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Warner Brothers' inspirational tale The Fighting 69th (1940) was an enormous hit with the public when it first premiered in pre-Pearl Harbor America. The studio rightfully assumed that American audiences, well aware of the escalating signs of war in Europe and the Pacific, would respond well to a patriotic action-adventure. And the box office take alone convinced Warner Bros. mogul Jack Warner to continue making gung-ho war films, culminating in a movie about the much-decorated World War I hero, Sergeant York (1941). Like the latter film, The Fighting 69th is based on the true-life story of a World War I hero - Father Duffy, who was played by Pat O'Brien. The real Father Duffy was the regimental chaplain of "the fighting 69th," a group of Irish national guardsmen who were incorporated into the Rainbow Division in 1917 after distinguishing themselves in combat. Typical of Warner Brothers, their film version of The Fighting 69th was highly fictionalized. Tom Wicker wrote in Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies that the movie was "stereotypically "Hollywood." He also commented that "predictably, the wise guy turns coward in battle; predictably, the wise priest tries to save his soul; predictably, the coward finds God and courage in the end. And when all else fails, as it usually does, the film throws in Frank McHugh for wisecracks and funny faces."
O'Brien's co-star in the picture was James Cagney, who often played the scoundrel in need of redemption from O'Brien's saints in Warner Bros. movies. Together the two actors co-starred in nine films together, including Ragtime (1981), the last film either one of them ever made. Close friends off camera, O'Brien later remarked of his frequent and easily more famous co-star, "Jimmy can steal a scene by lifting an eyebrow." Father Duffy was one of O'Brien's most famous portrayals, while Cagney's was patriotic showman George M. Cohan, whom he played in Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Ironically, statues of both of these famous men are still standing in the middle of New York City's Times Square.
Most of The Fighting 69th was filmed at Warner Brothers' Calabasas Ranch which doubled as Camp Mills, the regiment's training base, various French villages and numerous battlefields. No expense was spared in the pre-promotion of the film, which included a well-publicized meeting in New York City between O'Brien, Cagney, the real Father Duffy and surviving members of the regiment. For this event, more than five thousand fans showed up to greet the two stars when they arrived from Hollywood at Grand Central Station. The real Father Duffy also attended the New York City premiere and shook hands with nearly every actor who appeared in the film, all of whom were of Irish descent.
The Fighting 69th beat another rival studio's production of the same story to the theatres; Fox had planned to borrow Spencer Tracy from MGM for the starring role in Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th but dropped it once the O'Brien-Cagney picture went into production. When The Fighting 69th was released, the critics were mixed in their reviews. Some derided the movie's clichs while others enjoyed its vitality and pace. Frank Nugent, the film critic at the New York Times (and later a close collaborator of director John Ford), wrote that the film "is better if you can manage to forget the plot, with all it obvious theatrics, hokum and unoriginality, and think of it instead as the human, amusing and frequently gripping record of a regiments' marching off to war." The public, though, loved every minute of it and helped make it one of the biggest moneymakers of the year.
Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner
Director: William Keighley
Screenplay: Dean Franklin, Fred Niblo, Jr., Norman Reilly Raine
Art Design: Ted Smith
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Special Effects: Byron Haskin, Rex Wimpy
Film Editing: Owen Marks
Original Music: Adolph Deutsch
Principal Cast: James Cagney (Jerry Plunkett), Pat O'Brien (Father Duffy),George Brent (Wild Bill Donovan), Jeffrey Lynn (Joyce Kilmer), Alan Hale (Sgt. Big Mike Wynn), Frank McHugh ("Crepe Hanger" Burke), Dennis Morgan (Lt. Ames), William Lundigan (Timmy Wynn), Dick Foran (John Wynn), Guinn "Big Boy" Williams (Paddy Dolan), Tom Dugan (Pvt. McManus).
by Scott McGee