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Joe Smith, American

Joe Smith, American(1942)

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teaser Joe Smith, American (1942)

Louis B. Mayer never liked to refer to it as such, but MGM had a B unit just like any other studio, a production wing that made lower budget features to fill out the second half of a double bill with an A picture. To oversee this unit, the studio brought back Dore Schary, a writer who had left Metro a short time before after run-ins with his autocratic boss, producer Harry Rapf. The high-minded young Schary was glad to return in a supervisory role, convinced he could bring important themes and worthy stories to the screen at lower costs, rather than using the B unit merely for cheap action and exploitation pictures. He got the opportunity to prove the value of this notion with several releases, most notably Joe Smith, American (1942), a flag-waver that struck a chord with war-era filmgoers and gave the studio a box-office hit.

The story follows the ordeal, and eventual triumph, of an ordinary-Joe factory worker entrusted with top-secret plans for a new bombsight (a device used by aircraft to accurately hit targets). Kidnapped by enemy agents, he is able to endure brutal torture by keeping in his mind the memories of all the happiest moments of his life. The flashback structure hooked the audience into the pride and joy of an all-American life worth fighting for and illustrated that anyone, even the most commonplace person on the homefront, could be a hero.

The story shared elements with the Alfred Hitchcock thriller Saboteur (1942) released a few months later, which featured Robert Cummings as an ordinary factory worker pursued by Nazi agents. Both called to mind actual espionage cases of the time. Hitchcock's film even used stock footage of the ocean liner SS Normandie, which had caught fire and capsized in New York harbor in February 1942. The fire was, in fact, the result of a welding accident not, as rumored initially, sabotage, but Hitchcock inserted the footage to imply the ship's destruction was the work of his film's villain. Although not directly referred to in Joe Smith, American, the public was well aware of the case of Herman Lang, a German spy who was convicted in 1941 of giving secret plans for the advanced Norden bombsight to the Nazis in 1938. In Joe Smith, American, however, the secret remains safe, thanks to Joe's fortitude and faith and his ability to escape and lead authorities back to the enemy.

For their average guy, the producers cast reliable second-string star Robert Young, who would extend his comforting, trustworthy persona into a successful television career beginning in the 1950s as the dad on the long-running sitcom Father Knows Best and later as the down-to-earth family doctor Marcus Welby, M.D. Young made his film debut in 1928. He signed with MGM in 1931 and for the next 14 years was an all-purpose leading man, supporting many of the studios' top female stars in major productions and playing leads mostly in B pictures.

His wife Mary is played by Marsha Hunt, who had just received good notices for her role as a suicidal young woman in the Greer Garson vehicle Blossoms in the Dust (1941). Hunt was also a frequently used contract player with several notable supporting roles to her credit but never in the top rank of stars. Her future career was not as successful as Young's, due largely to the Hollywood blacklist that tainted her and then husband Robert Presnell, Jr. with communist sympathies. Hunt appeared in a number of television series episodes beginning in the late 1950s, and guest starred once on Young's medical show. Around the same time, she had one of her more notable later roles, as the mother in fellow blacklistee Dalton Trumbo's anti-war film Johnny Got His Gun (1971).

B pictures proved to a good training ground for future stars. Both Ava Gardner and John Raitt (later known for Broadway musicals and as the father of musician Bonnie Raitt) are listed in the cast by many sources, although they receive no screen credit and are likely to be missed by anything less than an eagle eye. Child star and future actor Robert Blake appears in a flashback as the young Joe Smith.

These programmers were also good opportunities for the people behind the camera. Writer Paul Gallico, whose story in Cosmopolitan magazine was the source material for the screenplay, was Oscar®-nominated this same year for the original story of the Lou Gehrig biography The Pride of the Yankees (1942). Director Richard Thorpe didn't need Joe Smith, American to help his career; he had already made more than 130 movies since 1923. Although he later helmed a few big-budget productions, such as Ivanhoe (1952), and worked on lesser releases of major stars like Joan Crawford, Gary Cooper, and Elvis Presley, B movies were his bread and butter, along with sequels in several hit series, among them Tarzan and the Thin Man franchises. Thorpe has never been rated very high among filmmakers, but he is recognized as one of the most prolific directors of all time with more than 180 films to his credit, close to 70 of them in his 30-year association with MGM.

Joe Smith, American was remade in 1959 as The Big Operator, with Steve Cochran and Mamie Van Doren as the "average" couple and Mickey Rooney as the sadistic gangland boss who tortures the hero, the emphasis shifting from war espionage to labor racketeering. The characters of Joe and Mary, and their son Johnny - or the character names, at any rate - turned up later as the all-American family hearing God over the airwaves in The Next Voice You Hear... (1950), produced by Dore Schary in his third go-round at the studio, this time as head of production.

Director: Richard Thorpe
Producers: Jack Chertok; Dore Schary and Harry Rapf (uncredited)
Screenplay: Allen Rivkin, based on the story "The Adventures of Joe Smith, American" by Paul Gallico
Cinematography: Charles Lawton
Editing: Elmo Veron
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof
Cast: Robert Young (Joe Smith), Marsha Hunt (Mary Smith), Harvey Stephens (Freddie Dunhill), Darryl Hickman (Johnny Smith), Jonathan Hale (Blake McKettrick).

by Rob Nixon

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