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An Annapolis Story

An Annapolis Story(1955)

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A military drama set during the Korean Conflict, An Annapolis Story (1955) was well served by its director, Don Siegel, whose reputation rested on his ability to deliver appealing male characters in tightly constructed stories highlighted by explosive action sequences. The film was produced at Allied Artists, a small production company that evolved out of Poverty Row's most famous studio, Monogram Pictures. Allied Artists had been formed by producer Walter Mirisch and studio head Steve Broidy to produce and release films with higher production values than Monogram's low-low budget series and b-movies. In 1952, the studio ceased using the Monogram name and produced movies only as Allied Artists. Mirisch attempted to push Allied Artists toward more ambitious productions featuring big-name stars and location shooting, while Broidy tended to fall back on low-budget action dramas or genre films. An Annapolis Story was essentially a Broidy-style film, though Mirisch served as producer.

The film stars Kevin McCarthy and John Derek as brothers Jim and Tony Scott, who are midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. As the oldest, Jim shoulders the responsibility for guiding the handsome but impulsive Tony. Jim helps Tony pass a difficult test so the latter can play football in the big Army-Navy game, but Tony's lack of discipline and his unwillingness to follow the coach's directions get him benched. The sequence sets up the close relationship between the two brothers but also demonstrates their opposing personalities.

Later, at the celebratory dance, Jim proudly introduces the dashing Tony to his long-time girlfriend, Peggy. Jim wants to marry Peggy, but she prefers to wait until he returns from his mandatory stint aboard a navy ship.

Jim and Tony are assigned to the same ship, and Jim continues to look out for his younger brother. During a maneuver at sea involving helicopters and naval jets, Tony's plane crashes into the water, rendering him unconscious with a head injury. Ever the responsible brother, Jim dives from a helicopter into the sea to rescue him. The two brothers are separated for the first time when Tony is sent to the Naval Academy hospital to recuperate. While Jim continues his training aboard ship, Peggy and Tony grow close. Like his older brother, Tony is smitten by Peggy's charm and proposes marriage, but she turns him down. When Jim returns, he discovers their betrayal, creating a rift between the two brothers and altering his typically good-natured personality.

After graduation, the brothers serve together at the Pensacola Naval Station, where they begin training as jet pilots. Tony attempts to patch up the relationship, but the angry, embittered Jim refuses. In the meantime, the Korean Conflict escalates, resulting in the assignment of Tony and Jim to an aircraft carrier overseas. On leave in Tokyo, Tony tries to rekindle his fling with Peggy, but she admits that she still loves Jim. Tony discovers the meaning of maturity when the tables are turned, and he not only rescues his older brother during a dangerous mission but steps aside so Jim and Peggy can reconcile.

An Annapolis Story was shot on Allied Artists' tiny, run-down backlot, much to the dismay of director Don Siegel. Producer Walter Mirisch, who did not have much interest in the film, instructed Siegel to shoot it as quickly as possible. In lieu of location shooting at Annapolis, the studio provided stock footage for the necessary shots of the Naval Academy campus. Siegel was handed all manner of pre-existing color footage of Annapolis, including 16mm shots, 8mm bits, and even still photographs, which he had to integrate into the scenes and sequences. Allied Artists wanted the film to be in color, which on the surface might seem extravagant given the budget and schedule. But, Siegel and cinematographer Sam Leavitt were assigned one huge, old-fashioned Technicolor camera, which represented the state of the studio's ancient equipment. The camera's large casing hampered its maneuverability, requiring more time and effort in set-up.

Don Siegel proved the perfect director for such a project. He began his career at Warner Bros., where he worked his way up from the film library to the insert department to editorial to become an assistant editor. In the late 1930s, he was placed in charge of the montage department, where he composed Hollywood-style montages--those rapid-fire sequences consisting of brief shots edited together to condense space, time, and information--for Warner Bros.'s major feature films, including Casablanca (1942), Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Sergeant York (1941), and To Have and Have Not (1944). While churning out montages, he also served as an assistant director and second-unit director. His education at Warners gave him a thorough understanding of shot construction, whether it be the function of one insert (generally, a close-up of a person or object that is photographed separately from the rest of a scene) or the impact of a series of shots edited together. If there was one director who could coherently integrate a variety of stock footage shots into a narrative scene or sequence, it was Siegel.

Siegel's background at Warner Bros. influenced his overall style as a director as well as his working methods. He left Warners in 1946 to pursue a career as a free-lance director for a variety of studios that quickly realized the benefits of hiring Siegel. By meticulously planning his shots, particularly for action sequences, he not only worked quickly but also shot less film. The studios appreciated the time and cost efficiency, while Siegel enjoyed greater control over the finished product because there were fewer takes of specific shots and scenes for producers to use to re-edit his films.

An Annapolis Story benefitted from the Siegel touch. His personal style was a version of Hollywood's classic narrative style in which the story is foregrounded over the visual techniques that support the narrative without overshadowing it. Like much of Siegel's work, An Annapolis Story was a tightly structured narrative propelled by forceful pacing, which helped gloss over the weaknesses or clichs in the script. Siegel preferred lean, uncluttered narratives, and, while the storyline for An Annapolis Story may be burdened with one too many plot turns, it never meanders away from the central conflict between the two brothers. Siegel liked to have the script finalized and the film completely cast before production. In the case of An Annapolis Story, John Derek, who was originally signed to play Jim, threw him a curve ball when he wanted to change roles with Kevin McCarthy at the last minute. Siegel tried to convince him that the character of Jim was the juicier role, but the two leads switched anyway--a better casting decision in retrospect.

Siegel's skills in editing made him one of the era's best directors of action sequences. He tended to stage a variety of set-ups and shot them from a number of angles to create a kinetically charged chase, crash, or explosion. Several action scenes add spice to An Annapolis Story, including Tony's plane crash into the sea and the final air and ground battle.

In later years, Siegel became known for his antihero protagonists, characters who are disgruntled, alienated, or antisocial. Often, his hard-edged protagonists and memorable antagonists hold so much in common that they serve as mirror images of each other. His early films from the 1950s, especially those he undertook for the money or experience, don't always feature such edgy protagonists, but they do offer evidence of Siegel's inclinations and preferences. In An Annapolis Story, Jim and Tony are close brothers who have opposing personalities. Jim is a responsible, mature, good-natured man who sacrifices his personal desires and safety for those he loves, especially Tony. In contrast, the too-handsome Tony is an impulsive, self-centered but charismatic character who pursues his own goals with little thought to others. After Tony falls in love with Peggy, the brothers switch personalities to some degree: An angry Jim keeps to himself while brooding over the betrayal, and Tony makes personal sacrifices for the sake of his older brother.

An Annapolis Story is seldom discussed in overviews of Don Siegel's career. Though reflective of his style and working methods, the film has the misfortune of bad timing. It follows Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), which was Siegel's breakthrough film, and it precedes one of his masterworks, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which also stars Kevin McCarthy. Sandwiched between two significant films, An Annapolis Story has been overlooked and under-discussed.

Producer: Walter Mirisch for Allied Artists Pictures Corp.
Director: Don Siegel
Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring (as Geoffrey Homes) and Daniel B. Ullman
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Editor: William Austin
Music: Marlin Skiles
Visual Effects: Ray Mercer
Special Effects: Augie Lohman
Cast: Tony Scott (John Derek), Peggy Lord (Diana Lynn), Jim Scott (Kevin McCarthy), Willie Warren (Alvy Moore), Spud Dooley (Pat Conway), Watson (L. Q. Jones), Macklin (John Kirby), Mrs. Scott (Barbara Brown), Connie (Fran Bennett), Mrs. Lord (Betty Lou Gerson), Air Group Commander Austin (Robert Osterloh), Boxing Coach (John Doucette).

by Susan Doll

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