Thursday, March 26, 2009

Where’s the Rest of Me: Hellcats of the Navy (1957)

Before I get into what the French would call “la nitty” and “la gritty” I must apologize profusely for not pursuing this Ronald Reagan Blog-a-thon this month as vigorously as I hoped. I had every intention of sitting down with some of Dutch’s finest B-films and making sport of them…but to be honest, I got sort of bored with the whole thing after the Brass Bancroft essay and kept putting it off and putting it off and before I realized it March was coming to an end. I still have a few days to take a peek at a few of the other films TCM spotlighted this month…but I’ll state for the record that the odds of me doing any more write-ups are pretty slim.

Last night, however, I had just started a fire in my living room (I don’t have a fireplace, I just like starting fires) and remembered that Turner Classic Movies had scheduled the only feature starring the future President of the United States and his first lady, Nancy (Davis) Reagan at 11:15pm, 1957’s Hellcats of the Navy. In chatting with “Bobby Osbo,” daughter Patti Davis proffered the opinion that the film goes down a little easier if you invite someone to watch it with you—I think what she was subtly suggesting is that you need a second person on hand to punch you awake because this turkey is tough sledding to sit through. It pretty much features a no-name cast—save for Arthur Franz and Robert Arthur…who looks younger here than he did in Ace in the Hole, and he made that six years before Hellcats—and was produced by Charles H. Schneer, the legendary mogul (who recently passed away in January of this year) who brought us all those great sci-fi flicks with the Ray Harryhausen creations, like It Came From Beneath the Sea (1955), Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957). (Nathan Juran, the director of Million Miles and the classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad [1958], also helmed this one for Schneer as well.) I only wish they had thought to bring in Harryhausen on Hellcats because it might have made the picture a little livelier—I’m not sure what kind of monster he could have created for the film but a 50-foot Jane Wyman wouldn’t have been a bad start.

So here’s the plot: Commander Casey “Case” Abbott (Reagan) is captain of the U.S.S. Starfish, a WW2 submarine that’s on assignment to capture a sample of Japanese mines taking up space in the Sea of Japan and making things a bit difficult for the U.S. to win the war. He sends out a team of frogmen (hey…there’s an angle Ray could have worked on) to collect the mines, and all of them return to the Starfish save a brash ladies’ man named Wes Barton (Harry Lauter) who’s made a rather serious error in judgment by making time with Casey’s gal, a Navy nurse named Helen Blair (Davis). Although Barton is spotted heading back to the ship by Seaman Freddy Warren (Arthur) and Abbott’s executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Don Landon (Franz), Abbott decides to dive—leaving Loverboy in the lurch and at the mercy of an approaching destroyer, resulting in Barton’s demise. (Well, that’ll teach him to keep his paws off the captain’s girl…) This sensitive issue is later broached by Abbott and Landon, who feels that his captain pretty much f****d up:

ABBOTT: Okay. Landon…let’s talk…
LANDON (after a long pause): What I’ve got to say to you can’t be said to a commanding officer…
ABBOTT: Spit it out…you have my permission… (Pause) You haven’t served with me before…you think I enjoy letting men drown?
LANDON (another long pause): No, Captain…but by now I suppose you’ve got yourself convinced that this hurts you more than it did him… (Voice rising) I don’t happen to think you had to let him die!
ABBOTT: Someday, you may have a command of your own…if you want to take a chance, and risk an entire crew, and the ship and the mission for one man…that’ll be your decision to make…this one was mine…
LANGDON: If you had cut your engines…then they might not have found us…
ABBOTT: Maybe not…we’ll never know, will we? But there was no time to figure the odds…I had to rely on experience and instinct…right or wrong, I decided to play it safe with the eighty-five men on this sub…

Those would be the ones not sleeping with his girlfriend.

LANGDON: Tell me… (He produces a picture of Nurse Nancy from Barton’s bunk) What did your instinct tell you about this? In that split second, not knowing right from wrong, did your instinct remind you that Wes Barton might be waltzing your girl around the base?
ABBOTT: I’ve had time to consider my decision…I still think it was right…
LANGDON: If you were wrong…could you admit it? Even to yourself?

You’d get as far as “Mistakes were made” and that would be the end of it, friend.

ABBOTT: If you think I made a personal decision that cost Barton’s life, you have my permission to report it to the squadron commander…
LANGDON: I can’t do anything about it and you know it…I can’t prove a thing…
(Langdon turns his back on Abbott, but stops the Captain as he heads out the door…) About this girl…
ABBOTT: Leave her out of this! You know I gave you permission to speak, Mr. Langdon—so I intend to forget this conversation…

Just like Iran-Contra.

It won’t take an individual watching Hellcats of the Navy very long to pick up on the fact that Reagan’s character is…well, kind of a dick. Here’s how he reacts to people he’s supposed to have a crush on, in this conversation with the future Mrs. R:

HELEN: You knew I was fresh out of a bad marriage when we met…I wanted to be sure this time…so I played it safe…until I knew you were Mr. Right…then you gave me that line about wartime marriages…
ABBOTT: I wanted a wife and kids…not widows and orphans…
HELEN: Sure…and I begin to think you were playing the
South Seas circuit…
ABBOTT: You knew better…
HELEN: How could I know? Did you give me a postdated check? (Pause) So I got sore…what really happened, is that I got scared…unsure…I had to prove to myself that I could still circulate…
ABBOTT: You proved it with Wes Barton

Oooooooh, snap! Anyway, to get back to the riveting plot…Abbott later abandons this “greater good” philosophy to make certain they get the seriously injured Seaman Freddy to a hospital despite putting a mission in jeopardy (hey, he kept away from Nancy—he’s entitled), which really gets on Langdon’s wick. (Later, in a hospital scene, Freddy thanks the Captain in dialogue that boils down to “Thanks for not killing me, sir.”) It’s only when “Case” loses his sub and sixty-five men (by ignoring the crew’s mission objective) that Langdon enjoys a little schadenfreude—but because Captain Casey was able to put together a map that will allow U.S. ships to sail through the harbor off the Sea of Japan without being blowed up real good by the mines the Navy looks the other way. Towards the end, Abbott is attempting to repair part of his new sub when another destroyer approaches and Langdon must make the decision to leave him behind…luck is on Abbott’s side, however—he survives the attack and everybody gets together for the prerequisite happy ending.

When Reagan ran for President in 1980, members of the Democratic Party tried to convince voters that the GOP candidate shouldn’t be taken seriously by renting prints of Bedtime for Bonzo (1951) and staging fundraisers by showing the film. They believed that Joe Voting Booth would be turned off by Ronnie’s campaign, assuming that the “Bonzo” in the title was a character played by the actor…or, once learning what the movie was about would think it undignified for a candidate to have agreed to appear in a movie opposite a chimpanzee. This backfired in a major way; Bonzo is an extraordinary silly film but Reagan demonstrated in the comedy that unique Everyman quality he possessed in addition to a deft comic touch (and that he was also smarter than he looked, having said no to returning to the even stupider sequel, Bonzo Goes to College [1952]). I’ve always believed that if those same audiences had had a gander at Hellcats things might have been a bit different—the character Reagan plays here isn’t particularly likable and demonstrates that phony tough bluff Dutch utilized with America’s adversaries…which usually ended up scaring the absolute shit out of his fellow Americans rather than make any inroads in foreign diplomacy. If anything, a viewing of Hellcats is required only for this mind-boggling WTF romantic conversation between Ronnie and Nancy:

HELEN: What are you going to do after the war, Case?
ABBOTT: I’ve told you a hundred times…
HELEN: I want to hear it once more…
ABBOTT: I’m going into the surplus business…I’m going to buy up all the old mines and sell ‘em to the man in the moon…
HELEN: There’s no water on the moon…
ABBOTT: How do you know so much about the moon?
HELEN: I know a lot about it…I spend all my time looking at it when you’re away…

And…scene!

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Funniest blog I've read in a while, Ivan. Kudos for starting my weekend off right. A stop-motion president sounds like a good idea to me. Anybody got Ross Perot's phone number? – Philip Schweier

John said...

Ivan...Nice review of "Hellcats" which I saw at a local drive-in paired with "Edge of Eternity" (Cornel Wilde) and "Buchanan Rides Again" (Randolph Scott). Loved those triple features at the drive-in.

Did you happen to catch "Desperate Journey" later in the evening with Errol Flynn, Alan Hale and Arthur Kennedy? I'd never seen it before and it seemed like a lost Republic serial edited into a feature. Lots of action and some cool miniature effects.

R.R said...

hola, me encantaria verla.
te dijo la verdad casi un año busque para descargar pero nunca pude. es muy dificil porque la pelicula es muy vieja. esa pelicula es buena y tengo ganas de verla. me gusta la pareja ronald y nancy. espero tu respuesta.
te agradezco si me ayudas.
me gusta tu blog, es interesante
lo siento no se bien escribir ingles, espero que entiendas
saludos