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A rare comedy from director John Ford, When Willie Comes Marching Home (1950) is about a WWII soldier trying to command a little respect. Bill Kluggs (Dan Dailey) is the first man in his small West Virginia town to enlist, and his father Herman (William Demarest) and the locals give him a big sendoff. But Bill returns from boot camp, assigned to be a gunnery instructor at a new air base in his hometown. While other boys go off to war, Kluggs becomes the local laughingstock. However, when a bomber pilot falls ill, Kluggs replaces him on a secret mission that will become his once-in-a-lifetime chance at a heroic destiny.
Variety enthused that "credit for the laugh-fest can be spread among Dailey and the rest of the cast, the excellent script and all connected with the production. But the major share goes to John Ford. Ford turns to comedy for the first time and demonstrates that a laugh-film can also be his forte."
Regardless of his eventual impact on When Willie Comes Marching Home, Ford came to the project under slight duress. After a major blow-up with 20th Century-Fox president Darryl F. Zanuck over Ford's aborted direction of Pinky(1949), Zanuck took away the director's next preferred project, a comedy-Western called A Ticket to Tomahawk (1950). It was a picture Ford looked forward to making. Instead, Zanuck gave Ford When Willie Comes Marching Home, a Richard Sale-Mary Loos script based on a true-life story by Sy Gomberg. It was about an episode in Gomberg's own military career when he was shipped out on a Friday, shot down a Japanese plane over the weekend, and returned to the base on Monday. Coincidentally, Sale was assigned the direction of Ford's favored comedy-Western. To assuage his bruised feelings, Ford decided to stick it to Sale by telling Zanuck, "I want the talented one on my set," meaning Loos.
Despite his grumblings, Ford always spoke warmly of When Willie Comes Marching Home, one of the few comedies he made after the war. "I'm essentially a comedy director, but they won't give me a comedy to do," Ford once complained. However, Ford, a decorated World War II veteran, didn't try to make the war sequences funny. Peter Bogdanovich asked him about this in an interview, to which Ford replied, "Well, that was my racket for awhile, and there wasn't anything funny about it."
Producer: Fred Kohlmar
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Sy Gomberg, Mary Loos, Richard Sale
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Film Editing: James B. Clark
Art Direction: Chester Gore, Lyle Wheeler
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Dan Dailey (William Kluggs), Corinne Calvet (Yvonne), Colleen Townsend (Marge Fettles), William Demarest (Herman Kluggs), Jimmy Lydon (Charles Fettles), Lloyd Corrigan (Major Adams).
by Scott McGee