Friday October 02, 2020
Movie Review: Here Comes the Navy (1934)
A lot of firsts with this one.
It’s the first Cagney movie to be nominated best picture (there would be others), his first with Irish Mafia pal Pat O’Brien (there would be eight), and his first set in the military. The closest he’d come to the military before was singing and dancing the “Shanghai Lil” number in Navy blues at the end of “Footlight Parade,” but such films would soon become a Cagney staple: the malcontent learning to be a team player.
“Navy” was also the first Cagney movie released after the Production Code Administration was created. I actually think that first informs all the others.
In the 1920s and early ’30s, Hollywood movies were regulated by the Hays Code, under former Postmaster General Will Hayes, but the moguls kinda ran amok over Hayes and the result was the glorious pre-code “Forbidden Hollywood” era of sin and skin. But by 1934, there was mounting pressure to clean up from both the Catholic clergy, which instituted successful boycotts of scandalous pictures, and the U.S. government, which, under FDR, was creating new regulatory agencies, and there were rumors Hollywood might be next. To prevent this, and to win back Catholic moviegoers, the moguls appointed their own watchdog: the PCA under the leadership of Joseph Breen, an Irish Catholic and no pushover. And there went that glorious era.
The dividing line for Cagney is stark. After he became a star in “The Public Enemy,” Warners would occasionally toss him into a “sports” picture (“Winner Take All”), but mostly he played grifters (“Blonde Crazy,” “Hard to Handle,” “Jimmy the Gent”), and low-level gangsters (“The Mayor of Hell,” “Lady Killer,” “He Was Her Man”). With the creation of the PCA, that went away. Now he was a G-man, a family man, or the aforementioned rebel in the military. And now he was teamed with Pat O’Brien to show him the way, rather than Joan Blondell, who showed him another way. From 1930 to 1934 he made seven films with Blondell but “He Was Her Man,” released earlier in ’34, was their last. At that point, almost as if they tagged off, O’Brien became his partner. From 1934 to 1940, they made eight pictures together.
I actually like Cagney’s pre-code grifters better. Pre-code, he had a code. With the Production Code, he just became an asshole. Way to go, Catholics.
Live and don’t learn, that's our motto
I guess I don’t mind Chesty O’Conner too much. He starts out as a smart-ass riveter in a Navy yard in Bremerton, Wash., who tries to take some of the starch out of officer Biff Martin (O’Brien), and does, but then gets quick comeuppance. At the big dance, at which he’s bringing and presenting the dance trophy, which he expects to win, he: 1) loses an alley fight with Biff, who then 2) wins the dance contest, with 3) Chesty’s girl. Gets a kiss, too. Chesty is so angry, he decides to enlist to get back at Biff. No one told him about the 90-day training period, nor the fact that it’s highly unlikely he’ll be assigned to Biff’s ship: The U.S.S. Arizona.
But he makes it through training and even makes a friend along the way, Droopy, played by third Irish Mafia pal Frank McHugh. There’s a running gag about Droopy needing money so his mother in Walla Walla can get a new set of teeth. It’s not a great bit, but at least they say Walla Walla.
Oh, and of course both men are assigned to the Arizona.
Another thing Chesty didn’t think through: Biff is now his commanding officer. “From now on,” O’Brien says with a rare sneer, “call me Mister!” There’s another girl, too, Dorothy (Gloria Stuart), of whom Droopy says, “Holy smoke, look at the trim lines on that Destroyer.” Does Chesty go after her because he thinks she’s Biff’s girl? She isn’t. She’s his sister, and initially the complication is Biff forbidding her to see Chesty—but, no, that’s never really the complication. She stands her ground. The real problem is that Chesty jumps ship to see her, then, after she admonishes him for going AWOL, tries to jump back. For that he’s court-martialed, gets two months confined to ship, etc. But that’s not the real problem, either. It’s that he badmouths the Navy and everyone in it, calling them whipped dogs, “bootlicking to a flock of mugs in uniforms who push you around like a lot of rag dolls.” After that, he’s persona non grata on ship—“a wrong guy,” as one Navy extra says.
When does he realize the error of his ways? He doesn’t. Instead, he shows bravery by smothering a fire and is awarded the Navy Cross, which he dismisses as a “tin lavalier.” The higher-ups don’t like this so he gets transferred to the Navy’s dirigible outfit; and when the dirigible U.S.S. Macon visits his old unit in high winds, Biff, trying to secure the airship with a mooring line, is swept up with it and clings for life. It’s up to Chesty to shimmy down and parachute them both to safety. After this act of bravery, he finds out—in the midst of his wedding ceremony to Dorothy—that he’s been promoted to boatswain, making him Biff’s superior. Biff is aghast, Chesty is amused. “And whenever you speak to me,” he says with a laugh, “call me Mister.” Then the ceremony continues with Droopy’s mom, dentures slipping, singing an off-key version of “Oh, Promise Me,” whose lyrics are tattooed on Droopy’s body. The end.
So: Lesson unlearned, Chesty never really changes at all. He just shows he’s worthwhile by showing courage. Basically he’s a courageous asshole. Cf., “Fighting 69th” when he plays a cowardly asshole.
Anyway, these plot points aren’t what makes “Here Comes the Navy” (working title: “Hey Sailor”) interesting.
”Make it shine, sailor. I want to see my face in it." Precursor to men riding rockets.
Military tragedies and the other kinds
First, there’s the doom of it. The film is a favorite of Navy vets and military historians because it was filmed in Navy locations with Navy hardware that was tinged with tragedy. The U.S.S. Macon, apparently our biggest helium-filled airship, crashed off the coast of Santa Barbara less than a year after the movie was filmed, more or less ending the Navy’s experiment with “fabric-clad rigid airships.” (Headlines at the time praised the crew but included warnings such as: “Navy Has Spent $40,000,000 on Four Dirigibles: All Have Crashed.”) But the Macon has nothing on the Arizona, which was sunk by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941. More than 1,000 crewmen died. There’s a memorial marker to this day on the spot where it sank. It’s sacred.
Even the mooring line incident is based on Navy tragedy. In May 1932, the airship U.S.S. Akron suddenly jerked upwards with three men clinging to mooring lines; two died. A year later, the Akron was destroyed in a thunderstorm off the Atlantic coast, killing 73.
I like the scene of Chesty’s first act of courage. I don’t even have the language to describe it properly. In an enclosed space, Chesty, Biff and the other men, stripped to the waist, are loading shells (wrapped in cloth?) into the back end of naval guns. As the guns angle high in the air, the floor drops away, so the men crowd along a ledge opposite the guns, which stays put. After the guns fire, the floor elevates again and they repeat. It’s like a dangerous dance routine. One time, a piece of paper, or cloth, aflame, is pushed back into the room, gun powder is spilled on it, and that’s when Chesty cries out “fire!” and smothers the flames with his own body.
I also like Stuart. She was a one-and-done Cagney leading lady but she’s got a bemused quality about her. She seems smarter than the boys but not above them. She was versatile, too, starring in horror films (“The Invisible Man” with Claude Rains), comedies (“Roman Scandals” with Eddie Cantor) and musicals (“Gold Diggers of “1935” with Dick Powell), but stopped acting in movies in the 1940s and went on to stage work and oil painting. Thirty years later, she returned to screen acting. She danced with Peter O’Toole in “My Favorite Year,” and was first-time Oscar-nominated at the age of 78 for playing the aged Rose in James Cameron’s “Titanic.” In this way, she’s connected to two of the most famous ships to sink in the 20th century.
For all the military history, it’s the racial history that will shock 21st-century viewers the most. Not only do we get Cagney in blackface, we also get one of the most demeaning Black stereotypes in a Cagney film: Fred “Snowflake” Toones, playing Cookie, who wears a stupid, droop-lipped expression with his hair out of place. This is the AWOL scene. Chesty doesn’t have liberty but wants to go ashore to see Dorothy, and he and Cookie have the following conversation—with Cagney using his usual rat-a-tat delivery, and Toones horribly slow in comparison:
Chesty: Hey Cookie, you got liberty tonight, ain’tcha?
Cookie: Sho is! Yessuh.
Chesty: Wanna make some dough?
Cookie: How much!
Chesty: Three bucks for your liberty card.
Cookie: I’d like to obligate you, Mr. Chesty, but I got a date.
Chesty: Well, I’ll make it five. That’s a lot of dough for one night’s liberty.
Cookie: Doggone! I almost come. But I just cain’t disappoint my hone.
Chesty: She won’t be disappointed.
Cookie: Yessuh, she will.
Chesty: Well, look, I’ll make it ten bucks…
[Gives him a new $10 bill]
Cookie [smiles]: You know, this thing does things to me. I guess you got me!
So is it an act? Cookie seems like an idiot but he talks our hero up from $3 to $10. So is he playing the fool in order to fool? Or is the fool he’s playing so repugnant, so embarrassing (in the words of film historian Donald Bogle), that it doesn’t matter what he wins? Because he loses too much in the process.
Anyway, it’s why Cagney winds up in blackface. He’s got Cookie’s liberty so I suppose he has to look like Cookie. He doesn’t look at all like him, of course, but he gets away with it. White people don’t see him—including Biff, who straightens his tie. That’s interesting. The only ones who pay attention are the other Black servicemen—kitchen help, one assumes, since the military wasn’t integrated until after World War II. On ship, they do double-takes while Cagney smiles and cackles; on land, they crowd around, puzzled, as Cagney talks up and then leaves with Dorothy. It’s played for comedy but there’s a lot buried there. Imagine if others noticed a black-faced Cagney leaving with a white girl. Imagine they tried to stop him. Damn, you could’ve had a whole other kind of movie. But it would’ve required a whole other kind of Hollywood. And a whole other kind of America.
Playing the fool in order to fool?