erik lundegaard

Tuesday May 11, 2021

Movie Review: What Price Glory (1952)

WARNING: SPOILERS 

“I believe that every time you remake a picture, there must be a specific reason why you do that,” producer Darryl Zanuck once said.

Zanuck had a specific reason for remaking “What Price Glory.” The 1926 original, based on a popular 1924 play, was from a previous era of filmmaking—silent and black-and-white, chiefly—and the remake would not only add color and sound but Technicolor and music. It would be a World War I musical. That was Zanuck’s specific reason for remaking it, and it was James Cagney’s specific reason for signing on. While the world thought him a gangster, he thought of himself an old hoofer, a song-and-dance man, and was too often stymied in this regard. Here was another chance.

Zanuck then hired screenwriters Phoebe and Henry Ephron, Nora’s parents, who wrote light comedy and romance. Then he hired John Ford to direct.

And there went that. 

Ford refused to make it a musical. And after his own experiences in World War II, he was more gung-ho about the military than the movie’s main characters. As for the original’s bawdiness? Right, Production Code. Out.

So what’s left? A broad comedy about two Marines in a French village who fight over a beautiful girl way above their pay grade—and neither realizes it—who then go to the front to fight pointlessly and allow a bit player to condemn them with a melodramatic speech that includes the title phrase.

A mess, in other words.

Nasty boys
I have to go over the age thing again. Sorry.

In the original, the actors who play the main characters, Flagg and Quirt (Victor McLaglen and Edmund Lowe), have 18 and 14 years, respectively, on the actress who plays Charmaine (Dolores del Rio). They’re 40 and 36, she’s 22. Here, Dan Dailey and Corinne Calvet are comparable—he’s 37, she’s 27—but Cagney is 53. He’s a quarter-century older than Calvet, not to mention overweight. And he’s running from her? In what universe? I guess Hollywood’s. 

The age difference also screws up the dynamic between Cagney’s Flagg and Dailey’s Quirt. They’re not contemporaries the way McLaglen and Lowe were. Put it this way: I bought the rivalry between McLaglen and Lowe. We get to see it develop. The original opens in Peking, China, where McLaglen’s Flagg has a girl, Shanghai Mary (Phyllis Haver), and Lowe’s Quirt steals her. Then we move on to the Philippines, where Flagg has a girl, Carmen (Elena Jurado), and Quirt steals her. And it’s only then, a quick 15 minutes in, that we wind up in a small French town with Capt. Flagg. Sgt. Quirt doesn’t show up for another half hour. So when he steals Flagg’s girl again, well, we get the joke. We know that Flagg is very strong and kind of sweet and not too smart, while Quirt is a bit of a grifter and a master of the sleight of hand—card tricks and coin tricks. He’s kinda handsome and good at stealing stuff. Particularly Flagg’s girl.

The remake gives us none of this past history. It begins in France, at about the 40-minute mark of the original, and Quirt has no card or coin tricks. He doesn’t seem particularly sharp, either; Flagg does. They’re just two guys who hate each other in cartoonish fashion. When Quirt shows up—reporting for duty and demanding a transfer in the same breath—they eye each other, smile, remove accoutrement, and mark an X on the floor with a piece of chalk. Then they spit on their hands and take up fighting positions. Flagg’s a foot shorter and 16 years older than Quirt but always manages to deck him. Because Cagney.

You know what they are? They’re just two nasty guys who think they’re cute. And Calvet’s Charmaine is way more innocent than del Rio’s. I love the way del Rio admires McLaglen’s shoulders and arms; I love her keyhole meeting with Lowe, and their behind-the-door romance. She’s got the female gaze, which was more prevalent pre-code. Calvet is a knockout, certainly, but mostly she just wants to get married. Because you know women. And Flagg and Quirt mostly don’t. Because you know men.

Has anyone done a deep dive into these characters? During war, they’re OK with each other but when things are OK they’re at war with each other. That’s the bit, and it’s a good one, but there’s something about their antagonism, and their competition over women without wanting the attachment of the woman, that feels ripe for modern study. Each so wants what the other has that one wonders if what they really want is each other. “Don’t fight,” Charmaine says at the end of the original. “You love each other, yes?” Yes.

The original was directed—extremely well—by Raoul Walsh, with John Ford shooting a few second-unit scenes that went uncredited. Twenty years later, in 1949, Ford decided to put on the original play to benefit the Purple Heart Association. Good cause. He cast Ward Bond as Flagg, Pat O’Brien as Quirt, and Maureen O’Hara as Charmaine. Good casting. He even managed to convince stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck to appear as extras. But, per Pat O’Brien, “Ford was a lousy stage director,” and the play got middling reviews. Worse, it only raised a pittance for its cause. This was his third shot at the story and he blew it. Ford was a drunk and a bully, and that stuff often seeps into his movies. The drinking here is off the charts, and the comedy is awful. “[War] was my racket for a while,” Ford told Peter Bogdanovich in the early ’70s, “and there wasn’t anything funny about it.”

No shit. They do a prolonged bit with a bathing Flagg trying to explain “boots” to Charmaine’s father, Cognac Pete, who doesn’t get it until he realizes “Ah, les boots.” Not funny. When Flagg returns hungover from Paris, he has a subordinate slap him with a wet rag. “Harder!” he says. “Harder!” he says. Then: “Not that hard!” and repeatedly and angrily slaps the subordinate with it. Not funny. In the original, Flagg’s right-hand man is Pvt. Kiper (Ted McNamara), who is charged with finding out who keeps giving Flagg razzberries; in the end, Flagg realizes it’s Kiper. Ford loses all of this, casts the cantankerous William Demarest, age 60, as Corp. Kiper, whose bit is to keep asking if his discharge papers have come in yet. In the end, Flagg admits they arrived a year ago but he never told him. Does Kiper get mad? Having his commanding officer keep him at war for another year? No. When the men are called back to the front, he simply joins them. Because men. Because camaraderie.

Every change to the original feels wrong. The second-act wedding between Charmaine and Quirt—with Flagg laughing all the while—is called off by Charmaine in the ’26 version. “My heart is my own! I don’t sell it,” she says. In ’52, it’s called off by Quirt, who realizes they’re about to go to the front where Flagg will need his top sergeant, so there’s nothing Flagg can do. Charmaine? She just stands there, humiliated. In a broad sense, the story is about the switch from a pre-war professional army to a Great War citizen’s army, and in ’26 we see Flagg questioning men who were once painters and farmers and henpecked husbands. One of them, the painter, Pvt. Lewisohn (Barry Norton), is called a “mother’s boy,” but without the negative connotations we’d ascribe to it. He’s the one doomed to die, and near the end we get a poignant shot of Charmaine burying his mother’s letters with him. In the remake he’s played by a young Robert Wagner, whom Ford bullied on the set, calling him “Boob” rather than Bob, and apparently even decking him at one point. No Momma’s boy here. Instead, Lewisohn gets a starry-eyed, super-sappy romance with a French schoolgirl, Nicole (Marisa Pavan), that’s just painful to watch. In the original, they go to the front until they’re called back. The remake gives them a goal: If they can capture a German officer, they’ll get a month’s leave, and it’s Lewisohn who captures the officer. A second later, after a shell attack, he dies in Flagg’s arms. Back in the French town, Bar-Le-Duc, Flagg has to tell Nicole what happened. It’s more painful than the war scenes.

The original gave us trenches and gas warfare because it remembered what WWI was like. The remake has none of these. If generals fight the last war, directors often film the new one. Sometimes this works (Vietnam for Korea in “M*A*S*H”). Mostly it doesn’t. It doesn’t here.

Connect 4
A little history. I didn’t know any of this stuff when I first watched the Cagney version but I find it fascinating.

The ’26 version was so popular that it became one of the first films to foster sequels. In each, Flagg and Quirt travel the world to exotic places and fight over the latest sexy, exotic actress. For “The Cock-Eyed World” (1929), they go from Russia, to Brooklyn, to a South Seas island, where Lili Damita awaits. In “Women of All Nations” (1931), it’s Sweden, Nicaragua, Egypt, and Greta Nissen. By the time of “Hot Pepper” (1933), they’re ex-Marines, Quirt is a grifter, Flagg owns several nightclubs, and Lupe Velez is the object of their affection and argument. They even get their own catchphrase: “Sez you!” “Sez me!”

The authors of the original play, Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings, deserve a biography of their own. Both were New York World journalists looking to make bigger names for themselves. Stallings was a former U.S. Marine who was wounded at the Battle of Belleau Wood and would later have his leg amputated. (Both legs, eventually.) He had plenty of stories to tell, Anderson listened and wrote them down, Stallings worked over scenes for authenticity. That’s how “What Price Glory?” happened. (Hollywood removed the question mark.) After it became a huge success, both men became go-to authorities on WWI. King Vidor’s “The Big Parade,” a huge hit in 1925, was adapted from Stallings’ 1924 autobiographical novel “Plumes,” with Stallings helping with the scenario. He also adapted Hemingway’s “A Farwell to Arms” to the stage in 1930. That same year, Anderson adapted “All Quiet on the Western Front” for the screen.

Most of Anderson’s work seems to have been in the theater. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933 for “Both Your Houses,” a political drama, did a series of plays based on the Tudors, including “Anne of a Thousand Days,” and wrote, in blank verse, the play that became the Bogart-Bacall movie “Key Largo.” In 1925, after the success of “What Price Glory?,” he was putting on another play, “Outside Looking In,” based on the autobiography of writer-hobo Jim Tully*, which debuted in a small theater in Greenwich Village. It got good notices and moved uptown to a bigger theater. There, after the first act of the first performance, Anderson hurried backstage, gathered everyone around, and told them they needed to speak twice as loud and twice as fast for the bigger room. Then he eyed the actor playing Little Red, one of the leads: “Everybody, that is, except you.” That actor was James Cagney, and the part was one of his first big breaks. Anderson was also around at the end of Cagney’s career, writing the unproduced play that became “Never Steal Anything Small,” Cagney’s fourth-to-last starring role, and another movie that began with big musical dreams only to see them dwindle to a couple of odd numbers. 

(* More connections: Tully’s autobiography became the basis of a 1928 film, “Beggars of Life,” which was directed by William Wellman, who, three years later, with “The Public Enemy,” would make Cagney a star.)

If Anderson had Cagney connections, Stallings had Ford. His work in ’30s Hollywood ranged from Clark Gable newspaper romances to uncredited work on the Marx Bros.’ “At the Circus,” but he later became a Ford man, collaborating on “3 Godfathers,” “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” and “The Sun Shines Bright.” Not surprising. Ford liked to surround himself with ex-military. He also liked to take John Wayne down a peg for shirking duty during WWII. 

Another Ford man? Victor McLaglen. I’d love to see a good copy of the original “What Price Glory”—the one I watched was a blurry thing on the Internet Archive—but even through the blur I could tell how good McLaglen was. He was ex-British Army and a former professional heavyweight boxer who got into the movie biz by happenstance. They were looking for someone to play the lead in a boxing movie, he auditioned and got the part. This was in Britain. In the mid-20s, he moved to Hollywood, worked with John Ford, was a co-lead in the silent version of “Beau Geste,” then did “What Price Glory” and became big. I love how in the first sequel, which was a talking picture, they had to explain away his British accent, which, of course, nobody heard in the first feature.

McLaglen won his only Oscar in “The Informer,” directed by Ford in 1935, and garnered his second nomination—for supporting this time—in “The Quiet Man,” directed by Ford in 1952. He was in most of the Ford/John Wayne westerns of the late ’40s, too: “Fort Apache,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon,” “Rio Grande.” So why didn’t Ford cut him a cameo here? Too self-referential? Maybe. Or maybe Ford figured he was doing him a favor.

Posted at 07:42 AM on Tuesday May 11, 2021 in category Movie Reviews - 1950s  
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