This Man's Navy
Beery stars as Chief Ned Trumpet, a career military man who has earned the nickname "Old Gasbag" for his long-winded war stories and tall tales of service in China, India, and other exotic postings. In one of his many games of verbal one-upmanship with fellow officer and long-time buddy Chief Jimmy Shannon (James Gleason), he fabricates a son who is destined to follow in his footsteps, and almost immediately he is literally dropped into the lap of a young, fatherless man who dreams of flight. He "adopts" farmboy Jess (Tom Drake), playing godfather, matchmaker, and guardian angel until the boy arrives on base to thank his "father" and make him proud. At least until one combat crisis breaks Jess' spirit and he transfers out, breaking Trumpet's heart until they meet up again in India for the film's dramatic third act.
Long past his leading man days, the one-time silent screen villain and unlikely leading man Beery (who won an Oscar® for his sentimental 1931 turn as The Champ) had been putting his gravel voice and punching-bag kisser to work largely in comic roles for the past decade, usually playing blowhards and slobs with a heart of gold hidden under the rumpled exterior. As Trumpet, Beery had the opportunity to play hero along with the comedy. His bluster transforms to quiet strength and determination in combat, losing all ego and focusing on his mission and his men.
The young Tom Drake, immortalized as the Boy Next Door that Judy Garland pined for in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), is adequately stalwart as the prodigal son, and the great character actor James Gleason underplays his role as both foil and friend to Trumpet. The lovely Jan Clayton, best known as Ellen on the TV show Lassie, gets a terrific introduction as a sassy, cynical diner cashier all but drafted by Trumpet to become Jess' girlfriend (her spirit and humor sadly melt away after they pair up). Wallace's older brother Noah Beery, Sr., in one of his last screen appearances, has a small role as a veteran LTA officer, and future writer/director Blake Edwards has an unbilled role as flier.
The lightweight melodrama about the Lighter Than Air Corps, written by fast-rising screenwriter Borden Chase (later to make his name with such superior "adult" westerns as Red River  and Winchester '73 ), follows a thoroughly conventional journey of triumph, setback, and redemption. What's less conventional is the focus on the LTA, a branch of the Armed Services rarely if ever seen in Hollywood's World War II dramas. The opening images of a massive blimp descending into the fog for a tricky landing, emerging from the mist over the air field as crews scramble to grab the mooring ropes and wrestle it to a landing, create a sense of majesty and mystery for the unconventional airliner. Even the comic intercutting of Beery's blustery tall tales, which he croaks out to a crew that rolls its eyes as if to say "Here we go again," doesn't undercut the visual drama of this introduction.
Director William Wellman was the natural choice for the film. The prolific Hollywood journeyman was a versatile director with successes in all genres, but before his Hollywood career he was a decorated World War I fighter pilot, having flown with the Lafayette Flying Corps, and it was an aviation drama that made his name. His 1927 World War I combat adventure Wings wowed audiences with its thrilling aerial footage and combat scenes and won the first Oscar® for Best Film.
This Man's Navy hasn't anywhere near the ambition or scope of Wings, but Wellman does bring dignity to the men of the LTA and grit to the combat scenes of an otherwise breezy military drama. The first taste of combat comes when Jess makes his maiden command voyage over the Eastern seaboard and spots a German U-boat in American waters and goes in for the kill. The slow-moving blimp becomes a giant target for the submarine gunner. Bullets rip through the fabric of the blimp and shatter the glass of the cockpit. As Jess recovers from the shock, he notices blood dripping on his uniform from the gunner's turret above, and Wellman cuts to show us the gunner slumped over his weapon. Later dialogue hints that the crew survived the attack, but what Wellman shows us is the brutality of combat and the fragility of the men under fire. The climactic scene, a rescue mission for a downed plane in the Indian jungle, is equally gritty and Wellman creates a tense escape as the blimp plays hide and seek in the clouds with attacking Japanese Zeroes.
The rest of the film plays like just another assignment for Wellman, another military programmer about the heroic men with comic interludes between missions, but these scenes give the otherwise familiar story a dramatic grit and a visual jump-start. It's easy to see where Wellman's interests lie in This Man's Navy, Hollywood's tribute to the unsung heroes of Lighter-Than-Air U.S. Naval and Marine Corps Aviation.
Producer: Samuel Marx
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Borden Chase, Herman E. Halland, Hugh Allen, Allen Rivkin, John Twist
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Film Editing: Cotton Warburton
Art Direction: Howard Campbell, Cedric Gibbons
Music: Nathaniel Shilkret
Cast: Wallace Beery (Ned Trumpet), Tom Drake (Jess Weaver), James Gleason (Jimmy Shannon), Jan Clayton (Cathey Cortland), Selena Royle (Maude Weaver), Noah Beery (Joe Hodum).
by Sean Axmaker