James Gleason

A Guy Named Joe (1943, Victor Fleming)

I’m not sure how to talk about A Guy Named Joe without some spoilers. But I’m going to try. Like a test.

A Guy Named Joe is a propaganda picture, but one less about jingoism and more about the American trademarked Freedom. Only it’s a specific kind of Freedom, it’s the kind of Freedom you can only understand if you’re an Army flier. Now, it’s possible—the film attests—the guys in the other branches of the service are just as thrilled about dying in the ways specific to their branches, but Guy Named Joe is about the glory of dying a combat flier. And how dying as a combat flier isn’t just good for the dead flier, who’ll get some real perspective on life, but for the future as well. The little children need dead fliers so the future might live. In Freedom.

It’s a lot.

But also not really, because Dalton Trumbo’s script doesn’t get too far into the weeds with it. Oh, a few people get big monologues about the film’s themes—Lionel Barrymore gets the Freedom one, so even if you’re cocking your head and trying to unravel the philosophy of it, Barrymore’s great delivering it. Because Joe is very well-cast. Spencer Tracy’s perfect in the lead, a daredevil bomber pilot who eventually gets in too much trouble and ends up taking a backseat to the future generation, personified in Van Johnson. Tracy gets some decent scenes with Johnson; best considering the circumstances, but some really good ones with leading lady Irene Dunne. Dunne’s Tracy’s girl—and some kind of military cargo flier (the ladies can fly cargo through war zones solo but they can’t be combat pilots because they’re girls); she, Tracy, and Ward Bond all hang out together. Turns out some of it is because Bond can’t handle misanthropic narcissist Tracy without Dunne to temper him. It’s a great character relationship, something the film doesn’t do enough with, even though it arguably leverages Bond more than anything else in the picture.

The film’s got three sections. The first is in England, where Tracy and Bond are stationed. It runs forty-five minutes; now, Joe is two hours. The first thirty-eight percent of the movie is the England stuff with Tracy, Dunne, Bond, and James Gleason as the guys’ stuck-up CO. You would think, given epical story arcs and Freytag triangles, there’d be a lot of important plot establishing somewhere in that thirty-eight percent. So it’d be important later.

You’d be wrong.

Because in the second part of the film, where Tracy gets stuck back stateside playing guardian angel to rookie ace Johnson, well… nothing from that first part is important. Out of sight, out of mind. It’s just the story of Johnson getting to be a better flier and a more confident guy. He’s just inherited four million bucks, but he’s a solid guy. He’s not even a skirt chaser until Tracy’s influence and even when he’s a skirt chaser, you feel like he’s still a pretty good guy. Johnson’s got the second hardest part in the film. He’s got no one to talk with about his feelings and feelings get talked about a lot in Joe. Similarly, Dunne doesn’t have anyone to talk with about her feelings when it’s important in part three, which is set in New Guinea and the war.

Heavily leveraged Bond is the way the film brings parts one and two together, with Johnson getting assigned to Bond (and Gleason) and Dunne dropping by for a visit. Johnson falls for Dunne immediately; though we don’t get to see him fall for her, because the movie’s busy concentrating on Dunne and Bond and 800-pound gorilla Tracy. Fleming skips the shot of Johnson seeing Dunne, skips his agency in approaching her. Johnson never gets that agency back. Something else lost in part three.

Dunne eventually gets some agency, but kind of too late to matter.

See, she and Johnson get together—rather chastely for a while, which almost seems like the film not wanting to give forty-something Dunne too much chemistry with late twenties Johnson (he can get away with early twenties, her with late); the chaste thing feels forced though. Because for a while the film builds the chemistry between the two—as Dunne is reminded more and more of Tracy, because (unbeknownst to her) Tracy’s been Johnson’s most influential mentor. And then it stops. Eventually there’s a little more of a spark, but it’s in the last fifteen or twenty minutes and it’s a little late.

The film does have a last minute (temporary) rally as Tracy gets a “well, this was worth it” monologue but then the it stays too close with him after just saying the whole point of the damn movie is he’s the 800-pound gorilla. Trumbo pretends he’s been working out the moral of the whole thing for the last two hours and thinks Tracy’s monologue is going to be able to sell it. Tracy’s able to perform the monologue beautifully, he’s just not able to magic it into a good ending or a successful arc for literally anyone in the entire movie.

The performances are key. Tracy and Dunne don’t get great parts, but they get some good scenes. Bond does really well having to carry the energy of the film, even though he’s an glorified sidekick. And the movie is mercenary in how it uses him. Johnson’s potentially got the best part and gets less than anyone else but he’s able to turn it into something. He’s earnest in just the right way, a nice contrast to Tracy and something the film never plays up enough, which is silly. Gleason’s okay. He’s better at the end. At the beginning he’s just a plot foil and exposition dumper.

Technically… well, at least Fleming is consistent in failings. Joe’s got some great special effects with the flying and some really bad composite shots with the background projection. George J. Folsey and Karl Freund do a real bad job matching lighting and it’s distracting at times. It’s worse in the second part, stateside, when the rear screen projection might work as a visual representation of narrative detail.

But of course Fleming’s not going to think of it.

Otherwise, the direction’s fine. Just not good enough to lift the picture out its problems. Good editing from Frank Sullivan. Great sets; not the sets fault no one lights them or shoots them right.

A Guy Named Joe doesn’t try as hard as it should and it shows, getting good (and better) performances out of its cast without really tasking them. Tracy, Dunne, Johnson, Bond, and Barrymore all could have done much more.

And, last thing—nice support from Barry Nelson as Tracy’s stateside sidekick.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Victor Fleming; screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, based on a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm, adapted by Frederick Hazlitt Brennan; directors of photography, George J. Folsey and Karl Freund; edited by Frank Sullivan; music by Herbert Stothart; produced by Everett Riskin; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Spencer Tracy (Pete Sandidge), Irene Dunne (Dorinda Durston), Van Johnson (Ted Randall), Ward Bond (Al Yackey), James Gleason (‘Nails’ Kilpatrick), Barry Nelson (Dick Rumney), and Lionel Barrymore (The General).



Suddenly (1954, Lewis Allen)

I’m sure there’s got to be some examples of well-written “Red Scare” screenplays, but Suddenly isn’t one of them. Writer Richard Sale’s got a lot of opinion about the dirty Commies, he just never gets the opportunity to have any one character fully blather it out. They’re too busy blathering out patriotic platitudes while being held hostage.

Suddenly’s about Frank Sinatra trying to assassination the President for half a million dollars. He’s got a couple sidekicks with him, but they’re not too bright. Sinatra’s character should’ve been a war hero but he just liked killing Germans too much. Sale has a lot of dialogue about Sinatra’s backstory because most of Suddenly takes place in the house he’s holding hostage. It’s either Sinatra alluding to his past or second-billed Sterling Hayden figuring it all out and lecturing him and making Sinatra lose his cool. Sinatra’s performance is good. Hayden’s isn’t. Neither of them have good writing, neither of them have good direction (though Sinatra gets better direction).

There are a handful of notable costars–James Gleason as the homeowner, Nancy Gates as Gleason’s widowed daughter-in-law, Kim Charney as the annoying kid. Gleason ought to be fine but Allen’s coverage is awful. It seems like Gleason doesn’t even know where the camera’s pointed at times. So he’s not good. He’s not awful (Charney is awful), but he’s not good. Gates would maybe be better if she didn’t have a lousy part. Women don’t understand much about men; Sale’s script isn’t deep. Gates’s part in the first act is mostly to be harassed about not wanting to marry Hayden, who courts her with the charm of a wrecking ball.

David Raskin’s music is outstanding. John F. Schreyer’s editing is weak–again, Allen didn’t shot the coverage the film needed–and Charles G. Clarke’s photography is mediocre. There aren’t really any good shots in the film, so it doesn’t matter. But there are some where Sinatra gets to go wild and those work out, even if the composition isn’t strong. Sinatra’s awesome.

Suddenly’s a chore of seventy-five minutes. Not even Sinatra can keep it interesting through some of the longer stretches. Sale’s script is just too weak and Allen’s direct is just too disinterested.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lewis Allen; written by Richard Sale; director of photography, Charles G. Clarke; edited by John F. Schreyer; music by David Raskin; produced by Robert Bassler; released by United Artists.

Starring Frank Sinatra (John Baron), Sterling Hayden (Sheriff Tod Shaw), James Gleason (Pop Benson), Nancy Gates (Ellen Benson), Kim Charney (Pidge Benson), Paul Frees (Benny Conklin), Christopher Dark (Bart Wheeler), James O’Hara (Jud Hobson) and Willis Bouchey (Dan Carney).


A Free Soul (1931, Clarence Brown)

The first hour of A Free Soul is this extremely engaging, if occasionally melodramatic, story about Norma Shearer and Lionel Barrymore. They’re rebellious blue bloods–Barrymore’s Shearer’s father and he’s raised her to be an independent woman. He’s a defense attorney and a drunk. She’s his ambassador to their disapproving relations. She takes up with mobster Clark Gable, throwing aside her more appropriate suitor, polo champion Leslie Howard.

Shearer and Gable have great chemistry from their first scene. She and Howard come off like brother and sister. It’s not miscasting as much as John Meehan and Becky Gardiner’s script doesn’t do any work establishing them. All the work goes into Shearer and Gable for the romance.

Shearer and Barrymore are fantastic together too. So when Barrymore disappears for about twenty minutes, only to return in a wonderful delivery of high melodrama at the very end, Soul suffers for it. Shearer stops being the film’s protagonist and becomes its subject. While the film never actually condemns her, it flirts with the idea as an excuse. It’s lazy writing from Meehan and Gardiner, who are wrapping things up quickly.

Director Brown doesn’t do much to help in the last third either. He’s got some great work earlier in the film, but he encourages the histrionics by the end. He and editor Hugh Wynn treat Shearer differently after she breaks off with Gable to support the drunken Barrymore. They rely on her for exaggerated reaction shots, which walls Shearer off.

Barrymore’s great. Shearer’s good; good enough to weather the bad editing. And Gable’s really good. Howard’s okay. James Gleason’s good, but has nothing to do as Barrymore’s sidekick except be James Gleason. Lucy Beaumont, as Barrymore’s mother and Shearer’s grandmother, is ineffectual, which is a problem.

Most of A Free Soul avoids melodramatic tropes, only to lazily implement them for its resolution. Still, the cast makes the most of it.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Clarence Brown; screenplay by John Meehan and Becky Gardiner, based on the novel by Adela Rogers St. Johns; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Hugh Wynn; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Norma Shearer (Jan Ashe), Lionel Barrymore (Stephen Ashe), Clark Gable (Ace Wilfong), Leslie Howard (Dwight Winthrop), James Gleason (Eddie) and Lucy Beaumont (Grandma Ashe).


Murder on a Honeymoon (1935, Lloyd Corrigan)

Murder on a Honeymoon is a tepid outing for Edna May Oliver and James Gleason’s detecting duo. It’s the third in the series and, while Oliver and Gleason are back, it’s clear some of the magic was behind the camera. Robert Benchley and Seton I. Miller’s script is a little too nice (in addition to being boring) and Lloyd Corrigan’s direction lacks any inspiration.

Honeymoon takes place on Catalina, which–from the film–seems to be the most boring vacation spot in the world. The only time the murder investigation overlaps with vacation activities is in a closed casino, which is one of the film’s better sequences.

But the script’s the real problem. It ignores suspects, forgets the supporting cast and makes Gleason way too nice to Oliver. Their bickering originally had a give and take–in Honeymoon, Gleason pulls his punches. The only one being really mean to Oliver is the film’s confirmed villain.

Even the supporting cast is a little weak. None of them have story arcs–except Lola Lane–and she’s absent for most of her own arc. Lane isn’t in the picture long enough to make an impression, but DeWitt Jennings is rather weak and Spencer Charters’s incompetent local police chief needs work. It might not be Charters’s fault, since the script never lets Oliver cut into him deep enough.

There are some amusing moments with Arthur Hoyt’s unprofessional medical examiner though.

The murderer’s identity’s a surprise, but a surprise doesn’t make up for the rest.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Lloyd Corrigan; screenplay by Seton I. Miller and Robert Benchley, based on a novel by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by William Morgan; music by Alberto Colombo; produced by Kenneth Macgowan; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Hildegarde Withers), James Gleason (Inspector Oscar Piper), Lola Lane (Phyllis La Font), George Meeker (Tom Kelsey), Harry Ellerbe (Mr. Deving), Dorothy Libaire (Mrs. Deving), Leo G. Carroll (Director Joseph B. Tate), DeWitt Jennings (Captain Beegle), Spencer Charters (Chief Of Police Britt), Arthur Hoyt (Dr. O’Rourke), Chick Chandler (Pilot French), Matt McHugh (Pilot Madden), Willie Best (Willie the Porter), Morgan Wallace (McArthur) and Brooks Benedict (Roswell T. Forrest).


Murder on the Blackboard (1934, George Archainbaud)

As its title suggests, Murder on the Blackboard concerns a murder in a school, specifically an elementary school. Only one student appears; Blackboard concentrates on the rather shady goings-ons of the staff. There’s a drunk janitor, a lecherous principal, not to mention a love triangle between teachers. And, one mustn’t forget, Edna May Oliver’s Ms. Withers.

Blackboard is the second in the Withers and Piper (James Gleason) series, though it’s not a direct sequel to the first. Here, Oliver and Gleason bicker and flirt in their charming and funny cantankerous people of a certain age way, but without any relationship development.

Willis Goldbeck’s script has a great structure, which makes Blackboard sail along–ably assisted by the aforementioned bickering. It’s a full ten minutes before Oliver even appears, as Blackboard establishes not just the suspects, but the possible victims, and then it’s a real-time investigation for a while once Gleason shows up. Archainbaud’s direction is okay, though he apparently didn’t give Archie Marshek enough material for smooth cutting. Nicholas Musuraca’s photography–Blackboard almost entirely takes place in the school–is real nice.

There supporting cast is competent, but they don’t make much impression after those first ten minutes. Bruce Cabot, Gertrude Michael and Barbara Fritchie are the teacher love triangle; Cabot’s easily the best of the three. Tully Marshall’s amusing as the principal, particularly opposite Oliver.

Oliver, Gleason and Goldbeck produce an excellent diversion. They distract from the mystery’s lack of mysteriousness for nearly the entire running time.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, based on the story by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Nicholas Musuraca; edited by Archie Marshek; music by Bernhard Kaun and Max Steiner; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Hildegarde Withers), James Gleason (Inspector Oscar Piper), Bruce Cabot (Ad Stevens), Gertrude Michael (Jane Davis), Barbara Fritchie (Louise Halloran), Tully Marshall (Mr. MacFarland), Frederick Vogeding (Otto Schweitzer), Regis Toomey (Detective Smiley North), Edgar Kennedy (Detective Donahue) and Jackie Searl (Leland Stanford Jones).


Penguin Pool Murder (1932, George Archainbaud)

Penguin Pool Murder, besides the peculiar title (and lack of a definite article), opens like almost any other early thirties mystery. A possible unfaithful wife, Mae Clarke, has a swindling louse of a husband, Guy Usher. When he ends up dead, there are multiple suspects.

Only the murder occurs at the aquarium (hence the title) and, it just so happens, a schoolteacher is giving her class a tour. The schoolteacher in question, played by Edna May Oliver, is half what sets Penguin apart. The other half is James Gleason as the police detective. He soon–first reluctantly, then enthusiastically–enlists Oliver as his partner.

The banter between Oliver and Gleason suggests the pair is an established comedy team but Penguin‘s their first pairing. From the moment the two get together, the film is a delight.

Even before they do, the film’s production values go far to recommend it. There are no exterior shots in the entire picture, but every set is exquisite–particularly the aquarium. Archainbaud has some great set-up shots and his direction is generally strong… though his inserts are bad. Editor Jack Kitchin’s weak cutting undoubtedly contributes, but Archainbaud’s direction is responsible for the jump cuts.

The mystery itself isn’t much of one–the film, which is very short, runs out of interesting suspects fairly quickly. Fourth billed Clarke disappears after the first act, leaving Robert Armstrong (as her attorney) to fill her slot.

He, and Clarence Wilson, are strong supporting assets.

Penguin‘s a lot of fun.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by George Archainbaud; screenplay by Willis Goldbeck, based on a story by Lowell Brentano and a novel by Stuart Palmer; director of photography, Henry W. Gerrard; edited by Jack Kitchin; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Edna May Oliver (Miss Hildegarde Martha Withers), James Gleason (Police Inspector Oscar Piper), Robert Armstrong (Lawyer Barry Costello), Clarence Wilson (Bertrand B. Hemingway), Mae Clarke (Gwen Parker), Donald Cook (Philip Seymour), Edgar Kennedy (Policeman Donovan), James Donlan (Security Guard Fink), Guy Usher (Gerald ‘Gerry’ Parker) and Joe Hermano (Chicago Lew).


The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936, Stephen Roberts)

With a better director, a competent editor and a slightly stronger screenplay, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford might be more than an amusing diversion. While William Powell and Jean Arthur are great together, the film underuses them in general and her in particular. There’s this great dinner scene where she’s seeing if they’re going to get poisoned by jello (something she neglects to tell him). It’s a long and wonderful scene and apparently director Roberts didn’t realize he needed to use it as the standard, not the exception.

Roberts’s weak composition and lack of coverage combined with Arthur Roberts’s hideous editing (it’s unclear if they’re related) do a lot of damage to the film. Anthony Veiller’s script has some great dialogue but the plotting is rushed, especially for a murder mystery. Also unfortunate is Veiller’s inept finish. He modifies the Thin Man dinner party revelation to include unlikely technology gimmicks.

While the film actually doesn’t share a lot in details or tone with Powell’s Thin Man series; he’s not just sober, he’s also a responsible adult. Arthur is tenacious, but she’s an aspiring murder mystery novelist, so there’s some context. They’re both wealthy, which means Powell’s got a sidekick in butler Eric Blore.

A tired James Gleason shows up as the requisite cop (he gets the film’s worst dialogue). Robert Armstrong is the best in the supporting cast as a bookie. Erin O’Brien-Moore is shockingly bad as a suspect.

The film’s amiable enough, but it should’ve been a lot better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Roberts; screenplay by Anthony Veiller, based on a story by James Edward Grant; director of photography, J. Roy Hunt; edited by Arthur Roberts; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring William Powell (Dr. Lawrence Bradford), Jean Arthur (Paula Bradford), James Gleason (Inspector Corrigan), Eric Blore (Stokes), Robert Armstrong (Nick Martel), Lila Lee (Miss Prentiss), Grant Mitchell (John Summers), Erin O’Brien-Moore (Mrs. Summers), Ralph Morgan (Leroy Hutchins) and Lucile Gleason (Mrs. Hutchins).


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