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From the mid-1930s on, Robert Taylor was one of MGM's top attractions, a romantic lead to the likes of Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow, and considered almost as pretty as his female co-stars. So Taylor was eager to take on tough action roles to prove there was more to him than just matinee idol looks. In the World War II drama Stand by for Action (1942), he plays a cocky young officer who signs on for combat in a destroyer from the previous war, captained by veteran Brian Donlevy under the command of blustery old Admiral Charles Laughton. When Donlevy is wounded in action, Taylor proves his mettle by leading the destroyer to victory over a Japanese battleship.
The film's release was timely, following closely as it did on the heels of some important U.S. successes against the enemy in the Pacific. Aware that much of the wartime stateside audience was made up of women, the studio threw in a little something they assumed would give it female appeal. In the middle of all the rugged naval action, the ship picks up a lifeboat filled with babies and their two nurses, survivors of a torpedoed ship. The picture strives for humor in having the male crew suddenly subbing as "moms."
Making her screen debut as one of the nurses was singer Marilyn Maxwell, who became a leading lady in a number of films of the 1940s and '50s but is perhaps best known for performing for many years with Bob Hope's USO tours. A curvy blonde with a sparkling personality, Maxwell first sang the song "Silver Bells" with Hope in the comedy The Lemon Drop Kid (1951), thereby introducing a new Christmas carol into the standard repertoire.
British transplant Charles Laughton did his part for the war effort by delivering a rousing shipboard speech emphasizing the crew's responsibility to the Navy, at the end of which he recited the entire Declaration of Independence. Director Robert Z. Leonard suggested cue cards to help the actor, but Laughton delivered it from memory without a single mistake. When he was finished the entire cast and crew burst into applause. Despite this notable feat, Laughton did not feel good about this picture, claiming his performance was something out of HMS Pinafore, a sentiment shared by the New York Times's Bosley Crowther. Many of Laughton's most acclaimed performances - among them The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and his Oscar®-winning The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) - were behind him. He had hit something of a slump in the quality and importance of his roles and neither this nor his next few pictures brought him out of the resulting depression. Things would pick up again at the end of the decade, beginning with his domineering tycoon in The Big Clock (1948).
Despite some lukewarm reviews, Stand by for Action did well at the box office and the Special Effects team garnered an Academy Award nomination.
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Producers: Orville O. Dull, Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay: George Bruce and John L. Balderston, Herman J. Mankiewicz, based on stories by Harvey S. Haislip and R.C. Sherriff, and Laurence Kirk
Cinematography: Charles Rosher
Editing: George Boemler
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Lennie Hayton
Cast: Robert Taylor (Lt. Gregg Masterman), Charles Laughton (Rear Admiral Stephen Thomas), Brian Donlevy (Lt. Cmdr. Martin J. Roberts), Walter Brennan (Chief Yeoman Henry Johnson), Marilyn Maxwell (Audrey Carr).
BW-110m. Closed captioning.
by Rob Nixon