During World War II, an American fighter pilot stationed in England, Maj. Pete Sandidge (Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock), dies during a bombing mission. Heaven sends Pete back to Earth as a guardian angel to a young pilot, Capt. Ted Randall (Van Johnson, The Last Time I Saw Paris), who is in much need of guidance. The celestial mission gets complicated when Ted falls for Pete’s girlfriend, Dorinda (Irene Dunne, Love Affair), who is still in grieving mode.
Reaction & Thoughts:
Modern Hollywood has a tendency to equate fantasy with big, loud visual effects. There was, however, a time when Hollywood was very much interested in the fantasy narrative as a means to touch upon serious issues. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s A Guy Named Joe is a propaganda fantasy film who uses a rather curious story to explore many problems that preoccupied wartime audiences.
Directed by Victor Fleming (Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) from a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus and Exodus), A Guy Named Joe does a pretty good job combining humor, sentiment, and tragedy. The fact that Tracy’s character is dead, really dead, puts a dark cloud over the entire film. Add to this the fact that the story is presented in the context of what looked like a war without an end, and you get a poignant, but sobering viewing experience.
The first half is played for laughs, with Tracy and Dunne making a funny pair of bickering lovers. This section of the film reminded me of the Tracy-Hepburn comedies. After many funny sequences, the gloom sets in and kudos to the stars for adjusting quickly to the more serious tone of this section of the movie. The arrival of Johnson’s character could have been a disaster — the audience is asked to root for Dunne-Johnson after becoming emotionally invested in the Tracy-Dunne relationship — but it is all done in a convincing and tastefully manner.
The supporting cast is filled with many familiar faces. Ward Bond (The Searchers) plays Tracy’s best friend, Lionel Barrymore (Key Largo) plays an archangel, James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan) plays a grumpy military officer, and pre-stardom Esther Williams (Bathing Beauty) has a small role as Johnson’s love interest.
There are three actors who would later play iconic characters: Barry Nelson (the very first James Bond) plays an angel, Kirk Alyn (the screen’s very first Superman) has a bit part as a pilot, and Edward Hardwicke (Dr. Watson in the British TV series) plays a precocious English kid.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
This is the second time I watch A Guy Named Joe and I liked it much more this time around. The older I get, the more I appreciate movies about death — I’m now fully aware of my own mortality. I was also happy to see a fantasy movie that doesn’t dwell on FXs — the visuals & sound effects (pretty good, I must add) are a mere addition to the movie, not its raison de entree. Remade in 1989 under the title Always, directed by Steven Spielberg (he’s a big fan of the original!). B&W, 122 minutes, Not Rated.