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Such was the breadth and complexity of the Golden Age studio system that it sometimes seems as though anything could have been made within those teeming factories. Or, that there were so many projects running, fed by such a variety of viewpoints and strategies, that a natural degree of entropy and chaos could set in, manifesting in unpredictable and organic ways like a natural system under atmospheric pressure. That's the sense you get watching Thunder Afloat, a film made at MGM in 1939 that we can assume Louis B. Mayer had next to no knowledge of, probably even after it was released.
A bizarre WWI potboiler about an irascible New England shipping captain wrestling his way through duty with the Naval Reserve - which, the film's opening title tells us, actively hunted and sank German u-boats off the Atlantic coast - Thunder Afloat is a Wallace Beery vehicle top to bottom, which by 1939 meant that it was a small-budgeted, low-ambition affair. Though Beery was one of Hollywood's top 10 moneymakers throughout the '30s, by the time WWII was under way, his career limped along with unofficial B pictures, mostly comedies and wartime propaganda, until his death in 1949. When Joel and Ethan Coen had their titular hero in Barton Fink (1991) - a pretentious Odets-like playwright gone to Hollywood on contract - face the prospect of scripting a "Wallace Beery wrestling movie," something like the lowest order of business within the vast studio machine, a programmer like Thunder Afloat is what they had in mind. (Beery did actually make one wrestling film, the John Ford-directed Flesh, back in 1932, which was co-written by a slumming William Faulkner - a version of whom also figured prominently in Fink. Unbelievably, the Coens didn't know anything about the rarely-screened Flesh until after their film was completed.)
Surely forgotten in every sense by 1940, the film plays almost like a formula project that made itself according to a Hollywood-screenplay program, without supervision. Beery's splenetic tug owner, abetted by devoted daughter Virginia Grey, nurtures a rivalry with Chester Morris's port-town competitor, and eventually tricks him into signing up for the Reserve. But then Beery's slovenly oaf, exploiting the contracts left open by Morris's departure, confronts a German sub out at sea - and has his ship sunk for his trouble. Signing up himself now, he ends up on the same sub-hunter as Morris, but as Morris's subordinate - and a predictable clash of stubborn pride and military duty commence to take the old hog down several pegs, and then allow him to redeem himself heroically in the end, just in time for Morris and Grey to realize a romance.
The story is stock, but the film's historical placement is anything but. In 1939 the United States was still officially neutral in the gathering storm of WWII in Europe and Asia, and anti-German films were still virtually verboten. Instead, the filmmakers (including Andy Hardy-bound director George B. Seitz and original writer Commander Harvey Haislip) used the circumstances of 1917 as a proxy for new wartime propaganda. This remains an odd strategy, however, because films about WWI, made in Hollywood and elsewhere, were hardly ever flag-wavers, and almost never indulged in naked nationalism. The carnage-saturated and morally ambivalent legacy of the Great War was such that every culture's take on it in the subsequent decades was marked by rue, sorrow and often a sense of brotherly empathy for the enemy in question. Everyone who fought in that war experienced the conflict itself as their ultimate adversary, and the "filthy Hun" propaganda created by various governments during the fighting was quickly superseded by the pointless horror of the battlefield itself.
Thus, the bullheaded patriotism manifested in Thunder Afloat is a message out of time, pinned awkwardly to the Great War but actually targeted ahead, at the conflict to come. As it is, anachronisms are thick on the ground, from Grey's late-'30s couture to much of the naval footage of the submarines, which are distinctly interwar models, not the submersible war ships of 1914. (The impressive "Y gun" depth charge delivery system on view wasn't available until the very end of the war.) As a result, Thunder Afloat is very much a film of its precarious moment, more revealing of the day of its release than of the year in which the narrative is ostensibly set, necessarily without a single swastika or mention of Hitler.
Still, Beery was the main attraction of the day, and he's a spectacle - one of the weirdest movie stars Hollywood has ever produced, a belligerent, slow-thinking, hard-drinking yokel with slow reflexes and, though commonly cast in comedies, an unmistakable capacity for brute violence. (There is evidence that he helped beat Three Stooges creator Ted Healy to death in 1937, and Gloria Swanson claimed in her memoir that he'd raped her on their wedding night in 1917, and then forced her to drink an abortifacient.) A certain substantial chunk of the movie-going public - much of it in the South and the Midwest - loved Beery's low-class overacting and deliberate country-bumpkin grumpiness, evoking for many their own aging fathers, uncles and hometown curmudgeons. Today, Beery's charm, like Jackie Gleason's and Seth Rogen's after him, is an acquired taste, but an indelible facet of American life between the wars.
By Michael Atkinson