Monday, May 9, 2016
Reeling Backward: "When Willie Came Marching Home" (1950)
In 1950 John Ford was already a revered filmmaker, becoming the first person to win back-to-back Oscars for directing. But he was about to commence a darker and, I think, richer period of his career, marked by more pessimistic films that cast a gimlet eye at man's capacities for good and evil -- "The Searchers," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," "Cheyenne Autumn," etc.
So what to make of this goofy piffle, starring largely forgotten comedian/song-and-dance man Dan Dailey, which came out the same year as "Rio Grande" and "Wagon Master?" Think of "When Willie Comes Marching Home" as the fruity apéritif before a sumptuous banquet. Though it's certainly a minor entry in the Ford oeuvre, it shows off his undervalued capacity for humor and warmth.
"Willie" was a war comedy at a time when American audiences were just getting enough distance from World War II to milk it for laughs. Dailey plays Bill Kluggs, a cutup in the finest Rodney Dangerfield "can't get no respect" tradition.
Celebrated for being the first man in Punxsutawney, West Virginia, to enlist after Pearl Harbor -- which is odd, since all he accomplished was being first in a line -- Bill becomes a punchline when he's assigned as a gunnery instructor at the local airfield.
The guy who was supposed to become a bona fide war hero essentially never leaves town, and is branded a coward as other boys go off to war, fight and die. There's even a running Chaplinesque gag of a scruffy little dog biting Bill's leg as he shambles away from his latest humiliation.
I kept expecting the movie to grow more serious. We know Bill is eventually going to get his chance to get into the fighting, so I assumed we'd see him get bloodied and grim, the goofball become savior. But even when he finally goes overseas, Bill's adventures are decidedly of the slapstick variety.
His B-17 is prevented from landing in Britain by thick fog and low fuel, so the crew is ordered to bail out and ditch the brand-new plane in the English Channel. Asleep in the belly turret after the long flight, Bill doesn't hear the command and only parachutes out over occupied France. There he's captured by French resistance, led by the lovely and flirty Yvonne (Corinne Calvet).
Bill is tasked with carrying home some film the Frenchies shot of German rockets being tested in advance of D-Day. (The film's fidelity to the historical record is shaky, at best.) This kicks off a long sequence where he's transported to and fro, by boat and plane, questioned by doctors and generals, kept awake and plied with liquor the whole time.
Dailey basically spends the last third of the movie playing drunk, and he's pretty good at it. The audience is rewarded with several google-eyed reaction shots as the curly-headed Kluggs labors to keep his bearings.
Rounding out the cast are Colleen Townsend as Marge Fettles, Bill's wholesome next-door neighbor and betrothed, and crusty character actor William Demarest as his father, who shares in his son's mortification. Jimmy Lydon plays Marge's kid brother, a gangly type who goes on to become a famed Air Force dogfighter, adding to Bill's grief.
(He isn't credited so I can't be sure about this, but I believe Hardy Krüger has a small non-speaking role as a German soldier who waltzes into the French cafe where Bill is posing as Yvonne's newly christened husband. If so, this would make it his first appearance in a Hollywood film.)
"When Willie Comes Marching Home" is more interesting as a time capsule than as a standalone film. It's so different from John Ford's usual stuff that it bears a second peek.