Saturday 27 September 2008

Destroyer (1943)

While this is an Edward G Robinson film, it's really a film about a ship, presumably Hollywood's response to In Which We Serve. That was a British film, made by Noel Coward (and David Lean), about a ship called HMS Torrin. This is an American film, made by William Seiter, about a ship called the USS John Paul Jones. Perhaps the names highlight the difference in attitude: one is about the British concept of service and the other is about the American concept of blowing things up. Then again Robinson really epitomises the British concept better than the American one.

Apparently the John Paul Jones was sunk saving another carrier, so the Navy commissions another one and we watch it from the beginning of its life, from the first announcement of what the new ship is going to be once it's built. Running a good deal of the building is Steve Boleslavski, who we think initially is a welder who cares, but who turns out to be someone who served on the original John Paul Jones. He works hard to be assigned to the new one too, and manages it because the commander is someone who he'd previously worked with.

He becomes the new leading chief, replacing Mickey Donohue, who had the job for about half an hour, thus leading to plenty of clashes that end with their positions being swapped. The suggestion is that it's a different Navy with different equipment and different men and Boleslavski is seriously out of date. However that runs in two different ways. The ship fails its shakedown trials, becoming a joke, and many of the crew put in for transfers 'to a good ship'. Boleslavski however is proud of his ship and sticks with it regardless of what might go wrong. He also has the experience needed to make the difference in tight spots, whether he knows how to handle his men or not, and he knows his history too.

The best scene comes when he's been told by the medics to leave sea duty because of a lesion in his lung but when going for his kit he comes across the men trying to leave and gives them an impassioned speech. It's a great scene for more than just Edward G Robinson but he's the biggest part of it. He's Boleslavski and a young Glenn Ford is Donohue. Both are excellent, though I haven't seen Ford quite this sassy and obnoxious before. It seems somehow redundant saying that Robinson dominates and puts in a great performance because of all the actors I've ever seen, he seems to personify that concept. He's a lot better than the material here and so is Ford.

Backing them up are workhorses like Edgar Buchanan, Edward Brophy, Regis Toomey and Leo Gorcey. There's also yet another tiny speaking part for the young Lloyd Bridges: He must have paid more dues than anyone else in Hollywood. Given that the female lead goes to a US Navy destroyer, which may be cool but is hardly sexy, there's another young lady in the cast too. She's Marguerite Chapman, who plays a very self-assured Mary Boleslavski, a worthy foil to both Robinson as her father and Donohue as her husband. Like you didn't see that one coming. She does a memorable job here, more so than she did in Counter-Attack, which I saw a few days ago. Again she was the sole female presence in the film. Her performance here suggests that she should have been given a detective series to lead: she could easily have carried it.

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