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Here Comes the Navy (DVD Review)

24 Mar, 2014 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$18.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Gloria Stuart, Frank McHugh.

James Cagney is a San Diego shipyard worker with attitude named Chesty, while Pat O’Brien is the Chesty-loathing naval chief petty officer who goes by “Biff.” The Chesty-Biff combo pretty well suggests the tone of this speedy Warner Bros. “guy fluff” — the kind of first-name combo I haven’t heard since the days of also water-faring “Crunch and Des” on TV in the mid-1950s of my youth. It was only a little past this last point (1959) that I last saw 1934’s Navy, so I was curious to give it a look because two or three factors make it quite a curio.

The least of these — though only because it’s hardly unique to the period — is the casting of Titanic’s Gloria Stuart as O’Brien’s sister and Cagney’s love interest, which exacerbates a relationship that is already comparable to the lack of harmony between John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in Ford’s The Quiet Man. Stuart was an attractive elderly lady in the James Cameron blockbuster, but she is truly stunning here. Though in not atypical ’30s screen fashion, a guy like Cagney without many prospects has no trouble at all “moving in” (not, of course, in the literal sense of cohabitation but simply getting invited over for dinner within three or four beats of meeting her).

Even more interesting is this indisputably entertaining trifle’s Oscar nomination for Best Picture (something that will astonish most people) in a 10-nominee year that still couldn’t find room for It’s a Gift or The Scarlet Empress — though, yes, it’s true, both of those have infinitely better reps today than they did way back when. Matter of fact, the academy also found a way that year to nominate the Dick Powell-Ruby Keeler-Frank Borzage Flirtation Walk, which makes me wonder if Jack Warner was in possession of compromising photos involving the organization’s board of directors.

And far more interesting than this (chilling, in fact) is that some of the movie was filmed on the USS Arizona, on which nearly 1,200 crew and officers were killed in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor seven years later. The first line of dialogue (by O’Brien) refers to the ship by name, and it’s a major part of the storyline. Later, when the script manages to get Cagney onto dirigible detail (an exotic enough plot contrivance, all by itself), the one utilized for the production was the USS Macon, which ran into a storm less than a year after filming, resulting in the loss of two crew members. Creepy.

All this, of course, makes this movie a natural for buffs of naval history, and much of the backdrop action involves day-to-day procedures aboard ship, which makes this one of the more intriguing screen time capsules of its era. As for the rest, this was the first time Cagney and O’Brien were teamed on screen (most memorably, and respectively, as the hood and priest in 1938’s prototypically Warner Angels With Dirty Faces). They made a terrific Irish team, in part because O’Brien’s slow burn was among the best in the business and played off marvelously against his co-star’s brash behavior and amusing big mouth. Chesty/Cagney actually joins the Navy seeking revenge because his instant adversary has decked him in a dance hall of questionable repute. For this, he undergoes 90 days of basic training — but somehow doesn’t get the word that CPO O’Brien is his superior and that military authorities aren’t likely to get into the spirit of their confrontations, which come about once every three or four minutes of screen time.

The oddest moment here involves blackface, a scene that isn’t quite as offensive as such scenes usually are. Cagney is denied shore leave to go see Stuart, so he and a buddy (good old Frank McHugh) bribe an African-American ship colleague to cough up his own for 10 bucks (pretty good money that long ago and during a Depression). At first the guy is treated as a stereotypical slow-wit, but the movie then pulls a mild surprise by briefly making him a co-equal with McHugh when director Lloyd Bacon gives their scene a ticklish exclamation point. So with pass in hand, Cagney dons blackface to join segregated black members of the crew just before they head for land — after which they all watch him exit (still in blackface) with blonde Stuart on his arm. To director Bacon’s credit, he does allow them all to don a “what the hell?” group expression.

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