Strategic Air Command (Blu-ray Review)7 Nov, 2016 By: Mike Clark
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Stars James Stewart, June Allyson, Frank Lovejoy, Barry Sullivan.
It’s just a guess, but the equally gorgeous and lumbering Strategic Air Command must be the only Air Force movie whose opening scenes are set against the St. Louis Cardinals’ spring training at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., with all of its ’50s fungo action captured in VistaVision and Technicolor. Here’s how it goes: Recently married Jimmy Stewart is looking forward to more of the MLB same after having knocked in 153 runs the previous season as the Cards’ third-sacker. But there’s a wrinkle. Stewart (as “Dutch” Holland) is also in the Air Force reserve after having been a World War II bomber pilot, and now here’s his old buddy Rusty (a general played by James Millican) showing up in the box seats with franchise-shaking news that another general (Frank Lovejoy, channeling his inner Curtis LeMay all the way down to the cigar) is calling Stewart back to duty in SAC when his new wife likely thought she’d be spending her quality time hanging out with Stan Musial or at least Rip Repulski. This shocker comes on the afternoon of the night when Stewart’s new digs are having their launch at a housewarming, which likely means that someone had better have ordered a few hundred more taps of Busch brews.
So, yes, we get Millican and Lovejoy here — but also Barry Sullivan, Harry Morgan, Alex Nicol, Bruce Bennett and Jay C. Flippen. In other words, everyone you’d expect to see in this movie is — including June Allyson as the devoted pregnant wife (you can almost hear director Anthony Mann saying, “act dutiful”). And is this ever a teaming full of career cross-currents: Stewart’s off-screen alternate life as a WWII pilot and eventual general; Ted Williams going back into Marine pilot Korean War service during his peak; Stewart and Allyson’s previous co-casting in 1949’s baseball biopic The Stratton Story; 1954’s Stewart-Allyson-Mann The Glenn Miller Story (with which Command also shared screenwriter Valentine Davies); Allyson playing a game of ’54 catch with son Tim Considine in the Ernest Lehman-Robert Wise Executive Suite; and Allyson as the loyal test pilot wife opposite Alan Ladd in The McConnell Story, which would come out later in ’55.
Stewart and Mann made five good-to-classic Westerns together from 1950-55, as well as three comparable outliers: Thunder Bay; Glenn Miller (a huge hit); and this one before some kind of falling-out before the filming of 1957’s Night Passage ended their collaboration. Everything in Command, down to the Victor Young score, exudes “pro job” — but as with 1963’s SAC drama A Gathering of Eagles (also inevitably featuring Barry Sullivan), there’s too much of a disconnect between human drama and the overriding desire to be a Cold War primer in aerial defense for it to connect in any kind of meaningful way. Except for one thing. As just the second or third movie shot in VistaVision (following VV debut project White Christmas, sooner-to-open 3 Ring Circus was apparently filming around the same time in early ’54), the picture is so easy on the eye that I’ve seen it more times over the years than I can believe. Both then and now, VistaVision was to photographic sharpness and depth of field what Elvis was to simulated sex. And Command was one of the few pictures to have received one of the grandiose promotional but otherwise impractical “8-perf” showings on one of the giant museum piece VistaVision projectors, where reportedly breath-taken audiences saw an image that must have been about as big as Al Lang Field. Eventually, the film’s aerial photography ended up getting a special citation from the National Board of Review, which didn’t happen very often in those days.
Though half-a-handful of Paramount VistaVision titles have had their home releases taken off one of those 8-perf negatives, almost all (as here) have come from the standard 35mm versions. And though it’s true that few titles from Olive Films catalog are likely to keep those charged with remastering Criterions up very late at night, this is case of Olive taking what it’s been given when what’s been given looks pretty striking, starting with the reds on those Cardinal uniforms. I’m sure that with some work, this release could have been all-out visually staggering, but if you’ve seen Olive’s fairly pristine Blu-ray VistaVision renderings of Paramount’s The Mountain or The Geisha Boy, this one is in the same, well, ballpark. Despite the turgid script, there’s something to be said for climbing through a jet’s belly and more when you can actually make out the technological minutiae. Or looking at a lot of wild blue yonder with those unmistakable Paramount blues. Director Joe Dante has said that no other studio’s color looked like Paramount’s, and he’s right.
There must have been a lot of moviegoers keen to wallow in the introduction of the then new B-47 (one of the plot points) because depending on the source, Command was either the sixth or seventh biggest commercial performer of ’55, a year that had some box office horses. Whatever the ranking, the movie was popular enough for Paramount to re-issue theatrically in the early 1960s, when (in my town) it ended up on the bottom half of a twisted “guy” double bill to supplement the preeminent movie palace’s first-run engagement of John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef. The film booker must have scored from weed from a touring jazz musician, but let’s just call it contrasting approaches to military valor.