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Prepped well before V-J Day by MGM in anticipation of Clark Gable's return from the war effort, the romantic battleground melodrama Homecoming (1948) traded upon the public perception of its star's WWII-era triumphs and tragedies in addressing the greater issues of servicemen coming home from conflict irrevocably changed. The film may not have dealt with its themes with the effectiveness of The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), but Gable's fans, eager to see another incendiary screen pairing with Lana Turner, didn't seem to mind. They flocked to the film in defiance of the critics' indifference.
Playwright Sidney Kingsley dubbed his original 1944 story treatment The Homecoming of Ulysses, and the narrative wasn't particularly subtle in its invocation of Homer's epics. At the close of the 1930s, the gifted surgeon Ulysses "Lee" Johnson (Gable) has his priorities in order regarding his own success and pleasure. After-hours are spent in indulgence for himself and his beautiful young wife Penny (Anne Baxter); he diffidently ignores the entreaties of idealistic med-school colleague Bob Sunday (John Hodiak), who'd like his consultation regarding the spread of malaria amongst the local poor.
Johnson signs up for officers' training after Pearl Harbor's attack, less out of any genuine convictions than wanting to put up the proper appearance. On the transport ship to Africa, his self-absorbed musings raise the gall of Lt. Jane "Snapshot" McCall (Turner), a plain-speaking nurse who'd lost her pilot husband in the China skies and with little patience for those who regarded the conflict as an idle diversion.
From this auspicious beginning, their relationship initially remains chilly, as she takes to referring to him as "Useless" behind his back. The trials of war cause them to soften their stances, as he comes to respect her dedication, and she, his willingness to spend endless shifts in surgery and to apologize for his bullheadedness. Neither wants to admit where this growing bond is heading. It takes a stranding at a Parisian farmhouse during the Battle of the Bulge for them to profess their feelings, and face the consequences.
Homecoming was Gable's third project for MGM after he was mustered out of the Air Force. The actor turned to the service in 1942 after the untimely death of beloved wife Carole Lombard, who perished in a plane crash during her return from a war bond drive. Gable patently had to have tapped into these sorrows for his performance here, as the world-weariness and sense of loss that he projects as the homebound Ulysses are palpable. Baxter, on loan for Fox, delivered effective work as the pampered spouse struggling with her private dread; ironically, then-husband Hodiak was cast as the other man providing a shoulder to lean on.
The direction of Homecoming was handled by Mervyn LeRoy, who gave Turner her memorable debut role in They Won't Forget (1937), and who'd also encouraged Gable earlier in his career, wrangling him a screen test for Warners in 1930. The role of Snapshot was an uncharacteristically unglamorous assignment for Turner, and she acquitted herself strikingly well, coming across as earthy, accessible, and undeniably appealing, never more so than in the engaging sequence where she confidently coaxes the comparatively sheepish Gable to an ancient Roman spring for a long-needed bath. "I think Homecoming showed Lana at her sexiest," LeRoy recalled in his autobiography Take One. "There was one scene where she came out of a swimming pool, water dripping from her hair. It was accidental at first--the same as her sweaters were accidental at first--but it was a happy accident."
Homecoming represented the third of four times that Gable and Turner would pair up onscreen, the other films being Honky Tonk (1941), Somewhere I'll Find You (1942) and Betrayed (1954). Despite a 19-year age difference, their chemistry was undeniable, with MGM's press ballyhoo for Homecoming deeming them "the team that generates steam." In her autobiography Lana: The Lady, the Legend, the Truth, Turner shared an anecdote from the set regarding the consequences of her on-camera ardor with Gable. "To keep my mouth fresh for those clinches I chewed gum, and during takes I would poke the wad up next to my teeth," the actress recalled. "But once Clark kissed me too forcefully. When he drew back we were attached by a ribbon of sticky gum! I shrieked with laughter as Clark glumly picked the gum from his teeth. From then on I gargled instead."
Producer: Sidney Franklin, Gottfried Reinhardt
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Sidney Kingsley (story), Jan Lustig, Paul Osborn
Cinematography: Harold Rosson
Film Editing: John Dunning
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Cast: Clark Gable (Col. Ulysses Delby Johnson), Lana Turner (Lt. Jane McCall), Anne Baxter (Mrs. Penny Johnson), John Hodiak (Dr. Robert Sunday), Ray Collins (Lt. Col. Avery Silver), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Kirby).
by Jay S. Steinberg