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Thursday, November 05, 2020

Where War Buddies Reunite ...

 Can Weather and Ocean Crews Go Back Again?

Our Elk’s Clubhouse shut down a couple years ago. The Boy Scouts are gone. Do men no longer need fraternal orders? I was never a joiner, so would not speculate. Enough to say such groups are passed, and there’s the end to it. I ponder this for happenstance of seeing two in tandem: It’s Always Fair Weather and Ocean’s 11. Greenbriar visited both before, a comparative long ago. I note their shared mood this time, or maybe it’s me at a point to reckon with what is past and not coming back. Weather failed in 1955 for, some claim, a glum meditation on dedicated friends from the war, with nothing to bind them ten years later in peace. Gene Kelly, Dan Daily, and Michael Kidd are the three. Might actual wartime service have enhanced performance among them? Kelly was Navy-stationed in Washington to make documentaries, Dailey in the Signal Corps. So far as I can tell, Michael Kidd, born 1915, did not enlist, nor was he drafted. None of the trio appear to have carried a weapon or fired one at enemies.

I checked Danny Ocean and his crew, all eleven WWII vets specially trained for complex missions, their latest to knock over Vegas casinos, circa 1960. Here’s service account for the performer group: Sinatra 4-F, Dean Martin drafted, served a year in Akron, Ohio, discharged as 4-F, Sammy Davis drafted 1943 to the Special Services where he entertained troops, Peter Lawford a damaged arm, so ineligible, Richard Conte, briefly in the Army, discharged for eye trouble, so came home and made war movies, Joey Bishop, another with Special Services, and stationed at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Henry Silva, born 1928, too young. Buddy Lester was in the Navy through WWII, Norman Fell a tail-gunner for the Army Air Corps, Richard Benedict and Clem Harvey, no specific info. Of these fourteen, Ocean’s eleven and Weather’s three, two had seen action, as in shooting and shot at. I wonder if Buddy Lester and Norman Fell talked that over quietly during an Ocean set break. It’s Always Fair Weather and Ocean’s 11, light as both tried to be, told of men connected through a period of intense danger, during which we may assume some or all rescued their comrades where needed. Is debt to anyone who saved your life ever discharged?

This was serious thread that tied It’s Always Fair Weather and Ocean’s 11 for me, giving both a stature and ongoing fascination. I’ll not grasp their drama fully for never having served. Being too young for Viet Nam kept me out of that harm’s way. How did it feel to be a movie star and play heroic soldiers when you’d never been one? Would I be a better man for at least joining the National Guard and getting basic trained? (means of ducking Nam for many) We admire a Lee Marvin and director Samuel Fuller of The Big Red One for having been the real stuff. They say military service builds a lot of character, be it war or peacetime. I won’t doubt that a minute, and sometimes it gnaws. A scene in Ocean’s 11 moved me where I’d not noticed it at all before: one of the heist crew checks out a funeral home where loot is hid, and observes the arrival of an American Legion honor guard. Legion membership was considerable in 1960, but now? My town does not have a chapter, a nearest one in Boone, Lenoir, or near Yadkinville. I wonder how many active members are left, or who today would even realize what the American Legion is, or was.

It's Always Fair Weather
suggests that life for returning warriors might be a dead end, the cue for men in 1955 to wonder if this was their story. Did the notion, and word spread of it, queer attendance? There is music and comedy, the latter barbed beyond norm for musical comedy. We admire Weather for truth-telling as we want to define it, but how many of us can know of men’s feelings who fought, and were here confronted with futility of lives since? I’m told co-directors Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, latter 4-F per “high blood pressure,” clashed frequent on this film. Did one seek to lighten up with the other wanting to double down? MGM sold It's Always Fair Weather as a “gigantic and joyous musical,” which was, of course, what sales staff wished it had been. Open of buddies off battlefields, tippling stateside to celebrate, is boisterous after preferred fashion of soldiers “rehabilitating,” so by that measure, a dance with feet in trash can lids seems apt. The ten-year-later reunion, planned when “Ted, Doug, and Angie” swear to stay pals, foresees ice flow coming. Did passing years yawn wider then? A man’s life span being shorter in 1955, 66.7 the average limit, as opposed to today at 76.1, made ten years a meaningful chunk off anyone’s stay.

We assume that Ted, Doug, and Angie had no contact over that decade; none refer to having written or spoke. This of course is necessary and understandable movie shorthand, but I’d like knowing if for-real WWII vets kept in touch, met perhaps for annual reunions. Pearl Harbor survivors had gatherings, these ending only when the last of them passed. Postwar adjustment was a known “challenge” (lord, I am sick of that word as applied to everything but taking lids off peanut butter). Question burns … how many ex-combatants were disillusioned by their lives since combatting? Having three, maybe four years yanked off your life costs a lot of momentum. We hear of vets who would not discuss the war, even mention it. Most with fathers who fought regret not asking them more, especially now that it is too late. I came home one 1969 afternoon from the Liberty and parents asked, What did you see?, The Bridge at Remagen my reply, to which my father said casually, “I was there.” No follow-up from nitwit me, a lapse I’d give much to return to and fix now. It's Always Fair Weather had to have gotten under skins which Gene Kelly on roller skates and singing “I Like Myself” could not altogether alleviate.

Frank Sinatra seems to have left shadings to Ocean mates, his character but cardboard beside several of theirs. Impression is Frank thinking little enough of Ocean’s 11 to drop in/out, letting steam rooms sub for the set even where his “Danny” was needed. A second half of Ocean's seems written around him, a reason why Caesar Romero steals the show casually as Frank's crew emptying Vegas safes. Richard Conte plays his part like late 40’s noir, that welcome, in fact needed. Too much is glib, saucy talk with, or about, “broads,” a drag on tempo. Moments worthwhile still angle ways in, Buddy Lester in low down circumstance as a stripper’s front man (and husband), Peter Lawford a dependent mom’s boy (how many real-life fighting men let this happen?), Dino the doubter with a highlight where he bluntly tells the others how absurd their scheme is. Ocean’s 11 is among largest of missed opportunities that still manages to please. I’d guess they flew a “Lighten Up” flag from starting, the goal to ring-a-ding-ding customers and confine war-stress to casino check rooms.

How credible was the concept? Could war buddies once trained and active, but fifteen years before, manage a grab like this? Ocean’s 11 suggests yes, any of veterans able to swing back into action where called, ours a nation of sleeper commandos, awaiting a bugle’s toot. Reassuring if so in 1955, still yet in 1960. Remember 60's cycle gang pics with fed up vets roused to action by modern-day Goths sacking quiet communities? I was firmly with defenders for their number including character favorites who had earlier fought aliens or monsters that menaced us. Kenneth Tobey as a father opposing  hippies in Billy Jack had my vote. Tobey by the way was rear gunner on a B-25 bomber, later vanquished The Thing, but Billy Jack and ilk was 1971, heroes that had saved us more spent than when Ted/Doug/Angie danced, or Danny and pals knocked over Vegas. I was surprised in 1980 by The Sea Wolves and Gregory Peck, David Niven, with Roger Moore, pulling yet another impossible mission (Peck spared WWII by injury sustained during dance instruction with Martha Graham, Niven with extensive service, part of D-Day landings and invasion of Europe, Moore turning eighteen 10/45, conscripted into the Royal Army Service Corps, became an officer). Screen wars are today fought by baby faces with three-day stubble of beard, vets of male fashion covers if not actual service. Updated Ocean’s 11 (and 12, and 13, still later an 8) has criminals and “big operators” robbing bigger criminals and operators, all with insufferable smugness in common. It’s Always Fair Weather remade is ruled out, Ted/Doug/Angie not needing to bother with a ten year reunion so long as they have Facebook.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer tells what he knew of his father's wartime experience:

You can’t know, of course, but I wonder if your father would have been forthcoming with what he did in the war, had you asked him. Mine was not. Until he died, my knowledge of his war experiences from his own lips was limited to about half a dozen anecdotes. It simply wasn’t something he cared to talk about. I had an idea of what he’d gone through from bits and pieces of information and other things—his discharge papers noting the award of the bronze star and purple heart, a steel leg brace with attached shoe, somewhat smaller in diameter than a normal leg, medical records that had been taken out of his service records when he filed a claim, all that remained of those records after a fire at the records repository, war and division histories, and the like—and I knew that it had been pretty rough. There was also a grayish piece of paper from a cigarette pack, quite fragile now, on which he scrawled a letter in pencil to his folks. His battalion was trapped behind enemy lines and it seemed that they were going to be wiped out. He wanted his mom and dad to know that he loved them very much. He gave it to a friend, who survived. He was badly concussed and his body riddled with shrapnel. When he came to, he was in the back of a truck piled with the bodies of dead men. Those who found him thought that he, too, was one of the dead.
I sometimes wonder whether those who speak disparagingly today of previous generations of Americans really understand who they are talking about, or the price that was paid for the freedom they so casually assume as a given.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Rick said...

No real war service in my family since the Civil War. My grandfather was drafted in the early '40s but almost immediately had emergency heart surgery (courtesy of the Army) and was discharged from hospital and service at the same time.

My dad was in the army during the Korea problem, but spent his time stationed in Washington state, playing "Taps" at funerals.

I got through the Vietnam years courtesy of a college deferment, then a high lottery number.

This post reminded me of a couple of stories from Lillian Ross's PICTURE. She writes about John Huston and Gottfried Reinhardt talking, during production of THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, about their great times during the war while Audie Murphy sat in the same room.

And... “Reinhardt went over to Audie Murphy and told him that this battle would look completely realistic.” How much gall does it take to say something like that to Audie Freakin' Murphy.

4:04 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recalling that Kelly's "Cover Girl" has a single moment where we're told Kelly is a wounded combat vet, and shouldn't feel guilty about dancing with Rita Hayworth. It's an odd throwaway, with an old man reminding Kelly he's a hero.

There was a time when military service was assumed to be a near-universal male experience. It was a fact of life rather than a badge of singular toughness. Veterans Jimmy Carter and George H. Bush were often caricatured as hapless oafs, especially in contrast to Hollywood hero Reagan.

Sitcom dads would have too-small uniforms in the attic and Old Army Buddies dropping in for a visit. "Green Acres" gave its stars comedic wartime backstory. "Beetle Bailey" is now a surreal gag strip, but for years it was reflecting the reality of a mostly peacetime military machine trying to digest thoroughly civilian draftees, few of whom would make careers of it.

At some point before Vietnam heated up that was less and less the case. Veterans of WWII and even Korea were getting older, and somehow the draft was far less universal than it used to be -- especially among the reasonably well-off. There came a point in the 80s, I think, where some pundits who hadn't served were writing wistfully of how maybe they should have. Jules Feiffer savaged them with a strip of two tennis-playing yuppies expressing vague dismay at missing out on an improving experience. In the end they decide it would have been good for them to see somebody else shot.

PS -- Lately the local PBS station has been running "The War" a 2007 documentary series that tracks the war by focusing on four American towns, emphasizing four young soldiers and their families. Worth seeing.

5:27 PM  
Blogger James Abbott said...

Simply one of your finest posts.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Matthew Clark said...

If you look at Ocean's 11 from a movie point of view, and not that of real life experiences, a different story emerges. A year before this movie was made, Sinatra and Lawford both starred in Never So Few. A WWII story about commandos set in Burma, also starring Steve McQueen. And a little before that Dean Martin starred in The Young Lions, set in WWII Europe. So, to the movie going public, and the war over 15 years past, Sinatra, Martin and Lawford could be accepted as veterans, because audiences had recently seen them in combat, in the movies.
Like with 4 For Texas, Ocean's 11 could have been a really great film, if Sinatra and company had just taken the movie making seriously instead of preferring to fit it in around their high living life styles. It's no wonder the film ends with them walking by the marque of the Sands Hotel with all their names on it. The western, directed by Robert Aldrich, starts off great and even foretells the type of westerns that would come out of Italy. It even has Charles Bronson in it. But, as I understand it, Frank and Dean didn't want to spend anymore time out in the desert and so the whole production switches to the back lot, so they can spend their usual time on the golf course and the bars they frequented.

5:33 PM  
Blogger William Lund said...

My Dad spent his time in WWII in the Navy. He was a Naval Airplane mechanic stationed in Norfolk Virginia where he was assigned carrier duty training new pilots. One day when the the guys were playing a baseball game he was an outfielder when a hit went over the fence. My dad ran to the fence and the guy throwing the ball back to him was Gene Kelly. My Dad loved his style of dancing. My Dad never saw active combat service, but after Germany was defeated, they got orders to be part of the invasion of Japan. This never happened because of the dropping on the A bomb brought the war to an end.

3:42 AM  
Blogger RichardSchilling said...

Oh this is such a good post. My father served as a Merchant Marine in World War 2 and served extensively as records indicate, even surviving time in the water after his ship was attacked. My Dad passed away when in 1978 when I was 14, but he never spoke about his service, at least to me. I did have a rather disliked Uncle who was stateside during WW2, never saw any combat, and yet was hugely active in the VFW and American Legion. Flash forward to this century and I am at a different Uncle's funeral. His now adult children casually mention how much their Father liked my Dad, who served in WW 2, but intensely disliked my other Uncle because he talked endlessly about WW2 but never saw any service. So although those men never "posted" their feelings about it, they were just beneath the surface.

It is difficult to capture that postwar simmering on film, which may be why It's Always Fair Weather seems at times very awkward to watch when the 3 male leads interact. I did check to see if the film's co-writer, Adolph Green served in the war - he certainly would have been of age and brought some authenticity - but all I could find was that he spent the war years at the Village Vanguard with Judy Holiday and Betty Comden.

6:27 AM  
Blogger antoniod said...

That Post-War American Middle-Class life was disillusioning, soulless, and stifling is a familiar cliche' socio-poop trope. You're right-it couldn't have been that bad for everyone!

10:35 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

I've always thought of "It's Only Fair Weather" as a younger, and more colorful, musical cousin to "The Best Years Of Our Lives", what with both being about the post-war re-adjustment of drafted US military guys back into their civilian lives. I also think of the British film "Tunes Of Glory" as being in the same family, but from another branch entirely, with its drama of career Brit soldiers re-adjusting to peacetime military life.

6:26 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Just watched Mr. Lawford in ADVISE & CONSENT, which featured "the voice of Frank Sinatra."

7:48 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

8:19 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

In or out of combat few of us think about what our mothers and fathers endured and endure.

9:35 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Richard M. Roberts considers OCEAN'S 11 and another soldier heist venture:


How did it feel to be a movie star and play heroic soldiers when you’d never been one? We'd have had to ask John Wayne that one.

Good piece, but this week I watched the really good "military men plan the big heist" film, and that was THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN(1960), with Jack Hawkins et all pulling a bank heist with more class and droll humor than the shuckin' and jivin' Rat Pack could ever muster.

Speaking of the pack ratters, I finally got around to watching SERGEANTS THREE recently, I didn't realize that it was a rehash of GUNGA DIN, except Sammy Davis Jr. gets to live in the end, which I'm sure is because Sinatra would have never said the line: "You're a better man than I am Gunga Davis Jr.". They even had a real director on the darn thing, I hate to imagine how John Sturges got along with Sinatra, probably no better than Lewis Milestone.

Linda and I both loved IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, because of it's having a little more meat to its story and Michael Kidd and his choreography (that's why Gene Kelly was so bummed during the shoot, he was working with someone who was a much more interesting choreographer than he was and hated being upstaged). Michael Kidd never did enough movies.

THE SEA WOLVES was oddly enough one of the last movies Linda and I watched together, she loved David Niven and I hadn't seen it since it came out and remembered little about it. The wonderful cast makes it a lot of fun and it was the one Niven should have gone out on, but I do consider it his last real performance in a movie.


6:54 AM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

A story the Ocean's 11 screenwriter George Clayton Johnson used to tell is that when Sinatra read the script, his first reaction was, "To hell with the movie, let's do the job!"

4:31 AM  

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