Thursday, March 29, 2012

Men Must Fight

Courtesy the fine folks at TCM, the most interesting movie I’ve seen in awhile is M-G-M’s “Men Must Fight” (1933). It offers strong evidence to something I’ve always believed – that movies - yes even Hollywood movies - often offer insightful looks as to what society was feeling at the time. Indeed, while “Men Must Fight” tells a most unusual and interesting narrative, it also shows what the country’s mood was at the time. Like several other 1933 films, it reflects what no doubt many felt at the time: society was crumbling at its foundations and there was no way out but Fascism.

“Men Must Fight” was directed by the underrated Edgar Selwyn, who the year before helmed the equally fascinating “Skyscraper Souls”. His filmography isn’t very long, but based on these two movies, I may have to dig deeper into the Selwyn canon.

“Men Must Fight” begins in World War I with battlefront nurse Laura (Diana Wynward, she of the Norma Shearer-like eyes) saying goodbye to her lover Geoffrey (a very young Robert Young). Geoffrey is killed in action leaving Laura alone and pregnant. A sympathetic older man Ned Seward (Lewis Stone, who, in these early scenes, wears one of the cinema’s most ill-fitting toupees) is in love with Laura, proposes to her and promises to help raise her son Bob. Laura agrees, for her unborn son’s sake.

The years flash ahead to 1940 and the world is on the brink of war. (Remember, the movie was made in 1933). Ned is now Secretary of State desperately trying to quell the rising international tides of war. A grown-up Bob (Phillips Holmes) has fallen in love Peggy (Ruth Selwyn) a young woman he met on a cruise. Bob feels it’s his duty to fight but is a sensitive type in the best Phillips Holmes manner and really doesn’t want to go to war. He admits to his mother that the boys at his school use to call him sissy for not engaging in school fights.

Laura, now a doyenne of high society, pleads with her husband to prevent war at all possible costs. During a speech she says if older men did the fighting there would never be a war and says women should stop sending their sons to fight in these unnecessary wars. The women at an assembly nod knowingly while the men in the crowd are ready to erupt in violence.

Meanwhile there is near rioting in the streets and in assembled gatherings. There is a bit of science fiction in these scenes, with the inhabitants of an almost dystopian society using violence to express their emotions. The mob thinks nothing of hurtling rocks and breaking windows of the Seward mansion at the thought of the upcoming war.

Adding to the futuristic bent of the film is its presentation of television as an everyday device. Not only television but picture phones where people can see the faces of those they are having conversations with.

We’ve all head stories about how the studio heads looked with fear upon television in the late 1940s and 1950s but I wonder if even back in the 1930s they knew television would be a formidable competitor?

The televisions on display in “Men Must Fight” deliver nothing but bad news. During a pool hall scene at what looks like a military base, one of the soldiers breaks the television in frustration at the ever-increasing bad news from overseas.

Before I saw “Men Must Fight”, the earliest reference to television in movies that I could remember is the wonderful “International House” (1933), and there the demonstration of a television broadcast brings out all kinds of kooks and ridiculous situations.

Consider the titles of a couple of “B” movies from the era, Columbia’s “Trapped by Television” (1936) starring Mary Astor and Lyle Talbot and the infamous Grade-Z production “Murder by Television” (1935) from Cameo Productions starring Bela Lugosi. It didn’t look television would be the movie’s best friend, at least according to 1930s movies.

Despite the film’s futuristic setting, “Men Must Fight” appears to reflect the country’s growing unrest. Consider the country’s mood in 1933. The country was mired in the depths of the Great Depression, and it looked like there was no end in sight. The year before, troops under the direction of President Hoover fired at former World War I veterans camped outside Washington D.C. who were demanding reparation payment from the Great War. In Europe, Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in January of 1933 and Italy had been under Mussolini’s Fascist rule for years. Maybe Democracy was coming to an end after all?

Cinema patrons during 1933 could be forgiven for thinking such thoughts. They didn’t have to read the newspapers or listen to the radio to think that perhaps Fascism was the answer.

In addition to “Men Must Fight” M-G-M also gave us that year one of its oddest offerings ever, “Gabriel Over the White House” with President Walter Huston, concerned with the growing criminal element sweeping the nation, receiving a message from God to go out and rid of the country of the underworld using any and all means. Which he does with great glee.

Consider DeMille’s “This Day and Age” (1933) which celebrates the vigilante activities of a group of teenagers who seek vengeance on some gangsters who murdered an elderly shopkeeper in their small town. No judge and jury for these criminals. Here the movie appears to approve of mob rule. It’s been years since I’ve seen it but I still recall the scene of one of the gangsters, trussed up like a turkey and ready to be dumped into a pit of hungry rats. Yikes!

Only Warner Bros., the most socially conscious of the major studios, would end “Gold Diggers of 1933), one of its toe-tapping Busby Berkeley musicals, with the unforgettable musical number, “Remember My Forgotten Man”, decrying a government that turns its back on its World War I veterans. It’s one of the most powerful and bleakest sequences of 1930s cinema.

“Men Must Fight” isn’t as Fascist as the DeMille or Gabriel films, but it does portray a society on the brink of anarchy. Government isn’t the answer, as the same fools who got us in the predicament are now expected to get us out. Shocking scenes showing New York City getting aerial bombed only highlight what is one of the most interesting, and unsung, movies of the 1930s.


Caftan Woman said...

Fascinating. A grouping of movies of great historical and political interest. You never know when you check in on TCM where the journey will lead.

Kevin Deany said...

Yep. Early 1930s movies are fascinating, and due to the current economic situation, are very pertinent today. Something "Three on a Match" (1932) hardly dates at all.

KimWilson said...

Do you think they have a fascist bent? I don't know that I wholly agree with that reading, but I still find your reflection thought-provoking.

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, somehow I missed this one, but your description of it makes it sound fascinating, so I'll certainly be on the lookout for it. I thought you did a great job of showing how the film (as well as others you mentioned) reflected the mood of the country at the time. I also thought your general observation that this is so often the case was a strong one. Even just knowing which films were popular--or well received critically--can often help us draw conclusions about the collective mood.

Classicfilmboy said...

Great job! I love early talkies and several of these films sound really interesting in light of the social and political situations of the day. I'll have to check them out.

Rick29 said...

Nice review of an unusual movie which I haven't seen. I'm especially intrigued by the use of television and the portrait of a near-future (not done enough in the cinema). I'll keep on the lookout for it.

Kevin Deany said...

R.D., Rick and Classicfilmboy, thank you so much for writing. I hope you get the chance to see this most fascinating movie one day. Like I said, I thought it was going to be a routine soaper and it turned out to be anything but.

Kim, while I don't think the movie is fascist, it does portray a society teetering on the brink of anarchy, and so shares a theme running through the other films I mentioned. While the DeMille and Gabriel are definitely fascist (that I recall), "Men Must Fight" isn't, but it's just one court decision away from turning that way. An interesting subtext of the film is that women are the civilizing aspects of society and without them, we'd all still be cavemen.

The Lady Eve said...

I haven't seen this one - or most of the movies you mention other than "Gold Diggers of 1933" and "Gabriel Over the White House" (which I found mystifying and bizarre). For as much glamorous escapism as was on movie screens during the '30s, there was much that reflected the grittier side of Depression era life, too. Films like this one force us to consider what life during that time was actually like and to reflect on where we've come from (and where we might headed). A really interesting post, Kevin - I hope "Men Must Fight" airs on TCM soon, I'd like to see it.

Dees Stribling said...

That's Marcus Welby? (I was too young for Father Knows Best.) Men must fight, maybe, but men must age, certainly.

Page said...

I always look forward to you reviews, most importantly because you see things that I for one don't have the capacity to notice! (working on that! Ha Ha)

I really can't recall a film during the early 30's where I noticed a television in the background. Are you one of us that watches a film and looks for goofs, inconsistencies in the scenery or props? It drives my friends mad when I do that. Ha Ha

Back to the film. While watching the film I didn't even recognize Robert Young! He was a looker that is for sure and I've always enjoyed his acting abilities.

You mentioned "the line if older men did the fighting there would never be a war". Truer words were never spoken!

A wonderful look at one of the very few 'war' films I truly enjoyed. Anxious to go back and find it now after reading your observations.


Kevin Deany said...

L.E., mystifying and bizarre are two good words to describe "Gabriel Over the White House." I am glad you found the post interesting. Many people have this image of 1930s movies being pure fluff and cotton candy, but there are more than a few hard hitting titles out there, probably more than are being made now that reflect today's current economic situation.

Dees, yep, it most certainly is.

Page, always good to hear from you. The great thing about film history is one is always learning new things. I knew about television being a pre-dominant feature in Paramount's wacky "International House" and in my mind, that was always the first film to acknowledge television. I'm sure there are earlier films than that, and even some silent films that may have featured television. I can't remember if Lang's "Metropolis" has television.

RatBazturd said...

It's on tonight. I'd never heard of this movie. Thought-provoking enough, just reading the brief description the cable company listed, that I started looking it up.

Some things are timeless. Older men, eager to start wars and send younger men (and now women) off to die.

Unknown said...

The movie is on tonight. I was so shocked by its timeliness and futuristic, political themes - as well as pre-code illusion to pre-marital sex (unpunished)coming from MGM. Not to mention the TV set and Skype phone not to mention the bombing of the Big Apple. Also noticed the collage of Nazi storm troopers marching and Japanese women listening to a speech and a riot scene - in Italy or Spain? The best movie showing the terrors of fascism for me is still Meet John Doe with Edward Arnold's storm troopers on their motorcycles. Also going to check out the other movies mentioned.