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Beginning in the mid-'40s, producer Samuel Bronston had nursed the notion of filming a biography of the American revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones, and patiently bided his time as Warner Brothers' attempts to adapt the Jones-inspired 1940 historical fiction Clear for Action bounced on and off the studio's production slate. In 1955, Bronston consummated a deal to swap those rights for his interest in a Charles Lindbergh project. Of course, Warner wound up releasing The Spirit of St. Louis (1957), and also wound up as distributor for Bronston's lavishly mounted and largely entertaining John Paul Jones (1959).
Directed by John Farrow (whose daughter Mia would make her first screen appearance here), the scenario follows the Scottish mariner (Robert Stack) as he plies his trade in the West Indies while discovering his distaste for the slave trade which is crucial to his business. Settling in Virginia, he makes a business acquaintance with attorney Patrick Henry (Macdonald Carey), and finds himself the patriot's romantic rival for socialite Dorothea Danders (Erin O'Brien). Desirous to prove himself loyal to his new land, John seeks and obtains a commission with the Continental navy. The course of his wartime career, and subsequent triumphs and tragedies, are ably played by a cast including Charles Coburn as Ben Franklin, Jean-Pierre Aumont as Louis XVI, and Bette Davis as Catherine the Great.
While Bronston's continuing reputation is primarily staked upon the lavish epics he lensed overseas to take advantage of the comparably modest labor expenditures, his bid to shoot John Paul Jones entirely in Europe raised the ire of the Hollywood American Federation of Labor Film Council, which not only threatened a boycott, but a protest to the U.S. Navy over their cooperation with the movie production. Bronston subsequently agreed to film several sequences stateside in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Recalling the project in his memoir Straight Shooting, Stack concluded that "Doing the life of a major historical figure is a little like having your first love affair. The experience may be terribly meaningful for you, but your audience is usually less than satisfied." He also found that the exacting detail placed into his period finery came with a price. "Unfortunately, the uniforms were made of a heavy, thick material. They were interesting to look at and would have been fine in Scotland, but were miserable to wear in Spain during the height of summer. I felt less like a great American naval figure than a candidate for the main course at one of Colonel Sanders' friendly neighborhood stands."
Bronston and his legendary gift at finagling left the star bemused as well. "He raised huge sums of money as if by magic. One day he showed up on the set with an enormous carpetbag full of exotic currencies - pfennigs, pesetas, francs, lira, and a variety of others I had never seen before, announcing that the currency represented my week's salary. 'I don't know what this stuff is,' I said. 'Give me something I can spend in the good old US of A.'"
Producer: Samuel Bronston
Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: John Farrow, Jesse Lasky, Jr.; Clements Ripley (story "Nor'wester"); Ben Hecht (uncredited)
Cinematography: Michel Kelber
Art Direction: Franz Bachelin
Music: Max Steiner
Film Editing: Eda Warren
Cast: Robert Stack (John Paul Jones), Bette Davis (Empress Catherine the Great), Marisa Pavan (Aimee de Tellison), Charles Coburn (Benjamin Franklin), Macdonald Carey (Patrick Henry), Jean-Pierre Aumont (King Louis XVI), David Farrar (John Wilkes), Peter Cushing (Captain Pearson), Susana Canales (Marie Antoinette), Georges Riviere (Russian Chamberlain), Tom Brannum (Peter Wooley), Bruce Cabot (Gunner Lowrie), Basil Sydney (Sir William Young).
by Jay S. Steinberg