An Early Offering

Tuesday May 30, 2017


We’re trying to get these Tuesday reviews off early, so as to take advantage of the Monday holiday!

I finally got a gander at all of MGM’s 1933 Men Must Fight the other night, DVR’d from TCM. It’s a real jaw dropper, a creaky adaptation of a creaky play with one insanely good special effects sequence. Diana Wynyard, a nurse in WW1, loses her flyer boyfriend (Robert Young) in France but bears his child. To make everything morally Kopasetic for the high-class Diana, she marries her generous admirer, Lewis Stone. The theatrics are beyond stiff.

Back in the USA and twenty years later it’s now a futuristic 1940, complete with picture phones. All other progress seems stuck in 1933, however. Stone is now the Secretary of State trying to bolster a failing peace plan. Diana is a vocal pacifist, a position that gets sticky when war breaks out with an enemy unidentified only vaguely as the ‘Eurasian States.’ When Diana proclaims that the world’s mothers must stop producing sons to die in men’s wars, the savage hecklers at her speeches turn into an angry mob, screaming death threats and attempting to storm her 5th Avenue home. Diana’s grown son Phillips Holmes proclaims that he subscribes to the same pacifist credo, which prompts his outraged fianceĆ© to break off their engagement, and his stepfather to finally divulge the fact that he’s a bastard rather than part of his family. The bizarre finish sees the son flip-flopping and racing to a biplane to battle the enemy (who?) in the skies over New York City. Learning that his real dad died a hero, the son becomes a dashing air pilot, seemingly in just one day. An inane final scene sees the three generations of rich women now rooting for the fight, yet also lamenting their abandonment of pacifist ideals. Grandmother May Robson says her last line, that mothers will just be ignored the same as always, as if it’s supposed to be funny. Having made no coherent dramatic point, the movie just ends, in mid-war.

TCM’s print has a patch with a bad buzz on the soundtrack but is otherwise okay. The shocker is in the next-to-last reel. For over sixty minutes the show has taken place in stuffy interiors, with out-the-window cutaways to silent stock footage of victory parades, etc. Just as the family is breaking up over the pacifism issue, a full-on air raid hits NYC. Massed biplanes (in 1940) drop little wing bombs. One tiny bomb is all that’s required to wipe out the Brooklyn Bridge, and just two are enough to blow up the Empire State Building. The miniature effects are excellent, with blasted skyscrapers falling into the streets via traveling mattes and more miniature explosions. It looks like thousands should be killed, but the only casualty we see is Diana, whose arm is broken when her taxi is hit by one of those bombs that obliterate entire buildings. I’d never heard of Men Must Fight until a few years ago when I think Richard Harland Smith mentioned it . . . is it the first negative-subjunctive future history war movie? For the prediction of an aerial war in 1940 it beats Things to Come by three full years.

See you next Saturday — Thanks for reading — Glenn Erickson