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Although hit with various austerity measures during WW2, the Hollywood studios made many ambitious combat movies, promoting high recruitment and contributing to the general morale. The shows ran the gamut from fairly escapist stories of daring commando raids, to grim statements of enemy depredations in conquered lands. Frankly, I should think that studio moguls and government advisors were pleased by the prospect of some of this Hollywood propaganda falling into enemy hands -- anybody with a brain could see what country would eventually prevail.
MGM's Stand By for Action is a fairly early entry (late 1942) to promote the Navy. It emphasizes several main points: 1. The Navy has great traditions and every man who serves will be intensely proud. 2. The Navy levels the social playing field... a spoiled rich kid doesn't get a free ride. And 3. The fleet will never give up. Even if it must use outdated ships while new war craft are being built, the Navy will always be on the attack.
The list of studio writers assigned to the show includes Herman J. Mankiewicz, of Citizen Kane. In its own way Stand By for Action is quite cleverly put together. Besides the entertaining Charles Laughton, it stars MGM's leading man Robert Taylor.
The story presents a Navy itching to fight. In San Diego, fussy Rear Admiral Thomas (Charles Laughton) is trying to repair ships for service but is also dying to get himself a sea assignment. Lt. Commander Roberts (Brian Donlevy) is frustrated because his battle-damaged ship isn't being repaired. Admiral's aide Lt. Gregg Masterman (Robert Taylor) is a snooty Harvard grad fighting the battle of the Officer's Club instead of attending to serious business. The situation changes immediately when Thomas gives Roberts command of his own destroyer, the Warren, a recommissioned ship from WW1. And Gregg is surprised to be yanked from his office work to be Roberts' first officer. Thomas has no sooner made these assignments, than he's given the job of leading an entire flotilla of ships from Hawaii back to San Diego. On board the Warren, Roberts and Masterman take on Chief Yeoman Henry Johnson (Walter Brennan), an old sailor who knew the ship 'back when' and has a strong emotional connection to it. At sea, Gregg discovers that he makes mistakes under combat situations just like anybody else. He also needs to learn the meaning of orders, and that the responsibility of command requires making hard decisions. The ship becomes a floating nursery after rescuing a lifeboat full of babies and two pregnant women; not soon afterwards the Warren must join Admiral Thompson's convoy. When an enemy battleship threatens, our heroes (and their cargo of infants) must take it on single-handed!
Stand By for Action is a big surprise, as I wasn't expecting it to be so entertaining. Robert Taylor is initially set up as a 1940s version of Tom Cruise. Gregg Masterman gets the girls and the easy assignments, but must learn true responsibility when he finds himself on a real ship of the line. Dedicated Captain Roberts understands when Gregg entirely forgets his anti-aircraft skills in real combat, but Gregg insists on changing the ship's speed against the Captain's orders, and gets his knuckles rapped.
The great Charles Laughton betrays no discomfort working with script material beneath his skill level. Admiral Thomas is meant to be both comic relief and a representative of Navy stability, a difficult task that Laughton makes look easy. The Admiral is sober one minute and the next is sending silly signals about seeing babies on the deck of the Warren. The writers have wisely given Laughton a scene to do some serious oratory, when he quotes John Paul Jones.
In contrast to the colorful Taylor and Laughton, the rarely appreciated Brian Donlevy has to play the voice of experience and sobriety. The sentimental chores are attended to by Walter Brennan's Yeoman Johnson. Donlevy and Taylor find Johnson serving as an unofficial watchman on the Warren. Despite being an old man, Johnson finds a way to join the ship's complement. The fact that he is to old to serve is glossed over in favor of Navy pride in its tradition. Brennan's character is given such weird exceptional treatment, I almost expected him to be revealed as a ghost.
In a strong pre-echo of Blake Edwards' Operation Petticoat, the show cycles 101 sailors-with-babies jokes when the Warren takes on at least fifteen tots. The babies are indeed funny and cute, and the writers don't abuse the diaper jokes too badly. We do get to see sailor Chill Wills make a number of funny faces, though. Both rescued women are weak and pregnant, and the movie tries to stay away from them as much as possible - one of them is Elizabeth Russell, a favorite actress of Val Lewton. The women deliver their babies off-screen and are seen no more. The show concentrates instead on a carpenter's mate (Hobart Cavanaugh) who plays midwife. The injection of this incongruous material shows that MGM was after a morale-building entertainment, not a serious war saga. We see no scenes of Yankee sailors lost or burned alive when ships sink in a matter of seconds. Stand By for Action is a very carefully managed fantasy.
The second half of the movie has a lot of battle action, which is filmed remarkably well. The show earned a special effects nomination for its miniature scenes of ships in combat, which is some of the best work seen until Away All Boats and Sink the Bismark. The model ships must be very large, as the fires and explosions on them look really good. The powdermen rigging multiple hits on a Japanese battleship create some very artful shots. The story does stretch things by having a single antiquated destroyer somehow knock out a giant battleship. Also this sea battle takes place in waters between Hawaii and the California coast, an interesting touch for sure. Stand By for Action is after Rah-Rah cheers, not realism. When the film was shown on ships, I doubt that any sailors were offended.
In smaller roles are familiar faces like Douglas Fowley and Byron Foulger. Marilyn Maxwell puts in a brief appearance, to represent what any Navy cadet can expect to be dating as soon as he's in uniform. The ship's green Ensign, seen ralphing over the rail in the first storm, is none other than future director Richard Quine.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Stand By for Action looks more or less perfect, as if nobody's checked it out of the vault in seventy (!) years. No shrinkage, no real scratches and only a scattering of dust here and there. Contrast and sharpness are flawless. I saw nothing to complain about whatsoever.
I frankly hadn't heard of this show and was surprised to discover it ... so I have to assume that more entertaining wartime 'morale pictures' are waiting to be found in the Warner Archive Collection.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Stand By for Action rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.