Men Must Fight

DVD REVIEW:

Available via Warner Archive;
Warner;
Drama;
$21.99 DVD;
Not rated.
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.

Mike’s Picks: ‘La Verite’ and ‘Men Must Fight’

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Kino Lorber;
Adventure;
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars Tommy Kelly, Ann Gillis, May Robson, Walter Brennan.

The story’s familiar to you, right? I figured.

Produced by David O. Selznick in the still young three-strip Technicolor process and sparked by a memorable “cave” designed by the immortal William Cameron Menzies, the capable if never really stirring The Adventures of Tom Sawyer gives a good sense of the famed producer’s deep pockets when it came to cosmetics. James Wong Howe shot it (his first color film), and judging from the quality of threads Tom sports when he’s slumming around (nearly all the time), there must have been a Sy Devore outlet store in the fictional town standing in here for Hannibal, Mo. All the better when it comes to getting them muddy, which happens maybe two or three times a reel.

In CliffsNotes fashion but with few substantial changes — for one, “Jim” is now a wide-eyed youthful foil, not an adult — this almost immediate Selznick precursor to Gone With the Wind packs many of Mark Twain’s key events into 91 minutes, though Kino Classics has also included a 77-minute re-issue version from the 1950s that’s purely academic. Huck Finn is kind of a nondescript glorified walk-on, and one can argue that there’s too much time devoted to the hot love triangle between Tom, Amy Lawrence and that new redhead in town, Becky Thatcher. But generally speaking, this classy 1938 production with only a handful-plus of non-cave sets has fairly engaging fun with the episodes and characters most folks remember: whitewashing the fence, dastardly “Injun Joe” committing murder that’s hung on another and young Tom’s daily dustups with Aunt Polly and especially half-brother Sid.

As much as for publicity purposes as anything else, Selznick mounted a publicity campaign for someone to play the lead role, and the more or less one-hit-wonder-Tommy Kelly got the part. He was an attractive kid, but, in general, the child acting is directed here a few beats too broadly for my taste — by Norman Taurog (much later of Jerry Lewis and Elvis pictures), who’d already taken one of those suspect early directing Oscars for doing a good job with Jackie Cooper in Skippy the same year the academy totally skunked Chaplin’s City Lights. Uh-huh.

This said, I do like David Holt’s very broad performance as unctuous Sid, the kind of pie target and worse that one imagines Stephen Miller was when he was of single-digit age — though in Miller’s case, it would have been more satisfying to douse him not with pies or tomatoes but maybe some of those killer red aunts that attacked Chuck Heston in The Naked Jungle. Interestingly, from his IMDb.com bio, Holt was apparently a good kid in real life, and through circumstances, got Max Baer Sr. to teach him how to fight so he could pop a few would-be oppressors on the playground. You never know.

To give the young actors protection, if not exactly sex appeal, Selznick surrounded them with an array of solid character actors: May Robson, Walter Brennan, Victor Jory, Donald Meek and more. And though she only has a very small worried-mom role and maybe one decent close-up, this is somehow a movie that you just know Margaret Hamilton is going to be in, though her hallmark role as the Wicked Witch of the West was still a year away. Say, why do all the authoritarians in these period Hollywood movies, most of whom are parental figures, look as if they last had sex when some social mixer at Plymouth Rock got out of hand after someone broke out the hard cider?

As early Technicolor Selznicks go, I prefer the print here to what I’ve seen in my lifetime of Nothing Sacred and the ’37 A Star Is Born, titles that have always made me wonder just what kind of shape the Selznick archival holdings are in (and one reason, perhaps, why I’ve never been crazy about either movie). There are flashes of bad registration here, but the worst examples only last a few seconds at a time, some early muted pigments give way to some striking colors on some of the costuming. According to the late Ronald Haver’s all-timer oversized volume (David O. Selznick’s Hollywood, a treasured present to me from my ex-wife), the movie was actually designed to be in black-and-white before a Technicolor camera suddenly became available. Per usual, Selznick managed to shuffle personnel with Clive Owen Croupier finesse, which is how Taurog took over from original director H.C. Potter and (per Haver) George Cukor ended up directing a few scenes, including what was likely a crowd-pleasing capper.

The long climactic cave sequence — was Menzies the best, or what? — turns the total rendering into something of a net plus, as Tom (for once) turns fully responsible attempting to finesse his escape with also-trapped Becky from Native American Joe’s (as he’ll someday probably be called) hideout. It’s genuinely gripping and well-staged by a filmmaker who usually had no personality — though, given that it’s at least tangentially on subject — I have to say that I do prefer Taurog’s Nothing Sacred remake, Living It Up, to the original by a healthy margin.

According to Haver, the picture didn’t cover its substantial cost too well; these were not punk artisans Selznick employed. But Tom Sawyer is the kind of endeavor one can milk for a number of years, and sometime in my earliest teens (I’ve read 1959, though I remember it more as ’60), it got a national or nationally syndicated TV showing that the movie’s Becky Thatcher — the by then adult Ann Gillis — emceed. (I’m guessing it was probably the 77-minute version in a 90-minute slot because I remember a lot of commercials for some kind of bread product being included.)

This is interesting because according to her IMDb.com quote section, Gillis didn’t like Taurog and got totally sick of the picture after watching it “hundreds of times” during the original promotional tour. In general, it appears, Gillis wasn’t shy about voicing her opinion, given what she said of her last screen appearance — as Gary Lockwood’s mother in 2001: A Space Odyssey. “Kubrick was a real jerk,” she said. “It shows you what can happen when a director is given a blank check.”

Well, that’s one way of looking at it, though her scene of hysterics in the cave still convinces. Poor thing: If it isn’t those damned stalactites, it’s being in a dark place with Victor Jory.

Mike’s Picks: ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’