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Wednesday, May 06, 2020

Look Back at War From Eve of Another ...

WB Preparedness Bugle Blows for The Fighting 69th

Girding for war at Warners, this one deals carnage face up, only distance being WWI setting as opposed to round-a-corner Two. There would be fresh combat soon enough, though WB and others dialed down graphic to boost recruitment and morale for renewed push. No warrior to come was so craven and cowardly as James Cagney here, brave work considering his Jerry Plunkett doesn't see patriotism's light until virtual last moments of The Fighting 69th. Cagney could be most effective as crybaby or mush beneath bravado, not shrinking from scenes unflattering to a hard-times hero WB had modeled for him and that JC resisted so forcefully. Maybe a reason Cagney never became the cult icon Bogart did was his refusal to play by straight lines of icon definition. Good as he was, Bogie generally did what we expected of him, at least until the late 40's and into the 50's when he went character starring, but Cagney was ripping masks off his brand from very beginnings of Public Enemy and much of what he did thereafter.

The Fighting 69th took a page from The Big Parade to extent of cheery roughhouse leading to onset of blood spillage, and like Parade, its second half yanks fun from under a first by showing guys we laughed with, and at, dying cruelly. That may have been grit that record-filled New York's Strand for The Fighting 69th's opener week, and it wasn't for nothing that the Boy Scouts Of America named it their favorite release of 1940. The Fighting Irish theme would jam urban seats for sons of Erin that had taken Cagney and company to bosoms. A look through ads for 30's work shows repeated Warner outreach to Jim's shamrock following, most explicitly in a 1935 one he top-lined, The Irish In Us. Screen partner Pat O'Brien was sold a same way, ads for his output awash with Irish phrasing and sentiment. Also helpful, of course, was ethnic background standing for action and quick resort to fists, the "Fighting Irish" indeed.

Crowds Surround Speaker Stand Outside the Strand Premiere

Advertising emphasized link between 69th and past hits revisiting The Great War. The Big Parade Of Entertainment To Set This Whole Cockeyed World Laughing Again was summoning of two that had set record grosses, but not afresh in years, The Big Parade a silent and The Cock-Eyed World too creaky to click in 1940 houses. What The Fighting 69th looked to capture was spirit of the well-recalled pair, especially comedy aspects, which Warner ads emphasized over war-is-hell content less appealing to youth who'd look to this fight for roughhouse and fun Cagney's presence implied. War could still be a grand show in terms of tie-up parades and veterans visiting venues to relive long gone battles. Twenty years of peace had made WWI seem a lark that old guys fought and handily won, even as baleful shadow of a worse war to come loomed over crowds on line to see The Fighting 69th.

There wasn't a woman shown in the picture. Maybe that's what the Boy Scouts liked best about it. No smooching or mush. The Germans are mostly faceless opponents, WB not ready, perhaps, to take gloves fully off. They were already in hot water for films regarded as interventionist. World War One was far enough back of us to seem like ancient history to most who went to movies, and you wonder how many veterans of the conflict showed up in 1940 to relive it. Was show-going largely forfeited to youth by then? Like a lot of Warner successes, The Fighting 69th began as a B proposal from Bryan Foy of that prolific unit, his suggestion to Jack L. that narrative revolve around the Father Duffy character as enacted by Pat O'Brien. The picture took on importance when Cagney was added. Wickets result was that star's biggest hit since Angels With Dirty Faces, and an evergreen that Warners could reissue all the way to 1956 when baleful sale of the pre-49 library took place. Illuminating example is above and to right here, The Fighting 69th back at the Strand for a 1948 solo date with stage accompany, WB vote of confidence that 69th would find a fresh audience eight years after first runs. Also note double billing, same year, at another venue with Valley Of The Giants, shorn of the Technicolor that alone made it worth seeing when new in 1938. Did viewers remember and complain? Warners had a number of revivals using B/W prints of formerly color titles, economics driving the pitch. Once AAP, then successor United Artists, took over the pile, The Fighting 69th was back for a last theatrical stand in 1956, via their Dominant distributing arm, before full surrender of the beloved regiment to home tubes.  


Blogger Bill S said...

Always wondered how the movie audience reacted to the black-and-white reissue of Flynn's ROBIN HOOD in the 1950's. Seemed like a shame to even try it. Ran it in college myself years later on rather gorgeous 16mm film print from United Artists home and college circuit catalog. Audience loved it!

3:51 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Wow, I'm surprised that was ever reissued in b/w! I've read, perhaps anecdotally, that most films, like DODGE CITY, were b/w the second time around, but ROBIN HOOD was always reprinted in Technicolor. Maybe it was only theatrically, as opposed to rentals?

11:17 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

In that still of the cast taking their military oath, is there anyone (other than the guy on the far left) that looks even remotely from 1917? Of course, that doesn't negate the pleasure of watching a movie like this, but realism in regards to clothes and hairstyle didn't come into play much back then.

Sorry, grouchy from self-quarantining.

1:33 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Charlotte's Visualite Theatre ran ROBIN HOOD on a combo with CAPTAIN BLOOD in 1974, and used a B/W Dominant print.

2:00 PM  
Blogger Chrisk said...

Bill, I first saw Shane in B & W in school in the late fifties without realising it was in technicolor!

8:31 PM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

When Fox first sold the package of features, which had run the first season (1961-62) of NBC Saturday Night at the Movies, to local stations, the package was available in either color/ b&w or ALL b&w.

My local station, WBTV-Charlotte, took the cheaper package and bought all b/w. I assume it was a cost measure. Not many color TVs weren't around yet in the Charlotte market.

The 16mm prints had the TECHNICOLOR credit blacked out.

6:55 AM  
Blogger stinky fitzwizzle said...

Stinky did not have a color TV until 1981 or thereabouts, so he used to hold up a butterscotch candy wrapper in front of his peepers and pretend it was color TV. Times was tough.

4:29 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recalling a Bill Mauldin cartoon from immediately after WWII. He had now-civilian Willie and his family at the box office of a theater showing a war film. He's sweating as he says, "You're darn tootin' it was realistic! Gimme my money back!"

4:29 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer considers THE FIGHTING 69th and US participation in two World Wars (Part One):

“The Eagle and the Hawk,” which you wrote about recently, had a decidedly anti-war perspective, as did many films about the First World War or its aftermath made in Hollywood during the twenties and thirties, such as “All Quiet on the Western Front,” “Journeys End,” “The Dawn Patrol,” “The Lost Squadron,” “Ace of Aces,” or “The Man Who Reclaimed His Head.” “The Big Parade,” the success of which inaugurated a cycle of World War films, was unsparing in its depiction of returning war veterans were scarred or mutilated. The hero’s mother is shown remembering her frolicsome little boy as she sees him now, hobbling with an artificial leg.

Possibly the most profound of the anti-war films made during this period was an ostensible horror film, “The Black Cat,” the themes of which had as much to do with the carnage and devastation of the World War as with Poe. The Austrian architect, Hjalmar Poelzig, has built his home on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which he betrayed to the Russians during the war. The austere cleanliness of its art deco design is contrasted with the remnants of the fort, with its thousands of dead buried around it, and with explosive mines remaining to be triggered. As his nemesis, Dr. Vitus Verdegast refers to it, the home is “the masterpiece of construction, built upon the masterpiece of destruction.”

It is little wonder that the World War should have been viewed with loathing and repugnance. The bodies of men were all too vulnerable before a machinery of death that obtained a kind of perfection, in machine guns, barbed wire, rapid fire bolt-action rifles, poison gas, and breach-loading artillery firing high explosive shells. A war of maneuver during the first year of the war ground down as the armies of both sides dug in, and a network of trenches stretched from the Alpines to the English Channel. There was an effective stalemate, with hundreds of thousands of men lost at a time in futile attempts to break through enemy lines. During the first day of the Battle of the Somme in 1916, for example the British alone suffered 56,000 casualties.

9:05 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

As both sides became too aware, in the fall, in northern France, the rains would come, turning the trench systems into cesspools. Lice and other vermin were a constant hardship, while rats would be attracted to the thousands upon thousands of dead bodies lying partially buried in the no-man’s land between the lines, until the latest artillery barrage would expose the decaying flesh.

During the four years of the war, from 5,187,000 to 6,434,000 died for the cause of the Allied Powers, while from 3,386,000 to 4,391,000 died for the Central Powers. The United States lost 116,000 in battle, a relatively small sum, but then, its forces were fully engaged only for a period of five months. Such losses were nearly as heavy as those suffered by France and Great Britain during similar periods, with one important difference: The United States conducted fighting advances against the strong points of the German line and broke them.

Times change. When “The Fighting 69th” was released in January 1940, the European phase of what became the Second World War was in its “Phony War” phase, or what the French called “drole de guerre.” Poland had fallen to Germany after three weeks of ferocious fighting, after which the opposing sides warily watched each other. Except for occasional naval actions or air combat over northern France, nothing of importance occurred. France and Great Britain were confident that they could starve Germany into submission or defeat her on the field of battle. Between the two, they preferred the tactic of starvation. German propaganda played upon this disinclination to fight: “You stay behind your Maginot Line, we will stay behind the West Wall.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, however, wanted to aide the Allies. This was in part a response to the solicitations of Winston Churchill, then Great Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, who anticipated a hard struggle, and in part a desire to assume a more dominant role in international affairs. Against a mounting opposition that did not want the United States to intervene in what seemed to be a European war, he had an amendment to the Neutrality Act of 1939 passed into law, allowing combatants to purchase American munitions, if they could transport them on their own ships. In effect, this was direct aide to France and Great Britain, since Germany was unable to break the blockade imposed by the Royal Navy. At the same time, a massive increase in the American armed forces was initiated. When it began, the American army totaled 227,000, compared to the German army of 4 million, the French army of 5 million, the British army of 1.6 million, and the Dutch and Belgian armies of 400,000 and 650,000 respectively.

9:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Three from Dan Mercer:

Given the effectiveness of the movies in affecting the outlook of the country, it would not have done to have continued the anti-war films, if ultimately the country would be entering another war. All along, Warner Bros. had been the one major Hollywood studio that was aggressively criticizing Germany with films like “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” and “Underground.” Its production of “The Fighting 69th” was meant to show that we were right to have been “Over There." during the World War The battle scenes were grim, and James Cagney was convincing as a tough who broke when exposed to the carnage and confusion of battle. However, death was presented in the nature of glorious sacrifice, as when a Catholic chaplain says Kaddish over a dying Jewish soldier, or Cagney finding redemption by throwing his body over a grenade and saving the lives of his brother soldiers.

In the next year or so, there would be more war or service-oriented films, often made with the cooperation of the U.S. Army or Navy, such as “Flight Command,” “Dive Bomber,” and “Sergeant York.” Even a swashbuckler like “The Sea Hawk,” showed the Warner Bros. action star, Errol Flynn, battling against a Hitlerian Spanish King Philip on behalf of Queen Elizabeth, who would deliver a rousing but somewhat anachronistic curtain speech for freedom and democracy.

If it was to be war for the United States, the effort to rebuild its armed forces came none too soon. In the first few months after Pearl Harbor, the inefficiency and poor tactics of the American forces and the obsolescence of its arms was exposed again and again. What was also revealed, however, was a formidable fighting spirit that would not be denied. As much as its industrial might, this was what carried the country to victory. At least a little bit of that might be credited to films like “The Fighting 69th.”

9:07 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

It's now 2022, and I just watched this film - part of my ongoing "Hal Wallis" festival.
I found it enjoyable as a film, and as an artifact of its times; but I nevertheless found its portrayal of American participation in WW1 as a quasi-religious crusade to be distasteful.

8:08 AM  

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