Monday, December 7, 2009
We mark Pearl Harbor Day with “Navy Blues” (1941), a slight musical which could probably be left to safely float off into oblivion, were it not for the lightning bolts of zeitgeist that make it a curiously eerie film today.
Jack Oakie and Jack Haley play bumbling sailors trying to get rich quick by betting on a gunnery target practice contest between ships, in which bumbling Herbert Anderson, a naïve hick from the cornbelt with a deadeye aim in the gun turret, is favored to win. Jack Carson, in what was something like his third film, plays the straight man to these clowns as their chief petty officer. One can see he displays a lot of screen presence even if he isn’t the one making the wisecracks. His time will come.
Ann Sheridan and Martha Raye play a couple of struggling show girls, whose outfits invariably seem to be variations on the sailor suit. Sheridan is the no-nonsense, brassy gal with a somewhat world-weary attitude and an unsuspected soft spot for romantic hog-calling Middle West types.
There are only a few songs in this movie, but each production number makes up for it by being quite long. The movie opens with the energetic “Navy Blues” and we are introduced to the girls who set the energetic tone and the idyllic scene here in the bamboo, palm fronds, and pineapple setting of Honolulu.
Knowing the film is set on Hawaii, and was released in September, 1941, just two months before Pearl Harbor, it is irresistible to look for clues in the calm before the storm.
In one quip, Martha Raye reminds Haley, “Hawaii happens to be in the United States.” He responds, “When did that happen?”
One of the most often repeated reminisces by Americans on the mainland of the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire in 1941 was wondering “Where is Pearl Harbor?”
In another scene, Oakie and his sailor pals, trying to inspire gunnery champ Anderson to re-enlist (so they may exploit his fame by betting on him), recite the names of battleships, including the USS Nevada. In December, this would be one of the ships trapped in Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor. However, rather than being sunk, its crew made a valiant effort to get it clear, and though it was hit by bombs and a torpedo, the Nevada managed to survive the disaster. It was repaired, served in the Atlantic landing troops at Normandy, took part in the invasion of southern France, and on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
At the end of the war it became a radioactive dump when used for testing of atomic bombs at the Bikini Atoll. The Nevada was finally destroyed as part of gunnery practice in 1948.
The ship on which the boys are stationed, the USS Cleveland was actually not commissioned at the time this movie was made. It would not be completed and launched until a couple months later, in November 1941. The film seems to be kind of a promo for the real ship.
There is some footage of actual sailors performing gunnery procedures, and this adds a slap of realism to a movie otherwise not terribly realistic. In contrast to the hardened real sailors, the bumbling characters in this movie are slap-happy, overweight almost to a man (except for Herbert Anderson), and represent the kind of sailor pre-war movies depicted, a happy-go-lucky stumblebum with the innate ability to dance. In another couple of months, rugged sailors-as-warriors would replace the idle image of Jack Oakie dragging Martha Raye around the bowels of a ship in a laundry bag.
In another bit of reflection on then current happenings, one scene prominently features sandwich board signs in front of a movie theater advertising two actual movies, “Affectionately Yours” released in May that year, with Merle Oberon and Dennis Morgan, and “Man Power”, released in August with Edward G. Robinson, Marlene Dietrich, and George Raft. Nothing like leveraging publicity sources.
“This is the Army” a couple of years later, of this previous blog post, but with his Robert Walker innocence, I suppose there were few other kinds of roles the studio might have been willing to plug Anderson into; rather like Martha Raye always playing the plain Jane sidekick. He enjoyed a long career as a guest on many, many television shows, and you may remember him on his own show playing the father of “Dennis the Menace.”
We have a lot of Hawaii clichés about moonlit luaus, grass skirts and ukuleles. The movie seems like a pleasant vacation, at least until we have those shafts of foreboding about the Nevada, about the Pacific Fleet being docked in Hawaii, and it being close to the day our world changed, the day that for thousands of servicemen trapped in Battleship Row their world ended.
We sense this foreboding because we knew what happened next. But perhaps the audience watching this lighthearted fluff in September 1941 sensed something, too. As Ann Sheridan remarks to Herbert Anderson, “This is no time for a good gun pointer to be leaving the Navy.”