During WWII, an American fighter pilot stationed in England, Maj. Pete Sandidge (Spencer Tracy, Bad Day at Black Rock), dies during a mission. Heaven sends Pete back to Earth as a guardian angel to a young pilot, Capt. Ted Randall (Van Johnson, The End of the Affair), who is in much need of guidance. The celestial mission gets complicated when Ted falls for Pete’s girlfriend, Dorinda (Irene Dunne, Love Affair).
Reaction & Thoughts:
“No man is really dead unless he breaks faith with the future…”
The new and modern Hollywood has an annoying tendency to equate fantasy with big, loud visual and sound effects. There was, however, a time when Hollywood was very much interested in the fantasy narrative as a means to touch upon serious and important issues. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s comedy-drama A Guy Named Joe is a war propaganda film that uses a rather odd story to explore problems that affected 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 Spencer 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 Irene 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 Van 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 tasteful manner.
The supporting cast is filled with many familiar faces. Ward Bond (The Quiet Man and The Searchers) plays Tracy’s best friend. Lionel Barrymore (You Can’t Take It with You and It’s a Wonderful Life) plays an angel. James Gleason (Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Meet John Doe) is a grumpy military officer, and Esther Williams (Million Dollar Mermaid and Bathing Beauty) has a small role as Johnson’s love interest.
In addition, there are three actors who would later play iconic characters: Barry Nelson (the very first James Bond) plays a celestial agent, Kirk Alyn (the screen’s very first Superman) has a bit role as a pilot and Edward Hardwicke (Dr. Watson in the 1980s TV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes) plays a precocious English kid. Also with Henry O’Neill (The Human Comedy and Anchors Aweigh) as Colonel Sykes.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
I’m glad I revisited A Guy Named Joe — I liked it much more this time around. It seems that the older I get the more I appreciate movies about death. I was also happy to see a fantasy movie that doesn’t dwell on FXs — the visual and sound effects are a mere addition to the movie, not its raison de entree. The cast is pretty good too. The 1989 film Always is a remake of A Guy Named Joe. B&W, 122 minutes, Not Rated.