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Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A GUY NAMED JOE (1943)

The dead are always with us, but they get better movie roles in wartime.* This WWII model has Spencer Tracy lost on a bombing run, leaving behind a mourning Irene Dunne for a new heavenly assignment as ectoplasmic wingman/mentor to pup pilot Van Johnson. It’s a one-sided relationship that grows uncomfortable when Van’s increasingly confident flyboy meets ‘that old gal of mine’ and love blooms. Sound icky? Perhaps. But it doesn’t play that way in wartime. (Something Steven Spielberg ignored to his cost when he swapped bombardiers for fire fighting pilots in ALWAYS, his 1989 remake.) Here, with the exception of Herbert Stothart’s typically lackluster score (heavy on ‘I’ll Get By.’), just about everything works. Even the dated special-effects flying action is better than expected. But it’s especially solid, even revelatory in the romantic first half where Tracy & Dunne bring out a rare erotic charge from each other. (Tracy, along with helmer Victor Fleming in their fifth & final collaboration, gave Dunne a lot of grief during production. She was plenty pissed off, but it may have helped bring out a tough, sexy edge not even seen in work with Cary Grant like THE AWFUL TRUTH/’38. Lordy, what a talent! Still remarkably youthful at 46.) The script isn’t without its purple passages, likely from co-scripter Dalton Trumbo; and Production Code objections jettisoned a sort of Wagnerian Liebestod/Immolation finale (Dunne as Brünhilde?) for a cop-out ‘have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too’ ending that may just be an improvement. It’s a one-of-a-kind film, but also, one for a very specific time. So adjust.

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID/DOUBLE-BILL: *In many ways, this is like a militarized HERE COMES MR. JORDAN/’41, an earlier life-after-death fantasy keyed to the wartime market but centered on boxing. Character actor James Gleason is in both, but takes a different assignment here. JOE gives Ward Bond the analogous role.

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