Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Hellcats of the Navy is an inane and unbelievable submarine tale that would have been long
forgotten if its two stars weren't the unbeatable husband & wife team of Ronald Reagan and
Nancy Davis. This is a Charles H. Schneer production, so at least we know what he was doing in
between Ray Harryhausen monster romps.
Tough-as-nails sub commander Casey Abbott (Ronald Reagan) earns the enmity of his
first officer Landon (Arthur Franz) when he leaves a popular officer in the water rather than risk
exposing his ship to enemy fire. Abbott weathers the storm of disapproval, comforted in part by
Nurse Helen Blair (Nancy Davis), who admits to having dated the same sailor lost at sea,
out of frustration that Casey hadn't proposed. Their sub goes on a perilous recon mission, and
then Abbott exceeds his orders, charting a Japanese minefield by following an enemy ship.
First officer Landon finds himself in the same situation Casey faced, only this time it's Casey
being abandoned as the sub runs for cover.
Competently directed by Nathan Juran (who would distinguish himself in several Schneer/Harryhausen
productions), Hellcats of the Navy still can't overcome a completely derivative and cornball
script. It's the kind of Navy story where petty personal problems affect the chain of command, and
seasoned first officers behave like junior high school dolts. Add to that a dull crew given cute
bits of business, and weak supporting characters like young sailor Freddy Warren (Robert Arthur, of
Ace in the Hole), and you have a dull show. Every time we cut to another stock shot of
submarine activity, we realize that a few days of principal photograpy was all it took to make
this picture - the rest is all library footage. At one point, an obvious U.S. Navy motor patrol
(PT) boat is pawned off as a Japanese ship .... who did Schneer think would accept such a thing?
He must have listened too much to Sam Katzman.
No matter how much fun the Medved brothers made of Hellcats of the Navy in their Golden
Turkey books, the fact is that ol' drugstore truck-drivin' man Ronald Reagan is a solid
actor. He keeps all his scenes on task with his no-nonsense presence and solid line readings. He's
square, for sure, but whenever he's on screen, it's a real movie. It's one of his last; I only wish
he'd gotten an Oscar and stayed in films where he belonged.
Nancy Davis, who was so capable in her earlier MGM pix, like The Next Voice You Hear, acts
like a housewife who came along for the ride. It's pretty silly to see another officer
hide her photo under his pillow - as she's not only not the babe-back-home type, but is way
past her prime. Either she and Ronnie did this as a 4th anniversary present to each other ("think of
it, we'll have a movie kiss together!") or economical producer Schneer said the role was
hers if the price was right. As it is, she's kind of an embarassment.
Poor Arthur Franz has the toughest role as the first officer whose character makes no sense so the
story can have a trumped-up conflict. It's a thankless part, and he does it well, as usual. Among the
lesser faces is the usually grim-looking Joe Turkel, from Paths of Glory & The Shining,
here with a big smile on his face. Castmember William Phillips looks exactly like William Phipps
from many a 50s Science Fiction movie, and Savant wonders if the IMDB has split one actor into two.
Schneer, or somebody's coup was to get the brilliant Admiral Chester W. Nimitz to endorse the movie
opening on-screen benediction. Don't let this association tarnish his heroic reputation.
Columbia's DVD of Hellcats of the Navy is a plainwrap edition without even a trailer for an
extra. 16:9 is not mentioned in the widescreen text on the package back, even though the show is
nicely enhanced ... Savant's already expressed his fear that the studio is testing the waters to
see if enhancement can be dropped for library titles without causing a consumer uproar.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Hellcats of the Navy rates:
Supplements: trailers for other Columbia War films
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 15, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson