Here Comes the Navy (Lloyd Bacon, 1934)
The great danger that the loss of FilmStruck later this month represents is a loss of access not necessarily to the Giant Classics of decades past such as The Wizard of Oz, Casablanca and The Godfather. Those movies tower over everything and will have some kind of exposure. No, the great danger is the loss of access to completely unremarkable films that, more than the towering classics, reflect a cultural heritage that should be preserved for study for centuries to come. One of the most disturbing parts of American culture full of disturbing is the contempt for old things, whether it’s films or people. Of course, it’s all tied up in the tireless drive to sell everything as NEW! NEW! NEW! and it’s far from unique to the 21st Century. It only took a few years in the early 1930s for silent films to oftentimes be literally thrown in the trash heap once sound emerged.
What’s particularly interesting about the Netflix/Amazon Prime/Hulu streaming era of today is how much those three companies are now positioned to reflect the five giants of the studio era of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s. They need and demand almost endless content, and so much of it is completely disposable that it will be forgotten within two or three years. And now that we’re long past the monoculture, the real challenge of Netflix especially, with over 125 million subscribers, is to appeal to that giant swath of people. The studios of the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s had a similar challenge. Over 90 million people out of a population of 150 million attended the movies every week, so there had to be an absurd supply of movies available for those 90 million people almost every week. Movies switched out of theaters at a frenzied pace, and each of the five major studios (MGM, Paramount, RKO, 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.) had to keep the assembly line going.
I’m hoping, PRAYING, that the AT&T telephone demons who have bought Warners keep Turner Classic Movies and the Warner Archive Collection going, although I don’t know if the two entities represent the “major” revenue the fiends are seeking.
This weekend I watched a DVD release from Warner Archive Collection called Here Comes the Navy, one such seemingly insignificant release from Warner Bros. in 1934 starring James Cagney and Pat O’Brien. The film is not in great shape physically and will likely never receive a 4K restoration. It is however, remarkable for how unremarkable it is. Cagney plays the amazingly named Chesty, a riveter working outside a Navy shipyard who ends up in a nightclub tussle with Pat O’Brien as the equally amazingly named Biff, a Navy officer. When Biff coldcocks a distracted Chesty, the latter decides to join the Navy so he can get on Biff’s ship (the USS Arizona, eerily enough) and get revenge.
The premise is patently ridiculous and stupid, but with the hindsight of 84 years it’s somehow charming. This has to be the kind of movie Cagney would protest having to make when he would tussle with Jack Warner and leave the studio briefly a couple of years later. Chesty is a ridiculous character, who can’t possibly be stupid enough to suddenly decide to join the military solely so he can punch an officer, but the plot demands it and Cagney through his sheer will and charisma manages to make it watchable and entertaining.
This was the first of nine onscreen pairings for lifelong friends Cagney and O’Brien and their effortless chemistry is apparent even during scenes when all they’re doing is barking at each other. Gloria Stuart plays O’Brien’s sister who (of course) falls for Cagney, and the future Titanic star looks generally amused to stand on the set with little to do but react to these two blockheads.
This is not an important film, technically, but it’s an important document of the kind of formulaic picture Warner Bros; produced in the mid-1930s. The tenor of the studio’s pictures were changing following the departure of creative force Darryl F. Zanuck for 20th Century Pictures and the establishment of the Production Code Administration in the summer of 1934. Stars like Cagney and Edward G. Robinson could no longer portray glamorous gangsters, so the former’s screen persona was tweaked a bit. Cagney was not so much a tough, dangerous guy anymore but more of a fun-loving, charming troublemaker and oftentimes stubborn malcontent who is ultimately redeemed by a chewy soft center. Released in July 1934, just as the Production Code Administration was taking hold, Here Comes the Navy features a new, more lovable good-for-nothing in Cagney than the walking disaster that made him a star in The Public Enemy three years earlier.
At the end of this film, Cagney saves O’Brien’s life when the latter doesn’t let go of a tether line hanging from an airship that isn’t able to land because of high winds. Like the rest of the movie, the ending is completely ridiculous but manages to remain entertaining through the power of these two actors.