Odyssey of Nostalgia: The Human Comedy (1943)

PosterIf you can watch The Human Comedy and not cry at least once, I don’t think I want to know you.

Of course, I realize that the hip thing for a modern reviewer to do is denigrate the film as mawkish propaganda… which is only a small part of why you’ll never catch me doing so.

As for the greater part, the timelessly moving scenes in Clarence Brown’s WWII-era coming-of-age drama, written by William Saroyan, more than outweigh any syrupy sentiments. Seen from a vantage point of seventy years later, many of its intimate vignettes powerfully memorialize the personal sacrifices of all those who served—and all those who loved them. Although it may idealize, preach, and meander, the film delivers a handful of unforgettable moments, so heartfelt and honest even in their MGM glossiness that they reawaken the emotional impact of an anxious period which is, sadly, slipping away from living memory.

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Most important, The Human Comedy deserves our respect as a tender, thoughtful elegy for America’s fallen soldiers of WWII. Because the majority of the action takes place in the little California town of Ithaca, the story conveys the loss of an individual with greater poignancy than a standard war movie could.

The main plotline centers on high school student Homer Macaulay (a captivating and unusually soft-spoken Mickey Rooney) who, to help support his siblings and his widowed mother, takes a job delivering telegraphs. (By the way, are you picking up on the Odyssey allusions yet?) Homer thus becomes the frequent bearer of the worst possible news: condolence messages from the War Department. Working in a telegraph office with old-timer Mr. Grogan (Frank Morgan), Homer sees the tidings coming in on the wire for the first time. Far away from the violence of the battlefield, the clatter of typing and the neutral, freshly inky letters of “We regret to inform you…” translate the sorrow of the news by reminding the viewer of an absence, a hole in the lives of the recipients. We don’t see the death. We don’t know the details. And the matter-of-fact precision of the telegraph machine only accentuates the sadness of the news and the helplessness of those about to learn of it.

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Homer grabs the message and heads out on his bicycle to change someone’s life forever, riding to the outskirts of town. Greeted by grey-haired, heavily-accented Mrs. Sandoval, the messenger obviously wants to escape the situation… but Mrs. Sandoval can’t read English, so he’ll have to break the news himself. Hesitating and looking down at his telegraph, Homer rips it open and the message drops to the floor.

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Here, Clarence Brown seizes the opportunity to slow down the pace and draw the audience into the suspense. A cut takes us to the hem of Mrs. Sandoval’s skirt as she picks up the letter, and the camera fearfully tilts up to reveal her expectant face. In the reverse shot, Homer fumbles for a way to break the news slowly. “It’s from the War Department.” Cut to Mrs. Sandoval; she doesn’t understand, but seems to intuit what she’s about to hear. Cut back to Homer. He looks down. He looks up. Finally he forces himself to meet the mother’s eyes. “It says that your son is dead, Mrs. Sandoval…” We anticipate that the bereaved mother will fall apart, as Brown again cuts to the mother’s face, but instead it’s Homer whose voice trembles as he stammers that maybe there was some kind of a mistake.

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The almost clumsy naturalism of the performances, Homer’s futile attempts at denying the news, and, above all, the straight-forward elegance of the staging imbue the exchange with the delayed-reaction horror of unimaginable loss. The scene (which you can watch here) is a masterclass in self-effacing, yet potent continuity system filmmaking.

As the news finally sinks in, Mrs. Sandoval collapses into a rocking chair and starts to sing a Spanish folk song. Unexpectedly, after such a realistic segment, part of the screen dissolves to show a younger version of the bereaved mother, rocking her son as a baby, and then back to the present.

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Is this the mother’s vision? Or Homer’s? Homer lingers in the half of the frame untouched by the flashback, but he’s still visible, included in her vision. Well, I appreciate the ambiguity, but I personally read the effect as a fusion of their mourning in a moment of intense empathy. After all, the WWII-era in America, despite a number of underlying social problems, did encourage people to pull together and feel the pain of others.

And I consider it significant that the first mother Homer must inform is clearly coded as a new American, someone on the margins of Ithaca’s establishment. Since this is an MGM film, even the outskirts of town are quaint and cozy, but you needn’t be a historian to recognize the tiny houses as a glamorized immigrant shantytown. The Human Comedy, for all its schmaltziness, acknowledged that the costs of American ideal were often inflicted most severely on those who’d barely been able to enjoy the benefits of being American. I also applaud that the first war-related death that comes to our attention is an American who differed from the Andy Hardy-esque Anglo-Saxon denizens of Ithaca. The film reminds its audience that anyone who chooses to lay down his or her life for America is a true American, regardless of his or her background.

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Moreover, Homer’s bond with Mrs. Sandoval transcends class and cultural differences to honor a sacrifice and to grieve a loss. Although Homer’s reaction surely stems in part from his worries about his own brother, I believe that the connection he feels goes deeper than that. And therefore never send to know for whom the telegraph comes; it comes for thee.

In this scene and elsewhere, the film wistfully examines the dynamic between absence and presence. Indeed, a narration from beyond the grave opens the film, as Mr. Macaulay explains how, although he has passed on, the essence of his character thrives in the places and people he cared about.

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With Mr. Macaulay’s face superimposed over the images, swooping aerial and crane shots float over the town, eventually zeroing in on the youngest Macaulay son, Ulysses. I strongly suspect that this metaphysical opening influenced It’s a Wonderful Life, made three years later. These sun-dappled, gently descending shots approximate the dead man’s benevolent point of view, almost like a guardian angel’s.

Mr. Macaulay is there, but he is not there—like those who left to fight.

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Despite their physical absence, their continued presence can be felt in numerous ways. For instance, the audience’s first glimpse of Marcus Macaulay arrives when Homer proudly takes off his delivery boy cap to show a group of G.I.s the picture of his brother he keeps there, forever on his mind. To stress the spiritual link between this talisman and the real young man, a dissolve from the photograph introduces the first actual shot of Marcus. In addition to obvious symbols of remembrance, like service flags in windows, the incidents of daily pleasures and frustrations in the town allow us to observe what many of the soldiers are missing… and how they are being missed.

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In perhaps The Human Comedy‘s most tear-jerking sequence, Homer reads his brother’s latest letter aloud to Mr. Grogan. It sounds almost anti-cinematic, doesn’t it? A teenager reading a letter to an old man in a telegraph shop. Yet, in the simplicity of this scene—basically long take medium shots, interrupted by the occasional close-up of Grogan—Marcus’s absence aches.

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Only Marcus’s words, spoken by his brother, remain of him in the moment. Marcus isn’t there, but ironically his presence is felt so acutely, precisely because he’s not there. And Rooney’s halting, sensitive reading of the letter conjures that void where a brother should be. He is utterly spellbinding. Van Johnson, who played Marcus, got tears in his eyes just thinking about Rooney’s performance in a 1992 interview, recalling, “I just think it tore everybody to pieces.” Get your hankies, folks, is all I can say.

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As you watch The Human Comedy, and I hope you will, notice the preponderance of long shots, especially those in deep focus, with a clear foreground and background. Director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. (who worked on Suspicion and A Streetcar Named Desire, to name just two of his best) endows the film with an open, multifaceted look. Instead of showcasing just the stars in the cast, he tends to compose shots with a number of faces and details. Even the most dramatic scenes mostly avoid the glut of close-ups we’ve come to expect from serious acting. It’s as though the film were urging us to remember that, although it tells the stories of certain individuals, everyone’s got a story and they all matter.

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In “The Evolution of the Language of Cinema”, the French film critic André Bazin argued that deep focus photography, which often involves more than one center of attention, facilitates a more democratic style in film. Unlike manipulative montage-driven tactics, this technique enables the eye to wander the frame so that a viewer can interpret the visual information for himself.

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Now, if you’ll pardon my egregious oversimplification of film theory, The Human Comedy visualizes the American ideals of diversity and democracy through its cinematography. Although the film certainly never yields in its endorsement of patriotism, the liberty allowed to the eye reflects an ethos of freedom and independent decision-making.

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Propaganda doesn’t leave much room for choice, but Brown and Stradling’s abundance of long takes and multiple planes of action and focuses of interest offer the audience a wider world than one might expect.

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In a narrative sense, to evoke part of that wider world, The Human Comedy cultivates one major character who ostensibly doesn’t initially fit with the apple-pie ideal of contentment and family in Ithaca. As Marcus Macaulay’s best friend in the army, Tobey George listens with rapt attention to Marcus’s stories of home.

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Tobey confesses that, as an orphan who doesn’t even know his real name, he lacks everything that motivates Marcus. To nourish Tobey’s hope of coming through the war alive, Marcus invites his comrade to share his memories, to adopt Ithaca as his fantasy hometown.

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In one telling scene, Marcus and Tobey ride on a mortar being transported to the front as Tobey says his prayers aloud—and it sounds as though he’s reading from Marcus’s thoughts, as he recites the litany of home-town sights he longs to visit and to protect through his service. As Brown switches from close-ups of each man looking wistfully into the distance, we can sense the transfer of thoughts and dreams between men from very different backgrounds.

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Through Tobey, The Human Comedy quietly admits that Perfectville, U.S.A. is largely a chimera. After all, like many, if not most, soldiers, he could just as easily have lived and died without experiencing the joys of a tight-knit family and community for himself. Yet, by granting this outsider the ultimate homecoming, the movie gives viewers from all walks of life permission to yearn for that ideal.

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At the end of the film, as Tobey hovers by the Macaulay household, he gazes in at Mrs. Macaulay, Bess, and Mary singing and playing an old-fashioned love song. Framed, contained, and shining, the domestic scene seems like a window into heaven, in contrast with the shadows of the evening and the silhouette of Tobey’s head and shoulders from behind. Here Tobey stands in for the audience members who are also beholding this vision of harmony and probably wanting to be a part of it. He watches the family the way we’re meant to watch the movie. This shot actually echoes an earlier shot during a brief sequence in a movie theater. In both cases, the darkness is punctuated by a square of light and a potent image of hope.

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The Human Comedy isn’t as naive as it might appear. Guess what? People didn’t get any more complex in the last seventy years or so. You can love an abstraction and try to make it seem real… while never losing sight of the fact that it’s an abstraction. In this way, Clarence Brown subtly reveals and celebrates cinema’s power to build dreams—like the myth of Ithaca and the Macaulays—that can sustain a population through tough times.

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No wonder Louis B. Mayer—a ferociously patriotic adopted American—considered this film his favorite of more than 800 movies made under his reign at MGM.

Still, if The Human Comedy rejoices in its own ability to refine and market collective fantasies, it acknowledges that the true credit for those dreams belongs to those who defend them. This drama honors the lives lost in WWII with glowing sincerity by glorifying the values and ideals they fought for, even if those ideals never fully existed in their lives.

In other words, most of us don’t make it to Ithaca—even the men and women who gave their lives for what it represented. But, thanks to them, Americans can keep on dreaming of it. And as long as we do, perhaps, like Mr. Macaulay’s narration suggests, those brave individuals are still living in us.

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Hearts of the World (1918): Battle Dress

hearts“It was exactly as I had imagined wars in many particulars. I saw, for instance, many troop trains moving away to the front. I saw wives parting from husbands they were never to see again. I saw wounded men returning to their families. I saw women coming away from the government offices, stunned with grief, a little paper in their hands to tell that the worst had happened. 

“All these things were so exactly as we had been putting them on in the pictures for years and years that I found myself sometimes absently wondering who was staging the scene.”

—D.W. Griffith, quoted in Photoplay magazine

The soldiers couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the two girls—sylphlike belles swaddled in long coats, headed on a train towards no-man’s-land. One can imagine the battle-weary young men on their way to or from the trenches rubbing their eyes, thinking that the girls were some sort of mirage. Civilian women didn’t go to the front. Hell, even trained nurses didn’t go to the front. It simply wasn’t done.

And yet, there they were: Lillian and Dorothy Gish, accompanied by their mother, hurtling into the belly of a blighted war zone in France. They traveled to a ruined village, within range of bombardments from German long-distance guns. Brought over by that great general D.W. Griffith, the sisters had been drafted to star in his next picture, a WWI drama which would be called Hearts of the World, once its narrative took shape.

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Hardly any of the footage captured in France actually appears in the final film. Yet, what Dorothy and Lillian saw and heard there—and in England, during air raids that riddled the civilian population, crushing schools full of kindergarteners before the sisters’ eyes—haunted them. In her autobiography, Lillian shared a vivid snapshot of the kind of devastation she witnessed on a daily basis: “I remember the odd feeling I had seeing a coffee pot perched on top of a pile of rubble, the sole evidence that a house had once stood on the spot.”

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This shot of real town in France was included in Hearts of the World.

And let me reiterate: few surviving civilians came closer to WWI than Griffith and his crew. Even hardened war correspondents weren’t allowed such comprehensive access to the horrors of the front. The psychological impact of the sisters’ proximity to death and destruction added a shade of genuine trauma to their intense performances… even though those performances were safely captured in California.

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Now, it’s tempting to dismiss Hearts of the World as The Birth of a Nation II: This Time We’ll Only Offend the Germans. The plot certainly bears a resemblance to Griffith’s infamous Civil War epic. In an idyllic French village, Marie and Douglas, both children of American families, are torn apart by WWI.

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While Douglas goes to the trenches, Marie stays in the village. On the day that had been set for their wedding, a heavy bombardment all but razes the town and the French are defeated; Marie happens across Douglas’s unconscious body, faints, and believes him dead. When the Germans occupy the town, the beastly Hun in charge takes a shine to Marie. Will the Allies liberate the village in time to save Marie from The Fate Worse Than Death?

dorothyincostumeAlthough clearly not the heroine, Dorothy Gish’s supporting character soundly “stole the show,” even in Lillian’s words. She stands out as one of the few sexually aggressive and sympathetic women in Griffith’s oeuvre.

Playing a wandering lady minstrel, “the Little Disturber,” Dorothy exudes a free-spirited vitality and a quirky, Chaplinesque sensuality. In contrast to Marie’s goose-tending, rose-caressing demureness, the Little Disturber behaves with delicious impropriety.

She corners the man she likes (Douglas, Marie’s fiancé) and plants a kiss on the reluctant fellow right in a public street! Afterwards, when she returns in despair to a man she’d previously rejected, the Disturber flashes the new object of her affections with a look of such hostile amorousness that he cringes, unsure whether she’s going to smooch him or wallop him!

With her cute pageboy haircut and independent attitude, the Little Disturber no doubt resonated with the young women in the audience who had borne the brunt of the home front war effort and would shortly claim their right to vote—and bob their hair.

The fact that Dorothy copied her wiggly, zigzag walk from a streetwalker she saw in London speaks volumes about the endearing, working-girl vulgarity of the character’s persona. As she recounted to Kevin Brownlow:

“Griffith suddenly said, ‘Watch that!’ I saw she [the prostitute] had the darndest walk. And the way I walk in Hearts of the World is exactly the way that girl in the Strand was walking.”

Dorothy Gish keeps the spark of humor and hope alive even in the darkest moments of the film. Her Little Disturber demonstrates how the tribulations of war actually bring out the deepest virtues of certain individuals. Once frivolous and flighty, she nurses Marie, her former rival, back to health.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h11m32s232Moreover, at the suspenseful climax of Hearts of the World, it’s not the hero who saves Marie, but rather the resourceful Little Disturber. With one well-placed hand grenade, she obliterates the whole pack of wicked Huns about to break down the door and capture Marie and Douglas.

Her feisty resistance interjects some unexpected humor into a scene where, when a collaborator catches her in the act of mourning for the French, wiping her tears with a tablecloth, the Disturber chases the traitor away with a broken champagne bottle!

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 11.06.44 PMJoie de vivre: the Little Disturber abides with a song in her heart 

The Gish sisters’ interpretations complement each other beautifully. They were, by this time, veterans of the Seventh Art, and the scenes between them have all the delicate, practically invisible mastery of a well-sung bel canto duet. In one funny, poignant scene during the occupation, the Disturber finds Marie’s picture keepsake of Douglas and starts kissing it. Marie walks in and sees her. Their reactions—sheepishness on the Disturber’s part and tactful understanding on Marie’s—communicate a new bond between the two characters, a relationship all the more exquisite because it’s so surprising. Even such different women can become spiritual sisters through kindness and compassion.

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Lillian Gish teases all possible nuances out of Marie’s character, bringing a feverish, trapped quality to an otherwise routine fragile-but-unbroken role. You can discern the strains of harrowing, gritty fear that she would exhibit so thrillingly in Broken Blossoms. She traces her character arc from an ordinary, loving girl to a total emotional wreck back to an ordinary, loving girl with sweet simplicity. For instance, as she folds her unused wedding dress and puts it in a chest, she does so with all the tactile tenderness of a mother burying her only child.

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Later, as she totters across blasted fields in search of her fiancé, the floating lack of purpose in her movements translates her psychotic break even when we see her in an extreme long shot. This is a woman who has been emptied of all grief, all pain, all hope; she is almost a ghost.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h14m34s7In a 1918 interview, Lillian remembered, “I saw one woman whose little brood of three had been torn to pieces by German nitroglycerin. She wasn’t crying. She wasn’t saying anything. But if there is a hell I saw it in the depths of her dry, sunken eyes. If I could reproduce that look on the screen they would call me greater than Bernhardt. And if I did I should go insane.” Well, she came pretty darn close.

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With material that might’ve come from a bad 19th century melodrama, Lillian gives us a performance of madness worthy of Ophelia.

All in all, Hearts of the World strikes me as both a throwback and a strikingly modern portrait of the first total war. Part pro-American propaganda, part anti-war drama, the film cobbles together footage from a striking range of sources—staged battles shot in England, real ruins shot in France, smuggled footage of the German army, and, overwhelmingly, scenes filmed on converted sets and stages in Hollywood left over from Intolerance.

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A French village… shot in England. The boy with the wheelbarrow is none other than Noël Coward in his first film role. No joke!

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Real footage taken at the front… behind German lines!

Hearts of the World pushes the reconstructive possibilities of editing to a logical extreme—even more so than Intolerance, I would argue. It’s the Kuleshov Effect on steroids: shells fired in France seem to “land” in California.

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However, the film was misleadingly marketed as mostly a documentary. This irresponsible advertising—combined with its graphic content—makes it another blot on Griffith’s checkered record. Perhaps that’s why the film remains so commercially ignored and elusive; I had to watch it on an old VHS cassette and get my screenshots from a documentary about Griffith. Which is ironic, considering that Hearts of the World smashed box office records among an American public that wanted to savor the Hun-bashing glory of their entry into the fray.

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h10m16s235Oh, and that VHS cassette even neglected to include the most infamous scene—“The Dungeon of Lust,” in which two lascivious German officers abduct and assault a peasant girl. (Did I mention that Erich von Stroheim chewed some of his first scenery in this?)

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Stroheim menacing a maiden…

vlcsnap-2013-09-05-23h07m46s21 …And Stroheim menacing an extra, while serving as Griffith’s military advisor for the film

Prepare yourself for opulent German orgies and gratuitous scenes of Lillian Gish being beaten by a hulking officer because she can’t pick up a sack of potatoes bigger than she is. You will see primitive, prejudice-nourishing panoramas of kink—that were disgustingly presented as Gospel truth.

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If you cannot quite bring yourself to forgive Griffith for such exploitation of the medium and its persuasive power, you’re not the only one. As Lillian Gish observed, “I don’t believe that Mr. Griffith ever forgave himself for making Hearts of the World. ‘War is a villain,’ he repeated, ‘not any particular people.’”

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Beyond question, Griffith hated war. And particularly World War I. He opposed American intervention from the start, and Lillian Gish described him openly weeping at civilian casualties. If he succumbed to the flattery of European governments and the pressure to produce a biased film, he nevertheless betrays his loathing for the inhumanity of it all.

Griffith’s distaste for violence reveals itself in his implication that World War I reminded him of a predictably directed movie, a mass of clichés. War, indeed, reduces the hearts of the world to just so many figures, formations, legers, plot devices. Other than the high-stakes chess players in their offices, we all turn into bit players, extras in a gaudy global production.

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The death scenes of both Marie’s mother and her father agonizingly etch the human toll of World War I onto the screen.

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This shot of her father’s dismembered corpse, reduced from a lovable individual to a pile of rubbish, translates the appalling meaninglessness of death in a vast conflict. Griffith illuminates both macro horror of war—the numb, dumb pointlessness of this death—and the smaller-scale ugliness of conflict. The orphaned little boys burying their parent under the floor tiles. The young girl unable to tear herself away from her mother’s body. The broken, shattered skeleton of a garden wall where roses once bloomed. As Griffith said to Lillian, “This is what war is. Not the parades and conference tables—but children killed, lives destroyed.”

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Cinematography by hardened war cameraman Alfred Machin, in addition to more lyrical footage taken by Griffith’s cameraman Billy Bitzer, contributes to the deliberately uneven, deglamorized portrayal of modern warfare.

5 1Despite its upbeat denouement, Hearts of World is perhaps not a film with a message, but rather a query to send into the universe. The film’s intertitle prologue best articulates it, wondering, “After all, does war solve any question?”

World War I certainly didn’t solve it. Which is why there was the inevitable sequel.  And we still do not have the answer. Although it’s not the coherent masterpiece that The Big Parade or Journey’s End turned out to be, Hearts of the World at least dared to ask the question, “What’s the purpose of all this carnage?” with words, images, and, thanks to the Gish sisters, searing performances.

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This blog post is part of the Gish Sisters Blogathon, hosted by The Motion Pictures and Movies Silently. Be sure to check out the other entries!

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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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