Blog 12/16/2020 - MHT Movie Reviews - U.S. Military Academy

MHT Blog December 16, 2020 - MHT Movie Reviews – U.S. Military Academy
“West Point in Film”

With West Point winning the Army-Navy Game last Saturday allows MHT to delve into the U.S. Military Academy in film. Leading off is "The West Point Story" (1950) starring James Cagney who had burnished his tough guy gangster the previous year in "White Heat" but in this mess of a film he returns to his quintessential song and dance man persona that won him an Oscar for his performance as showman George M. Cohan in "Yankee Doodle Dandy."

Cagney plays "Bix" Bixby, a formerly successful Broadway Director with a very bad temper, reduced to staging numbers way off Broadway assisted by his long-suffering fiancée, Eve (Virginia Mayo who played his moll in "White Heat" but is a decent dancer in her own right and together they have great chemistry.) The weak plot has a Producer blackmailing Cagney into directing the 100th Night Show (put on by the Firsties (Seniors) 100 Days before graduation at West Point.) The catch? The producer wants Cagney to persuade his nephew, Tom (singer Gordon MacRae), the star and co-writer of the show with his friend Hal (dancer Gene Nelson), to give up the Army for a Broadway career. So, Cagney ends up at the Academy along with Eve, directing the show but temperamentally at odds with the officer lifestyle as a WWII Army Veteran (this will be a key plot point.)

The plot takes a farfetched turn as Cagney becomes a cadet, he persuades a movie star acquaintance, Jan (a brand-new Doris Day) to attend a formal dance as Tom's "drag" (date) to help woo him to Broadway. The plot just gets more incomprehensible with the French Primer as the show must goes on. Wait it is still worth seeing for Cagney's dynamic force of nature performance as Mayo said, "James Cagney was the most dynamic man who ever appeared on the screen. He should have won five Oscars; he was so fabulous." The singing, by effervescent Day and MacRae is top-notch and Nelson's dance routines are excellent and Mayo can dance, act and has the looks.

As I agree with Cagney gangster in "White Heat", Mayo: "I'd look good in a mink coat, honey"; Cagney: "You'd look good in a shower curtain." MHT gives it 3 Stars as Bix says after the audition, "Um...wouldn't hiss and wouldn't cheer."

MHT Movie Reviews the second West Point film "Francis Goes to West Point" (1952.) It is the 3rd film in the Francis, the Talking Mule film series. The story begins, at an atomic energy plant where Francis tells Peter (Donald O'Connor) about a sabotage plot that is then thwarted earning Peter a slot as cadet at West Point.

Perfect for Francis to go with O'Connor as the tradition of mules as mascots at West Point dates back to 1899, when an officer at the Philadelphia Quartermaster Depot decided that the Army team needed a mascot to counter the U.S. Naval Academy's famed "Navy Goat." Mules were an obvious choice, as they were used as beasts of burden for Army gear for decades. Not much is known about the "official" mules until 1936, when Mr. Jackson (named for Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson), a former Army pack mule, arrived from Front Royal, VA. He served for twelve years, presiding over two national championship teams. Hopefully there isn't a statue of Mr. Jackson as in the current history erasing climate it would have to come down. Early on, O'Connor is last in his class in academics. Francis finds out and begins tutoring him in academics. Soon, he is near the top of his class, fill in your own joke here.

The mule who appeared as Francis was actually a female named Molly, selected because she was an easy mule to handle. Molly was trained by Les Hilton who went on to train Bamboo Harvester, the horse that played the talking horse in the TV show "Mister Ed." To create the impression that the mule was actually talking, Hilton used a thread fed into the animal's mouth which would cause Molly to try to remove it by moving her lips, the same technique was used for Mister Ed.

MHT gives it 2 Stars, an extra 1/2 star for Army Football Coach Chadwick's line when asked about Francis giving him strategy advice on the sidelines, "Well, he's not the first jackass to try to tell me how to run the team."

Our third Army West Point film in five years "The Long Gray Line" (1955) is by far the best. It is based on the life of Martin "Marty" Maher, Jr. Maher was an Irish immigrant from County Tipperary, Ireland, who joined the United States Army in 1898 and rose to the rank of Master Sergeant. He served as a revered and beloved Swimming & Athletics Instructor at West Point from 1899 to 1928 and stayed on at West Point as a civil service employee in the athletic department until 1946, completing 50 years of service at "The Point."

Tyrone Power stars as the scrappy Irish immigrant whose fifty-year career took him from dishwasher to SNCO and athletic instructor as well as mentor to the likes of Cadets Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley, among many other Cadets in the Long Gray Line over his remarkable career spanning two World Wars. Perfectly directed by John Ford, using his favorite stock company of actors including Donald Crisp, Ward Bond, Patrick Wayne, Peter Graves, Milburn Stone & Ken Curtis (Doc & Festus from Gunsmoke respectively) for a top-notch production that has a few events Hollywoodized.

The highest point is Maureen O’Hara, one of Ford’s favorite leading ladies who skillfully inhabits the role of fellow Irish immigrant, serving girl Mary O’Donnell, who becomes Maher’s soulmate. As a testimony to the fully successful collaboration between the filmmakers, the Army and West Point, the entire Corps of Cadets – all 1,900 of them – were bused down to Manhattan in 56 buses provided by Columbia Pictures. They marched from Central Park to the Capital Theater on Broadway, where Marty stood, as they passed in review to honor him. Appropriately, Maher is buried in the West Point Cemetery.

My favorite line at the big football game, Marty has bet on Army and says, "Notre Dame, it’s the name of a French Church not a football team." MHT gives it 4 1/2 Stars if you don't get a little choked up a couple times your soul is as gray as the Army Dress Uniforms.

Our last film is not as complimentary as the first three as it is 1999's "The General's Daughter" which the U.S. Army refused to endorse or have anything to do with the film's production and wisely so. This was in the middle of Hollywood's hate-the-military period that produced Lethal Weapon 1987, The Presidio 1988, A Few Good Men 1992, Courage Under Fire 1996, Broken Arrow 1996, The Rock 1996, Rules of Engagement 2000, High Crimes 2002 & Basic 2003 just to name a few where military officers were covering-up deaths, evil killers, drug lords or mass murderers.

U.S. Army Paul Brenner (John Travolta) is in Georgia at fictitious Fort MacCallum (filming was in Savannah), masquerading as a First Sergeant at the Base Armory Depot, to broker an illegal arms trade with a self-proclaimed civilian freedom fighter. You know the Army wasn't involved as his Military Identification Card says "1st Sarg" rather than the correct abbreviation 1SG. Travolta is actually a Chief Warrant Officer serving as an undercover agent of the Army's Criminal Investigation Division (CID.)

The movie's "meet cute" is Trevino's rental car gets a flat tire without a lug wrench but a young female officer in Mess Dress stops to help him change it, magically it appears, as no one actually jacks the car up. The officer is Captain Elisabeth Campbell (Leslie Stefanson), the commanding general's daughter and an instructor at psychological operations school. The plot thickens when the next evening, she is found murdered. Travolta teams up with a former flame, CID Warrant Officer Sara Sunhill (Madeleine Stowe) and the Base Provost Marshal, Colonel Kent (Timothy Hutton) to investigate.

Stowe is a rape expert necessary since the Captain's nude body is found spread eagle with wrists and ankles bound and restrained with tent stakes at the MOUT village. General Campbell is ably played by James Cromwell who has played authoritative positions such as a Pope, U.S. Presidents, Ambassadors, Prime Minister, Police Captains, Doctors, Judges and a General, Admiral, Warden, Senator and NASA Supervisor.

So, it becomes a "who did it" the General's Adjutant, her Boss at Psychological Operations, the General's Aide, the Police Chief's son and deputy or the General himself. Why is this a West Point movie because the whole plot twists around her time at "The Point" plus where we get into women in the military, psychological operations, #metoo and some 50 Shades of Army Gray! Interestingly, this was one of Leslie Stefanson's biggest film role as after doing two movies with James Spader ("Alien Hunters" & "The Stickup") she left her career and has been with him ever since. My favorite botch in the film is that Stefanson seems to have her own HUMVEE to drive around as in the "meet cute" she is coming from a Divisional Formal Dinner so

MHT gives it just 2 Stars, OK 2 1/2 for Travolta's dodging Stefenson's rebuke for getting her bath products as a thank you for the tire help. 1SG Brenner: I - I like the pink soaps, and I like the skin softener, and I like the bath beads. I particularly like the bath beads. Sometimes I draw a tub, and I fill that tub with skin softeners and bath beads, and I light a few candles, I put on a little Coltrane, and I just soak my troubles away.
Capt Campbell: Very good, First Sergeant. I levied a none-too-subtle accusation of sexism at you, and you took it three times around the dance floor.
1SG Brenner: Not really. I just dig bath beads.