Director: Lloyd Bacon
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Well, I’m back in the saddle here at Ferdy on Films after a vacation to Paris, which included a visit to that temple of cinema, the Cinémathèque Française; I got a load of their fascinating Metropolis exhibit and viewed Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (1921), with its German intertitles and French subtitles (!). Rod did an admirable job of paying homage to Halloween with his extraordinary run of horror film essays while I was away; I’m sure you’ll agree that no one writes about horror like Rod!
My return here today coincides with Veterans Day, a name change from Armistice Day that reflects the fact that World War I did not turn out to be the war to end war. It seems sadly naïve that the British believed they had reached such a pinnacle of civilization that they could fight one last war, triumph, and see the world attain the utopian harmony they believed the British Empire to be. In the spirit of both that naïveté and an event that would shatter it definitively, I have chosen to commemorate this holiday with a peacetime military film, Here Comes the Navy, the first of the nine pairings of James Cagney and Pat O’Brien and one set on the ill-fated USS Arizona. The last time I saw the Arizona, it was under the memorial in Pearl Harbor, still spewing oil 50 years after being sunk. Seeing its impressive profile on the water, its decks alive with swabbies and officers, hit me the same way viewing the Twin Towers in older films does—with a deep pain at the purposes and costs of war.
The need for discipline and unity is one thing that Biff Martin (O’Brien), an officer on the Arizona, tries to get through to Chesty O’Connor (Cagney), a seaman second class who only joined the Navy so he could square a beef with Martin that developed on shore. Chesty is sore that Martin cut in on his dance with his girl Gladys (Dorothy Tree) at a San Pedro nightclub and punched his lights out when Chesty was distracted by Gladys yelling from a window. Gladys takes up with Biff, whom she visits on the Arizona after Chesty loses the fight, sending Chesty to the nearest recruiting station. Rather than be sent directly to the Arizona, he’s surprised to learn he must go through 90 days of basic training, where he meets his comic sidekick Droopy Mullins (Frank McHugh). Both eventually are posted to the Arizona and the ongoing battle between Chesty and Biff moves into high gear as Chesty offers turnabout by “stealing” the girl Biff brings on board, actually Biff’s sister Dorothy (Gloria Stuart).
It is interesting to see the development of the personae Cagney and O’Brien will slip into in picture after picture. Unlike a film like Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), the men aren’t boyhood friends who tragically took opposite paths in life—Cagney plays an unforgiving, unrepentant sharp who hates not only Biff, but also naval discipline and the sheeplike obedience of his shipmates. Cagney assumes the hard, sarcastic look and attitude of Tom Powers, his ice-cold character in The Public Enemy (1931), mitigating it only when interacting with the buffoonish Droopy and the classy Dorothy. Still, he gets a chance to offer some comic lines from this film’s fine screwball script, and his flirtation with Dorothy as he walks her home is classic cocksure Cagney dripping with innuendo (slapped down rather seriously when Dorothy resists his seduction after he has misunderstood the intent of her invitation to dinner at her home). His vulnerability comes out ever so slightly when his shipmates shun him for mocking the Navy, and he even gets a chance to show off his eccentric dance technique in the opening nightclub scene.
O’Brien’s halo hadn’t been gilded yet, and he plays a naval officer who brawls when off-duty and ungentlemanly steals someone else’s girl and clocks an opponent when his back is turned. His insane attempt to hold down a dirigible by hanging onto one of its guide ropes sets up a thrilling finale for the film, as Chesty slides down the rope and parachutes the two of them to a hard landing. When Chesty is given rank above O’Brien for the rescue, it doesn’t come as a big surprise; O’Brien really comes off as inept and hard to respect, signaling perhaps the differences in the real O’Brien, the party animal, and Cagney, the withdrawn, teetotaling homebody.
For me, the fascinating aspects of life on board the Arizona trumped the predictable, if nicely executed story. I enjoyed seeing the men stringing up and sleeping in hammocks, and the naval costumes had a certain retro dapperness to them. During practice maneuvers, Chesty and other seamen practice loading the big guns that move in unison to fire on enemy ships and planes. We see real explosions and learn that Chesty and his shipmates are loading burlap bags of gunpowder into the cannons, setting up a fire scene in which Chesty is injured putting the fire out. If this practice actually was standard in the Navy, it certainly was mind-bogglingly reckless!
What also intrigues are preparations for the annual Navy Day show that caps the film, a type of event that still takes place in many places as air and water shows. The film shows biplanes taking off and a dirigible being moved out of its hangar and flying to the site of the event, a reminder that military air power in 1934 was hardly well developed. I was confused by the presence of African-American sailors on the Arizona, knowing that the period between the world wars marked one of the lowest for African-American participation in the armed forces. These characters were needed to forward a plan Chesty has to get off the ship to see Dorothy by buying a liberty pass from Cookie (Fred “Snowflake” Toones), an offensively stereotypical character, prompting the only occasion I can think of in which Cagney appeared in blackface. (UPDATE: Cagney also appeared in blackface in a Four Cohans act in Yankee Doodle Dandy.) It seems unlikely that the presence of black sailors reflected reality aboard the Arizona, but something about this fantasy integration pleased me quite a bit.
Gloria Stuart, known these days only for her appearance as an ancient survivor of the Titanic in Titanic (1997), was a first-rate love interest for Cagney, holding her own with his banter and bravado and generating some interesting chemistry. I particularly liked a scene where the pair argues about Biff reporting Chesty for going AWOL. Chesty resumes his tough-as-nails veneer as he breaks it off with Dorothy, but she stands firmly, if regretfully, by her belief in doing one’s duty.
Unlike a lot of films, I thought Here Comes the Navy wrapped up its story beautifully. A running gag about Droopy needing to buy his mother some false teeth so that she can keep her job in the church choir resolves as Mother Mullins (Maude Eburne) sings “Oh Promise Me” at Chesty and Dorothy’s wedding. Mother’s offkey sincerity provides the perfect counterpoint to the scrappy partnership that was first forged between James Cagney and Pat O’Brien in this muscular comedy.