Archive for The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell

Otto Pilot

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 14, 2022 by dcairns

We had a strange Otto Preminger double feature of THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL and BONJOUR TRISTESSE, two of the bald auteur’s movies I’d never caught up with. I find him simply unwatchable in anything but the exactly right aspect ratio, and TCMOBM hadn’t been screened on TV in anything but wretched pan-and-scans. Seeing it in ‘Scope was a revelation — unfortunately it was a revelation of how not particularly good a film it is.

(I’ll possibly look at BONJOUR in a separate post.)

The late Billy Mitchell’s family hated the casting of Gary Cooper, saying that he was a small, explosive man, and Jimmy Cagney would have been ideal. Cagney wasn’t quite the dynamo he had been by 1955, of course, but he’d still have held the interest better than Coop. HIGH NOON would tend to suggest that he’d be a good man to suggest the character’s inner torment — basically, the lifelong military officer is forced to denounce the army’s policy toward aviation in the press, because he sees it as essential to national security. In the dock, he predicts the attack on Pearl Harbor by decades. So you could imagine Coop’s eyes revealing a lot of tension and sorrow and doubt. Doesn’t really seem to happen, though.

It’s one of those movies, also, where you know exactly what to think. Preminger is often praised today for his even-handedness, but he isn’t able to get any of that in here: Cooper’s chief opponent in the army is Charles Bickford, a competent but unlikable actor, good at unlikable roles (as in Otto’s FALLEN ANGEL). The prosecutor is played by Fred Clark, king of the fatuous falling face, hired to look astonished whenever his prosecutorial gambits collapse on him. And then they bring in the heavy hitter, top lawyer Rod Steiger, who brings all the expected chubby smarm to the role. He’s exactly the equivalent of George C. Scott’s dangerous opponent in ANATOMY OF A MURDER, but Scott is wonderfully unexpected in that role, which can’t be said for Rod. As Fiona observed in astonishment back when we viewed AOAM for the first time, “My God, George is sexy, even though he’s… almost deformed.” Sexy gargoyle beats smirking dumpling.

Still, Rod brings the entertainment. Prior to his appearance, there are some future TV stars making brief appearances, but the most characterful turn is by Ralph Bellamy, whom we love, but who perhaps can’t quite add the necessary animation and engagement to a static colossus like this. As an early Cinemascope film, the movie lacks the fluidity and dynamism of later Preminger outings — lots of flat twos. His previous MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM, though hampered by cheap sets, was vastly more interesting.

The correct pairing for this film would have been IN HARM’S WAY, where Billy Mitchell’s prophecy of air war comes horribly true, but that would have been a REALLY dull evening.

THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL stars Longfellow Deeds; Oliver Niles; Bruce Baldwin; Mr. Joyboy; Lizzie Borden; Sheldrake; Honorious; Felix Leiter; Captain Clarence Oveur; Carl Kolchak; J. Jonah Jameson; Ben Hubbard; Cueball; Horace Greeley (uncredited); Lover Boy; Detective Dickens; and Fanning Nelson (uncredited).