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Hellcats of the Navy

Hellcats of the Navy
Columbia TriStar
1957 / b&w / 1:85 anamorphic 16:9 / 82 min. / Street Date May 13, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Ronald Reagan, Nancy Davis, Arthur Franz, Robert Arthur
Cinematography Irving Lippman
Art Direction Rudi Feld
Film Editor Jerome Thoms
Original Music Mischa Bakaleinikoff
Written by David Lang and Bernard Gordon (Raymond T. Marcus)
Produced by Charles H. Schneer
Directed by Nathan Juran

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 with an 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:
Movie: Fair
Video: Excellent
Sound: Good
Supplements: trailers for other Columbia War films
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 15, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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