The Final Shot

Thanks to Matthew Wilder for alerting me to W.S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke’s final film. I’m a fan of the THIN MAN films and have delved lightly into his other ’30s work, particularly the first two TARZANs and SAN FRANCISCO, but I haven’t been systematic and I didn’t even know JOURNEY FOR MARGARET (1942). It’s basically the film that properly gave us Margaret O’Brien, phenomenon.

The movie is MGM’s first “children in war” drama of WWII, predating Zinnemann’s emotional THE SEARCH, but giving the subject a soupier, more Hollywood approach. It’s really good, though. The great Franz Waxman’s score is really the most problematic part, suffering from a literalism that didn’t usually afflict this composer — the little boy with the toy lamb is accompanied by lachrymose variations on Baah Baah Black Sheep wherever he goes. Awful.

Woody, credited as MAJOR Van Dyke here, handles the action with his trademark efficiency, though the fast cutting of disparate talking heads which predominates each THIN MAN denouement has now spread to most of the film. Considering the director was, apparently, in constant pain at this time, he does great.

Robert Young and Laraine Day are an attractive couple of Americans in London during the Blitz. He’s a journalist. They’re smart and witty and she’s even called Nora, so there’s a strong tie to Woody’s earlier (in fact, ongoing) work. However, there’s no Asta here — Day is expecting a baby, but she loses it in a bombing, and loses also the ability to have more kids. As she’s passing out under sedation, she intuits everything that’s happened to her even though Young has been told (appallingly) to keep it from her ~

 

“They’ve killed our baby. All our babies. Tomorrow’s baby. The day after tomorrow’s. All our babies. Forever dead.”

“Who told you such nonsense?”

“No one told me. It’s true.”

“Please, darling, go to sleep now.”

“What did I want babies for? I’ve been a bad wife. Trying to hang on when there wasn’t any use trying. Making snug little homes in the midst of hell. I’ve been a bad wife because I’ve been a good one.”

“[…] Think about going home to Connecticut. The leaves will be turning, and snow on the ground… Think about that, and -“

“OH NO! That’s not my life! […] I’ll be a ghost. You’ll be a ghost. The whole world, crawling with ghosts…”

David Hertz & William Ludwig scripted this from William L. White’s novel, and Day puts it over powerfully. It’s a remarkable transformation for a typically bright, light, starry performer.

Now the pair embark on a months-long bender, going about their lives merrily squiffled, a tragic version of Nick & Nora (though he’s called John). Best friend Nigel Bruce tries to give Nora a wake-up call, a pep talk on the subject of pain.

“I have known soldiers after they’ve left hospital with a bad wound, they’re so dazed they can’t even sign their names the way the used to. Perhaps it’s nature’s way of escaping pain. They think some other fellow got hit. Not them.”

The cure arrives in the form of the little lamb boy (William Severn) and O’Brien, Hollywood’s best weeper. The bereaved couple’s best course of treatment is to get involved in the lives of other people whose need is greater, and so they adopt this waifs and must now get them to America somehow. Surprisingly, the structuring principle of the film is not the kids’ trauma (MO’B doesn’t appear until midway), but the parents’.

The ending has the kids arriving in New York just as a blackout is tested, and the Manhattan skyline goes dim. Cue inspiring speech about turning the lights back on for the next generation. It’s sentimental and manipulative but effective. I seem to be hardwired to respond emotionally to the Blitz. I have a queasy love of Hollywood effects shots of searchlights panning dark skies.

Van Dyke became seriously ill — cancer and heart disease. And, as a good Christian Scientist, he forbade himself pain relief. In 1943, he put his sidearm in his mouth and shot himself through the head.

Woodbridge Strong Van Dyke, 1889-1943.

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8 Responses to “The Final Shot”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    Somehow I feel compelled to create a bad-taste band with the name All Our Babies Forever Dead. I’m also reminded of an M.G.M. WW2 short, chanced upon, in which James Cagney (briefly working for Metro?) advised us to be on the lookout for Axis baddies and Margaret O’Brien got killed over and over.

    David Hertz, co-author of the JOURNEY FOR MARGARET script, was also involved in the writing of DAISY KENYON and HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT. Both films I esteem.

  2. Me too! JFM swithers between sensitivity and soap opera, but there’s clearly talent at work and Hertz is obviously part of it.

  3. Thanks for the tip. I’m a Van Dyke fan – not always, but often.

  4. I like his screwballs best, but this has enough strong stuff as well as call-backs to Nick & Nora that I found it pretty admirable.

  5. I’ve also liked WHITE SHADOWS OF THE SOUTH SEAS, THE PRIZEFIGHTER AND THE LADY, MANHATTAN MELODRAMA, MARIE ANTOINETTE.

  6. I must see those. Have seen bits of the first-named and keep fooling myself into thinking I’ve seen the whole thing. My interest in Marie Antoinette is primarily second-unit…

  7. Is that what Duvivier did? Van Dyke has the rep of a no-nonsense studio employee, but MARIE shows signs of arty ambition.

  8. Jacques Tourneur did second unit on Marie… and i think it’s where he met Lewton, also engaged in some obscure way (possibly as what the studio directory listed as “Ass. Prod.”)

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