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Monday, February 20, 2017

Marines, Let's Go!

Saddling Up For The War

Basically a training camp comedy/romance that suddenly got serious when a real-life war happened, To the Shores of Tripoli caught luck of timing to become a major hit for 20th in 1942. We barely know it today for dated content, but this was one for flags flown and goosing patronage to rout of the enemy. Tripoli became, thanks to Pearl Harbor, something more than time passed in seats. The Chicago Theatre first-run illustrates: "Precision drills" on stage, with "actual tank miniatures in operation," this daily from 10:00 AM, then for capper at 10:30 PM, the U.S. Marines "Crack Drill Detachment" and 30-Voice Glee Club. We might assume customers headed straight from the auditorium to enlistment stations, provided latter kept late hours (so query --- was recruitment and sign-up a 24-7 operation through WWII?). Why would boys duck service when training looked to be a lark like shown in To the Shores of Tripoli? Sunny clime of San Diego for boot camping, weekend dance with pretty nurses, Hershey Bars from the canteen --- who knew this was prelude to island-hopping hell and loss after loss the USMC would suffer in grim opener months of the war?

We can observe from seventy-five year distance and imagine WWII to be more fun than not, based on Technicolor pour over reality. Easy to smite To the Shores of Tripoli for misleading its public, but this was war. All had to be aboard for the struggle to stay free and continue to enjoy silly movies loose with the truth, but reassuring all the same and at a time where no questions need be asked re harsher truths of the conflict. Leave that to newsreels, which, sanitized as most were, at least showed men in actual field of combat instead of soundstage repose and being kissed by Maureen O'Hara. We'll never know how seductive To the Shores of Tripoli was to youth already with an itch to join. Pic was premiered March 1942, appropriately in San Diego, Marine camp location for cast/crew. Just picture high school graduates a couple months later crowding into boot camps eager to receive them, To the Shores of Tripoli and ones like it greasing the way.

1952 Cleveland Reissue with, Ouch!, B/W Prints
At least Zanuck realized what flight of fancy this was. "Nobody can accuse us of any great originality as far as plot or characters are concerned," said he in a 4/42 memo, which also pointed out rightly that "if the background and atmosphere are interesting, if the theme is patriotic, if the action is exciting, and if you have good comedy values, the fact that the plot is A-B-C doesn't make the slightest difference." Director H. Bruce Humberstone wanted to do To the Shores of Tripoli because he knew we'd be in a war by the time shooting was finished, or so he said to interviewing Jon Tuska decades later (Humberstone claimed that the last day of production was 12/7/41 --- did they work on Sunday?). There was last minute reshuffle when Pearl attack made changes urgent. An ending was scrapped (graduation from basic training), with a new one showing troops shipping out in wake of Dec. 7 attack. This would bring narrative even with headlines, and put To the Shores of Tripoli among first of service films recognizing recent events. Even with Technicolor, the show had been completed for an economical one million. It would more than triple that in worldwide rentals. Spring of 1942 saw To the Shores of Tripoli "continuing to make a bum out of every picture we have made in the last three years, including How Green Was My Valley" (Zanuck).

Here's suggestion for a double-bill: To the Shores of Tripoli with Laurel and Hardy in Great Guns, both begun as peacetime service shows, accent on lighter aspect of training programs, each benefiting from actual war that made them popular beyond merit of either. What we overlook now is how timely the two were, and basis this was for pleasing reviewers and the audience. To praise especially Great Guns seems irrational to us, but we weren't there in 1941 when it raised roofs of theatres nationwide. Laurel and Hardy were far more relevant here than they had been for years ... at least to 1941's reckoning. As for To the Shores of Tripoli, what more joy than spending ninety minutes inside a very camp to which loved ones might be dispatched. Such glimpse of their training to come had close-to-home significance for almost everyone in seats. What seems silly to us was like documentary for them. And to put Laurel-Hardy in uniform, on eve of a brand new war, seemed only natural (even though both were plenty old enough to have fought in the last war).

It mattered less that the team lost creative input. Just showing up was plenty enough. Frightful as their Fox films now seem (to some, but not all), going there could be argued as a right move, at least in context of the times. Options for L&H otherwise? More for Roach, likely streamliners, w/ distribution through United Artists no match for 20th Fox finesse in that area, or continued tours through presentation houses, a viable notion, but essentially vaudeville and constant on-the-road. To stay truly visible, Laurel and Hardy had to be on screens, and in new product. At least Fox got them out there and in front of large audiences. Plus the films were well-attended and presumably enjoyed. Fact they'd date, and be less appealing today, was fate Great Guns and rest of 40's L&H would share with To the Shores of Tripoli and so much of what came out in wartime, but viewed with WWII urgencies in mind, they can all still be appreciated and enjoyed. To the Shores of Tripoli streams in HD on I-Tunes, and looks fine.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

L & H's Fox movies are better received these days, with many fans preferring them to their last couple of Roach features. I'll take "Jitterbugs" over "Saps at Sea."

And for what it's worth, actors who appeared in their last three Fox films said Stan worked closely with the director.

3:15 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

For what it's worth, the Fox L&H films are head and shoulders above the two late MGM features. A big problem for the boys -- and for many comedians -- is not just age, but changes in the look and feel of movies. To take one example, Stan and Ollie with lush, conventional musical underscoring instead of sprightly Hal Roach themes just doesn't feel right. Just as some comics were defeated by sound, others seemed to lose a chunk of their magic when taken from obvious soundstages to real locations, or rendered in Technicolor.

Also, the late scripts often tried to impose pathos by making them 1940s poor instead of 1930s optimistic hoboes. That actually made it harder to laugh at their misfortunes. It would have been nice to see them middle class or above, as they were often enough in the Roach days. Ollie was best with dignity and pretensions at stake, or trying to assert old-fashioned dominion over a no-nonsense modern mate.

In my fantasy Hollywood, Hardy would have played the title role in "Father of the Bride", with Laurel as the father of groom. Imperiled self-importance for Ollie, elaborate social niceties to bewilder Stan. And of course the whole situation is one where women are thoroughly in command, so our heroes would once again be holding their own against strong-willed wives.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Think it was a TV screening of TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI in the 1960's that induced my pop, a WWII vet, to comment 'I don't like that kind of war movie' and walk out of the room. He actually enjoyed some war flicks and many service comedies, and really got a kick out the OPERATION PETTICOAT type things that popped up years later featuring connivers and Bilko-ish operators. But he had a thing about movies that he thought glamorized the war years.

As to the Boys, as recently as last weekend our local Sons of the Desert tent had a WWII Movie Night with a program that included war bond drive shorts, a Mail Call short, various related cartoons and trailers followed by the Fox feature THE DANCING MASTERS. About 110 attendees lapped it up, with the feature going over like gangbusters. A large live audience makes a huge difference of course, but it's my experience the later Laurel and Hardy films can still engage an interested crowd. Unlike Kevin K. I can't think of even one of their big studio films superior to the weakest of their Roach features and I agree with Donald B. stretches of the two MGMs are barely watchable. But put me in the revisionist group who think the Fox films got better more or less with each entry, GREAT GUNS being far and away the weakest of the bunch. And I don't think it's just the testimony of co-stars Kevin talks about that proves Laurel's increased involvement as the series went on. There are dozens of slight touches and tiny bits of business that bare this out. Did you know the whole business of men floating in air in the finale of JITTERBUGS is lifted from another shipboard comedy, a 1926 film directed by Laurel? I think it's these little embellishments that make even the lesser L&H films so enjoyable.

10:05 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I think it's pretty ironic that "The Big Noise", which was considered the worst L & H movie, is now thought by many to be their best Fox film.

1:23 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

@Kevin: Probably because "The Big Noise" was featured in the Medved brothers' "50 Worst Films" book.

5:47 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

William K. Everson's "The Films of Laurel and Hardy", John McCabe's "Laurel & Hardy" (the film-by-film review book) and Randy Skretvedt's "Laurel and Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies" (1987 edition) all pan "The Big Noise". "50 Worst Films" was a late arrival at that party, and possibly swayed by what was then the semi-official fan line and Laurel's own expressed distaste.

Nowadays, looking at crisp DVDs and stacking them against competing B comedies of the same era instead of the boys' classic stuff, the Fox films aren't quite so dire.

In my experience, silents and top-tier 30s comedies play as fresher than 40s-50s studio output. Maybe it's because the more recent stuff feels overslick and of its time, while earlier films are so far back as to feel alien and timeless.

3:45 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yes to "alien and timeless" --- I really like the way you put that, Donald.

6:07 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

I watched TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI when I was 13 years old, and I hated it when John Payne re-joined the Marines at the end. I lived vicariously through these movies, like many 70s middle-school age kids I was self-centered and had no sense of civic responsibility, and I'd have preferred to see Payne go back to his life of luxury! "He might get killed!", I thought(I wouldn't have even wanted to be in the military in peacetime, though). Getting older and more mature, I could see the ending differently.

7:10 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

World War 2 and movies w/ misleading titles? One would think that a title like "DIVE BOMBER"(1941) would be an 'all-action' war flick even though the 'action' of this war had not started yet. (It SURE SEEMED like our military was gearing up for SOMETHING BIG...?!).Beautifully filmed in TECHNICOLOR ,with ERROL FLYNN and cast literally chain-smoking THEIR way thru the nearly 2 1/2 hours of pilot/problems,HIGH IN THE SKY, or on the GROUND BELOW in this EXCELLENT WARNER BROS. PRE-WAR effort filmed in SAN DIEGO. The view is spellbinding, as filming went on (with rainclouds, puddles and cigarettes aplenty)up and down and and around NORTH ISLAND NAS, SAN DIEGO, AND THE HOTEL DEL CORONADO; and ALL OF IT looking SO BEAUTIFUL here, BEFORE the war years, BEFORE smog, and BEFORE 'ground and sky-scraping developers (as I call them) took over THE TRANQUIL settings of a town ready to explode with industry and population...( would it ever look so pretty again?).Check out ERROL FLYNN in ONE of his BEST PERFORMCES EVER,IN ONE OF THE FINEST OF FILMS concerning WW2-AMERICA; an outstanding view above with the pilots and the planes-- but what a view on the ground too(!) (ALEXIS SMITH drops in here and there ,in a THANKLESS, THROWAWAY ROLE!) I also thought "TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI" to be one of the most MISTITLED of all WW2 FLICKS,ALSO LENSED in a TECHNICOLORED SAN DIEGO OF YESTERYEAR.

11:51 PM  

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