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Monday, 20 April 2009

When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950)

If you were to ask me to name my favourite directors, the choice might vary from day to day, but you can bet that John Ford would always be among the top three. Best-known for his Westerns, his enormous output from silent days forward was far more varied and includes war films, "oirish" larks, literary adaptations, and the down-homey Judge Priest movies. While I don't love each and every one of his films, most include more than enough to keep me happy and the best of them make me cry as well (now what sort of criterion is that?). While many of his movies have their humourous moments, he seldom set out to make a comedy as such, which makes the above film a little unusual amongst his work.

The basic story is of small-town hero Dan Dailey being the first to enlist after Pearl Harbor and how, after basic training, he finds himself stationed at a camp just outside his home town. It seems that his gunnery skills are better employed training new recruits than being tested on the battlefield and every time he complains, he is given another Good Conduct Medal. So after several years during which his old friends have proved their courage, he goes from hero to zero amongst the local folk who view him as some sort of slacker, much to the disgust of his Great War veteran dad, the lovingly grumpy William Demarest and even to his faithful girlfriend, Colleen Townsend. When he gets a chance to go overseas as a replacement bombadier, everything goes wrong -- he becomes separated from his crewmates (since he was asleep at a crucial moment), bails out over France, and falls in with gorgeous Resistance heroine Corinne Calvert. He witnesses the launch of a Nazi secret rocket and is entrusted to get the film to London; unfortunately the drink which is pressed upon him over and over and extreme tiredness make him incapable of logical thought, and when he is then flown to Washington to report to the big brass, he is thought to be insane. Escaping from a threatened strait-jacket he runs back to his home, where everyone thinks he is either a deserter or a spy -- until explanations guarantee a happy ending.

If this sounds like a good idea for a hilarious comedy, think again, since apart from a few minor amusing moments and the fact that Dailey is as good-natured an actor as was, the film is if anything a little draggy and forced. OK, it's very minor Ford, but not quite amongst his failures ("Gideon's Day" heads that list).

I bought this DVD as a replacement for a copy of the film which I had previously on a beta tape. The bonus however is that the disc includes a second Ford feature, "Up the River" from 1930, which amazingly I had never seen before. Faced with competition from MGM's release of "The Big House", the director turned his prison project into something of a light-hearted romp. While it's not overly great film-making (and I think the copy I viewed was cobbled together from remaining sources), it is notable for giving us the film debuts for both Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart which makes it something of a milestone in film history!
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