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When independent producers Samuel Bischoff and David Diamond were casting affordable young actors to play the Screaming Eagles (1956), members of the US Army's 101st Airborne Infantry Division who parachuted into France for the Invasion of Normandy, it was an added benefit that some of them had actually fought in World War II. Star Tom Tryon had served with the US Navy in the South Pacific while Alvy Moore had landed at Okinawa with the Marines. Martin Milner had appeared in Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) and Halls of Montezuma (1950) prior to his own military service, making training films for the Army's Special Services Division. After enlisting in the Navy in 1942, Jan Merlin served on a destroyer in the North Atlantic and Pacific fleets and was aboard the first ship to enter Japan's Inland Sea after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Initially, Merlin and Tryon were cast in Screaming Eagles with Tryon as the compassionate Lieutenant Pauling and Merlin as the embittered Private Mason. It was Tryon's height that convinced director Charles F. Haas to flip-flop the roles, given that it would be easier for Tryon to carry Merlin than vice versa. The actors were delighted with the switch, with Tryon eager to shed his clean-cut image while Merlin was anxious to break away from his stock-in-trade of slit-eyed heavies.
Charles Haas is one of the few Hollywood directors - if not the only one - to have studied under poet T. S. Eliot, who was a visiting professor during Haas' final years at Harvard University. In Hollywood by 1935, the Chicago-born Haas got his foot in the film industry's door as a movie extra but found regular work as an editor's assistant at Universal in the years leading up to World War II. During his military service, Haas shot training films for the Army Signal Corps and after his discharge turned to making industrial films and later directing for television. A stint with ABC led to Haas being recommended for work as a live action director on Disney Studio's The Mickey Mouse Club, for whom he made the first Hardy Boys serial. Screaming Eagles marked Haas' feature film debut, which he shot back-to-back with the western Star in the Dust (1956), starring John Agar. Haas would helm eight more features over the next decade but remains best known as an efficient and reliable TV director, his resume proud in episodes of such popular series as Perry Mason, 77 Sunset Strip, Bonanza, The Outer Limits and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
Despite the high testosterone level of Screaming Eagles' principal players, the nut of the project was the work of a woman. A former Los Angeles Times reporter, Virginia Kellogg was a story developer for Warner Brothers who had gotten the ball rolling on the noir classic White Heat (1949) and spent time behind bars to research the prison picture Caged (1950); both received Academy Award nominations for Best Original Story. (Kellogg's chosen title, "White Heat," had been a reference not to the madness of James Cagney's gangster antihero Cody Jarrett, whom she called Blackie Flynn, but to the relentlessness of the US Secret Service.) As had been the custom at Warner's, Kellogg's treatment was handed off by Bischoff and Diamond to writer Robert Presnell, Jr. A former journalist himself, Presnell had parlayed his experience as a reporter for The Milwaukee Journal into careers as a novelist and second generation screenwriter (his father wrote Meet John Doe  for Frank Capra), while also writing and directing for radio. Presnell's draft of Screaming Eagles was ultimately passed to David Lang, whose specialty was westerns and whose shooting script went before the cameras in and around Georgia's Fort Benning in November 1955.
Most of the cast of Screaming Eagles went on to greater glory on both big and small screens. After his tenure as a Hollywood leading man in such films as The Cardinal (1963) and In Harm's Way (1965), Tom Tryon enjoyed a second career as a bestselling novelist. Martin Milner starred in two successful TV series, Route 66 (1960-1964) and Adam 12 (1968-1972) while Alvy Moore played harebrained hayseed Hank Kimball on the CBS sitcom Green Acres (1965-1971). Paul Burke enjoyed moderate success as a second string Hollywood leading man and the star of two dramatic TV series, Naked City (1960-1963) and Twelve O'Clock High (1963-1967). Robert Blake had struggled after his early success as one of Hal Roach's Our Gang but scored with his incendiary turn in In Cold Blood (1967) and as the star of the hit cop show Baretta (1975-1978). Screaming Eagles offered an early film role for Mark Damon, later the star of Roger Corman's House of Usher (1960) and an independent producer of note (the Academy Award-winning Monster ). In his 2007 memoirs, Damon recalled little about the production, except for a memorable compliment paid to him by costar Alvy Moore after shooting his last scene: "You die good, kid."
Producers: Samuel Bischoff, David Diamond
Director: Charles F. Haas
Screenplay: David Lang, Robert Presnell, Jr. (writers); Virginia Kellogg (story)
Cinematography: Harry Neumann
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Music: Harry Sukman
Film Editing: Robert S. Eisen
Cast: Tom Tryon (Pvt. Mason), Jan Merlin (Lt. Pauling), Pat Conway (Sgt. Forrest), Martin Milner (Pvt. Corliss), Ralph Votrian (Pvt. Talbot), Paul Smith (Pvt. Foley), Joe Di Reda (Pvt. Dubrowski), Alvy Moore (Pvt. Grimes), Paul Burke (Cpl. Dreef), Jacqueline Beer (Marianne, French refugee).
by Richard Harland Smith
Jan Merlin biography, www.slick-net.com
Interview with Jan Merlin and Frankie Thomas by Bill Ruehlmann, http://thethunderchild.com
From Cowboy to Mogul to Monster: The Neverending Story of Film Pioneer Mark Damon by Linda Schreyer with Mark Damon (AuthorHouse, 2008)
White Heat: Warner Brothers Screenplay Series, introduction by Patrick McGilligan (University of Wisconsin Press, 1984)
"Caged: Classic, Not Camp" by Alan K. Rode, Noir City Sentinel (Summer 2010), www.filmnoirfoundation.org