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Sunday, May 08, 2022

Lead-Up to Memorial Day

 


War As It Happened and After


THE FIGHTING LADY (1944) --- Documentaries taken for granted from earliest silent days acquired new urgency now that there was worldwide war to confront. Nature and exploration themes gave way to intense reportage of combat and casualties recorded on screen. This was realism permissible for being based on truth as captured by army personnel flown into zones of danger with cameras compact enough to capture death and destruction from the skies, images taken from aircraft raining death upon enemy installations. Here for once was excitement not faked, movies never before so intense because they had not seen such opportunity to film carnage as it happened. The Fighting Lady was feature length and in color, 16 mm the format enlarged to 35mm for theatrical use, prints by Technicolor. At 61 minutes, The Fighting Lady could head the bill or support a co-feature. Either way, it was focal point of programs. Action followed an aircraft carrier as it closed in on island positions held by the Japanese. Enemy zeros attack and are shot down in bunches. As morale enabler The Fighting Lady would not be surpassed. The producer was Louis de Rochemont, who had begun in newsreels several decades before and was now engaged with Twentieth Century Fox to follow up The Fighting Lady with a series of fact-derived dramas to include The House on 92nd Street and Boomerang. De Rochemont is not remembered so well as he should be, despite being for a while among perceived pioneers of truest-to-life filmmaking.




We come to know crew aboard the carrier as individuals, most to survive, but some to perish in the relentless move toward Japanese strongholds. Flyers were of course a most endangered group. I lately heard a statistic that less than ten percent of active air combatants survived the war. Was this accurate? The Fighting Lady plays like a Hollywood war movie minus fictional frills. It was narrated by Robert Taylor, who was himself serving with the Navy. Among this actor’s gifts was a voice we could all envy, him ideal for narration spots. Hundreds of men were stationed aboard, so naturally some would be recognized back home by patrons going to see The Fighting Lady. Exhibitors benefited considerably from shrieks of recognition when a son, brother, or sweetheart was identified by one or more members of the audience. This carries forward where comments at YouTube refer to fathers or grandfathers who served aboard the carrier and are singled out by descendants watching The Fighting Lady online. YouTube transfer by the way is as good as one could hope for. I was thrilled to finally see it after years wondering what the experience would be like. The Memphis Belle, San Pietro, and The Battle of Midway are famed and justly so, director pedigrees a help (Wyler, Ford, Huston), but truth to assumptions long held, this one may have them beat.




The Fighting Lady
played heavily through spring of 1945, by which outcome of the war could be anticipated, bombing raids into Tokyo by now an ongoing occurrence. The Fighting Lady served as rousing record of our inevitable victory in the Pacific, even as it preceded Japan’s surrender by some months. Broadway’s Victoria Theatre played The Fighting Lady as a single and crushed records. Other venues paired it with war-themed features, Sunday Dinner for a Soldier, Objective Burma, whatever did not mind serving as second fiddle. The Independent Film Exhibitors Bulletin referred to The Fighting Lady as a “sock thriller,” warning that those with weak stomachs may prefer to opt out of screenings. Trades regarded it as mere patriotic duty to laud the film. Chances are that audiences by 1945 were inured to screen actuals that showed death and damage close. The Fighting Lady would sort of evaporate after the war as it no longer served immediate purpose, being history now and just another of documents for filing away. Other than usefulness as stock footage, what more could be accomplished with it? It's fortunate we are to have The Fighting Lady on You Tube.



PURSUIT OF THE GRAF SPEE (1956) --- A serious British bid for worldwide markets, this was initial UK plunge to VistaVision, the sharp-as-pin process owned by Paramount and sold as "Motion Picture High Fidelity." Graf Spee was known as Battle of the River Plate in home port; we could be surprised it wasn't called that here, as the title suggested action, and Pursuit of the Graf Spee on face value was obscure at the least (imagine calls to the boxoffice: What's this picture about?). Rank Films would distribute American prints, having opened a stateside office for that purpose in mid-June, with two releases planned for November 1956, Graf Spee and As Long As They're Happy, a comedy with Jack Buchanan which title might also have described Rank hope for mood of US exhibitors (the company had a total of 14 features in late '57 circulation). CBS network was helpful via a You Are There documentary about the real-life Graf Spee incident, that broadcast on October 13 and plugging the Rank attraction. Most encouraging was interest Pursuit of the Graf Spee generated in the South, the film having "solidly broken down the Dixie "line,"" according to Variety. The strong Paramount circuit, dominant in Southern markets, took a look at Pursuit of the Graf Spee and figured it a good bet as action lure.



An October 16 premiere in New Orleans preceded saturation to 200 regional playdates, but Rank wanted to hold down expense of Technicolor/VistaVision prints, saying they'd lose money beyond 6 to 8,000 bookings planned. Smaller accounts would be a forfeit for simple reason that "anything beyond 8,000 dates wouldn't be economical," said Rank rep Irving Sochin. "When we service accounts paying $12, $15, and $20 for an engagement, we automatically lose $5 on each date," adding that "a major company can write that off against something else. We can't." This meant regional, and limited, handling for Pursuit Of The Graf Spee, those 200 or so prints having to make do for countrywide use. December '56 saw Pursuit of the Graf Spee headed for New England, the Rank office having brought over starlet April Olrich, barely glimpsed in the film, but useful withal for Yank promotion, her Boston function to run a classified ad in the Harvard Crimson for an escort to local publicity haps. Biz was "spotty" at some sites, "booming" in others, as at Chicago's 606-seat Loop Theatre, which catered mostly to arty crowds, but packing solid for Pursuit Of The Graf Spee. The film is available on DVD, and there is a stunning Blu-ray from Germany that is one of the best VistaVision captures I've seen.


Visitor to the Set Mae West with Kevin Dobson 


MIDWAY (1976) --- A Universal economy epic that was proud of old combat footage it used in lieu of staging action fresh, the 70's a time to exploit fading but familiar faces hired in bulk. All this could suggest a scale larger than what was spent, rivals chasing another Longest Day after Fox hit with theirs. Warners led with star-laden counterfeit that was Battle of the Bulge, still entertaining because the topic compelled, as would be case with Midway. Seems only 20th gave out with real goods, Patton and Tora! Tora! Tora! putting money and effort to recount of past war. Midway has aroma of something tabbed for television that got spun to theatres at eleventh hour. A problem from the start is Japanese personnel speaking English, unlike Tora! which had integrity to permit native speech and use subtitles. 1976 was late to have old-timers Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, and Robert Mitchum still in command, but who else could be got (relatively) cheap, supply recognizable names, and convey such authority? Trouble was sprawling circumstance (132 minutes) reducing them to more-less extended cameos plus impose of a "personal" story with Heston's son Edward Albert wanting to marry a Japanese girl on the heels of Pearl Harbor. You'd think Heston intervening on their behalf would land the lot in military prison, but it's played on 70's-friendly "progressive" terms not the least in keeping with historical reality. Universal could have done Midway as easily, and more appropriately, on Made-For-TV terms.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kevin K. said...

Until now, the only movie I knew Louis de Rochemont for was "Tobaccoland on Parade", a 30-minute short extolling the patriotism of smoking Chesterfield cigarettes. Cameo appearances by Arthur Godfrey, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Perry Comp -- all sponsored by you-know-who.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

The three movies you discuss are all pretty good, I agree.

7:40 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

In response to Kevin K. : "He who pays the piper calls the tune" - that truth has held up well over the years.

7:42 AM  

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