30 May 2011 | BrianDanaCamp
Wartime training saga, all filmed on location
During the war years, the prolific Pine-Thomas producing team made several low-budget war-themed b&w programmers on an independent basis that were then released through Paramount. The team managed to squeeze a lot of production value into these films by including lots of location shots taken at actual military bases and training facilities. The usual pattern, as seen in a film like AERIAL GUNNER (1943), for instance, was to send a second unit to the location (the Harlingen Aerial Gunnery School in Texas), and then film the Hollywood cast (led by Richard Arlen and Chester Morris) on cramped studio sets and in front of rear-screen projected scenes of the locations. A handy way to save money, but not the most convincing way to film training and combat scenes.
With THE NAVY WAY (1944), Pine and Thomas took a different tack. It was the first of their productions to be filmed entirely on location, in this case at the U.S. Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Illinois, with the entire cast of actors, led by Robert Lowery and Jean Parker, all on location as well. This has a significant influence on the way the film looks, feels and plays out. There's less of a hokey plot—usually the old chestnut about two guys making a play for the same girl and pulling tricks on each other to ace the other one out (see AERIAL GUNNER)—and more of an attempt to capture slice-of-life vignettes of various naval recruits in a particular unit trying to excel and get out into the war. The sore spot in the unit is Italian-American boxing champ Johnny Zamano, who resents being drafted and tries to use his connections to get out of service. When that fails, he only gradually comes around, with the help of his new buddies, and begins to live up to his obligations. There's much more of a propaganda feel to the proceedings than we saw in AERIAL GUNNER, SUBMARINE ALERT and MINESWEEPER, to name three others in this group of films that I've seen. This makes sense, given the needs of the war and the way the entire naval facility was made available for filming. The spirit of the base evidently infused the cast and filmmakers with a different kind of energy than they would have had back in Hollywood.
There is a love triangle in the film, but it asserts itself late in the story and happens quite unexpectedly—kind of like the way such things happen in real life. Johnny's plausibly petulant reaction to this development leads to an act of reckless behavior that jeopardizes his unit's near-perfect record and his own navy career. The resolution is quite moving. The characters all behave like real people and not Hollywood stereotypes and we get pulled into the movie's emotional core much more willingly because of that.
Robert Lowery, usually a straight arrow leading man in B-movies (he played Batman in a 1949 serial), struck me as an odd casting choice for a street-tough Italian-American boxer, but he's a good actor and he manages to pull it off, displaying just enough bitterness to be believable and just enough charm to eventually win over the other characters and the audience. Jean Parker, who resembles Claudette Colbert, plays the female medical officer who nurses Johnny's wounds after a bout on the base and attracts his romantic attentions. Her character is an independent adult woman with a clear sense of her own needs, desires and agenda and is not just an object bandied about between two male rivals. She makes the significant choices here, which is quite a sea change from the pattern established in the other films in the Pine-Thomas group. The cast is filled with quite a few other distinguished supporting players, most notably Robert Armstrong as the unit's training instructor; Bill Henry as a Chicago rich boy who joins up to prove himself; Tom Keene (billed as Richard Powers) as a cowboy who joins up after his son has been killed in combat; Roscoe Karns as an older recruit; and Mary Treen in a delightful performance as Karns' bubbly fiancée.
This may not be the most exciting wartime film of its era, given its emphasis on training rather than combat, but, thanks to its location filming and solid cast, it's a most unusual one and well worth a look. I found it on Mill Creek's 50-film Combat Classics DVD set.