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Three young men from radically different backgrounds become roommates and quick friends at the Naval Academy in Annapolis in Navy Blue and Gold (1937). Richard Gates (Tom Brown) is a wealthy preppie. John "Truck" Cross (James Stewart) is an enlisted man in the Navy anxious to be an officer and to clear the name of his father, who was dishonorably discharged from Annapolis. Roger Ash (Robert Young) is a cocky kid with an irreverent attitude who defies Navy tradition at every turn. The film follows their assorted adventures, studying, romancing and defying or upholding the values of the Academy. All are also players on the Naval Academy football squad and two of them, Ash and Cross, vie for the same woman, Gates' beautiful, vivacious sister Patricia (Florence Rice). A former Annapolis cadet, Captain Skinny Dawes (Lionel Barrymore), now a beloved fixture on the Annapolis scene, becomes a kind of father figure and guardian angel to the trio, occasionally doing his part to get them out of a tight jam.
The rousing climax of the film - an away game at West Point where the Navy-Army rivalry is intense - occurs as Cross awaits news of his dismissal from the Navy for lying about his true identity and Captain Dawes lies sick in the hospital, his very health apparently hinging on a Navy football win.
Navy Blue and Gold had several secrets to its success, offering audiences a celebration of three American institutions: football, Annapolis and the engaging James Stewart. Much of the critical praise for the film was heaped on Stewart's shoulders, who offered a thoroughly convincing performance as an earnest, go-Navy plebe who overcomes tremendous odds in his desire to honor the Academy and his father. The New York Herald Tribune said of Stewart, "If Navy Blue and Gold is not the most beguiling service-college picture yet filmed, it is not Mr. Stewart's fault." The review went on to add, "It is due to his expert rendition of a rather preposterous part that a rather preposterous show becomes generally exciting."
Maybe there were personal reasons for the conviction with which Stewart played a cadet. Though he eventually went to Princeton and graduated with a degree in architecture, James Stewart at one point wanted to attend Annapolis. In real life, Stewart had a long legacy of service, first as an Eagle Scout growing up in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania and then as an Air Force officer during WWII and the first star to enter service, joining up a year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was highly decorated and eventually served in the Air Force Reserve before retiring as a brigadier general, the highest ranking officer in the US military.
Though all three leads were considered a little old to play new cadets (Young was 30, Brown 24 and Stewart 29), the public embraced the film and its patriotic message. The director of Navy Blue and Gold, Sam Wood, undoubtedly played a major role in crafting a wholesome, crowd-pleasing entertainment out of material that might have been hackneyed in another man's hands. Wood had a love of fitness and sports which was often reflected in the other films he helmed such as the story of baseball legend Lou Gehrig in The Pride of the Yankees (1942) and The Stratton Story (1949) starring James Stewart as Chicago White Sox pitcher Monty Stratton, whose career continued despite losing a leg in a hunting accident. Wood's direction of the final Army-Navy game is especially effective, using actual footage of the cadets performing cheers, the Army mule and Navy goat mascots and the jubilation of the cadet-filled stadium.
Director: Sam Wood
Producer: Sam ZimbalistScreenplay: George Bruce based on his novel
Cinematography: John Seitz
Production Design: Cedric Gibbons, Urie McCleary
Music: Edward Ward
Cast: Robert Young (Roger Ash), James Stewart (John "Truck" Cross), Lionel Barrymore (Capt. Skinny Dawes), Florence Rice (Patricia Gates), Billie Burke (Mrs. Alyce Gates), Tom Brown (Richard Arnold Gates, Jr.), Samuel S. Hinds (Richard A. Gates, Sr.), Paul Kelly (Tommy Milton), Frank Albertson (Weeks).
by Felicia Feaster