Monday, March 10, 2014

Favorites :: Character Spotlight :: When Nerves of Steele Fatigue and Finally Snap in William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)

There's a moment in George Clooney's The Monuments Men (2014), a World War II tale of a special squad efforting to preserve and rescue what's left of Europe's art treasures from the plundering Nazis, where Bill Murray and Bob Balaban's characters are stuck in the Ardennes at Christmas time. And as the Battle of the Bulge rumbles all around them, Murray receives a recording from home, alas, with no way to listen to it. His friend comes through, though, playing the record over the PA system for the whole encampment to hear. I admit, I teared up a bit during this scene, as Murray's daughter's Christmas Carol echoed through the woods and the ears of those so far away from home, but, I know I was also crying a bit for the stirred up memories of Sgt. Warnicki from William Wellman's The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), too, who also received a similar record, which holds the voice of his infant son whom he's never heard speak.

On the surface, The Story of G.I. Joe is an autobiographical look at famed war correspondent, Ernie Pyle. But just like with his books and essays, the film is not about Pyle, per see, but about Pyle serving as a witness to those men fighting the good fight -- not the where and the why, necessarily, but the frustrations and the 'hurry up and waiting' punctuated by sudden and terrible outbursts of violence and terror of the who. Here, the reporter follows one particular outfit from their disastrous baptism of fire at the Kasserine Pass in North Africa to the invasion of Italy that is loosely based on his Pulitzer Prize winning piece on the death of Captain Waskow and the impact it had on his men. 

Burgess Meridith is just great as the lyrical Pyle, who tries to personalize and put a face on the 'gravel agitators' in his columns for those back home; as is Robert Mitchum as the rapidly promoted Captain Walker. But the film is stolen out from under them both by Freddie Steele's Sgt. Warnicki and his quest for a working phonograph, whose comical build up leaves the viewer a bit unprepared for the truly brutal and heart-rending climax of this plot thread at the foot of Monte Cassino, where he finally gets it working, hears his son's greeting, and the months of accumulated fatigue and grueling combat finally pushes one man over the edge. 

The resulting dust-up as his comrades try to contain him from taking the hill by himself proves just as harrowing, with Warnicki beaten into the mud, a reverse-engineered take on civilization as he devolves back into the ooze that sprung us all. Kudos to Steele for pulling off the detonation of this emotional time-bomb so effectively, which is even more amazing when you consider he wasn't even an actor.

Born Frederick Earle Burgett, at the age of 14, Steele took up boxing as a profession and, after a decade of bouts, 'The Tacoma Thumper' was recognized as the middle-weight champion of the world from 1936-1938, compiling a record of 125-5, knocking out almost half of his opponents in the process. Steele's fighting career came to a premature end due to a series of auto accidents and other accumulated injuries and health issues. However, his celebrity status in the ring found him mixing in several Hollywood circles as well -- most notably, John Wayne's.

Known for his hard-hitting and fast footwork, Steele broke into showbiz when his feet doubled for Errol Flynn's in the fight scenes for Raoul Walsh's Gentlemen Jim (1942). Several bit parts followed, including a few for Preston Sturges, who gave him his first credited role in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). He was absolutely hilarious in that, but Steele seemingly got his big break with Wellman's World War II epic as the hickish, tobacco-spitting, and tough of as nails, Warnicki. He bore the facade of a simpleton, with unsuspected depth, character and courage. Mitchum's Walker might've been the brains of the outfit, but Warnicki was the glue. And it should be noted that it was his mental collapse that rallies the outfit long enough to achieve the victory that had been eluding them for weeks.

It's amazing stuff that might've been fumbled in some other hands -- and it almost was. Remember, Wellman was a pilot who served in the Air-Corps during World War I and he hated the infantry, and therefore, refused all overtures from producer Lester Cowan flat until he spent some time with Pyle and learned how much the G.I.s truly revered him. (Pyle was so influential he campaigned for and succeeded in getting Congress to authorize extra combat pay for those serving in the front lines.) The only other non-combatant similarly adored was cartoonist Bill Mauldin, another Pulitzer winner, whose Willy and Joe strips were quite popular for their honesty, irreverence, and the resulting ire drawn from the brass for the same (-- scenes and scenarios which were pilfered mercilessly for this film). And to add even more authenticity, the army allowed United Artists the use of many veterans from North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian campaigns as extras as they were transferred to the Pacific theater of operations. Sadly, most of these men were later killed in action on Okinawa, including Pyle, who was killed not long after the film wrapped. His last words were asking another soldier if he was okay before a bullet struck him down.

Along with his books and columns, The Story of G.I. Joe makes for a fine memorial for Pyle. It also served as Mitchum's big breakthrough movie, landing him his only Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He lost to James Dunn for A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I've seen them both. Loved them both. But, Mitchum was robbed. And frankly, Steele was better than both of them that year anyway.

Alas, unlike Mitchum, this breakout performance did little to advance Steele's acting career. His piercing eyes and chiseled features were offset by a flattened nose that resulted in a nasally, almost cartoonish rasp of a voice that would've never allowed him leading man status; but the potential for a rock-solid character actor was there, evidenced by a couple of memorable performances in albeit minor roles. I especially liked him as the failed voice of reason for Raymond Burr's gang of hoods in Desperate (1947) and as part of a remarkable one-two punch combo as the muscle for bad guy Peter Lorre in The Black Angel (1946). His last film was Lewis Selier's steamy film noir, Whiplash (1948). After which, he gave up on acting and moved back home to Washington, where he opened a saloon in Westport with his wife, Helen, which they ran together until he suffered a debilitating stroke in 1980. Steele passed away four years later.

Perhaps it was just the right role molded for just the right person, but Sgt. Warnicki is one of my favorite characters from my second favorite war film -- the favorite being Wellman's Battleground; a truly great film in the same vein, who also saw one of its character actors robbed of an Oscar statuette. (All apologies to Dean Jaeger, but James Whitmore was ah-mazing as Sgt. Kinnie.) No matter what picture or genre, Wellman always had a thing for camaraderie, making this genre almost tailor made for his sensibilities. Like Pyle, he was less interested about why they were fighting but who was doing the fighting and the dynamics of who you were fighting with. Rousing, inspiring, heart-wrenching, and perhaps most important of all, credible, which guys like Freddie Steele brought to the table in spades. And I can't recommend his performance and this film enough.

Other Points of Interest:

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) Lester Cowan Productions :: United Artists / P: Lester Cowan / AP: David Hall / D: William A. Wellman / W: Leopold Atlas, Guy Endore, Philip Stevenson, Ben Bengal, Ernie Pyle (novels) / C: Russell Metty / E: Albrecht Joseph / M: Louis Applebaum, Ann Ronell / S: Burgess Meredith, Robert Mitchum, Freddie Steele, Wally Cassell, Jimmy Lloyd

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