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Here Comes the Navy

Here Comes the Navy(1934)

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teaser Here Comes the Navy (1934)

Modern-day military movies are more likely to focus on Marine special forces or Navy SEALs than on ordinary sailors, but until the Vietnam era the United States Navy had enough mystique to fuel many popular films. Here Comes the Navy, made between the world wars in 1934, is a good example. Drenched in navy atmosphere, it was filmed in real navy locations and populated with real navy extras polishing guns and swabbing decks in the background. Most impressive of all, much of the action was shot on the U.S.S. Arizona, which became legendary when Japanese aircraft sunk it in the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the U.S. into World War II. All this makes the film a natural for navy buffs and a smooth-sailing history lesson for everyone else.

The picture has good Hollywood credentials, too. Its stars are James Cagney and Pat O'Brien, making the first of their nine movies together they did seven more for Warner Bros. and then reunited for Ragtime in 1981, the last feature for both of them. Here Comes the Navy also scored a nomination for the Best Picture Academy Award, which it lost along with such other contenders as The Thin Man and The Gay Divorcee to It Happened One Night, a hard movie to beat.

Cagney plays Chester "Chesty" O'Conner, a can-do working guy who's getting through the Depression by working as a civilian riveter for the navy. There he runs afoul of Biff Martin, chief petty officer of the Arizona, played by O'Brien with just a smidgen less feistiness than Cagney displays. Their squabble turns into a brawl when they compete for a woman at a dance, and when Chesty loses the fight the lovely lady distracts him just as Biff throws his best punch the scrappy laborer sets his sights on revenge. This is easier said than done, since Biff immediately goes to sea, so Chesty does what any self-respecting movie character would do: He joins the navy, volunteers for the Arizona, and looks forward to decking his enemy.

Eventually the two meet again, but when Chesty prepares to give Biff what's coming to him, Biff informs him of something he should have learned in basic training: Officers rank higher than enlisted men, and if Chesty's fists fly, the rest of his body will land in the brig. Complicating things further, Chesty sees another alluring woman and falls so much in love that he can't give her up even when she turns out to be Dorothy "Dot" Martin, his enemy's loving sister. This sends all of them into a three-way feud, with Dorothy snagged between her sailor friend's wooing and her big brother's scolding.

Could things be any worse? You bet. Chesty sneaks off the ship to see Dorothy, and gets caught when he tries to sneak back on. Angry at being punished, he belligerently bad-mouths the navy, which shocks his shipboard buddies and turns them against him. Deciding he's beaten all around, Chesty slinks away and transfers from battleship duty to a dirigible unit. There he shows he's a trusty American after all, and everyone has a happy Hollywood ending.

In addition to the U.S.S. Arizona, parts of Here Comes the Navy were shot on location at real navy yards. The picture also shows maneuvers by the Pacific Fleet, and the climax -- when Chesty performs a daring rescue involving a dirigible trying to land at sea -- uses footage of the U.S.S. Macon, an American airship that was downed by a storm the following year, bringing an end to the military's experiment with lighter-than-air vehicles. The film's rescue scene is based on an actual incident two years earlier, when crewmen of the U.S.S. Akron held onto a blimp's ground ropes as it lifted into the air; the real-life accident killed two men, but this didn't stop Warner Bros. from transforming it into a chance for Chesty to save the day. Cagney did some of his own stunt work, burning his hands on a rope until they "looked like hamburger," as he described it later.

Along with its glimpses of armed-forces history, Here Comes the Navy reflects an interesting moment in Hollywood history: It was Cagney's first movie after the Catholic Legion of Decency gained censorship power in the industry, and Warner Bros. wanted to signal that the star's brash personality wouldn't be toned down as long as it kept selling tickets. That said, the movie struck some observers as unexpectedly subdued. In addition to laughs and authenticity, the reviewer for the New York Times praised it for having "the added advantage, in these parlous times, of being beyond censorial reproach." This was especially "remarkable" in a Cagney production, the critic continued, since his "rough-and-tumble antics in several earlier pictures" had been "held up to scorn by those who would reform the screen." While the star himself hadn't changed his style, the reviewer wrote, "the restraining hand of the producer, writer, director (or all three), never is relinquished."

The director who may or may not have restrained Cagney was Lloyd Bacon, whose most celebrated picture is 42nd Street, the popular Depression musical of 1933. That movie gains a lot of its pizzazz from the song-and-dance numbers staged by Busby Berkeley, and in Here Comes the Navy the military interludes serve a similar purpose, punching up a comedy-drama scenario that might easily run out of steam on its own.

The comedy episodes were enthusiastically received by the New York Times reviewer, who applauded some of "the heartiest laughs of the current cinema season" and called the finale, wherein a caterwauling old lady sings a wedding song from lyrics tattooed on her dopey son's torso, a "perfect comedy climax." Today's viewers won't be so tickled by such silliness, and it's painful to watch the movie's disgracefully racist material, as when Chesty puts on blackface so he can slip off the ship among African-American sailors going on leave. Like the battleship and dirigible sequences, these are best viewed as historical artifacts from America's not-so-distant past. Seen in this light, Here Comes the Navy has more to reveal than Cagney's talent for high-spirited hijinks.

Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Earl Baldwin, Ben Markson
Cinematographer: Arthur Edeson
Film Editing: George Amy
Art Direction: Esdras Hartley
With: James Cagney (Chesty), Pat O'Brien (Biff), Gloria Stuart (Dorothy), Frank McHugh (Droopy), Dorothy Tree (Gladys), Robert Barrat (Commander Denny), Willard Robertson (executive officer), Guinn Williams (dance-floor manager), Howard Hickman (captain), Maude Eburne (Droopy's mother), George Irving (admiral).

by David Sterritt

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