Thursday, May 28, 2015

Henry Aldrich Goes to War

They really should have left the girl out. Not that Amelita Ward, who plays the love interest in 1943's Aerial Gunner, isn't nice to look at. She is. And she's a perfectly good actress. It's just that she wasn't needed in this particular film.

Aerial Gunner, produced by Paramount's B-movie unit, is pretty much a recruitment film for the Army Air Forces, preaching for the need for trained aerial gunners. This is fine--as long as the story wrapped around all that is a good one.

The story here is largely pretty good. Richard Arlen plays Jon Davis, who was a cop before the war. Chester Morris (who is always fun to watch in a B-movie) is "Foxy" Pattis, the son of an ex-con who blames Arlen for his dad's recent suicide. When war breaks out, Davis enlists. Pattis is drafted, but parleys his sharpshooting skills into an "easy" job as an instructor at gunnery school.

Davis is a trainee at the school. Pattis, still feeling an old grudge, tries to wash him out, pulling several less-than-ethical tricks to do so. But Davis sticks with it. So does fellow trainee Sandy Lunt, who is desperate to make good despite an apparent lack of skill as a gunner.

Lunt, by the way, is played by Jimmy Lydon. When this movie was made, Lydon was also playing teenager Henry Aldrich in a series of films based on the popular radio comedy. So it's kind of fun watching him blast away with a double-barreled .50 caliber machine gun.

The bulk of the movie takes place at gunnery school, giving us a fairly realistic depiction of training. For some, this might be a legitimate reason for thinking the movie drags a little. But I found these scenes to be historically interesting and cool to look at in terms of equipment and airplanes. And, since my taste in such things is clearly impeccable, that ends that argument.

No, for me it's that stupid love story that hurts the film. Davis and Pattis already have a rivalry going, so adding another conflict is extraneous. The romance feels like its there because love interest was simply a part of the accepted formula. Sometimes, that's fine. In this case, it just gets in the way of the cool airplanes. Gee whiz, now I know how Carl Denham felt at the beginning of King Kong. ("Well, isn't there any romance or adventure in the world without having a flapper in it?")

Well, despite the unnecessary flapper, the story moves along nicely. We even get a brief cameo by Robert Mitchum in an early role.

Actually, there is one more glitch. Davis is narrating the film. When he graduates from gunnery school, he tosses in a quick line about getting his commission soon after that, so when the movie jumps into the war in the Pacific, he's suddenly a pilot. It was an awkward transition in a movie that is otherwise perfectly sound in terms of plot construction.

Davis has several of his classmates from gunnery school in his crew as they fly bombing missions against the Japanese. Their plane is a Lockheed Ventura, which in real-life was regulated to training and patrol missions, since it wasn't adequate for bombing missions. But it's what the Air Force had available to let the movie crew use, so we'll be forgiving in this regard. Besides, the Ventura looks a little like a B-25, which would have been a more realistic choice. So we can pretend it is a B-25 and move on from there.

A tragedy at gunnery school involving Sandy Lunt has convinced Pattis to ante up and request combat duty. He joins Davis' crew just in time for what will turn out to be a very dangerous mission...

Aerial Gunner is in the public domain, allowing me to include the movie in its entirety at the bottom of this post. I think its worth your time to watch it, but be aware of its faults. And remember--if you don't have my impeccable taste and don't find the gunnery school sequences as interesting as I do--then you might get a bit bored.

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