request for Pete to be reassigned to Scotland for reconnaissance.
In the meantime, Pete hurries for his rendezvous with Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne); a civilian pilot who ferries aircraft across the Atlantic. She’s a cheerful sort, but quick to lose her temper particularly when Pete playfully tries to manhandle her. He is, of course, toying with Dorinda’s affections. At the officer’s club Pete presents Dorinda with a beautiful gown he bought in London, the frock absolving Pete of a goodly number of his more recent sins. Dorinda is, in fact, a vision in her new gown, proceeding to take both it and Pete for a spin around the dance floor. Unhappily, Nails arrives with news that his orders have been approved. Both Pete and Al are to ship out to Scotland post haste.
For Dorinda the move is all to the good. She’s been fearful for quite some time that Pete’s loose flying will get him killed. Pete is bitter about being grounded, however, but waits out his orders in the club after hours, suggesting that he will be able to pull a few strings to get reinstated. Dorinda threatens to put in for a transfer to Australia unless Pete accepts his new assignment and after some heated debate Pete decides that his future with her is far more valuable to him than his present with the military air corp.
Regrettably, the positioning of a German aircraft carrier in the Channel forces Pete and his squadron on one last mission. Believing that Pete’s ‘number is up’, Dorinda begs him not to go. But Pete’s ego takes precedence over Dorinda’s wishes. His plane is mortally wounded in flight. After instructing his crew to bail out, Pete makes the final length of the mission alone with a nosedive that effectively blows up the destroyer but also sacrifices him. Al returns sometime later to inform Dorinda of what her heart already knows – Pete isn’t coming back to her. But Pete now finds himself taking a walk through the clouds, reunited with a former flyer, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson) who died in a fiery crash a while back. Dick informs Pete that he is dead, then takes him to meet The General (Lionel Barrymore); an ex-pilot of some repute who assigns Pete to oversee the tutelage of a new flyer, Ted Randall (Van Johnson) currently flying a Lockheed P-38 in the South Pacific.
At first, Pete is thoroughly unimpressed by Ted. Dick informs Pete that Ted is an heir to a sizable fortune back home, but that he lacks the gumption and the expertise to be a truly great flyer. That’s Pete’s job – to somehow transform Ted into a hotshot pilot. Despite the fact that no one can see or hear him, Pete somehow manages to infect Ted’s thoughts with his constant badgering, becoming a sort of guardian angel/conscience at all times. Ted’s flying skills steadily improve. At the officer’s club, Pete quietly observes Ted aloof from the rest of the men and the girls assigned to entertain them. Pete goads Ted into accepting a dance from USO hostess, Ellen Bright (Esther Williams) and Ted, upon learning from Bright that fellow flyer, Sanderson (Charles Smith) is woefully homesick, makes a long distance phone call to Sanderson’s mother that tearfully reinvigorates the boy’s spirit and morale.
Pete is impressed with Ted’s humanity. But his appreciation sours when Ted is introduced to Dorinda by Al who has been encouraging her to get over Pete. Ted and Dorinda immediately hit it off. Ted lays a few lines on Dorinda to break the ice before becoming more genuinely interested. She plays along. But then Cupid’s arrow unexpectedly strikes. Pete is angry. He still cannot let go of Dorinda, repeatedly stirring her mind with doubts about Ted. Pete also decides to implant the notion in Ted’s mind that Dorinda is into hotshot pilots. Thus, during a routine training mission Pete convinces Ted to break away from his squadron for a bit of aerial grandstanding. Pete is certain this will cause Nails to demote Ted and Dorinda to lose her romantic interest in him. Instead, Pete’s sabotage has the opposite effect. Chagrined, Pete is recalled by The General to heaven, who lays out some cold hard facts. But these are more humbling than humiliating and Pete, having been properly brought to heel at the will of a higher authority, agrees to return to earth to fulfill his purpose.
In the meantime, Ted has proposed to Dorinda. She willingly accepts, but later has second thoughts and breaks off their engagement. Ted is heart sore and bitter, accepting a dangerous bombing mission with the very real prospect that he may not come back alive. To prove how much she loves him, Dorinda commandeers a P-38 and sets out for the night raid in Ted’s stead with Pete at her side doing his damnedest to discourage her from pursuing the mission. Unable to dissuade Dorinda from her stubborn resolve, Pete guides her through the successful bombing raid; his pride swelling, but also realizing he must release her completely so that she can go back and marry Ted. Upon returning to the base, Dorinda rushes to Ted’s side and Pete walks off into the clouds, presumably never to return; his mission fulfilled.
A Guy Named Joe is a rather sobering melodrama, uplifting in spots but always with the specter of death looming large on the horizon. In some ways it plays directly into the acumens and precepts of Hollywood’s wartime folklore, and yet the movie also balances the rhapsodic quality of its bittersweet romances with a constant thread of the world weariness interwoven throughout. Victor Fleming was the ideal director to helm such a project; his backlog of iconic movie credits including Red Dust (1932), Test Pilot (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone With The Wind (1939). In many ways A Guy Named Joe (Fleming’s third to last movie – he died prematurely in 1949 of a heart attack, age 59) is an amalgam of the aforementioned tenure. One can definitely see traces of the roughhewn Clark Gable persona that Fleming adored grafted onto Spencer Tracy’s Pete Sandidge; the movie’s dream-like supernatural quality calling on the director’s strengths first exerted on The Wizard of Oz, while the romantic back story draws heavily on that tempestuous relationship between Rhett and Scarlett from GWTW.
Fleming is also able to make something more of the story from a visual standpoint – his careful interlacing of the high flying acrobatics (a clever fusion of live footage and Arnold Gillespie’s award winning special effects), the love story, the wartime propaganda ‘message’ and the melodrama stirring sentimental conflict between friends, never seeming out of whack or incongruously thrust together, which it might so easily have under another director with less expertise. A Guy Named Joe excels because of Fleming’s ability to bring all of these story elements together. Even the sequences taking place in the sparsely dressed/curiously smoky and not terribly prepossessing heaven carry a ballast of morality, particularly with Lionel Barrymore’s kindly and very low key address working against type, but brilliantly outlining the moral code all good flyers must adhere to in order to truly earn their wings.
I'll step out on critical ledge here about Spencer Tracy being America’s finest actor ever. I adore Spenc’ in his sparing with Kate ‘the great’ Hepburn. But it has always seemed to me that when these two are apart Tracy lacks something intangible, though nevertheless integral, to truly peddle his art; perhaps the perfect partner, as it were, to create that necessary romantic fiction/friction Tracy and Hepburn so obviously had in spades. In reviewing A Guy Named Joe it’s much more believable that Irene Dunne would run away with Van Johnson’s congenial lady’s man than Tracy’s egotistical hotshot fly boy. There just doesn’t seem to be a lot – if any – romantic chemistry brewing between Dunne and Tracy; their antagonisms very much in the vein of a Tracy/Hepburn row. Dunne is a very fine actress. But she’s not Kate Hepburn and herein her conflicts seem more petulant than proud. Neither performance – Dunne’s or Tracy’s – is awful; yet together they never quite come off as a couple we are willing to believe. It’s also somewhat disconcerting to watch Van Johnson’s Ted Randall go from bookish introvert to stud-about-town within a few short scenes, telling every girl he meets at the USO she reminds him of his imaginary sister. Ultimately, these aforementioned observations are a minor quibbling in an otherwise mostly engaging, often exceptional, and never anything less than competent bit of classic Hollywood storytelling.
A Guy Named Joe works on just about every level because the talents both in front of and behind the camera have longevity and star power on their side. You can get away with a lot if you have a star – the kind whose name above the marquee guarantees box office. Dunne, Tracy and particularly Johnson – then, well on his way to rising through the ranks, make A Guy Named Joe noteworthy and infrequently rousing. It’s also rather fascinating to see Esther Williams in the throwaway part of Helen. Williams star would ascend to the top of the roster a year later with the splashy (literally) debut of Bathing Beauty (1944); her first aquacade movie for MGM.
After far too long an absence on home video, A Guy Named Joe gets released via Warner Home Video’s burn-on-demand MOD archive. The results are competent, though hardly exemplary. First up, the MOD files have been burned incorrectly, so certain DVD/Blu-ray players will display the time stamp information over top of the opening credits. Badly done! The B&W elements appear to be mostly in good shape. But A Guy Named Joe suffers from weaker than expected contrast levels. Close-ups and medium shots look the most impressive, the gray scale properly balanced with a considerable amount of fine detail. Long shots are more problematic, softly focused and slightly hazy. The image also wobbles, occasionally from side to side, but more often up and down. On smaller TV displays it’s hard to notice but on larger monitors or in projection it’s painfully obvious and distracting. Age-related artifacts are present in only a few sequences and do not distract on the whole. There’s also some tiling of background information during Pete’s second and final meeting with ‘The General’; the clouds in the window behind Lionel Barrymore breaking up into digitized cubes of information. The audio is mono as originally recorded and adequate for this presentation. The only extra is a badly worn and truncated trailer.
I am going to go on record again with my objection to MOD DVD in general. It’s not a very stable format. Also its’ lower bitrate ensures less than adequate audio/video representations of some very fine films that deserve much better. I won’t poo-poo it further. But movies are meant to be seen and heard at their optimal best. The transfer on A Guy Named Joe never reaches such heights. Then again, I suspect the aspiration was never there to begin with. Bottom line: recommended with certain caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)