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To the Shores of Tripoli

To the Shores of Tripoli(1942)


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A standard boy-meets-girl romance with the added novelty of being set inside the gates of the United States Marine Corps training depot in San Diego, California, To the Shores of Tripoli (1942) helped John Payne break out of the song-and-dance rut in which he'd been slotted since his first days as a stock player for Twentieth Century Fox. The dimpled Roanoke, Virginia native, whose triple-threat charm had been nurtured in drama classes at Columbia University and with vocal lessons at the Julliard School in New York City, had been paired profitably with Alice Faye and Betty Grable in the musical Tin Pan Alley (1940) and with skater-turned actress Sonja Henie in the snowbound sing-a-long Sun Valley Serenade (1941). Well into his 30s, Payne was still playing post-collegiate types yet he yearned to tackle tougher, more unsentimental roles; at one point, he optioned the Ian Fleming novel Moonraker, hoping to be the first to play British secret agent James Bond on the big screen. When he was plugged into To the Shores of Tripoli, Payne might well have thought the assignment no different than his role in Warners' Wings of the Navy (1939), a love triangle whose background was the United States Naval Aviation Service... but as cameras rolled in November 1941, no one involved in the film had any inkling how the story would really end.

To the Shores of Tripoli is significant for a number of film firsts. The Fox production marked the initial onscreen pairing of John Payne and Maureen O'Hara, later the stars of the Yuletide perennial Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The production was Harry Morgan's film debut, putting the Detroit-born character actor in uniform decades ahead of his beloved turn as field hospital C.O. Sherman T. Potter on TV's long-running M*A*S*H sitcom. (Morgan had gotten his first significant stage role with The Group Theater through the recommendation of friend Frances Farmer.)

To the Shores of Tripoli was also Maureen O'Hara's first film shot in Technicolor. Its warm reception at the box office in the spring of 1942 was largely responsible for the comeback of the vividly chromatic color process, which had been attempted as a two-color system during the silent era and in an improved three-color upgrade after the advent of sound. Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp (1935) and Victor Fleming's Gone with the Wind (1939) were both super-productions that benefited from improvements in Technicolor but To the Shores of Tripoli proved to investors that the expensive and painstaking process could spell big profits. Although O'Hara would come to be branded "the Queen of Technicolor" by the system's co-inventor, Herbert Kalmus, the actress originally hated acting under the bright lights required to make those colors pop and complained that shooting To the Shores of Tripoli gave her a bad case of "klieg eye."

Not for nothing did industry insiders call film director H. Bruce Humberstone "Lucky." A month into shooting To the Shores of Tripoli, the Japanese Imperial Navy carried out its infamous preemptive air strike on US warships anchored at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in Hawaii, killing over two thousand Americans, mostly military personnel. As the stunned nation mobilized for its role in what would be called the Second World War, Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck dispatched a second unit crew to the Pacific Theatre to photograph maneuvers and ordered script changes to capitalize on the swiftly-developing events. (The Marines had kicked Humberstone, his cast and crew out of its San Diego training depot, necessitating a hasty exodus to the Fox backlot.) While Lamar Trotti's screenplay (adapted from an original story by I Wake Up Screaming author Steve Fisher) had ended in the requisite romantic clinch between leads Payne and O'Hara (cast as a principled military nurse with a weakness for bad boys), rewrites put the principals (including Randolph Scott, as flinty drill instructor Dixie Smith) on a troop ship to anchor the Axis in the South Seas. What had begun in the Fox story department as a rote and reliable boy-meets-girl picture had ended with a patriotic flourish, resulting in a box office smash for Fox and a Technicolor recruiting video for the United States Marine Corps.

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Bruce Humberstone
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti (screenplay); Steve Fisher (story)
Cinematography: Edward Cronjager, Harry Jackson, William V. Skall
Art Direction: Richard Day, George Dudley
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Allen McNeil
Cast: John Payne (Chris Winters), Maureen O'Hara (Mary Carter), Randolph Scott (Sergeant Dixie Smith), Nancy Kelly (Helene Hunt), William Tracy (Johnny Dent), Maxie Rosenbloom (Okay Jones), Henry Morgan (Mouthy), Edmund MacDonald (Butch), Russell Hicks (Major Wilson), Margaret Early (Susie).

by Richard Harland Smith

'Tis Herself: An Autobiography by Maureen O'Hara and John Nicoletti (Simon & Schuster, 2005)
The Film Encyclopedia by Ephraim Katz

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