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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Road To Glory, Wife, Husband and Friend, Earthbound (Fox Cinema Archives Warner Baxter Triple Feature)
The Road To Glory, Wife, Husband and Friend, Earthbound (Fox Cinema Archives Warner Baxter Triple Feature)
Fox Cinema Archives // Unrated // January 14, 2015
List Price: $37.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted March 12, 2015 | E-mail the Author
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Three meat-and-potato offerings from now-forgotten big star Warner Baxter. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Road to Glory, Wife, Husband and Friend, Earthbound, a Warner Baxter triple feature. 1936's gloomy World War I romantic actioner, The Road to Glory, is directed by Howard Hawks, co-written by a pasel of scripters including Nunnally Johnson and no less than William Faulkner, and stars Fredric March, Baxter, Lionel Barrymore, June Lang, and Gregory Ratoff. 1939's romantic comedy Wife, Husband and Friend, is directed by Gregory Ratoff, scripted by Nunnally Johnson, and stars Loretta Young, Baxter, Binnie Barnes, Cesar Romero, George Barbier, J. Edward Bromberg, and Eugene Pallette. And Earthbound, a fantasy B murder mystery, is directed by Irving Pichel, and stars Baxter, Andrea Leeds, Lynn Bari, Charley Grapewin, and Henry Wilcoxon. Since all of these titles are still available individually on disc, whether or not you purchase the The Road to Glory, Wife, Husband and Friend, Earthbound Warner Baxter triple feature depends, as with all of these Cinema Archives triple bills, on how much you're into the unifying headliner or theme. I like Baxter...so I like this triple. No extras for these okay fullscreen black and white transfers. Let's look very briefly at each title.

THE ROAD TO GLORY

War is hell. Battle-weary, burnt-out Captain Paul La Roche (Warner Baxter), of the proud 5th Company, 2nd Battalion of the 39th Regiment of the French Line (got that?), must bid his astonishingly sexy-yet-politely distant Red Cross nurse girlfriend Monique La Coste (June Lang) goodbye: it's time to go over the top again. An air raid, however, brings Monique in close contact with replacement Lieutenant Michel Denet (Fredric March), a suave, handsome soldier who does his best to score with the seen-it-all, not-buying-it Monique. Paul and Michel don't exactly hit it off: Michel doesn't like Paul's high casualty rate (Paul's regiment gets all the "dirty" jobs), and Paul doesn't think much for Michel's high ideals out in the no-rules war zone--ideals that get men killed (when Michel orders a brave-but-costly excursion out into "no man's land" to try and save a suffering comrade who's dying on a string of barbed wire, Paul, who knows all too well from bitter experience, simply shoots the soldier). After narrowly escaping certain death when the Germans tunnel under their HQ to bury mines, the regiment returns to base where naturally, Monique falls for the handsome Michel. Meanwhile, Paul discovers his brave-but-foolish elderly father, Papa La Roche (Lionell Barrymore), disguising himself as a private, in order to fight the Bosch. Paul yanks him out of the line, but the old fool, with the help of sympathetic Sergeant Bouffiou (Gregory Ratoff), burns his transfer, remaining anonymously in the ranks. Hellish fighting in a new offensive push gravely depletes the regiment, and a volunteer mission is needed to set up a telephone to sight incoming artillery. Papa volunteers with Michel, but turns chicken when the chips are down, even going so far as to panic and frag the returning heroes. Who, then, will man this field phone on a suicide mission? Disgraced Papa? Or perhaps blinded Paul...who discovers Monique's and Michel's affair?

The Road to Glory, Howard Hawks' 1936 WWI trench warfare actioner, isn't nearly as well known as his earlier, iconic--and very similarly structured--WWI aviation classic, The Dawn Patrol, from 1930 (...which in turn isn't as well known as its more popular all-star 1938 remake from director Edmund Goulding). The Road to Glory must have been popular at the box office, though, since from what I've read, there were several plagiarism suits brought against its producers (nobody sues unless there's dough on the table). I hadn't seen it since the days of Bill Kennedy at the Movies, which means I was a little kid who thought the melodramatic heroics were cool and the doomed romance icky. It's not a title you see pop up when reviewers or historians begin their articles on director Howard Hawks by listing just a sampling of his frankly remarkable string of bona fide classic movies, like Scarface, Bringing Up Baby, Only Angels Have Wings, His Girl Friday, Sergeant York, To Have and Have Not, The Big Sleep, Red River, and Rio Bravo. If The Road to Glory is considered by Hawks' experts (of which I'm not) a "lesser" effort, one might be tempted to blame that on the movie's most obvious drawback: its strong resemblance to The Dawn Patrol and Today We Live (...although of course one of Hawks' trademarks was to recycle and repurpose storylines and thematic structures throughout his career). A few reviewers at the time of The Road to Glory's 1936 release knocked it for not having a discernible "point of view"--a gripe from American critics that trailed after Hawks' movies for decades until "reviewers" became "critics," and the auteur theory rescued him from respectful commercial dismissal.

And while I go back and forth, week to week, on whether or not I think the auteur theory is the best, most perfect way to look at a director's output (Hitchcock)...or that it's complete bunkum (Jerry Lewis), there's no question that regardless of where it stands in Hawks' canon, The Road to Glory clearly exhibits motifs and themes and structures that regularly pop up in Hawks' genre works. But then again...quite a few writers put their two cents into The Road to Glory's script, credited onscreen to Joel Sayre (Annie Oakley, Gunga Din) and novelist William Faulkner (a couple of Pulitzers for starters), while some reports indicate that Nunnally Johnson may have been the final architect of the script. Add to that Darryl Zanuck's penchant for snipping and rearranging in the editing room (along with the fact that few if any directors at this time had contractual right to final cut, including Hawks), and you might assume that Hawks was present somewhere in the writing process. Elements of the Hawksian code--self-esteem through your job; personal redemption through action; unswerving loyalty to your duty--are all here (when Baxter fatalistically observes that someone has to stay in the bunker, regardless of the mines being laid below it--"Somebody's gotta be here. I hope it isn't us...but somebody's gotta be here!"--it sums up quite a few of Hawks' lifelong cinematic concerns).

That palpable sexual equality that immediately identifies a Hawks heroine is here, as well. Lang, startlingly modern-looking in her sexy bob cut and form-fitting Red Cross dress, sleeps with Baxter because she's grateful to him for saving her family (when we first see her in his room, her pose and attitude make us think of a hooker, not a nurse). And she feels guilty when she betrays that commitment when she falls for March. However, she's no pushover for March. In typical Hawks fashion, as bombs fall, killing soldiers, March first meets Lang and lays on a calculated charm offensive...which heard-it-all-before Lang cynically bats right back at him (after admitting he was giving her a line, he gives her another line, this time a "sincere," sad approach about trying to snatch beauty where and when he can among all this death...to which she hilariously deadpans, "That was very dramatic,"). That even-steven approach to the sexes is carried over into Hawks' pushme-pullyou view on war, as well (given it most complicated expression in the brilliant Sergeant York). Yes, warfare is hideous and futile and seemingly perpetual in its carnage, summed up by March not only physically but spiritually taking Baxter's place by repeating Baxter's shopworn rah-rah battle pep talk. But it's also inevitable and inexplicable, according to March (when Lang keeps yakking about how unfair it all is), as well as a "social form," if you will, that perversely allows men to show their true natures, both good and bad (summed up by Barrymore, a craven coward who causes the death of his own men, before turning hero, sacrificing his own life). The sometimes hokey, sometimes obvious The Road to Glory certainly isn't a Howard Hawks title that first springs to mind when thinking about the director's accomplishments...but that doesn't mean it doesn't offer valuable--and entertaining--insights into his work as a whole.


WIFE, HUSBAND AND FRIEND

New York City building contractor Leonard Borland (Warner Baxter) has two problems: business ain't so hot, and his wife, socialite Doris (Loretta Young), is in the throes of her yearly passion to become a opera singer. Apparently, this trait runs through Doris' family...which wouldn't be a bad thing if any of them were truly any good. Which they're not. Doris' interfering mother, Mrs. Blair (Helen Westley), doesn't help by encouraging her daughter's ambitions far beyond her capabilities, going so far as to hire a groveling music teacher (Cesar Romero) to boost Doris' delusions. Leonard compounds the problem by rigging the audience for Doris' debut with friends and business associates, giving Doris a false sense of her abilities when the concert is a "smash." Now, Doris wants to launch an expensive singing tour, something famous opera singer Cecil Carver (Binnie Barnes) tells Leonard is useless. Interested in snagging Leonard for herself, Cecil discovers to her amazement that it's Leonard who has, unbeknownst to himself, a powerful baritone voice, and she convinces him--falsely--that the way to be Doris' social equal, is to go on tour with Cecil while singing under an assumed identity. Well of course this sound logical (?), and "Logan Bennett" becomes a smash hit on the recital circuit. However, when Doris finally discovers the truth--after her own humiliating performance sans Leonard's help--there's trouble ahead for the bickering couple.

From what I could find out, the remake of 1939's Wife, Husband and Friend--Everybody Does It, also written by Nunnally Johnson, and starring Paul Douglas, Linda Darnell, and Celeste Holm--is the better known of the two versions of James M. Cain's short story, Two Can Sing (yes, that James M. Cain), and was a big hit with critics and the public when it came out in 1949. How Wife, Husband and Friend fared back in '39, though, is a little murkier, although a few contemporary critics at the time were positive towards it. Prior to this disc arriving, I hadn't seen either, so luckily I wasn't burdened with any preconceived notions derived from a so-called "superior" sequel. Directed with just the right amount of snap by character actor Gregory Ratoff, Wife, Husband and Friend is certainly screwy screwball comedy, with one of the more far-fetched plotlines I've seen for a genre rightly celebrated for its silly, unbelievable stories. A moneyed socialite with "tainted blood"--the taint being the desire to sing professionally, even though her talents are only average--is an amusing-enough set-up (Young's father, the hilariously frightened, put-out George Barbier, claims Doris' grandmother started the Civil War when she sang in Richmond in 1861). Screenwriter Johnson keeps similar wisecracks coming at a good clip (the piano player at Baxter's first recital tells the nervous, clothes-plucking Baxter--who's leaning against the piano like a saloon singer--to just hop up on the piano like Helen Morgan, and get it over with), while the director, Gregory Ratoff, helps guide Baxter to a highly amusing turn (second-billed Baxter, his A-list leading days already over, should have done way more comedy in his career--he has a slightly rougher, tougher Walter Matthau vibe here that's just right). To top it off, when the story adds the novel twist of the husband actually being the more accomplished singer, who then assumes a separate identity to earn money (as well as the right to be as "classy" as his wife), Wife, Husband and Friend gets even better...as well as subtextually quite intriguing.

When Baxter opens with his patronizing, condescending "kind but firm" approach to dealing with his wife's unfulfilled singing ambitions, one might assume his character is yet another dismissive, belittling movie husband who's forced to indulge his screwball flighty wife's whims. This kind of characterization is a red flag in front of the gender-obsessed critics today who latch onto one aspect of a character in the aid of indicting an entire time-period of moviemaking. That castigating approach, however, doesn't work with Baxter's character. Regardless of the actual degree of his intent to either control Young's behavior or minimize her dreams of singing, Baxter's Leonard is, right from the start, an obviously doting husband who admits to being unable to say "No" to his wife--a quality that Barnes finds instantly attractive when she hears Baxter defend his wife to an indifferent theater critic. The tactic is wrong, but his stocking the audience with friends so his wife wouldn't be hurt, comes from love, not dominance. And true parity with his wife occurs when he suffers the same humiliations she has experienced in her singing career. The story is clever in setting up Baxter as the superior singer, and we expect him to achieve even greater success when he switches from the recital halls to the operatic stage. As with so many screwballs, we also expect he's somehow going to "break" his "willful" wife, and show her the errors of her ways...whether she deserves such treatment of not. SPOILER ALERT! However, right at the moment of Leonard's "emancipation" from Doris--she's heartbroken that he's succeeded at her passion and leaves him--he goes on a week-long bender and never fully recovers, suffering a humiliation far worse than hers when she was first booed off a stage. The famous "Logan Bennett," in his opera debut, is shown up to be a clown in front of the laughing, sneering well-to-dos of society, only to have him get off stage and get slapped and called a coward by his would-be new lover, Barnes--a charge to which he readily admits. Only when he suffers losing his wife, followed by understanding exactly what Doris went through in terms of public humiliation--while admitting his own failings--does Leonard lose his patronizing attitude and become his wife's true equal. It's an interesting resolution for this type of screwball--and a welcome one.


EARTHBOUND

Wealthy, relatively indolent, deliriously happy couple Nick and Ellen Desborough (Warner Baxter and Andrea Leeds), sit on top of an Alpine peak and wonder what the unhappy, much poorer people down below are doing that day. Suddenly, a cablegram is personally delivered (I'm not kidding): Nick is needed in Paris by scientist Jeff Reynolds (Henry Wilcoxon), to fork over more dough help design Jeff's new lab. Nick leaves, despite Ellen's protests. On the train to Paris, Nick meets a strange man, Mr. Whimser (Charley Grapewin), who carries a Bible, and who intimates that Nick may not be long for this world--a potentially worrying prophecy that Nick takes little heed of, considering the bad war news coming out of Europe. Unfortunately, Mr. Whimser was right: when Nick discovers that it was actually Jeff's wife, Linda (Lynn Bari), that cabled, he's in a fix. You see...Nick had an affair with Linda, and now after all that dirty, illicit fun has played out, he realizes how wrong it was and wants to forget it ever happened...before the misses is clued in (you and one billion other guys, Nick...). Well, Linda's not having any of that, and plugs Nick in his office. BLAM! Dead. And yet...Nick's ghost is immediately "born" and, accompanied occasionally by the smart-assed, not-particularly-helpful advice of Mr. Whimser, it's up to Nick to right the wrongs of his life--including helping Ellen solve his own murder--before he can be released from his earthbound chains.

Topper, right? Well, from what I read online, Earthbound was announced as a Fox project as early as 1935, two years before Topper, with cameras ready to role in 1937 with Warner Baxter (who was at or near the top in terms of money-earners in Hollywood at that time) and Myrna Loy (and with Gregory Ratoff directing), before it was back-burnered that same year when the Cary Grant/Constance Bennett smash ghost comedy cleaned up at the box office. Unfortunately, by the time Earthbound finally did roll before the cameras in 1940, Baxter's position as Hollywood's top dog had precipitously slid. Money was scaled back for the production (Loy was too pricey at this point to star alongside slipping Baxter), with decidedly lesser movie luminaries filling out the casting. At a scant runtime of 67 minutes, Earthbound looked exactly like what it was: a gussied-up B murder mystery with ghosts (even the then-touted new prism camera lens that allowed, instead of superimposition, for "Baxter ghost" to be filmed at the same time as the other actors, was really a money-saving device, cutting down enormously on the costly special effects set-ups).

Directed by Irving Pichel (General Spanky, Dracula's Daughter), and scripted by John Howard Lawson (Action in the North Atlantic, Smash-Up, the Story of a Woman) and Samuel G. Engel (My Darling Clementine, Sitting Pretty), Earthbound by all rights should have been monikered Stagebound such is its terribly static nature, both physically and thematically (perhaps Moribund is an even better fit). If your opening scene gets laughs and giggles when it shouldn't, it's an ominous sign that someone dropped the ball. Baxter's and Leeds' ascent of an Alpine mountain is represented by a cramped 4 foot by 4 foot mock-up that looks like it was constructed in the corner of Darryl Zanuck's walk-in freezer. While the romantic cooing and bantering between Baxter and Leeds is unobjectionably bland (made better-than-it-really-is by the good actors), the miserliness of the set is off-putting, capped by not one but two truly ludicrous developments: Baxter hauls his dog up by a rope (what the hell is a dog going to do up on a mountain peak...and how the hell are you going to get him down?), followed by a geriatric postman, scrabbling at the fake snow, delivering the couple a cablegram (no mail on Sunday...but mountain peaks are fine). That kind of opener sounds a warning bell to most viewers that someone on the production end has drastically miscalculated, making it difficult to get the viewer back on the side of the movie. Earthbound does eventually right itself into a very mild, somewhat competent (if wholly pedestrian) murder mystery/ghost story...but that ain't much of a compliment when you see just how stupid it all becomes before the final fade-out. The biggest problem Earthbound has is the ghost angle, which is simultaneously overly-familiar and cliched (even by 1940), and illogically handled. If Baxter can somehow communicate with Leeds telepathically--and he does this, by the way, by hilariously shouting at her over and over again until she does what he tells her to do!--why doesn't he just yell over and over again, "Lynn Bari shot me, and the gun is in the fireplace! " This was Baxter's last movie for Fox, and it's no surprise that with marginal, even laughable projects like Earthbound now taking up his time, Baxter's career as an A-lister was over. In a few years he'd score lasting B-movie icon status with his cheap-but-successful Crime Doctor programmers for Columbia Pictures, but that kind of relative success was a long, long way from where Baxter stood in the mid-1930s: top of the Hollywood heap.

The Video:
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfers for The Road to Glory, Wife, Husband and Friend, Earthbound look overall...not bad. The Road to Glory is a tad dark for my liking (although contemporary reviews also noted dark frames), with a modest bit of grain. Wife, Husband and Friend looks the best, with a sharp image, good contrast and few imperfections, while Earthbound looked a bit grainy and blown-out, contrast-wise.

The Audio:
All three movies sport Dolby Digital English mono audio tracks, with the expected low level of hiss (a little scratchier on Earthbound).

The Extras:
No extras.

Final Thoughts:
...or "Let's watch Warner Baxter's movie career go right down the toilet." Baxter, a now-largely forgotten big screen star of the 1930s, may have earned the most money of any actor in 1936, but he took second billing to up-and-comer Fredric March in Howard Hawks' The Road to Glory--something no top star should ever do (reviewer's note: I used "up-and-comer" for March in context of his earning power next to Baxter--a poor choice of phrase on my part rightly pointed out below by friend Andrew Kidd). By 1939, he was second-billed to Loretta Young in Wife, Husband and Friend, a light, fun, interesting screwball comedy that was just the kind of material that Loretta Young was balking against when she ditched Fox after its release. And by 1940, Baxter was headlining crappy B ghost stories like Earthbound--a fast fall in just 4 years. A talented actor, the first two outings here show his range, from Road's morose fatalism, to Wife's agreeably grumpy comedy. Those two titles make the The Road to Glory, Wife, Husband and Friend, Earthbound Warner Baxter triple feature recommended fare.


Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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