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Joan Bennett and Charles Coburn fought city hall in the charming 1946 comedy from 20th Century-Fox, Colonel Effingham's Raid. Adapted from Berry Fleming's 1943 bestseller, it told of a Spanish-American War veteran who returns to his Georgia hometown on the eve of World War II to discover that the corrupt government is planning to tear down an historical courthouse so they can get rich from the construction of a new building. His battle to save local history brings small-town eccentricities to the foreground while also paving the way for Bennett's romance with reporter William Eythe.
Fleming had based his novel on the uproar that followed plans to tear down the Richmond County Courthouse in August, Ga. Originally Fox planned to give the female lead to a bona fide Southerner, Mary Anderson, one of the many screen hopefuls discovered when David O. Selznick sent his talent scouts into the South to find an actress to play Scarlett O'Hara. Alabama-born Anderson was one of only two women discovered on the trip to actually land a role in 1939's Gone with the Wind (she played Maybelle Merriwether, while Savannah, Ga., native Alicia Rhett played India Wilkes), but Anderson was the only one of the two to stay in Hollywood. To play the colonel, the studio announced a decided Northerner, Monty Woolley.
By the time Colonel Effingham's Raid went before cameras, Fox had changed actors and even switched heritages. Now Coburn, who was not only born in Savannah, but created a theatre company whose home still stands there, was the perfect choice for Col. Effingham, while Joan Bennett, though born in New Jersey, at least had the bearing for her role as a society reporter.
Unfortunately, for Bennett, that was about all the role demanded of her. She had been associated with the studio since it was just Fox Pictures and had experienced several career breakthroughs there. Although under contract to independent producer Walter Wanger, who was also her husband, since the early '30s, she had continued coming back to the studio, where she had scored one of her best roles as the plucky streetwalker in director Fritz Lang's Man Hunt (1941). Since then, however, Fox's assignments for her had grown increasingly lackluster. Her top-billed but inconsequential role in Colonel Effingham's Raid would be her last for Fox, though she would continue to land solid parts, particularly in films noirs, at other studios.
Coburn was much better served by the studio. He had been in demand as a character actor since he started appearing in films full-time with Of Human Hearts in 1938. Coburn usually played bombastic society types such as the department store owner in Bachelor Mother (1939) or the aging cupid for which he had won an Oscar® in The More the Merrier (1943). Fox, however, gave him the chance to play against type, as when he played one of the president's most sympathetic advisors in Wilson (1944). As the star of Colonel Effingham's Raid he got to display more range than usual, grandly expounding in the scenes in which he celebrates his military heritage but also showing a more vulnerable side when he thinks he's lost the battle.
Fox surrounded its stars with accomplished character actors such as Allyn Joslyn, as the cynical newspaper editor; Donald Meek and Frank Craven, as Coburn's old friends; and Thurston Hall as the corrupt mayor. As Bennett's love interest, they cast contract star Eythe, who had made his debut at the studio in The Ox-Bow Incident (1943). One of many younger actors promoted to leading roles while Hollywood's top stars were off fighting in World War II, Eythe had only a brief chance to shine before he was relegated to being the studio's back up whenever Tyrone Power turned down a film. His career hit the skids when a scandal sheet published pictures of him with Fox star Lon McAllister suggesting that the two were romantically involved, nor could a quick marriage to starlet Buff Cobb do much to squelch the bad publicity. He would turn to the stage after Fox let his contract lapse.
Colonel Effingham's Raid was shot early in 1945 but sat on the shelf for a year. This was no judgment against the film. Like many Hollywood studios toward the end of World War II, 20th Century-Fox wound up producing more films than it could release, leading to lengthy delays in the release of films not directly related to the war effort. Colonel Effingham's Raid was finally released early in 1946, fittingly with its gala premiere in Atlanta.
Producer: Lamar Trotti
Director: Irving Pichel
Screenplay: Kathryn Scola
Based on the novel by Berry Fleming
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager
Art Direction: Albert Hogsett, Lyle R. Wheeler
Music: Cyril J. Mockridge
Principal Cast: Charles Coburn (Col. William Seaborn Effingham), Joan Bennett (Ella Sue Dozier), William Eythe (Albert 'Al' Marbury), Allyn Joslyn (Earl Hoats), Elizabeth Patterson (Cousin Emma), Donald Meek (Doc Buden), Frank Craven (Dewey), Thurston Hall (Ed, the Mayor), Cora Witherspoon (Clara Meigs), Henry Armetta (Jimmy Economy), Roy Roberts (Army Capt. Rampsey).BW-72m.
by Frank Miller