February 11, 2019
Available via Warner Archive;
Stars Diana Wynyard, Lewis Stone, Phillips Holmes, Robert Young, May Robson.
So OK, here’s another political wild one originally released by MGM the same year as Gabriel Over the White House — or wild enough, anyway, to make one wonder if someone at the time was spiking L.B. Mayer’s drinking water when it came to bold screen concepts. Then again, 1933’s Men Must Fight — which all but anticipates World War II in terms of its eventual London Blitz-type attack on New York City — isn’t necessarily out of keeping with other pacifistic movies of that Hollywood era. When I was very young, I figured that All Quiet on the Western Front must have qualified as aberrant movie fare at the time due to its imploring of men not to fight. Only later did I learn from Frank Borzage’s No Greater Glory (1934) and 1933’s The Eagle and the Hawk (with its “money” cast of Fredric March, Cary Grant and Carole Lombard) that certain movies of the early 1930s were nothing like what audiences would ever have seen in the 1940s. Well, it would figure, wouldn’t it?
British stage actress Diana Wynyard didn’t make that many movies, but after appearing in ’32 with all three Barrymores in Rasputin and the Empress, 1933 was kind of a big year for her, what with the lead in Fox’s best picture Oscar winner (Cavalcade) and top billing here. Cast as a combat nurse who in those pre-Code movie days was allowed to have had sex without the Breen Office burning her at the stake in retribution, Wynyard watches her lover go off to a World War I pilot’s death after a three-day affair leaves her pregnant. In casting that adds to the curio value here, Robert Young plays the latter — decades before he began rolling in TV residuals after “Father Knows Best” and “Marcus Welby, M.D.” At this point, a major played by MGM’s future Judge Hardy, Lewis Stone (who looks not much older than the later scenes than he does at the beginning) steps in to, as used to be said, give the child a name. This adoptive dad eventually becomes U.S. Ambassador to “Eurasia” (we’re dealing in broad strokes here), which means that diplomatic sentiments are also part of day-to-day home life. And especially so when wife Wynyard has become an out-and-out pacifist and drums this mindset into the male child (Phillips Holmes).
If the movie weren’t unusual enough, we have the real-life irony that early enlister Holmes was killed in a 1942 crash while serving the Royal Canadian Air Force — this after his girlfriend (singer Libby Holman) married Holmes brother Ralph on the rebound before he joined the RCAF, where Ralph suffered so much emotional trauma that he committed suicide not long after his tour of duty. Also for the record, Holman much later committed suicide herself in one of its century’s more turbulent public lives, but we’re starting to complicate the issue here.
So just for actor recognition purposes, we’ll just note that a couple years pre-Men, Phillips had had what subsequently became the Montgomery Clift role in Josef von Sternberg’s not quite deservingly lambasted flop version of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy (later remade as A Place in the Sun) — and that the earlier picture’s reception permanently harmed Holmes’ career. Also worth noting that father to the Holmes brothers was character actor Taylor Holmes — who was such a fixture in ’40s and ’50s potboilers from Republic Pictures (also the nutty sci-fi romp Tobor the Great) that I could sometime swear he had more credits there than Rex Allen. He may be most memorable, though, for his doozy of a crooked lawyer in the original Kiss of Death, a real oil deposit.
Those damned Eurasians, though, haven’t peace on their minds, which causes a political fissure in the household — kind of a George and Kellyane Conway deal — when, in a finger snap, elder Stone takes heed of the situation and becomes more militaristic than he’s been since the movie’s opening reel. This, in turn, puts young Holmes in the middle — a situation not helped by the additional red-meat attitude of his new wife (Ruth Selwyn, real-life Mrs. of Fight director Edgar) and her family. Adding to the bizarre mix — and we haven’t even gotten to the zeppelins — is that Holmes’s mother-in-law is played by dizzy real-life gossip columnist and occasionally dizzy actress Hedda Hopper.
I’ve seen four of the eight features Selwyn directed, and they’re all pretty zippy and/or intriguing without being Second Coming material. Specifically, he directed Helen Hayes to an Oscar with The Sin of Madelon Claudet (and gave Robert Young a huge career break as her son); anticipated Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life by a dozen years with Turn Back the Clock; and turned out one of the best “Warren-William-Is-An-Old-Lech” pre-Code forays into screen sin with Skyscraper Souls. That’s the one in which bank prez William lives perched atop the concern’s cloud-busting building, to which he invites sweet young things for penthouse fun — bringing to mind the coda that Frank Sinatra would later bring to the rendition of Fly Me to the Moon preserved on Sinatra at the Sands (“… and don’t tell your papa”). Put this all together, and it’s something more than a journeyman mix for a fairly obscure filmmaker.
Meanwhile, here comes the zeppelins (1933 was four years before the Hindenburg crash, though, of course, they’re still around, if rarely en masse, as here). So do bombing attacks on Manhattan, which are even worse, turns out, when you’re like Wynyard and in a cab, though certainly bombing the Empire State Building and Brooklyn Bridge are horrific enough. The movie presents a kind of tightrope challenge for print chroniclers: Any fear of employing spoilers has to be weighed against the unusual nature of the material when it comes to jawboning a project that the cast by itself can’t likely sell to a modern-day audience.
This is a barebones release that’ll never be mistaken for a 4K job (or half a “K” or a tenth of a “K” or so on). But for those who collect oddballs (either in their movie minds or as collected physical media), this is quite a footnote. Were I still film-programming for a living, I’d probably pair it with William Cameron Menzies’ Things To Come from three years later, though I’m sure that some good billing alternatives are out there.