It is long past time that some neglected classic films were revisited and rehabilitated to their proper place — including this one. Having previously been put off by existing reviews of this old ‘women’s picture’ by high-priced professional columnists who go with the flow, late last night I was pinned to the armchair for the duration by Feline, Lucy and Tiger in a phalanx and so watched it right through for the first time on the Turner Sky channel. Imagine my happy surprise as an unpleasant duty as a reviewer slowly turned into a riveting experience. I found it, against all expectations, to be a very moving film — far from the manipulative tearjerkers tugging every heart-string with multi-G force that were put out in the studio era.
From the preeminent studio of the day, MGM, it was a rare exception at the glossy factory where as a rule output was geared to appeal to all-American sensibilities: in its genuine, low-key treatment of serious subjects, namely life priorities, wartime relationships and wartime separation. The director, Mervyn LeRoy, had been one of the Warner Bros hard-hitting armory of moviemakers plucking their stories from current headlines, often about gangsters and sometimes urging societal reform. Among his were classics Little Caesar (1930) and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). At the end of the Thirties he was lured by a huge pay hike and producer status to make the move and there followed a series of unabashed but effective wartime weepies including Blossoms in the Dust, Random Harvest and Madame Curie (1941-43) starring stiff-upper-lip Brit stars Greer Garson and Ronald Colman or upper-crust trans-Atlantic patrician Walter Pidgeon. This pool of talent was able to create a whole generation of trembling-lower-lip working moms in America and continue through the war with easily palatable sentiment served thick on a silver platter: not much was seen of real war or real people.
Which makes it all the more satisfying that this director turned around to make something genuine about war. Maybe most surprising of all was the fact that what made the movie was the performances of the four principals, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Anne Baxter and John Hodiak, especially those of the two superstars heading the cast — who from their own time until now have been treated by movie reviewers and historians of all shades as lightweight “star” performers relying on their own personalities to purvey a strong screen presence rather than any acting ability they might (or might not) have.
In 1948 Gable was 47 and still the slim, trim figure and was as full of testosterone as ever. (In his fifties he would age rapidly, like the other male screen icons born within a year either side of 1900, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney — all roughing it without the aid of botox and casual cosmetic surgery undertaken today.) From what I have seen of Gable, and that includes more than thirty films stretching thirty years from 1931, this is one of his absolutely top-flight acting jobs, probably better than in Gone With the Wind, The Misfits or his Oscar-winning performance in It Happened One Night.
Yet this film is condemned by Leonard Maltin (Is this guy someone’s nephew?) as “dreary drama” and “one of Gable’s lesser efforts”. Is that because he doesn’t do as much huffing and puffing as Schwarzenegger or Stallone, or as much stony grimacing as Harrison Ford, or sweat and twitch like Anthony Hopkins or James Woods?
Portraying a social-climbing surgeon who enters the war indifferent to the strife of the wider world but is transformed into a genuinely compassionate well-rounded person, every nuance of human expression plays subtly across Gable’s face; but not so subtly as to deliver an anonymous non-performance lacking any human impact at all, as do most of today’s “stars”. His timing is natural and flawless — a true phenomenon and at least the equal to that of the screen’s finest comedians. See the extended bathing scene, where as a dignified middle-aged professional proud of his position in society, he is bashful even out of eyesight of earthy nurse Lana Turner’s nudity. Most satisfying of all, there was none of that sly-winking on-screen ‘fun’ where you can see Hollywood’s in-group stars smirking at how cute they are: Tracy and Hepburn in Adam’s Rib (1949), Crosby and Hope in the early Forties’ Road series, the Rat Pack in Ocean’s Eleven (1961) and numerous others. The modern Ocean’s 11, 12, 13… are made, I think, so fans can see George Clooney’s, Brad Pitt’s and Matt Damon’s sparkling smiles, and Julia Roberts’ sultry sulk. All on screen in Homecoming are dedicated to contributing — making a good picture even better in whatever way they can.
Possibly the biggest surprise to me was the pitch-perfect acting of Lana Turner, at the pinnacle of her popularity here but trivialized by commentators as “The Sweater Girl” since her first movie 11 years before, for her jiggling scene walking down the street and observed by a predator in They Won’t Forget (WB, 1937). In an age supposedly limited by its “personality” performers, it strikes me that there is a greater range of realistic characterization shown by Lana between this role and her seductress in The Postman Always Rings Twice (MGM, 1946), than say, Meryl Streep in any two of her roles, which depend mainly on a switch of accent and arching of eyebrows. Lana was just 27 here but within ten years was playing middle-aged momish glamor in Peyton Place (1957) and other glossy soap operas.
The first time I realised that Anne Baxter was capable of more than variations of Moses’ overheated temptress in The Ten Commandments (1956) was with her natural, totally convincing playing in the western Yellow Sky (1949) and Hitchcock’s I Confess (1952). In this women’s picture she is a callow but single-minded society wife transformed by war separation into someone capable of enduring patience and understanding. John Hodiak too shows a wide departure from his more frequent hard-bitten roles in the likes of Lifeboat (1944) and Battleground (1949) as an earnest grassroots doctor working in the slums, initially infuriated by his friend Gable’s complacency.
Given the fact that this was a “women’s picture”, pivoting on wife Anne Baxter’s needy devotion and Lana Turner’s knowing desire despite the doctor’s faults, the film has been put down simply for that — Gable supposedly coming off second best or wasted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether under LeRoy’s direction or not, Gable’s powerful manhood is intact throughout and his change into a guy who’s had the stuffing knocked out of him by war and love lost is portrayed brilliantly.
See also my forthcoming article ‘WHAT IS ACTING?’