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Hellcats of the Navy (1957) is remembered mostly as the answer to a trivia question -- what was the only movie Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis appeared in together? This is it, and if you're wondering what room there was for a female star in a submarine movie (he was top-billed, she got second billing), it's a valid question. As a sub commander in this film based on a book by admirals Charles A. Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson, Reagan's stoical undersea honcho spends a lot more time hugging the bottom end of a periscope submerged in the Pacific and the Sea of Japan than he does on land hugging his sweetheart.
The claustrophobic look on his face was the real thing Reagan was genuinely uncomfortable in close quarters. It heightens the tension in this oddly bifurcated film in which the action, based as it is on actual WW II naval operations, is gripping enough, while the human interactions run a narrow gamut from contrived to wooden. Davis hasn't got a chance, either in terms of her character, or the lack of dramatic potential in the maladroit script. The other crew members take heart from images of pinup cheesecake featuring scantily-clad cuties in coy poses. We only ever see Davis's character, Helen Blair, however, in chaste nurse's whites. No bikini for her in the one photo we do see. It's a head shot of her in starched white nurse's cap.
She spends most of her onscreen time wringing her hands, literally and figuratively. She and Reagan's Commander Casey Abbott don't have love scenes. They have scenes talking about why they can't have love scenes. They broke their engagement when he went to war. She thought it was because he stopped caring, not knowing he was being noble, wanting to spare her widowhood and possibly single parenthood. This all gets worked out later, but not before she embarked on a rebound fling with Harry Lauter's diver. On a mission, the commander orders the surfaced sub to dive when a Japanese destroyer bears down on them, leaving the diver to die. The sub's executive officer (Arthur Franz, who imparts most of the intensity and conviction the film musters) suspects that a sense of personal rivalry with the diver, and not the commander's decision to remove the rest of the crew from risk, was behind the decision.
They clash. Later, the commander himself leaves the sub to play frogman when the sub is snagged on a steel cable. The second in command makes a similar decision, faced with a similar danger. Only from the vantage point of actual command under fire does he realize that Reagan's skipper may not have been driven by personal emotion after all. Difficult to imagine that he might have been, given his character's stiffness! By the end of the film, when the rescued skipper makes it home after a dangerous mission and is talking wedding with the nurse, his former adversary has signed on as best man, their differences resolved when the fiery second-in-command realizes it can be lonely at the top, and that the skipper's strong, silent, stoical approach is the way to go.
What's supposed to be the human interest is devoid of interest. What makes the film worth watching is its depiction of the specifics of the missions first to retrieve a Japanese mine in order to take it apart and figure out how the Japanese have rigged it to avoid sonar. Then in stealthily following a freighter through a mine-free channel in the heavily mined Sea of Japan in order to cripple Japan's supply ships. And also torpedoing a few Japanese naval vessels and, in a commando raid, a supply depot. It's a member in good standing of the fleet of patriotic WW II movies. You can readily understand why it got full Department of Defense co-operation, and why Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz introduces it (Nimitz appears as a character in the film, too, at a briefing, played by Selmer Jackson). What you don't quite understand is why the film waited until 1957 to get made. Even then, it must have seemed dated.
While Hellcats of the Navy hardly foreshadows Reagan's Presidency, the uncomplicated patriotic sentiments in it are voiced with conviction in what was to be Reagan's next-to-last film role (and Nancy's last). With their respective film careers fading, both had already segued into TV (they appeared in Zane Grey Theater and General Electric Theater installments together). The GE Theater, which Reagan famously hosted, led to America growing accustomed to having his genial affability enter their homes on a regular basis. His voice and manner were his selling points. He began his career in radio (four of his first eight film roles were based on radio characters). His range wasn't great, and nobody ever called his acting nuanced, but he projected a reassuring solidity and decency, a persona in which a bit of woodenness was as much an asset as a liability. Ironically, his last film role, in Don Siegel's 1964 remake of The Killers, saw him depart from that persona in a big way, when he literally slapped around a hapless Angie Dickinson.
The comfort that Reagan induced in audiences played a role in this production. Reagan was happy with the choice of Nathan Juran as director, having previously filmed with Juran on Law and Order (1953). There he played a lawman lured out of retirement to clean up a frontier town and found the collaboration agreeable. Juran (1907-2002) never achieved as a director the reputation he earned as art director of such films as Body and Soul (1947), Undertow (1949), Winchester '73 (1950) and Bend of the River (1952). Today he's remembered primarily as the man behind the camera on Ray Harryhausen's 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957) and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and for guiding such sci-fi campfests as The Brain from Planet Arous (1957) and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958). But he had an eye. And he was resourceful. There's no small amount of stock footage in Hellcats of the Navy, including some that looks suspiciously similar to sequences from Crash Drive (1943). He wasn't given a surefire proposition in Hellcats of the Navy. But he and the Reagans -- didn't tank with it. It's tight, economical, efficient, professional, and surprisingly given the inauspiciousness of its genesis -- shipshape.
Producer: Charles H. Schneer
Director: Nathan Juran
Screenplay: David Lang, Raymond T. Marcus; David Lang (screen story); Vice-Admiral Charles A. Lockwood Vice-Admiral USN Ret., Col. Hans Christian Adamson USAF Ret. (book "Hellcats of the Sea")
Cinematography: Irving Lippman
Art Direction: Rudi Feld
Music: Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Film Editing: Jerome Thoms
Cast: Ronald Reagan (Cmdr. Casey Abbott - Captain of USS Starfish), Nancy Davis (Nurse Lt. Helen Blair), Arthur Franz (Lt. Cmdr. Don Landon - XO of USS Starfish), Robert Arthur (Freddy Warren), William Leslie (Lt. Paul Prentice), William Phillips (Carroll).
by Jay Carr
Biographical Dictionary of Film, by David Thomson, 1981, William Morrow
The Films of Ronald Reagan, by Tony Thomas, 1980, Citadel
Early Reagan (Rise to Power), by Anne Edwards, 1987, Morrow
The Encyclopedia of Film, by Ephraim Katz, 1979, Thomas Crowell
Variety review, May 1, 1957