25 March 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Mosquitos and mascara, and a phony John O'Hara
'Yellow Jack' is a goodish, proficiently made Hollywood drama which is weakened by several poor artistic decisions, and rendered absolutely ludicrous by one especially bad decision (which I'll describe presently). The film deals with an inspiring true story in medical history, namely the attempts of the U.S. Army Medical Corps to find a cure for malaria, also known as yellow fever and 'yellow jack'. This disease, spread by mosquitos, was so virulent in tropical regions that it seriously hampered the efforts to build the Panama Canal, as well as similar endeavours in Cuba and elsewhere. I'm only slightly familiar with the facts of this story, so I can't say how accurate this movie is. However, some of the actors in this cast are playing actual historic figures ... notably the underrated Jonathan Hale as Major-General Leonard Wood, the officer in charge of the U.S. Army Yellow Fever Commission. Also excellent here is MGM stalwart Lewis Stone as Major Walter Reed, and Frank Puglia (whom I usually dislike) as Aristides Agramonte. Less impressive is Henry Hull, trying hard to be a serious "ack-torr" instead of portraying a believable character. Hull is cast as Jesse William Lazear, a physician who -- in real life -- deliberately infected himself by allowing 'loaded' mosquitos to transmit the malaria virus to him. Hull's performance makes Lazear look ridiculous rather than heroic.
The film takes place in Cuba in 1900, hard upon the Spanish-American War. Dr Wood and his staff have found a potential treatment for malaria, but must test it on human subjects. Although one might expect Dr Wood to be the central character in this medical drama, the screenplay oddly emphasises one of his test subjects. (This is one of the bad decisions which I've mentioned, but not the worst of them.) Five medical volunteers are found; the de-facto leader of these is played by Robert Montgomery, as an Irish-American trooper named John O'Hara. Is Montgomery playing an actual historic personage? If not, it seems a strange decision for his character to be named John O'Hara, as this is the name of a best-selling novelist who was already well-known in 1938.
There are the usual Hollywood monkeyshines with history, notably in the casting of Virginia Bruce as an army nurse. An extremely beautiful blonde with great sex appeal but very little acting ability, Virginia Bruce is usually someone I'm delighted to see on the screen. Here, however, I find her beauty distracting. I can't believe that any woman as glammed-up as this would have been working as an army nurse in 1900. During Louis B Mayer's reign as head of MGM, the studio had a firm policy that no leading lady would be depicted in an unglamorous manner. So, we get nonsense like this with army nurses getting the glamour treatment. No matter how steamy the swamps of Cuba might get, Virginia Bruce's mascara never wilts. She has a couple of very beautiful close-ups here ... but that beauty works against the plausibility of this story.
One of Montgomery's fellow guinea pigs, played by Buddy Ebsen, is a feller named Jelly Beans. I found this nickname hugely implausible. Did jelly beans even exist in 1900? Even if they did, 'Yellow Jack' takes place largely in a military compound under military discipline: surely Ebsen's character would be referred to by his name or his rank, not some twee nickname. Ebsen was a talented character actor, but here he's been given a badly-written aw-shucks role, and he just can't make the character credible.
The supremely bad decision was made by whoever decided that Montgomery should play his role with an Irish accent. Did I say Irish? I meant 'Oirish'. Montgomery's begorrah brogue is so full of Killarney blarney that it damages any plausibility in his characterisation, as well as the performances of other cast members in his scenes. Here we have a true story that ought to be dramatic and gripping on its own merits, yet Montgomery and Ebsen -- and, to a lesser extent, Henry Hull and Andy Devine -- are walking about with big red neon signs over their heads, flashing the words 'FICTIONAL CHARACTER'.
On the positive side, 'Yellow Jack' features some extremely impressive montages by the brilliant Slavko Vorkapich. They belong in a better film. I'll rate this movie just 4 out of 10.