At first glance this feels like one of the strangest John Ford titles. There is no recognisable Ford stock company (apart from a brief appearance of Jack Pennick) and you have to dig quite deep to find any crew or creative inputs obviously linked to Ford. It’s a comedy and it includes some musical moments, two familiar Ford traits, and it is set in what seem at first familiar Fordian communities – a small town and then the US military (the Army Air Force). From that basis it is possible to move forward and make sense of the film. Why did Ford make the picture? The late 1940s and early 1950s were very stressful and difficult for John Ford. In industrial terms he was trying to stabilise the position of his production company with Merian C. Cooper, Argosy Pictures. A deal with RKO saw some success with the first two pictures of the Cavalry trilogy. But with Howard Hughes taking over the studio, Ford looked forward to a deal with Republic Pictures, the independent formed by takeovers of several ‘poverty row’ outfits by Herbert J. Yates in 1935. Republic’s most high profile pictures were low budget Westerns (including those of a young John Wayne). Ford’s time working with Yates would have its ups and downs but it did allow him to make The Quiet Man in Ireland in 1952.
In his personal life and his position as a leading member of the Screen Directors’ Guild, Ford was also struggling with how to react to the anti-communist witch hunt led by HUAC. Ward Bond and John Wayne were ‘commie hunters’ whereas Ford most of the time presented himself as a Democrat – at least before the 1960s. How Ford behaved in the late 1940s does not make much sense according to Joseph McBride’s 2001 book, but appears to have been largely self-serving and designed to keep himself free of any restrictions. McBride suggests that Ford was disturbed by a rumour that he was under investigation by the US Army and since he valued his military connections, he sought to distance himself from suggestions that he was anything but ‘patriotic’. When it became difficult to make the pictures he wanted to make Ford tended to look towards 20th Century Fox and Daryl F. Zanuck, even if he and Zanuck didn’t always get along. Perhaps this explains why Ford made a ‘military’ picture at Fox in 1950 and followed it with a documentary in Korea in 1951 and another odd wartime picture What Price Glory in 1952. He made two Westerns for Argosy and his biggest success The Quiet Man at Republic – all six films were released between 1950 and 1952, he was never a slacker!
When Willie Comes Marching Home has a central character William ‘Bill’ Kluggs (Dan Dailey), a young man with some musical talent from a respectable lower middle-class family in the small town of Punxatawney, West Virginia. We meet him on a night in December 1941 playing with his band in a local drug store. He can scarcely believe it when his next door neighbour comes rushing in to tell him war with Japan has started. Bill is determined to be the first to enlist. He succeeds and is soon off for basic training. But several months later he is posted back to Punxatawney where a new airfield and base has been constructed. He’s embarrassed when the town throws a party to celebrate his return and to honour him as the first to sign up to fight. But it looks like Bill will never get to fight as a series of events conspire to keep him at the base. The townspeople don’t know why he hasn’t gone to the Pacific or to Europe and his local reputation takes a nosedive. Eventually, in June 1944, another chance event sees him sent to England in a new B17 bomber. This then turns into a crazy adventure in France which elevates him to an absurd heroic status, which the townspeople don’t really believe. What will they make of him when he gets home?
The film’s script was based on a real incident in the Pacific War involving Sy Gomberg, who started a Hollywood writing career on the basis of this original story (which gained an Oscar nomination). The film won the main prize at Locarno and it proved a modest box office winner with a $1.7 million gross (Ford’s Rio Grande, the third part of his cavalry trilogy, was released in the same year and made $2.25 million). Fox was the second most prolific studio in 1950 and the second biggest box office earner behind MGM in what was a declining market. When Willie Comes Marching Home was a satisfactory production for Fox, so why does it seem a strange Ford picture? First, it is short at just 85 minutes. It seems that a US DVD release includes outtakes that suggest that Fox cut out some of the musical numbers. It has been suggested that the film could have been a rare Ford musical. As it is, the film is mainly a broad comedy with Ford’s familiar comic vignettes extended across the film. Dan Dailey is the only ‘star’ in the film with character actor William Demarest (best known for his work with Preston Sturges) as Bill’s father. The two young female starlets Corinne Calvet (who was French and played a maquisard) and Colleen Townsend (as the ‘girl next door’) are both lively and effective in their roles. The film was photographed by Leo Tover who was an experienced DoP who had worked for Jean Renoir and William Wyler and the music was by Alfred Newman the eldest of the three Newman brothers and the most distinguished. The editor James B. Clark had edited Ford’s Oscar-winning How Green Was My Valley (1941) – for which he was nominated. So Ford had talent at his disposal.
I think Dan Dailey is impressive in the film and I was surprised simply because I hadn’t seen his musical roles for MGM earlier in the 1940s. He is arguably too old: he was 34 when the film was released but is convincing as a younger man. He must have got on with Ford as he was cast in two further Ford army pictures in the 1950s. This does make me wonder, however, if audiences would have expected more musical numbers in this 1950 film and why Fox cut them out? The film looks good and sounds good, although there is a distinct difference between the musical numbers, the comedy sequences and the realist long shot compositions of some of the military sequences. Though the narrative takes Bill to Europe, action in France is represented by sequences shot in California.
But what does it all mean? Ford was well known for his wartime work with the Field Photo Unit and with his documentary films about Pearl Harbour and The Battle of Midway (both of which won Oscars) among others. He was not averse to going straight to the top to get what he wanted for these films (he was after all the leading American film director and a senior officer in the Naval Reserve). But he was more interested in supporting the enlisted men, who he later helped through his foundation of what was popularly called the ‘Field Photo Farm’ which provided a refuge for the men he had worked with in the Unit. When Willie Comes Marching Home can be seen as remembering the men who didn’t necessarily fight overseas but who were serving soldiers, flyers and ship’s crew based in North America. The film can also be seen as a satire on the armed forces’ regulations and procedures. Much of the comedy is very broad but some of it works in different ways. As Tag Gallagher points out in his book on Ford, various comic routines are presented in a series of elements. One sees Kluggs approaching a succession of officers in an attempt to get a transfer onto active service overseas. The officer ranks he approaches increase in seniority each time but the result is always the same – a refusal but a promise to recommend Kluggs for a Good Conduct award. He is then promoted each time until he reaches Master Sergeant. Tallagher also usefully observes that the film resembles Ford’s silent and pre-war films with a large cast and often gags that could work without dialogue. Finally we can see the film as a commentary on the bland conservative nature of this small town Middle America (when its West Virginia location made me think of the Judge Priest films or The Prisoner of Shark Island). A Fordian sense of community rests on respect and honour and genuine communal feeling, not the ‘War Fever’ whipped up by propaganda..
I have actually seen the next military picture that Ford made in which Dailey stars alongside James Cagney in a remake of the Raoul Walsh 1926 picture What Price Glory set in France in 1918. Corinne Calvet is the French girl again and William Demarest also returns. I need to watch it again in light of When Willie Comes Marching Home.