Sunday April 05, 2020
Movie Review: The West Point Story (1950)
James Cagney starred in only four musicals during his career, and it’s instructive comparing the first, “Footlight Parade” (1933), with the last, this one, “The West Point Story” (1950), 17 years later.
In both, Cagney is an impresario of musical numbers. He thinks them up and nurses them along. In both, the love interest is his straight-shooting blonde assistant (Joan Blondell, Virginia Mayo). Both are vehicles for up-and-coming Warner Bros. singing stars (Dick Powell/Ruby Keeler; Doris Day/Gordon MacRae). And in both, at the end, one of the leads can’t go on, so Cagney has to sing and dance the finale.
Those are the parallels. More interesting are the differences.
In “Footlight,” Cagney’s character is surrounded by scantily-clad chorus girls as the movie sells sex in the midst of the Depression. In “West Point,” Cagney’s character is surrounded by buttoned-up military men as the movie sells patriotism in the midst of the Cold War. The first movie is rat-a-tat-tat and scrambling; it’s gritty Warner Bros. The last is self-satisfied and cartoonish; it’s absurdly cheery and totally phony. You watch both and can’t help but wonder what happened to Warner Bros., the film industry, and us.
Elwin “Bix” Bixby (Cagney) is an exacting dancer/choreographer/director who’s making a go in a small club in New York. We see him hopping up and down angrily when his performers don’t do the routine just so. Then he shows them how. Then he leaves to place a bet on the horses. He’s got a gambling addiction. That’s the first dilemma.
His girl, the leggy Eve Dillon (Virginia Mayo), is going to leave him because of it; she says she got an offer to perform in Vegas. But then Bix gets a call from Harry Eberthart (Roland Winters), his corrupt ex-partner, who wants Bix to direct West Point’s annual musical, “100 Days Till June.” Why? It seems his nephew, Tom Fletcher (Gordon MacRae, five years before playing Curly in “Oklahoma”), is the star of the show. He’s a cadet who wants a military career but his uncle thinks he’s got a voice and wants him for Broadway. At first, Bix stands his ground. “I will not steal your nephew out of West Point,” he says in the Cagney manner. But then Eberhart mentions the Vegas offer for Eve—which he orchestrated—and Bix knows he’s trapped. He seals the deal not with a handshake but a sock to Eberhart’s jaw. It’s accompanied by comic sound effects. Eberhart rises, dazed, from behind his desk. All that’s missing are the animated birds circling his head.
That’s the second dilemma: Going to West Point to convince Tom to make a career out of singing.
Good news? Tom’s got a voice. Bad news? There are no women in the show, so the princess is played by the biggest of the bunch, Bull Gilbert (Alan Hale, Jr., 14 years before becoming the Skipper on “Gilligan’s Island”). Bix tries to show him how to do his dance number, Bull gives him a wolf’s whistle as a joke, and Bix cold-cocks him. Cue more comic sound effects.
For that, Bix is about to get booted from the Point before the job even begins. I guess that’s the third dilemma. The boys stick up for him but the commandant is wary. Bix’s own military record includes both absurd insubordination and absurd bravery. But a deal is struck. Bix can stay if he becomes a cadet himself.
That’s actually the germ of the idea that led to this movie being made in the first place. From John McCabe’s biography of Cagney:
[Cagney] recalled that his idol George M. Cohan, in preparing for a scene in one of his musicals, had inveigled West Point’s superintendent into allowing him to live as a cadet on the premises for a week.
So Bix gets a high-and-tight but remains the same short-tempered curmudgeon. Except now he wants to steal Tom for himself. In that regard, he gets in touch with his friend, movie star Jan Wilson (Doris Day, third-billed), whom he plucked from the chorus back in the day. She agrees to go to a military hop as Tom’s date. And it works! They fall for each other.
Except Eve finds out about Bix’s machinations and is ready to leave him again. Is this the fourth dilemma? Or is it when Bix loses the respect of the men because he lies about having a pass? This latter problem is solved when he admits to the lie and is forced to walk a punishment tour in the quad—filmed against a blue screen; the principles were never at West Point—but oddly it also solves the former problem. Tom explains to Eve what’s going on and Eve blows Bix a kiss and all is forgiven even though Bix is still trying to become Tom’s agent.
In fact, Tom and Jan get engaged! But instead of Tom agreeing to follow Eve to Hollywood, Eve follows Tom to West Point. So Bix finagles a way to get the studio to drop the hammer on her. That works, and Tom resigns his commission, but by now Bix doesn’t want to be Tom's agent, so … Blah blah blah. It’s like this, one dilemma after another, many of Bix’s own making, and it culminates with Bix convincing the French premier to pardon Tom by showing him the Medaille Militaire Bix was awarded in World War II. “This is our highest decoration!” the premier says, in case we haven’t figured it out.
So the West Point show goes on—with movie star Jan now playing the princess, and Bix replacing Hal (Gene Nelson, “Oklahoma”), whom he inadvertently coldcocks backstage. Tom and Jan wind up together (but pursuing separate careers?), Bix and Eve wind up together, and the boys present Bix with the book and libretto of the show so he can stage it on Broadway. The end. Mercifully.
Great guardians of human liberty
“West Point” was directed by Roy Del Ruth, who directed Cagney in four movies between 1931 and 1934: “Blonde Crazy,” “Taxi,” “Winner Take All” and “Lady Killer.” The first two aren’t bad, and even the bad ones are worth watching for Cagney. Not here. Cagney actually hurts more than helps. He overacts, particularly with the on-stage temper tantrums, and seems in danger of becoming a parody of himself: more Frank Gorshin than Rocky Sullivan.
MacRae is good, if a bit blank, while Day is saccharine enough to make your teeth hurt. Hale is fine. (Did Cagney act with other father-son combos? Hale Sr. appeared in several early ’40s Cagney flicks.) Mayo is fine, too, but she’s way too young for Cagney, who’s an old 51. He’s 17 years older than in “Footlight Parade,” and looks it, while she’s basically the same age as Blondell: 30 instead of 27.
The pre-code titillation of “Footlight” is sadly absent. Eve shows up at West Point in short shorts with legs up to here and not one cadet gives a second glance? Or a first? The camera in “Footlight” knows what it’s offering us as chorus girls change into their Busby Berkeley outfits, but this camera is as dumb as the cadets. It’s Sgt. Schultz: It knows nothing. Nothing.
But it knows everything about chest-beating patriotism. MacRae is forced to do a number called “The Corps,” which he mostly intones, as a military chorus hums and thrums behind him:
Duty. Honor. Country. This is why the dream materialized into the stone and steel and spirit that is West Point. A dream that can be measured by the names of its giants striding through the pages of American history. Giants whose voices rang so loud that the entire world trembled, yet who were once cadets, marching nervously across the plain. Cadets like Lee, Grant, Pershing; MacArthur, Wainwright, Arnold; Patton, Bradley, Eisenhower. And thousands of others, who left this point on the Hudson to end their earthly lives in the dirt and mud of foreign lands.
That’s laying it on a bit thick. But whatever. Depression, World War II, communist rise: Americans had been through a lot. So I guess … Oh, he’s not done?
Men who didn’t want wars and didn’t make wars but simply fought them because they had the understanding and the courage to want a free America.
“A free America”: That should be enough for HUAC, right? To show that Hollywood is patriotic and … What? More?
Because like Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, they believed in a dream that is West Point. A legend, a tradition, one of the great guardians of human liberty.
“Guardians of human liberty”! There we go. That’s the trump card. And … nope:
Please, God, may we always keep faith with them, as they have with us. For duty, for honor, for country.
Can you imagine a culture so scared and cloistered that this passes for entertainment?
Cagney liked it anyway. Via McCabe:
“It’s one of my favorite pictures,” said Jim. “Cornball as all hell, but don’t let anyone tell me those songs by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn aren’t worth listening to. They were sure worth dancing to.”
A year later, Del Ruth would direct a musical, “Starlift,” with a similar theme—military dude + Hollywood star—and with almost all the same actors: Day, MacRae, Mayo and Nelson. Just not Cagney. Or he was relegated to a cameo. As himself.
Watch “Footlight Parade” instead.
Cold War America: cheery, buttoned-up, sexless.