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By the late 1950s, James Cagney was beginning to tire of his acting career. Never one for the Hollywood high life, he preferred spending time on his sailboat or at his home in Beverly Hills or his farm in upstate New York, a property he found thanks to his friend, the actor and director Robert Montgomery. It took a very special project to lure him away from his idyllic life, but that project came along at the end of the decade, thanks once again to Montgomery, who planned to produce and direct a picture about then recently deceased Naval commander William Frederick Halsey, Jr., better known as Admiral "Bull" Halsey.
Born in New Jersey in 1882, Halsey graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1904, and earned his Naval Aviator's wings at the age of 52, the oldest person to do so in the history of the Navy. He commanded the sea war in the South Pacific in 1942, which is the setting of The Gallant Hours (1960), and was promoted to Five-Star Fleet Admiral in December 1945 (he was one of only five men to have held that rank). He retired from active duty with the Navy in 1947 and went into business. He died in August 1959 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, next to his father, also a Navy officer. Yet The Gallant Hours is not a sweeping biography of that life. It covers only five weeks in Halsey's life, primarily during the battle of Guadalcanal in 1942, when he was commander of the Pacific Fleet.
Neither is this the typical action-packed war film; the picture instead focuses with semi-documentary style on the duties and strains of command, earning both director and star critical praise for their approach. Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, called Cagney's performance "controlled to the last detail...one of the quietest, most reflective, subtlest jobs" he had ever done on screen, and credited the actor with giving "life and strong, heroic stature to the principal figure in the film."
Audiences at the time, apparently unengaged by the film's emphasis on dialogue and character development over battle scenes, did not make The Gallant Hours a hit. The film's success may also have been hampered by a lack of top marquee names. Although Cagney was still a draw at this stage of his career, his name alone wasn't necessarily enough to bring people into the theater. The film did, however, give a good boost to the career of second-billed Dennis Weaver, who was then best known as the memorable supporting character Chester on the long-running television Western Gunsmoke.
Cagney and Montgomery were friends for years, even if they were an unlikely duo on the surface Cagney the kid from the streets of New York, a self-admitted "strong Roosevelt liberal" who was once accused of Communist ties; Montgomery, scion of the privileged class, a conservative who appeared as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Nevertheless, they got along well and enjoyed working on The Gallant Hours. Both admired Halsey greatly, and the project became a labor of love for them. Cagney had high regard for Montgomery as a "deeply read, wonderfully intelligent man with a great social flair." In his autobiography, Cagney noted that his friend was "a chap raised with a silver spoon in his mouth who on ability and guts alone became the leader of the Screen Actors Guild, and in their first big fight with the Producers Association, laid his career right on the line." He also admired the way Montgomery tackled "the big guns of the television networks."
The Gallant Hours was their only movie together, although Cagney had appeared in an episode of Montgomery's Emmy-winning TV anthology series Robert Montgomery Presents in 1956. Cagney said in his autobiography that he played the role of an Army sergeant escorting the body of a dead buddy home from Korea "because I promised Bob that if I ever did any work on television, I'd do the first with him." Rarely seen on the small screen, Cagney also showed up on several shows after the release of The Gallant Hours to promote the picture, including one guest spot where he got to meet two other men he admired, heavyweight boxing champs Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey.
As he had done in the past, Cagney decided to retire after The Gallant Hours but was lured back one more time by Billy Wilder for the comedy One, Two, Three (1961). He did not return to the big screen again until Ragtime (1981), his final theatrical feature.
The uncredited narrator of the American sequences of The Gallant Hours is director Robert Montgomery, no stranger in front of the camera either. Born into a wealthy family, Montgomery had success as a screen actor from the late 1920s often as a likable tuxedoed young gent of the upper classes. As he matured, he showed his talent for heavier, darker roles and, in the 1940s, turned to directing and producing for screen, stage and television. He made his last big screen appearance as an actor in 1950, and The Gallant Hours was his final directorial effort. He was the father of the late Elizabeth Montgomery, best known as Samantha on TV's Bewitched.
James Cagney's and Robert Montgomery's sons appear in The Gallant Hours in uncredited bits as Marines. Robert Montgomery, Jr. made a few other films (12 to the Moon , College Confidential ) and a handful of TV appearances (Death Valley Days, Sea Hunt), but James Cagney, Jr. never made another film and died of a heart attack at the age of 45 in 1984, two years before his father's death.
Director: Robert Montgomery
Producer: Robert Montgomery
Screenplay: Frank D. Gilroy, Beirne Lay, Jr.
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction: Wiard Ihnen
Original Music: Roger Wagner
Cast: James Cagney (Fleet Admiral William Halsey), Dennis Weaver (Lt. Commander Andy Lowe), Ward Costello (Captain Harry Black), Vaughn Taylor (Commander Mike Pulaski), Richard Jaeckel (Lt. Commander Roy Webb).
by Rob Nixon