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Today We Live is a weird blend of famous talents, most of them miscast, contributing to an MGM adaptation (read: scrambling) of an original story by William Faulkner, a favorite associate of producer-director Howard Hawks. The film is Hell's Angels crossed with Beau Geste and a soapy Joan Crawford vehicle, with weird literary touches thrown in for kicks.
American Bogard (Gary Cooper) buys an English estate and falls for its owner Diana Boyce Smith (Joan Crawford), who becomes a tenant. Her father's just been killed fighting Germans in the trenches, and she despairs that her brother Ronnie (Franchot Tone) and best friend Claude (Robert Young) will soon be going to war as sailors. The trio has a seemingly inseparable bond, and Diana and Claude have been informally engaged since childhood. Bogard joins the English flying corps just as he and Diana realize that they're in love. When word comes back that Bogard has been killed in action, Diana volunteers for ambulance duty in France as well.
Ronnie and Claude pilot a small, fast boat for the Navy in a town overrun by the madness of war. They meet up with Diana, who cohabits with Claude as his lover. To Diana's surprise, Bogard turns up alive and deeply disturbed to find Diana living with another man, especially a drunken sailor on an insignificant motorboat. Bogard and his pal McGinnis (Roscoe Karns) offer to let Claude fly as a replacement gunner on one of their perilous bomber missions. To their surprise the "kid" has no trouble keeping his nerve and shoots down several enemy planes. As "turnabout" Bogard accepts an invitation to ride with Ronnie and Claude on their motorboat, which turns out to be a torpedo craft doing equally dangerous duty.
William Faulkner's original story had no romance and focused on the lesson learned by the flier Bogard, who underestimates the childish Claude's stamina in battle and is himself terrified when he takes his place on the torpedo boat. The movie plays up the warriors' jolly "tomorrow we may die" attitude and becomes a tangle of love angles. Diana loves Bogard but feels committed to Claude. Ronnie's attraction to his own sister seems equal to that of Claude, just as Claude and Ronnie and Bogard and McGinnis seem to be perfectly matched male pairs. Technically the bonds between the males are old-fashioned camaraderie and manly affection, but we can't help noting that the men exchange bits of business just as meaningful as the hetero sparks between Crawford and Cooper. War reduces relationships to their elemental truth, Faulkner seems to be saying. Claude and Diana "shack up together" without benefit of marriage simply because the situation makes a formal agreement seem pointless -- "today we live" but nobody can count on tomorrow.
We can see the serious literary roots of this lopsided story when the carefree comrades drop to the floor to play with a friendly cockroach -- which then is shown crawling happily all over Crawford's hands. They give it a name and it becomes a symbol of the impermanence of life on the WW1 battlefront. It's a good example of a literary conceit that seems out of place in a glossy MGM picture with a top glamour star.
There's plenty here to like, especially for fans of Crawford, Gary Cooper, Franchot Tone and Robert Young. Faulkner probably isn't responsible for the love triangle (quartet?) that Crawford brings to the story. But his is the voice behind the bizarre dialogue. None of the actors begin to suggest the story's veddy proper English characters. Faulkner stylizes some of their speeches, as if taking the descriptor "clipped English delivery" literally. Ronnie and Diana speak in broken two and three- word sentences:
Claude. Where is he?
At the doctor's. Hurt.
What is it?
Eyes. Left him there. Came for you."
Maybe David Mamet watched this and had an epiphany, but the movie drifts into the pretentious end of the Twilight Zone every time one of these exchanges comes up. Gloomy night scenes prevail as Faulkner and Hawks do their best with their wartime theme, which of course seems Hemingway-like with the addition of the female ambulance volunteer. The wartime exploits are far-fetched, with the various combatants all free to spend plenty of time together at the same post, which is apparently right on the French coastline (close enough to torpedo another German battleship every night) and close enough to the front lines to mount large air attacks. Officers can apparently bring along anybody they want to joyride in the planes or the boats; war is mainly an opportunity to demonstrate one's personal valor.
Cooper comes off the best of the leads by doing his usual attractive character. His Bogard is one heck of a guy, rich enough to snap up a country estate and carefree enough to go fight when the spirit moves him. Franchot Tone (he'd marry Crawford in two years) and Robert Young are nobody's idea of Englishmen in voice or manner. Young has a great scene thrilled to be in the middle of the air battle, while the pros are hunkered down in the pilot's cockpit. Joan Crawford is about as English as Bonnie Parker, and makes matters worse by starting the movie in a ridiculously anachronistic Adrian gown. The dress has some kind of giant lapel flap or whatever running up one side, big enough to be used as a sail. The best characterization in the picture is Hawks favorite Roscoe Karns, who puts a remarkable range of reactions into a standard buddy part. Karns' McGinnis runs interference when Bogard is left speechless upon finding Diana living with Claude. Karns also delivers a priceless, detailed warning to Claude about not throwing up while in the nose gunner's seat -- it'll all come back at the pilots, see, leaving nobody to fly the plane. Now that's what Pre-Code movies are all about.
When two very familiar biplanes collide in mid-air we realize that the film's spectacular dogfight scenes are borrowed from Hell's Angel's. Howard Hughes apparently made back some of the millions he spent on that picture selling and re-selling flying scenes for other movies. Hawks uses very good process work both in the air and in the boats. A choice angle for the climax of Ronnie and Claude's attack on a German battleship really sells the scene.
The Warners Archive Collection DVD-R of Today We Live plays well but hasn't been remastered in quite a while; the image has a shallow contrast ratio and on scene changes the picture fades to gray (with NTSC pixel patterns) instead of black. Some of this is due to the age of the show ... made 76 years ago, after all. The original was probably filmed with a plenty of diffusion, as was the fashion for romantic pictures in the early '30s. The audio is fine.
We're told that Today We Live was cut by twenty minutes just before it was released, but frankly, the movie needed to be rewritten to do something about the dull opening in England! Just the same, fans of Crawford and Cooper can't get enough of their favorites, and each has several interesting scenes. 1933 was the year that Crawford nailed down her glamorous persona -- the voice, the makeup, the clothes -- and she looks really good. All except for that one ridiculous dress.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Today We Live rates:
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