Destination Tokyo (1944): Guys… and Dolls?

Wolf and NitaIf I mistook Destination Tokyo for reality, I might be inclined to think that, when women aren’t around, men mostly turn into a noble band of brothers who spend their time in ardent discussions of patriotism, responsibility, God, and philosophy. No offense, boys, but yeah right! Indeed, despite its fine, suspenseful construction, this movie would be about as colorless and invertebrate as a sea cucumber if not for one character.

In spite of my unreasonable love for Cary Grant, I admit that John Garfield walks away with the show as Wolf. This gregarious tomcat of a man brings a whiff of truth and humor to the screen, recounting his many conquests and elaborately comparing women to submarines—and subs to women! It’s as if all the sex drive, all the locker room talk, all the virility that we associate with the American male of the 1940s took refuge in the aptly named Wolf. Garfield’s lusty working class charisma buoys the film up and serves as the perfect counterpoise to Cary’s saintly, gracious paterfamilias.

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Two concepts of manhood.

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If Cary’s Captain Cassidy embodies what every American man of the time was supposed to be (or would’ve liked to be), Garfield’s Wolf is much closer to what the man of the time actually was, I’d say. In contrast to Cassidy’s manly perfection, Wolf is exuberantly imperfect. And thus, instantly lovable.

Now, we’ve all come to recognize the tropes that populate any war movie or all-male ensemble cast, including but not limited to: the voice of reason, the intellectual, the Hotspur, the white-haired father figure, the dreamer, the wet-behind-the-ears new guy, and, of course, the ladies’ man. Garfield’s character easily falls into the last category. Nevertheless, he refuses to be defined by that narrow frame.

Whereas another actor might ride this part, going with the flow of the snappy dialogue and waggish idiosyncrasies, Garfield tickles every emotional nuance out of his character. For instance, when he finds a phonograph record under the pillow of a dead companion, Wolf leads the men to play it and hear what it says—expecting something steamy, “Maybe it’s one of those censored records!” When, instead, he’s greeted by the voice of the fallen comrade’s wife, talking about how happy she is to be married to him, Wolf reacts with surprise, amusement, then with a creeping melancholy.

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This mega-bachelor, this charming skirt-chaser suddenly begins to understand what he might be missing, the joy of a relationship, not just a hook-up. Epiphanies are hard to act—they’re so easily overbaked. But Garfield gives us a small glimmer of mental movement behind that mug of his. He’s not converted, but he has gained something.

Unfortunately, much of the so-called “character development” that occurs during Destination Tokyo serves a blatant ideological purpose—the boy grows into a man, the atheist intellectual comes to embrace God, the high priority military operative learns the real nature of courage, not as an absence of fear, but as the mastery of fear. However, in the case of Garfield’s Wolf, the interiority that he communicates doesn’t bring about any major change in his persona.

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At the end of the film, he’s still planning to go and live it up with the dames when he goes back on shore. But he’s a different person. A slightly different person. In life, every experience changes us somehow until the changes add up to make the people we were distinct from the people we are. That transition isn’t complete yet, but watching Wolf in a state of becoming is magical—all the more because we don’t expect those delicate shadings of growth from a basic, carnal dude like him!

The movie’s use of cinematic language also positions us closer to Wolf than to the other men. Interestingly, Cassidy and Wolf are the only two characters in Destination Tokyo who can bring us back to land—that is, their memories trigger flashbacks to the home front that we the viewers can also see. Cassidy visits his wife and daughter in his dreams and, as he faces death, his son’s face flashes before his eyes.

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These idealized visions contrast with Wolf’s flashback to a dame (what else?) earlier in the film.

Whistling “Night and Day,” Wolf launches into a bawdy story about spotting a gal outside a lingerie store in San Francisco. “Ah, she was built for speed, like a destroyer… but kinda compact too, like a submarine. There she was a-comin’ down South Street, right on my starboard beam. The minute I sees her, I says, ‘Up periscope!’”

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Unsurprisingly, he’d been leering at some mannequins when this swell dame pops up—as does a beefy navy type, who horns in, proceeds to escort the babe into the store, and buy her something lacey and sheer as Wolf peers through the window in dismay, nose pressed to the glass. “There I am: anchored. Dead in the water… bulkheads busted in!”

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No sooner does the tomato get her frilly “thingamajig” than she leaves the interloper in the lurch—and turns to Wolf, asking, “Going my way, submariner?”

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Dissolving energetically back and forth between Wolf telling the tale and the actual scene, this sequence interjects a delightful bit of comedy and camaraderie. Wolf comes across as a storyteller with a gift for wringing his escapades for suspense value. He works his audience and the movie’s audience.

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Of Destination Tokyo’s flashback sequences, Cassidy’s images of his wife and children (in real life, the children of director Delmar Daves!) are solitary, linked only to his point-of-view. On the other hand, Wolf’s naughty story is a shared theatrical experience, staged in the imagination of any of the men within the movie who make up his audience—listening to the tale and trying to picture it. The strength of Wolf’s personality allows all involved to escape from the confines of the claustrophobic sub.

I also love the use of sound in this scene. As “Night and Day” continues to play over the soundtrack, almost like a music video, Wolf’s voice-over speaks all the dialogue that accompanies his memory. We hear both the growling tones of his rival and the suggestive voice of his would-be dalliance in Wolf’s voice. He performs his memory (or perhaps his fantasy), like a one-man repertory company! If I were a guy trapped in a metal capsule underwater, I’d want Wolf around…

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The script contributes another nuance to Wolf’s character by hinting that all the stories he tells might be fabrications—because, unlike the other men, he lacks a regular sweetheart. Indeed, there’s at least one clue in the flashback sequence that Wolf was embellishing his tale, if not making it up entirely: he refers to the woman as being “up to my chin” when she actually appears several inches taller than him. Although we do see the sexy scene that Wolf describes to us and seeing is usually believing, we begin to wonder just how much we can trust our narrator.

Is he merely compensating? Like many skirt-chasers, Wolf emerges as a particularly lonely man. In one poignant scene, all the men repose in their bunks, with pictures of their wives and fiancées, whereas womanizing Wolf lies there alone, like a forlorn little boy.

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Garfield imbues Wolf with a tender childishness that saves the character from cliché-dom—and from lecherous creepiness. We’re talking about a man brings A DOLL onto a submarine for heaven’s sake! Certainly, his act of bringing a woman-in-effigy, a hot miniature blonde, onboard strikes us as a slightly kinkier version of bringing, say, a French postcard or a Playboy centerfold. Wolf also explains that he uses the plastic dame as lure to get girls—a pick-up gag. He takes Nita the Doll into a restaurant and talks to it, to provoke the attention and curiosity of real women.

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However, the presence of a toy woman also reminds me of a security blanket or a teddy bear. During the intense depth charge scenes, Wolf braces himself against the shocks in his bunk with Nita beside him as a comfort.

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Psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott wrote about “transitional objects” like teddy bears, that enable us to transition from experiencing the world as a part of oneself and ones imagination to interacting with a real world, a network of relationships. Wolf seems unable to make that shift completely. Sex is a kind of transitional object for him, as indicated by his flashback, which may be real and may be imagined… or a mixture of the two. Wolf even refers to his physical strength standing in contrast to his “weak mind,” but the weakness stems not from a lack of intelligence but rather from a strange inability to dissociate imagination and reality.

He’s the one, after all, who puts up the silly sign “Los Angeles City Limits” in a Tokyo cave, as if he were mentally transporting himself somewhere else. He’s the one who kisses both the submarine and the torpedo, as if they were women, or perhaps extensions of himself. And who describes sexual encounters like naval battles!

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Nita the Doll, as a transitional object for an adult male, both a fetish and a comforting toy, helps us recognize the underdeveloped boy mentality that explains a lot of why people are willing to fight wars, I’d say. As much as Wolf epitomizes a certain type of hardboiled American manhood, his askew sexuality, his inability to lead a committed relationship, and his confused attachments to objects and fantasies reveal something damaged in him. Garfield’s natural vulnerability as an actor subtly discloses this weakness, underneath the shiny surface of the good-time guy.

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I know this analysis sounds like a bit of a stretch. I mean, isn’t Wolf just comic relief? Well, yes, I’m sure that’s how he was intended, but I feel like the weirdness of this character deserves to be decrypted a little more. In his own small way, he foreshadows the link between sexual dysfunction and annihilation that makes Dr. Strangelove such a brilliant parody. We witness Wolf’s loose link to reality in every loony military leader who takes his aggression or ego out on the world.

He Volunteered for Submarine ServiceAlthough Wolf isn’t unnecessarily violent, “weak mind[s]” like his are often the fuel for the violence of total wars—an unhinged fantasy life makes people do all sorts of strange things. Why else do military posters frequently involve sexy ladies? Because the two things sort of go together. Wolf wasn’t so odd to bring Nita onboard. As this WWII poster shows, girls and the submarine service went together in recruits’ minds.

Whether you buy my thesis or not, watch Destination Tokyo because it’s a startlingly accurate depiction of a WWII American sub, because Cary Grant practically glows with idealized male role model glory, because it portrays several amazing real life incidents—such as an impromptu underwater appendectomy! But, when you do watch it, keep an eye out for the woman who gets the most onscreen time—Nita, Wolf’s doll. And think about what she might say if she could talk.

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~          ~          ~

(As a postscript, I would like to address the fact that Destination Tokyo is very much a product of its time. Slurs on the Japanese like “Nips” and “Japs” abound in the dialogue and I’d be lying if I said that the rushes of victory that the film delivers don’t depend on the dehumanization of the enemy. What’s worse is that the script flat-out demonizes Japanese culture, stating that there’s no word in the Japanese language for romantic love. Okay, wise guys, then how did Shikibu Murasaki write The Tale of Genji?! All that bigotry is Destination Tokyoegregious. No argument there. You definitely wince hearing Cary Grant say, “I hear Japs are happy to die for their Emperor. A lot of them are going to be made very happy,” as bombs drop on the unsuspecting civilians of Tokyo. It ain’t pretty.

However, I would point out that the submariners’ attitudes toward the enemy are realistic, although indefensible. I mean, I don’t expect soldiers to say, “Hmm. Well, your average Japanese fellow is OK, but I’ve got to kill them for many ethical, social, and economical reasons.” War is Hell because it demands that men embrace this kind of nasty us-versus-them talk in order to be able to do what they must.

I think that’s a damn sight more honest than the plentitude of movies nowadays that swap out real people foes for grotesque CGI enemies that aren’t even human to begin with. Those fake panoramas of gore stultify us by letting us enjoy death where there never was any life. Which is why I’d question the ethics of movies like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings right along with Destination Tokyo.

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This 1944 movie does give us at least one moment of almost-enlightenment. When the beloved Mike is killed, Captain Cassidy launches into an informal eulogy about how Mike loved children and was proudest when he bought his kid a deluxe pair of 5-dollar roller skates. Cassidy insists that Mike died for a world filled with more roller-skates—even for Japanese kids, who deserve lives free from inculcated militarism and a doctrine of blind self-sacrifice. We’re still in the realm of propaganda and apologism. Those roller-skates are a rationalization, sure enough, but one that sounds more plausible, human, and admirable than mindless killing.)

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I am proud to present this post as part of the John Garfield 100th Birthday Blogathon, a terrific idea organized by Patti of They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To. Please check out the other entries and learn more about this amazing actor, lost from us, alas, all too soon.

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Christmas Holiday (1944): I’m Dreaming of a Noir Christmas

 

Christmas HolidayMaybe you’ve gotten sick on December gingerbread and need some noirish entertainment to cleanse your palate. Maybe you’re craving a warped, dark, mean movie for any month of the year. In any case, you won’t regret watching Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday—even if it is perhaps the bleakest film ever to include Christmas in the title.

This stunningly perverse crime drama stars Deanna Durbin as a prostitute and Gene Kelly as evil incarnate. Warning: there will be NO singin’ in the rain. Just lots of rain. Its subversive beauty and the wrenchingly effective against-type performances of the two leads will stay will you.

This masochistic little yarn follows the recently commissioned Lieutenant Mason on his holiday furlough. He’s stuck in New Orleans for a torrentially rainy Christmas Eve on the way to San Francisco to confront his girlfriend who recently dumped him… via telegraph—Merry Christmas!

Dragged to a nightclub and (let’s face it) a brothel, our young man happens upon baby-faced torch singer and (again, let’s face it) hooker Jackie who begs him to take her to Midnight Mass where she breaks down sobbing. And a Happy New Year!

Jackie eventually tells the impressionable Mason that her real name is Abigail Manette. She ‘fesses up about her marriage to a charming, well-born gambler and n’er-do-well Robert Mannette who ended up getting sentenced to life imprisonment for a murder he definitely did commit.

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As she remembers, we see Robert and Abigail’s doomed, codependent romance unfold in a series of non-sequential  tangled flashbacks. We also watch Robert’s faded Southern belle mother (Gale Sondergaard, wicked and spooky as ever) deciding to blame Jackie for not saving her baby Robert from himself.

Ignoring enough red flags to communicate the script in semaphore, Jackie persists in her delusional love for her murderous, glib bastard of a husband. She wallows in her guilt and punishes herself by becoming a lady of the night.

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If the plot sounds predictable and sentimental, I can tell you it simply isn’t so. This film discards clichés like unsold Christmas trees on December 26th.  Take the prostitute-crying-in-a-church cliché, lifted straight from Maupassant’s “La Maison Tellier,” in which a troupe of weeping whores teach a group of peasants about the true meaning of Easter.

Well, guess what? When Durban’s fallen woman starts to noisily heave and weep in her pew, she doesn’t offer a spectacle of redemption and spirituality. She’s an embarrassment. An uncomfortable reminder of the discarded people we want to forget about at merry times—the times when we ought to be remembering them most.

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Christmas Holiday

As all the faces turn toward the Lieutenant, her escort, as if to say, “What is the matter with you and your girl?” Jackie crumples on the floor. Lieutenant Mason looks down with pity (not empathy, I’d say) and hides her with his coat. The withering indifference of the whole world strips us of many illusions about the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.

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Upon the film’s release, the ever-crabby Bosley Crowther of The New York Times dismissed Durbin’s acting, stating that “[she] is merely adequate in her role.” I disagree.

Throughout the film, Durbin’s rendering of the Garbo-Dietrich fallen woman shtick feels askew—but intentionally so. Because of its awkwardness, its unexpectedness, her performance is simply perfect. We’re watching something we’ve come to see as pure—Durbin and her image—being unmercifully sullied. Durbin never abandons the wholesome, radiantly loving vibe that she channelled in all those musicals… which makes the occasional low-life mannerisms that Jackie’s acquired all the more unsettling and jarring.

Rather than giving us a lesson in noirish coolness, Siodmak employs Durbin’s soulful naïveté to superb effect and demystifies the “gallant hooker” and “codependent noir wife” tropes. He refuses to glorify a twisted relationship, a coupling that would degrade any sane person’s idea of love.

The cuts back and forth between the pure, fresh-faced Abigail of the flashbacks to the faux-vamp Jackie of the present make us realize the silliness of her charade. Jackie’s tough babe act only points to the saccharine motive behind her degradation: atoning for not being a good enough wife. She’s internalized every victim-blaming message beaten into her brain until she wholeheartedly accepts her victimization.

Jackie’s masquerade contrasts with that of her husband. Robert Mannette pretends he’s a decent guy with a few flaws, when it’s not hard to recognize a sociopathic sponger.

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Bet you never thought Gene Kelly could look this scary.

Since this is based on a story by Somerset Maugham and adapted to screen by Herman J. Mankiewicz (of Citizen Kane acclaim), we get some off-hand discussion of this identity play in the dialogue, too:

Robert: “Which do you like better: the person I pretend to be or—”

Abigail: “The person you are.”

Of course, the problem with this exchange is that Abigail cannot know the real Robert. This astute shyster possesses enough skill to reveal a few of his minor vices so as to insist on his overall transparency. His disguise is a double disguise—because he acts like he’s taken off his mask.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the most deceptive publicity shot Hollywood ever produced… and that’s saying something.

Through exploring these rancid guises, Christmas Holiday punctures two sets of Hollywood myths. Classical American cinema tends to perpetuate, in my mind, two main types of fantasy.

1. The normalcy or domesticity myth: “I’m young and perky and will overcome any obstacles to happiness by standing by my man!”

2. The bad-faith noir or tragically hip myth: “I live a bad life because life itself has ruined me for everything else. You wouldn’t want to be me, but you still do, and you know it, because I’m really cool.”

Yes, these are generalizations, but as my math teacher told me, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

Well, Christmas Holiday takes these two clichés and knocks their heads together. First, we see that homey, domestic dramas of redemption don’t work out in reality. Girl, you can’t pull him up. He’ll pull you down.

Second, and more crucially, Siodmak mocks the glamorous despair of film noir’s beautiful and damned denizens. Bordellos, bookie bars, dance halls—they’re not dreamy or desirable. They’re shabby and absurd. Snap out of it! Which is what we long to tell the heroine of this mordant drama.

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Gee, how I love my awful momma’s boy murderer of a husband!

Jackie, you see, loves being in love. And not in a good way. She’s addicted to the idea of an eternal, unhealthy, unconditional, self-sacrificing love, a child’s concept of l’amour fou. We feel her swelling girlish visions of passion through grandiose shots of a concert hall where she listens, rapt, to Tristan und Isolde… sitting next to a stranger who she’ll end up marrying. (Warning: do not listen to Wagner before agreeing to go on a date.)

Indeed, two musical motifs dominate Christmas Holiday’s Oscar-nominated score: there’s the majestic, tragic strains of Wagner’s “Liebestod” and then the syrupy repetitions of Irving Berlin’s “Always.” (Now, it’s a great song, and a favorite of mine, but anything is absurd on repeat.) The movie contrasts these two love anthems to suggest that when real people try to live out the “Liebestod,” though, they don’t become sublime Tristans and Isoldes or even tragically hip lost souls. They turn into cornballs and bad jokes.

Christmas Holiday

Christmas Holiday

This film boasts gorgeous chiaroscuro photography by Elwood Bredell, as even my less-than-pristine screenshots show.

I most appreciated the ways in which the noirish flavor of the domestic sphere comes alive. In this noir, the cozy home isn’t the opposite of the dirty city. No, this den of domesticity is just as dirty. Maybe more so. Every place is bad. Some places are just more honest about their badness. Sinister Mrs. Mannette looms in the frame, ogling the newlyweds with malice. Bedposts, windows, bars, and the shadows of windows and bars imprison Jackie/Abigail in almost every scene.

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And, by the way, don’t watch this movie if you love Gene Kelly. You will never be able to look at Kelly again without seeing the man who comes home from killing someone and proceeds to make love with his wife as if nothing happened. Or the man who says, “I want a shave. I wanna look pretty when I see my wife again…” even as he plans on murdering her.

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Kelly’s spry, lithe physicality suits a vile cad with surprising aplomb and he dives right into the subtle depravity of his character, bringing his wife to a gambling den to teach her all about the things he promises he’ll never do again. As he makes one particularly florid protestation to his fiancée, the sound of unrelated laughter in another part of the bar lets us know, in case there was any doubt, that this man’s promises are worth “two percent of nothing,” to borrow a phrase from Raymond Chandler.

Christmas Holiday

For me, the greatest scene, the one that gave me shivers, occurs at the very end of Christmas Holiday—and involves a serious spoiler. Robert dies in Abigail’s arms after he tries to kill her. Lieutenant Mason, looking on, gently tells her, “You can let go now.” We see Abigail cradling her husband, her childish face contorted in an unbecoming sob.

And then, something magical happens: a cut to a close-up of Deanna Durbin—she suddenly shines, looking grown-up, transfigured, and glamorous, like a cross between Norma Shearer and Garbo. You can see her thoughts click. It’s not my fault. It was never my fault. I couldn’t save him. I shouldn’t have had to save him. I can only save myself. Catharsis. Enlightenment. Whatever you want to call it. It happened in the space of two shots.

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Abigail stands and walks to a window. The stunning backlighting makes her glow. Gazing out a window, she sees clouds part, revealing a twinkling starry sky. It sounds corny, but when I watched it, by God, did it ever work on me. The scene delivers an exhilarating sense of liberation, the cinematic equivalent of a deep breath. I’ve read at least one other review that pans this ending, so perhaps it won’t work for you. But I “bought” it, and I am by no means easily sold on anything.

It’s like a fresh start, albeit one with enough ambiguity to avoid total happy-ending bathos. Sincere, but not gushy. After a downward spiral, we, the viewers, are rewarded with beauty. And we learn a little about what beauty means.

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Beauty isn’t commitment to a bad man. It’s not abject self-sacrifice. It’s not despair. It’s none of the platitudes or cynicisms that we may blindly accept.

Beauty is freedom. The freedom to let go of things before they kill you—which they usually do in Siodmak’s noir films. And that’s the closest to the true meaning of Christmas that any film noir is going to get.

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