Friday, July 27, 2018

Love and War and the Other Woman :: A Beer-Gut Reaction to Mervyn Leroy's Homecoming (1948)

As a troop transport ship returns from the ETO and nears New York Harbor, a clutch of reporters huddle on the docks, waiting to interview these returning veterans of World War II, which has just wrapped up in Europe. Once aboard, an older, more seasoned reporter zeroes-in on a Colonel Ulysses L. Johnson (Gable), who served in a mobile medical unit as a combat surgeon until a wounded leg got him a permanent limp and a ticket home.

But as Johnson respectfully declines all overtures, and seems less than eager to get off the boat, the reporter encourages him to tell his story, saying it’s important; and not just for him but for the people here at home and those he left behind, who must also come to grips and understand what all these returning soldiers, sailors and Marines went through to help ease them back into civilian life. This logic strikes a nerve with his potential subject but Johnson still refuses an interview. However, he does get to reminiscing about what he’d been through these past four years and reveals all wounds are not visible, and how it’s the emotional scarring that takes longer to heal -- if it ever will.

Now, the Johnson we flashback to in 1941 looks nothing like the worn and weary and nearly burnt-out husk we met on the boat in 1945. No. This life-time-ago Johnson was the chief surgeon of a local mid-western metropolitan hospital, who led quite the carefree, playboy lifestyle. With his doting wife, Penny (Baxter), always by his side, they often threw elegant parties at their palatial mansion when they weren’t at the country club guzzling drinks or playing a round of golf. With no time for children, which would only cut into their fun, the only thing really anchoring these hedonists was an old classmate of Johnson’s, Dr. Robert Sunday (Hodiak), who implores his friend to come help him in the slum area of the town they live in, which is currently being overrun with malaria, malnutrition and hookworm. And while Johnson always promises to help, he never actually gets around to doing anything. His wife needed a new set of clubs after all.

But then, after Pearl Harbor, we have our first seismic shift as Johnson signs up and is commissioned a Lieutenant in a MASH outfit. And on the day before he is to report for basic training, Penny throws him a going away party that gets crashed by Sunday, who accuses Johnson of being a selfish, unsentimental hypocrite, who only sees patients as a paycheck and not people. Johnson fires back, saying Sunday is a coward for not enlisting like he did. But Sunday says he’s already been fighting a war against poverty in their own backyard for years, adding Johnson only joined up because it was the self-serving thing to do. Then, Penny manages to separate these two but it appears their long friendship has come to an end.

After a brief montage of basic training, which was a little tougher than Johnson had anticipated, cut to a troop transport; this time heading to Europe. The deck is jammed packed with doctors, medics and nurses, including Johnson; currently squabbling with one of those nurses over the reasons as to why we’re fighting this war. And, turns out, Lt. Jane “Snapshot” McCall (Turner) has been assigned to Johnson's outfit -- and more specifically, as his head nurse. 

But despite this rocky start, and despite being diametrically opposed to just about everything, a romantic spark between these two has been ignited. And as the war starts closing in on them as casualties mount and bombs drop all around them, this spark soon stokes up into a raging desire for these two exhausted people who are in desperate need of some comfort, and who are both a long, long way from home and those they left behind...

After graduating from Cornell University in 1928, Sidney Kingsley had toyed with the idea of becoming a stage actor before he moved out to Hollywood to be a spec-script reader and scenarist for Columbia. But one foot remained on the stage, however, as Kingsley also wrote several noted plays, including Dead End (-- later adapted as a movie in 1937 starring Humphrey Bogart and featured the first appearance of the Dead End Kids / Bowery Boys) and Detective Story (-- adapted in 1951 as a stellar vehicle for Kirk Douglas, which also inspired Danny Arnold to make the TV series, Barney Miller, for which I will always be eternally grateful).

Kingsley also won a Pulitzer Prize for his play, Men in White, which was also later adapted as a movie in 1934 by MGM. It told the tale of a young intern, also played by Clark Gable, who cares for his patients too much according to his socialite fiancĂ© (Myrna Loy) because he’d rather diagnose patients or perform life-saving surgery than go shopping or attend a never ending string of cocktail parties with her. And as his social life falters, the intern lures an equally compassionate nurse (Elizabeth Allan) into an affair. And as one of the last batch of Pre-Code films, it ends with the nurse on her deathbed after an implied botched abortion to teach the young intern an abject lesson on getting his priorities straight and leave his philandering ways behind him.

Shot in just fifteen days right after Gable had served out his punishment -- his “punishment” being lent out to shoot It Happened One Night (1934) for (then) lowly Columbia, Kingsley’s play was still in its first run in both New York and Los Angeles when the film premiered. (The film was not shown in those markets until the play closed.) And while it did pretty well at the box-office, it took a critical drubbing as it was often unfavorably compared to the stage version. It also didn’t help matters that the Catholic led Legion of Decency cited the film as unfit for public viewing due to the “illicit romance” and “suggested abortion” that moved the plot along.

A lot of elements from Men in White echo in Homecoming (1948) -- in fact, one could almost call it a stealth remake, which Kingsley first wrote back in 1944 as The Homecoming of Ulysses as a short story or an aborted draft of a play, depending on the consulted source. Either way, MGM quickly snatched it up as another vehicle for Gable, their own returning war veteran, who had served in the U.S. Army Air-Corps. Gable had enlisted soon after the tragic death of his wife, Carole Lombard, in 1942 and had hoped to be an aerial gunner on a bomber. But after he completed basic training, after MGM pulled several strings to protect their star investment, strings the star didn’t necessarily wanted pulled, Gable was sent to Officer Candidate School, commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, and given a special assignment to make several recruitment films for the burgeoning air force.

And while shooting Combat America (1944), Gable flew five bombing missions in the ETO, including one over Germany in 1943, where his aircraft sustained major damage, losing an engine and part of the tail. One crewman was also killed and a flak burst nearly blew Gable’s foot off and the resulting shrapnel barely missed his head. When MGM got wind of this close call, they arranged for a transfer back to the States and a non-combat position, feeling he now had plenty of footage, so Gable could finish editing his film and return to them in one piece. By the time Gable mustered out in 1944 he had achieved the rank of Major and had been decorated with an Air Medal and the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.

After the war, Gable, still in a tailspin over the loss of Lombard, participated in several ill-fated affairs with several different actresses as he got back to work, starting with Adventure (1945), co-starring Greer Garson, which bombed badly. He fared better in the advertising satire, The Hucksters (1947), which leads us back to Homecoming, where Gable was reunited with MGM’s other bona fide box-office draw, Lana Turner, who first worked together in Honky Tonk (1941), and then Somewhere I’ll Find You (1942), which was shot right after Lombard’s death and you can tell it affected Gable's performance, who had lost over 20lbs. since the tragedy and was an emotional and physical wreck.

But I think Gable was able to tap into these roiling emotions in Homecoming -- especially in the wraparound segments, where he absolutely shines, bringing some needed poignancy when this whole enterprise threatened to dovetail into pure maudlin. (OK. Fine. It still kinda does. More on this later in the wrap-up.) He doesn’t fare quite as well in the flashback segments, though, simply because I never bought him as a surgeon, which was one of the major critical objections to the earlier film, Men in White. This was not helped by the fact that during the operating scenes, Gable refused to cover his nose, thinking we might lose him in the crowd. (Trust me, buddy. Those ears are a dead giveaway.) With everything else, he’s fine. Better than fine. But those scenes still take me right out of the picture.

Glamour girl Turner, on the other hand, fares better as I easily bought into her earnest and genuine take on the no-nonsense nurse, Snapshot McCall. (I love how she always refers to her romantic nemesis as “Useless.” And, at least she wears her surgical mask correctly.) A widow, whose husband was killed while serving with the Flying Tigers in China before America officially entered the war, Snapshot left behind a six-year old son to serve. In fact, that’s the initial bone of contention between these two because Johnson and his isolationist views feels her husband had no business doing what he did and his chauvinism says she should be at home looking after her son.

Of course, it’s this prickly attitude that keeps these two at arms length at first, keeping things professional as they land in Italy and set up the mobile field hospital. But it is this same unwavering professionalism in the face of dire and deadly circumstances as they are bombed, shelled, strafed, and deal with countless casualties, that eventually breaks the ice between these two as both Johnson and Snapshot soften up considerably and the two become friendly. And then this friendship is cemented in a pretty hilarious scene where the two head to an old Roman ruin to take a much needed bath in a stone cistern. Separately, mind you. Well, until their sanctuary is raided by a whole squad of nurses while Johnson was taking his turn.

Meantime, Johnson’s entrenched laissez faire attitude starts to crumble when one of his patients, a Sergeant “Monk” Monkevickz (Mitchell), dies of a malarial-induced ruptured spleen. Seems Monkevickz was from his hometown; more specifically the slums; the exact same neighborhood his old friend Dr. Sunday had begged him to help out with. With his condition, Monkevickz should’ve never been allowed in the army. And I’ll give you three guesses as to who gave him a passing grade on his physical? Odds are you’re only gonna need one. Here, Johnson confesses to Snapshot what he did, saying Monkevickz wasn’t the only patient he’d failed to treat like a human being, and then wonders aloud what kind of human being does that make him? And after several more harrowing incidents, these two finally give in to the inevitable.

Meanwhile, back home, Penny has been receiving a constant stream of letters and photos from her husband since he left -- and every single one of them mentions Snapshot. And mentions her a lot. Like, A LOT a lot. At first, he was just bitching about her attitude, but as these letters piled up this bitching slowly morphed into a genuine affection. Now. Penny is no fool, and can easily read between the lines, here. And when the latest letter asks her to look up Monkevickz's father and pay their respects, she runs into Dr. Sunday. And as these two get to talking Penny frets about the letters, admits to being jealous of all the attention being paid to this other woman, and is convinced they’re having an affair. And worst of all, she doesn’t want to lose her husband, wants to fight for him, but there’s nothing she can really do to stop it under the current circumstances.

I’ll admit it was interesting to watch Anne Baxter not play the scheming vamp in one of these love triangles but the wounded party. And to be honest, the script and film doesn’t really play fair with her character as the wife left behind. As her character states: she wants to fight for her husband but doesn’t know how due to the time and distance of their separation. But then, do we really know anything substantial about Penny, or her relationship with Ulysses aside from all the partying they did? Nope. So the film kinda slants unfairly toward Snapshot’s more grounded corner over the flighty socialite.

Apparently, we were actually supposed to see more of Penny and Ulysses’ courtship to help balance these stakes in Homecoming as the wife has her own flashbacks while she reads her husband’s letters. But to film these scenes Gable had to wear some extensive makeup to de-age him, including hemorrhoid cream applied to his face to shrink his eye bags, and his jowls were pulled back with a contraption made of rubber bands. The end results didn’t look so hot, and Gable hated the way it made him look. And so, all but one of these flashbacks wound up on the cutting room floor. So all we get to see is a first time meet-cute that really does neither character any favors. And besides, flashbacks within flashbacks are the highest form of sloppy storytelling and an instant red flag that your script needs a rethink and a massive overhaul.

Anyhoo, once again, the realities of war once more interrupt this melodrama as Penny and Sunday are interrupted by the noisy arrival of a special edition for the local newspaper declaring the Allies have invaded Normandy. And as their unit is transferred to that front and things settle a bit as the winter of 1944 sets in, we find a melancholy Johnson saying goodbye to Snapshot, who has been transferred to another outfit. As for the reason for this, the film does not address it clearly, which I find strange. Were they getting too close? Were they having second thoughts? Did one of them call it off, and so, could no longer work with each other? Or, is this just how the Army works as people are promoted out of certain units? That’s me shrugging right now, but I’m leaning toward that last one.

But their goodbyes are short-lived as these two bump into each other while on leave in Paris. And when word breaks that the Germans have launched a massive surprise attack and their unit is on the verge of being overrun, these two find a jeep and head back to the front-lines to help out -- only to find themselves lost, surrounded, and cut off as the Battle of the Bulge rages all around them. And as these two illicit lovers take shelter in a bombed out barn, as German panzers noisily roll by, they once more embrace and brace for the worst.

Here, we cut back to the troop-ship, where Johnson prematurely wraps up his mental constitutional without revealing, what happened to them -- and more to the point, what happened to Snapshot, but we get a big visual clue when it's revealed he is in the possession of Snapshot's busted cigarette lighter, which used to belong to her dead husband. And as he returns home to Penny, we discover our melodrama has, indeed, taken the cheap and easy way out by removing the other woman from the equation. But, the damage has still been done. And Johnson doesn’t reveal this at first, begging Penny to give him some time. He does seek out Sunday and apologizes for being such an ass, and about how his friend was right and he was wrong, terribly wrong, about everything.

Penny, meantime, is on eggshells, as she patiently waits for her husband to open up. And when he finally does, he reveals Snapshot died after being wounded as they hid out during the Bulge. Shell fragments. (He was wounded later as the Allies counter-attacked and then pressed on into Germany.) He then fesses up to the affair and his love for Snapshot, and how he is in mourning for her. “It might have been easier if I hadn’t told you,” says Johnson. “And yet, that would have been impossible … Because it isn’t just my problem. It’s our problem together and I couldn’t go on living with this inside of me without your sharing it. Penny, bear with me awhile, can you?” Penny listens, and, fearing she had already lost him for good, but now, with at least a fighting chance to try and win him back, promises to do just that as they try to come to terms with all of this together as we fade to black.

Over his career as a director, Mervyn Leroy has had a total of nine films nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Homecoming … was not one of them. In fact, it was named in many film critic circles as one of the ten worst films of 1948. Again, despite the critical pasting, Homecoming was one of MGM’s biggest hits of the year, earning nearly $4 million at the box-office. And so, while critics found the film to be too maudlin and too pat with its climax, audiences ate up the sudsy melodrama and turned out for the two star attractions. And the two star attractions, plus Baxter and her real life husband, John Hodiak, almost make all this soap lather work and elevate it above your standard weeper. Almost.

According to his own legend, Leroy first got the itch to direct while observing Cecil B. DeMille as he worked on the silent version of The Ten Commandments (1923). And he would adopt the legendary director’s technique as he started making his own pictures, starting in 1927 with No Place to Go. From there, Leroy would direct and produce a diverse string of hits ranging from I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) to Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933). He also made a star out of Edward G. Robinson with Little Caesar (1931). In 1938 he was hired by MGM to take over as head of production, where he made a big splash green-lighting The Wizard of Oz (1939). Over those early decades Leroy was also often credited for “discovering” the likes of Loretta Young, Robert Mitchum, Lana Turner and Clark Gable.

You can sense that DeMille touch in Homecoming, too -- as if his thumb were pressed down and held there for the duration. I mean, look how great the action and big spectacle set-pieces are in this film -- just like DeMille's were. And then remember how much the melodrama drags it down into an interminable slog -- just like DeMille's did. And, alas, those big set-pieces were too far and too few between the plot. So overwrought. And very predictable. And so, in the end, very shallow. But! At least most of those sets and military gear were most likely recycled and reused a year later in MGM’s far superior war film, Battleground (1949).

As for that melodrama, some would argue Penny is too understanding, too willing to forgive. But I honestly give the character a lot of credit for being diplomatic -- no, compassionate enough to realize she has no real idea what kind of emotional trauma her husband has gone through these past four years, what he’s seen, all the death, destruction, and suffering endured, and what it took to get through it. All she could do was follow his progress on a map and his letters, which we’ve already discussed. And if Snapshot helped him survive? So be it. Does this excuse his extramarital affair then? Perhaps; and at least it goes well beyond a wandering eye and a wagging tongue. In the end, then, who are we to judge? Baxter plays this so well, too. And Gable? Man, he’s really channeling something for Lombard here and I don’t think he’s ever been better. And frankly, Gable had better chemistry with Baxter than he did with Turner. So if anything, the film ended prematurely and these two deserved more time to hash things out and let the memory of Snapshot rest in peace.

When I first encountered the film, I tuned in just as Johnson and Snapshot were trying to get back to the front. The tension was high and the action taut as they go against the grain of the retreat and soon find themselves trapped, alone, behind enemy lines. Kudos to Leroy and cinematographer Harold Rosson, who make this nightmare situation a stark and grim reality. And as a sucker for this kind of melodrama, and as a sucker for any war movie, so entranced was I by this sequence, I made the effort to track down the film so I could watch the whole thing. Do I regret the end result? Eh. It is what it is, and delivers just that.

But that’s also kind of the problem. As I think one of the most frustrating things about Homecoming is how close it came to achieving something far greater and far more compelling than the schmaltz it delivered -- made doubly worse by the expectation based on that cast and those behind the camera. And if Homecoming makes one critical mistake it's that it focuses too much on everything else BUT the actual homecoming, redemption, and reconciliation of Ulysses Johnson, where the real drama lies just waiting to be tapped. Again, those wraparound segments had such great potential, too bad it all got squandered in the middle.

Homecoming (1948) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: Sidney Franklin / AP: Gottfried Reinhardt / D: Mervyn LeRoy / W: Jan Lustig, Paul Osborn, Sidney Kingsley (play) / C: Harold Rosson / E: John D. Dunning / M: Bronislau Kaper / S: Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Anne Baxter, John Hodiak, Cameron Mitchell
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