Saturday, September 13, 2008

They Gave Him a Gun (1937)

Based on a famous best seller in the thirties by William Joyce Cowen, this movie starts off with a bang--literally, as a shell casing is pointed directly at the viewer just before the credits begin. If only the rest of the movie lived up to it. As part of the Spencer Tracy SUTS day, TCM ran a movie I'd never seen that was directed by Woody ("shoot it fast") Van Dyke. Tracy played "a hard guy" softened by his protective friendship with scared hayseed Franchot Tone, formed during their time in a WWI boot camp and on the battlefield. Long story short, Tracy's toughness rubs off on Tone, Tone's gentility turns Tracy to mush long enough for him to fall for battlefield hospital nurse Gladys George. Tone, unfortunately is transformed by war into a guy who's a wee bit too fond of his gun (and the security it gives him). If these script details sound more than vaguely familiar, I think that Mark Hellinger and his scriptwriters at Warner's "borrowed" themes and characterizations from this tale, but that was par for the course then and now, and at least Hellinger and company made a classic out of these "similar yet different" elements, called The Roaring Twenties (1939).

Post-war, Tone can't forget how they made him a killer in the war and--you guessed it--he becomes what he calls an "insurance adjuster", and yes, a love triangle forms with Tone marrying a heartbroken George, who believed Tracy was dead when she agreed to marry the human grasshop-er, I mean, jiminy cricke--uh, Franchot Tone. Before you can say "The Roaring Twenties", Tone has spasmodic fits of conscience, realizes that he's just in the way between Glad and Spence, and goes out in a blaze of bullet-ridden glory, courtesy of his old sergeant, now a cop (small world, isn't it?) .
Maybe the logic in the MGM casting dept. went like this back then:

"Hey, why don't we send that guy who's the most recent Mr. Joan Crawford over to Woody's set? Franchot says he's from the Group Theater and he's always spouting off about the arts, ain't he? If he worked with those nutty guys off the street at the Group, he must have some street savvy, no? He'll know how to play this impossible part, right? Maybe he'll like that sneaky anti-war message that we're dressing this flick up with for the audience. God knows he'll be the only one who suspects that this movie is meant to be part of that anti-war run of movies that we've been cranking out of Hollywood since All Quiet On the Western Front..." Of course, as you might readily discern from the appearance of Mr. Tone in the photo above, there are a few inherent problems in casting him as a killer formed in the crucible of war...for one thing...does he look dangerous to you? But then, that may be part of the counter intuitive logic behind his casting, or so I'd like to think.

Franchot Tone plays on Gladys George's heartstrings in They Gave Him a Gun (1937).

Before the Franchot Tone fan club starts making a noose and lighting those flaming torches outside my house, I do like Tone in a few things, such as Three Comrades and Phantom Lady, but I always expect him to leave little faun-like hoof prints in the snow when he passes by in a movie. I also give him major doobie points for donating large chunks of his MGM money to the Group Theater while he toiled in Babylon. It's not really his fault that he lacks substance. He tries hard, but when contrasted with the two other players in this film, his lack of gravitas is significant.

Okay, I can see why they might have cast the patrician Tone in this movie, but was it fair to put him up against two of the better naturalistic actors on film at the time? Every time ol' Franchot starts to brood about the kink the war put in his psyche, comes a scene featuring Gladys' heart melting like butter on a kitchen counter on a 100 degree day in Memphis, thus masking her rather confused love life as well as the poorly realized script.

Gladys George in the '30s. Talented, and poignantly tough but tender, she had a lovely quality. But was she ever an ingenue? 
Actually, I think this movie may have served as one 90 minute audition for a much better part she nabbed in Warner's The Roaring Twenties, though George did a really good rendition of that ol' chestnut Madam X while toiling away at Culver City. I don't think she's credible as a woman beloved by both men, however. Gladys, who was a great character actress, was only about 36 or 37 when this movie was made, but seems eons older, carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders, and probably wondering where she's going to scarf up some peroxide for her hair in no man's land. An ingenue, she ain't. I think that someone around the MGM lot like Maureen O'Sullivan might have really brought some gamine appeal and pathos to this part...but, I suppose her duties chiding Tarzan for tracking mud into the treehouse kept her too busy to read this script.

Spencer Tracy in a scene with Gladys George in They Gave Him a Gun (1937).
Whenever Spence pops up to render one more poorly written scene with enough quiet authority that he is riveting and wipes everyone else off the screen without raising an eyebrow or his voice, the movie springs very briefly to life. I have the feeling that MGM still thought Tracy would make a nice Alan Hale, Sr. type for their studio.

The pacing, as with all Woody Van Dyke movies is lickety-split, moving this goofy quasi-pacifist movie along at every step of the way, though I can't help wondering how much more punch this movie would have had if Warner's had made it...or, if Cagney and Tracy had ever acted together, but I digress. I'm quite grateful to see this rather rare Tracy film, and look forward to seeing the quality of the print that they will show tonight when they air Man's Castle (1934), an even rarer Tracy movie.

Below is the original trailer of this film, emphasizing the romantic overtones of this story:

A note on one of the unsung craftsmen who gave this movie its polish: 

Slavko Vorkapich is credited with the montage sequences in They Gave Him a Gun, which are outstanding. The legendary editor and special effects man really did a splendid job of moving the story along with several vivid sequences, particularly memorable was the one he did showing the wearing effect of a fellow prisoner's jibes on Franchot Tone's fragile mental state, waxing long and loudly about Gladys George's activities on the outside (the prisoner who does this to Tone was played by MGM utility man in the late '30s-early '40s Horace MacMahon). Since I brought his name up, I'll toss in this remarkable clip showing the artistry of Vorkapich, who was an incredible craftsman. Arguably, his masterpiece, a sequence showing The Furies descending on NYC was used in the beginning of the little seen Claude Rains film, Crime Without Passion (1934), which was directed by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. You can see a version of this unforgettable sequence here. Here are some impressions of Vorkapich by Glenn Erickson from DVD Savant Review when he was writing about a stylish '50s cult film that I particularly enjoyed, called I Bury the Living--one of Vorkapich's later films:

 "Slavko Vorkapich was an interesting and funny film theoretician who received SRO attendance when he brought his multi-week seminar to the UCLA film school in the '70s. His hard-line ideas about what in movies was cinematic and what was not, were at the time out of fashion. Vorkapich was unconcerned about content and intensely critical about the visual properties of moving images and how they cut together. For Vorkapich, the Cut was King. He lectured that cutting between talking heads may facilitate drama but that it wasn't moviemaking. He had a wicked habit of showing classic film clips with the sound turned off, and pointing out the screwed-up dynamics of cutting from giant faces to giant faces. When he showed us the Herbert Lom tent scene in Spartacus, we saw that he was right; at every cut the actors just popped foolishly around the frame. Whether or not we properly appreciated all of his ideas, the montages he showed were powerful masterpieces. Vorkapich designed the earthquake scene in MGM's 1935 San Francisco, where many of the most dramatic effects were not elaborate opticals but simple camera moves and editing-rhythm tricks. He also did the locust attack in The Good Earth, so he must have been one of Thalberg's artistic favorites. One of his last, and fairly successful jobs were the elaborate 3-D sequences in the 1963 Canadian horror film The Mask. But the best thing we saw was a breathtaking stand-alone prologue to the 1934 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur Crime Without Passion. In it, a trio of terrifying harpies are born from the blood of murder victims. They fly through the canyons of Manhattan, laughing at the sinners inside the windows."


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