Monday, August 17, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Destroyer"

"Destroyer" is a pretty conventional bit of World War II propaganda. It's amazing to think now about how the movie industry was turned to promoting the war effort. I'm not sure if people even stopped and thought about it -- back then, everybody assumed we were all in it together.

Can you imagine our modern-day entertainment industry cranking out films supporting the American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, one after another, almost from the day our troops set foot in the Middle East? The very idea is ludicrous.

Back then, movie stars also joined the military in droves, or at least flew around selling war bonds and other such things. After making "Destroyer," Glenn Ford enlisted with the Marines, where he spent the war working as a motion picture technician and hosting a radio program.

Up until then, Ford's film career was nothing to shake a stick at. After the war he came back with "Gilda," his big breakthrough role. (On a side note, I've had "Gilda" DVR'd for awhile now, and keep meaning to get to it. But for whatever reason, I've had a hankering for war pictures recently.)

It's interesting to think of Glenn Ford as a young man, and playing a character who's cocky and headstrong. The star persona of Ford is of a man who's middle-aged but still physically capable, with deep convictions and sense of honor, who believes in thinking before acting -- basically, he was Dad. But perhaps I'm conditioned to think of him that way, since like most people of my generation my first experience with Glenn Ford was playing the father in "Superman."

Here he plays Mickey Donohue, a naval chief who butts head with Steve "Boley" Boleslvaski (Edward G. Robinson), a tough old sailor who's just come out of retirement to fight in the war. Boley served aboard the first destroyer John Paul Jones during WWI, and became a shipbuilder who helped oversee the construction of her replacement. When he learns that the ship will be commanded by an officer he used to serve with, he agrees to re-enlist.

Things don't go smoothly for Boley. He has the right ideas about how to keep a crew tight and orderly, but he's simply so far behind the times that he keeps lousing things up. He orders the gun crews to keep their sights right on target aircraft, rather than leading them, because he never had to fight against airplanes in the first World War. He doesn't even know that the new artillery guns are loaded from the breech, not from the muzzle.

Eventually Boley gets busted down in rank, and now must report to Donohue, his arch-enemy. Little does he know that the much younger Donohue has been wooing his daughter (Marguerite Chapman) during shore leave.

At one point it appears that the new John Paul Jones is a cursed ship, and gets reassigned to mail-carrying duty. A bunch of the crewman request to transfer off, and Robinson gives a rousing speech where he invokes the story of the ship's namesake. Of course, they decide to stay on. Because that's the way things were back then -- or at least, how Hollywood would like us to think it was.

3 stars

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