Release Date(s)1943 (May 21, 2013)
Studio(s)MGM (Warner Archive)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: D+
For a brief moment back in 1989, Victor Fleming’s WW2 fantasy-romance A Guy Named Joe seemed poised to join the pantheon of true Hollywood classics. Steven Spielberg anointed it as one of his favorite movies while promoting his own remake, Always. The movie wasn’t particularly well-known but with the Spielberg seal of approval, audience interest was piqued. Then audiences got a look at Always, realized it was a god-awful schmaltzfest and one of Spielberg’s worst efforts, and their interest in checking out the original plummeted.
The original is a bit of a schmaltzfest in its own right, if a slightly more tolerable one. Spencer Tracy stars as Pete Sandidge, a hotshot Air Force pilot whose daredevil tactics take a high toll on equipment, even though his men always come through without a scratch. Tired of his reckless behavior, his CO arranges a “promotion” that shuttles Pete and his best pal Al Yackey (Ward Bond) off to foggy Scotland where they’re put in charge of routine reconnaissance flights. Pete’s girlfriend, Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne) pays a visit and has a premonition that Pete’s number is up. She urges him to return to the States and accept a training job. He reluctantly agrees but is forced into the air for one more mission. When it goes wrong, Pete has his crew bail out and single-handedly takes out a Nazi destroyer, sacrificing his own life in the process.
In the afterlife, Pete ends up with a training job after all. He learns that after we die, we return to Earth to use our gifts to help create a better future, sort of a metaphysical “pay-it-forward” concept. Pete hooks up with rookie pilot Ted Randall (Van Johnson). Once Pete has transformed Ted into an ace, he’s shipped off to New Guinea where he meets Al and Dorinda. Dorinda, still in mourning, sees a lot of Pete in Ted and the two fall in love. This doesn’t sit well with Pete, who hasn’t learned to let go of Earthly emotions like jealousy.
Like a lot of wartime Hollywood movies, A Guy Named Joe is full of cornball sentiment and a rosy view of the troops that borders on idol worship. Its conceit that the dead return to help out the living is admittedly very sweet and comforting, no doubt even more so back in 1943 when so many people were coping with losing loved ones in combat. The movie definitely has a lot going for it that makes it worth watching. Spencer Tracy is great, although that almost goes without saying, especially in the heart-tugging final shot. Some of the over-the-top sentiment is eye-rolling but some actually does get to you. There’s a nice moment in a USO hall where Johnson (dancing with the late Esther Williams, in a small, early non-aquatic role) uses his wealth to anonymously help out a lonely private.
Maybe the most interesting thing about the movie is Irene Dunne. For 1943, her character is a remarkably strong, capable, independent woman. She isn’t just window dressing. She’s a pilot in her own right, serving with the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Some of what she does is a little unbelievable or irritating by today’s standards. Her final act, an attempt to keep Johnson out of harm’s way, would almost certainly get her drummed out of the service. But for the most part, it’s a complex and interesting character and Dunne plays her exceptionally well.
This is a surprisingly good-looking release from Warner Archive. The print has been newly remastered and it looks very nice, stable and generally quite clean. The mono audio does what it needs to do, no more, no less. The disc also includes the theatrical trailer and it’s always nice when Warner Archive throws one of those in.
In many ways, A Guy Named Joe is a standard issue Hollywood wartime romance. It has sequences that go on far too long and has more than its share of eye-rolling hokum. But at the very least, it’s heartfelt hokum, well-acted by a terrific cast and, in its best moments, genuinely touching.
- Dr. Adam Jahnke