Slightly ridiculous, surprisingly entertaining, Howard Hughes sat on his final production for seven years (and saw its budget hit an insupportable 9 mill.) before releasing it. The loopy story opens as Janet Leigh’s ace Ruskie flygal parks her jet on John Wayne’s U.S. base. Then it’s bicker-at-first-sight/mutual attraction for these two, with lots of Jules Furthman’s signature innuendo-laced dialogue in his penultimate credit. (WAYNE, with Leigh at a well-stocked Ladies Dress Shop, glancing at the bra-display mannequins: ‘See, we also believe in uplifting the masses.’ Jiminy Crickets!) Turns out, Leigh’s on a secret mission to get Wayne to ‘go’ for her, as in ‘go’ all the way back to Siberia. He takes the bait, but knowingly. Last to bail out is the defector. Director Josef von Sternberg, on his penultimate Hollywood assignment* does some of his best (and oddest) work here in that Dress Shop. One composition with a mannequin’s head placed between our mismatched lovers is a classic, but then, everything about this pair is a little off-kilter, delightfully so. And while you expect Jo to turn Leigh into a Sternbergian Goddess (he couldn’t care less about her Mid-West accent), who’da thunk he’d also make Duke look so gol darn glamorous. Not his usual craggy/handsome of the time, but . . . well, you don’t expect to see John Wayne get Sternberg's full Marlene Dietrich lighting treatment (above/just off the nose); or to respond to it so well. Even better are the generous Second Unit flying sequences (no doubt where those millions went to) with Chuck (‘Right Stuff’) Yeager doing the stunts. And all looking fabu in the gorgeous print sourced for the latest DVD editions.
DOUBLE-BILL: Hughes’ reasoning is always tough to figure out. Perhaps he held this back knowing that FLYING LEATHERNECKS/’51, a Nicholas Ray pic with Wayne & WWII planes, was in the pipeline at his studio. *Poor Jo saw his final Hollywood gig (MACAO/’52) released five years before this limped into theaters. (Via Universal since Hughes’ RKO was going under.)