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Warners rushed James Cagney into so many movies from 1931 to 1936 or so that they can't all be gems; he certainly complained about some of them. 1934's summer release Here Comes the Navy is a big surprise. One expects the usual 'tars ashore boozing, brawling and chasing babes' formula epitomized by Frank Wead for bleary Wallace Beery over at MGM. Yes, there's some of that here, but Lloyd Bacon's movie shapes ups as a Cagney vehicle that transcends the formula. Simple characters, an even simpler pro-enlistment propaganda theme, and we have a great time anyway. Not hurting are some details that have taken on greater significance with the passing years.
We know what kind of picture we're going to see when the main characters are named Chesty, Biff and Droopy. Seattle construction steeplejack Chesty O'Conner (James Cagney) is a knot of ego, cocksure arrogance and charismatic energy. While working on repairs for the giant Navy battlewagon Arizona, Chesty gets into a dance-hall fight with Naval Officer Biff Martin (Pat O'Brien). To his surprise, Chesty is not only beaten, he loses his job and his girlfriend (Dorothy Tree, one of the original brides of Dracula). Figuring he can only get back at Biff by joining the Navy, the uncommonly vengeful Chesty is relocated to training in San Diego, where he ships out with the loyal, affectionate and thoroughly silly Droopy Mullins (Frank McHugh). They are both assigned to the Arizona and placed under Biff Martin's direct supervision. Despite swearing off 'twists' as bad news, Chesty falls for cable office clerk Dorothy Martin (Gloria Stuart of The Invisible Man and Titanic), unaware that she's Biff's sister. When Chesty goes AWOL to visit Dorothy, he gets in deep trouble... and of course holds Biff responsible.
Here Comes the Navy is a recruiting booster made at a time when tens of thousands of unemployed young men wished they could enlist in the peacetime army; the Navy must have had their pick of enlistees. Cagney's Chesty is pitched at a Popeye & Bluto level of drama -- he's almost completely uncivilized yet beams with natural charisma. Boastful and stubborn, Chesty could indeed teach Popeye a lesson in holding a grudge. Although he salutes the flag, he doesn't respect uniforms or the Navy and resists any form of order or discipline. In other words, in movie terms, he's the perfect prodigal hero. Everybody makes it their business to show Chesty the error of his ways. When it's Tom Cruise in a role like this I feel like throwing up. I think James Cagney could kick a puppy on screen and I'd still be in his corner.
The first amusing thing about the story is that the Navy treats Chesty as a problem to be solved, as if the services were a place to rehabilitate sociopaths. Chesty sneers at protocol and chuckles when he dodges direct orders. His liberty denied, he sneaks ashore anyway by blacking his face and passing for a cook's mate. It's PC poison for sure, but writers Earl Baldwin & Ben Markson go all the way with the wicked joke. When black-faced Chesty hooks up with Dorothy, he makes a sly face at the other black sailors that says, "So long suckers, I got me a white chick!"
The story is predictable in that we know Chesty will redeem himself in some spectacular manner. The main surprise is how likeable the characters are. Cagney and Gloria Stuart share some clever dialogue as she allows herself to be picked up, while maintaining her dignity. O'Brien's Biff starts out as a jerk as well, especially when he disgraces his officer status by being so eager to fight in public. But by the second act he's as interested in anyone else in finding out if Chesty can be motivated toward anything but selfish ends. Did you know that officers in the armed forces are really social workers and personal counselors? We become concerned when Chesty wins a medal and then discards it as meaningless. He only begins to realize his mental misalignment when his shipmates reject him as bad news, and not good for the team.
The real standout is Frank McHugh, a great talent who I'm not sure ever played a leading role. McHugh played an apoplectic choreographer in Footlight Parade and here he's the simpleminded Droopy, the A+ blue-ribbon sidekick of all times. Droopy is always two thoughts behind Chesty; his running gag involves attempting to send enough money home so his mother (Maude Eburne) can buy a set of false teeth. Droopy is always on hand with a high-pitched laugh when he sees Chesty getting away with some scam or another. Some of their buddy-buddy interaction makes Droopy come off as completely asexual, despite his hangdog attempts to find a girlfriend. McHugh's flawless comic instincts show through at all times. He sings hilarious duets of the song "O Promise Me" twice, once with Fred "Snowflake" Toones" and once with his Ma, who wears a set of false teeth more appropriate for a horse. Cagney will be wearing some irate face or another when McHughes' head pops into frame with a big smile. He's great.
Here Comes the Navy was filmed in real Navy shipyards and on real ships. The whole show takes on a different dimension than originally intended when the Arizona becomes a main setting. The ship's giant masts, huge guns and wooden deck are instantly recognizable to '50s kids taught to worship the ill-fated craft: those anchor chains are splayed out across the foredeck just as shown in the old plastic model kit I must have assembled 2 or three times. Footage shown of maneuvers is grainy news film dupes but many scenes take place right on the Arizona's actual decks. Serving as a movie set for two weeks may have been the most exciting duty the ship saw in 1934.
A later development in the story takes Cagney to Sunnyvale's Moffet Field, where my own father was stationed five years later. In an enormous hangar rests the dirigible airship Macon. 1 Cagney's character becomes a real hero, and finally embraces the Navy as his home, during a flight emergency. At the fadeout all is settled between the rivals. In true prodigal upstart fashion, Chesty O'Conner's bad attitude and flagrant disregard for orders have won him a big promotion; he now appears to be a Boatswain. But like I say, it's Jimmy Cagney, so all is forgiven.
We just hope that Chesty transfers out of airships and that Biff is shifted to shore duty -- besides the grim future for the Arizona, the Macon would be destroyed in a crash the very next year. The peacetime Navy built those giant airships in hopes of positive publicity, so after so many crashed it wasn't long before they were abandoned altogether.
The Warner Archive Collection's DVD-R of Here Comes the Navy is a very good transfer of this vintage picture. Sound and image are in great shape overall, presenting the attractive stars at their best. I can't help thinking of Gloria Stuart, who lived to be a grand old lady, her film career more or less forgotten by the wider public. When she got that role in Titanic the media revisited her career, to find that she'd maintained a classy image from the beginning. That must have been a great source of happiness for her, one denied so many once-glamorous stars.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Here Comes the Navy rates:
1. The giant hangar is still there and functioning (albeit without airships) -- you can see it from the freeway.
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T'was Ever Thus.