A few weeks ago I declared as one of my New Year’s resolutions that I would watch more classic old movies. As compared to resolutions about training for a marathon run or learning a foreign language, this one didn’t exactly rank high on the difficulty or willpower meter. Nevertheless, I’m here to report that I’m doing pretty well on keeping it, aided by a winter cold that kept me more housebound than usual.
In fact, I’ve been on overdrive, with a big dose of historical and war movies:
Mister Roberts (1955) (4 of 4 stars)
Henry Fonda stars as Doug Roberts, a frustrated lieutenant serving on a rusty Navy cargo ship in the final year of the WWII’s Pacific Theatre. Roberts badly wants transfer to a combat ship, but his ambitions are blocked by a tyrannical captain (played by James Cagney) who refuses to approve his repeated requests. William Powell as the ship’s doc and Jack Lemmon as hapless Ensign Pulver round out a great cast of major supporting characters.
This is a superb, touching, and funny movie, evocative of its era but much, much more than a period piece. It’s easy to see why it was first such a hit on the Broadway stage, premiering in 1948 and running for years with Fonda in the lead role. It’s equally easy to watch the movie and imagine how it was staged as a play.
John Paul Jones (1959) (2.5 stars)
Robert Stack plays the America’s first Revolutionary War naval hero, Capt. John Paul Jones. I found it a bit of a disappointment. Though not without its interesting segments, the movie lacks dramatic pull.
Shenandoah (1965) (3 stars)
James Stewart stars in this Civil War story of Virginia farmer Charlie Anderson, who stubbornly tries to keep himself and his family out of the war until circumstances make it impossible to do so. This is an old fashioned Hollywood depiction of the Civil War, and Stewart makes it worth watching. I’ve watched this movie several times over the years, and I’m sure I’ll be doing so again.
The Flying Fleet (1929) (3 stars)
This is a historical nugget, a silent movie about the early years of naval aviation, featuring fascinating film footage of old Navy biplanes and the U.S.S. Langley, the very first American aircraft carrier. Co-stars Ramon Novarro and Ralph Graves are young pilots who compete for plum missions and for the attentions of Anita Page, a hottie of the silent film era.
The Flying Fleet was co-authored by Frank “Spig” Wead, a naval aviation pioneer whose colorful career would later be the subject of The Wings of Eagles (1957), starring John Wayne. It was intended to glamorize and promote naval aviation, which was fighting for legitimacy among traditional, hidebound Navy leaders and the general public. Here’s a trailer: