Gob-Smacked

A sneaky hybrid post-Code/pre-Code entry, the July 1934 release of HERE COMES THE NAVY raucously arrives on made-to-order DVD-R from the formidable vaults of the Warner Archive Collection.

Truly a movie deserved of the accolade “rollicking,” HERE COMES THE NAVY took a (what else?) feisty Jimmy Cagney, fresh from his cine-hoofing debut in Footlight Parade, and gave him more comedy (albeit of the rough-house kind) to play with than ever before.  The results were intoxicating – just the tonic needed for Depression-weary audiences.

Like all Warners pre-1935 flicks, HERE COMES THE NAVY wastes not a frame to tell its tale of an easily riled iron worker who insults on-leave CPO Biff Martin (Pat O’Brien).

O’Brien, looking for a little cushion-pushin’ action, crashes an Iron Workers Ball at the Union Hall and horns in on the Cag’s trampy girlfriend Dorothy Tree (and, as soccer announcers love to shout, SCORES!).  This only further infuriates the screen’s Master Guardian of the Grapefruit, who vows nothing less than ID Channel revenge on the naval officer.  In quick succession, Cagney is relieved of his employment (a polite term) and plots to join the Navy for the supreme purpose of taking O’Brien out (and not in a Match.com way).

It should be mentioned that Jimmy’s moniker is Chesty O’Connor, an in-joke amongst sea-faring men of the day.  While one would expect a character named Chesty in a WB pre-Coder to be portrayed by Joan Blondell, Cagney’s evocation is coded language for puffed-up loudmouth.  Or in pure Warners Jimmy Cagney terms, just another of those lovable sociopaths who punched, badgered and shoved their ways into our movie-going hearts, a veritable cranky doodly dandy.

Instantly, Chesty becomes pals with inept, but appropriately named Droopy, played (with his usual panache) by Frank “Ha-ha-ha” McHugh.  That Chesty didn’t realize he’d be under Biff’s command (and not an equal) is merely a temporary hurdle to clear.  There’s a bigger problem though; Chesty has fallen hard for the super-gorgeous Dot (enacted by the super-gorgeous Gloria Stuart, a last-minute replacement for Margaret Lindsay, who bowed out due to illness), who, drat, seems to be strangely affectionate toward Martin.  Well, good news/bad news; she’s not his squeeze, but his sister and a lifelong military brat.  “Look at them lines on that destroyer,” gasps McHugh to Cagney, who, in classic pre-Code form, passionately agrees (he’s ogling Stuart).

That Chesty constantly gets into hot water is what makes HERE COMES THE NAVY so much fun.  The bickering, bantering and bitch-slapping between himself and O’Brien, thugs, mugs, dames and flames seemingly knows no bounds (and that includes the bounding main).  Natch, in real life, Chesty’s breaking all the rules would early-on have guaranteed a court-martial; in this pic, Chesty can do no wrong, and that extends to going AWOL in blackface (well, it is the Jazz Singer studio).

The resolution:  Chesty’s a basically decent guy, who ultimately “comes through” and becomes a hero in a thrilling dirigible finale (remember this was made before the separate advent of the Air Force – when all things aviation-oriented were a sidebar of the Navy).  Thus, one can only applaud Chesty’s reckless behavior; personally I envision him to eventually ascend to officer status, ideally helping to supervise the Manhattan Project.

The script (by Earl Baldwin and Ben Markson, based on a story by Markson) is full of great one-liners (many from uncredited assist by gag writer Joe Traub), delivered in typical fast-talking Warners style by the superb cast (but especially the lead trio, who would become an integral part of Hollywood’s self-dubbed Irish Mafia).  The swiftly paced directed by Lloyd Bacon complements the writing and histrionics; it’s genuinely smooth sailing.

Warners hit a homerun with this movie, gleaning reams of publicity for its location photography.  The pic was largely shot at NAS Moffett Field in Santa Clara, CA, the Navy Yard in Bremerton, WA, and San Diego’s Naval Training Center.  Unintentionally, this accounts for HERE COMES THE NAVY‘s one eerie factor.  The  vessel where Cagney, O’Brien and McHugh practice their craft is none other than the Arizona, the battleship made infamous seven years later during the Pearl Harbor attack (a barrage of Arizona promotion stills with a laughing Cagney and Stuart flooded the fanzines and Sunday supplements).

On an anchors aweigh up note, Cagney & Co. all seem to be having the time of their lives on this movie.  And that unabashed enthusiasm was contagious, jubilantly infecting audiences and the majority of critics alike.  HERE COMES THE NAVY wasn’t merely successful; it was a box-office blockbuster.  Indeed, an abundance of footage had to be edited out before the release, and, even so, the running time is nearly 90 minutes – an unusual duration for a pre-Code Warners title (the included trailer contains bits of unused sequences).

The wildfire effect of HERE COMES THE NAVY was a precursor to what, fourteen years later, would be termed as the Red Shoes phenomenon, where millions of girls pushed the enrollment of ballet school applications to astronomical levels.  Yup, the Navy happily reported that enlistment had noticeably increased once HERE COMES THE NAVY went into general distribution (that bashin’ ‘n’ boffin’ lifestyle was just too good a deal to pass up).  Join the World and See the Navy proudly heralded the slogan parody WB ads, and it caused much grief amongst America’s other service arms of the military, who demanded equal time (much to the delight of the studios, who were subsequently given carte blanche access to our nation’s sprawling bases and boot camps).

With aviation on the rise, Warners wasted not a second in readying Cagney for Howard Hawks’ Ceiling Zero (sadly unavailable, due to rights issues).  Other flying flicks like Devil Dogs of the Air and China Clipper followed (with and without the red-headed dynamo), but with less success, due to the now-rigid guidelines of the Code.  As indicated earlier, HERE COMES THE NAVY (officially Cagney’s first movie after the Legion of Decency’s quarter-century’s reign of terror) made it as a quasi-pre-Code title by the skin of its teeth with just enough raunch to send you to the principal’s office, but not enough (a la Convention City) to ship you to a clinic for reasons respectable folk only whispered about.

As mentioned above, many critics went ga-ga over HERE COMES THE NAVY.  Most prophetically, it was cheered by Time magazine for being “rapid and authentic” and “a satisfactory addition to a series of cinema cartoons which, because of their color and mood are indigenous and timely, may be more interesting than most current cinemas 20 years from now.”  The movie was also nominated for Best Picture by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (losing, like everyone else did in 1935, to It Happened One Night).

The 35mm transfer of HERE COMES THE NAVY is excellent, nicely showcasing the location work of d.p. Arthur Edeson.  And, as is the case with Warners movies, the mono audio is aces, loud and brash like its star.

HERE COMES THE NAVY.  Black and White.  Full frame (1.37:1).  Mono audio.  Made-to-Order DVD-R from The Warner Archive Collection.  CAT # 1000478245.  SRP:  $21.99.

Available exclusively from the Warner Archive Collection:  www.warnerarchive.com

HereComesNavyCOVER

 

 

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