Saturday 17 January 2009

You, John Jones! (1943)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Stars: James Cagney, Ann Sothern and Margaret O'Brien

Having worked my way through most of the career of James Cagney, I was almost surprised to find this film that I hadn't even heard of. It's a short, a so-called wartime short because, well that's pretty obvious. When the US joined the war, Hollywood joined in too, with stars working war bond drives and directors making documentaries and shorts like these. This one's a pretty hard hitting one, to really highlight to Americans that while there may not seem to be much happening back home, that certainly wasn't the case elsewhere in the world.

Cagney is the John Jones of the title, of course, and he's an air raid warden, number 18787. He's obviously serious about his job but out on a blue alert, presumably some sort of practice run for the wardens, he talks to God and thanks him for the fact that it's not a real air raid. God responds and gives him a pretty vicious slice of reality to underline that while he may well mean what he says he doesn't really understand the true depth of the words he used.

So while there's no air raid happening in the US on John Jones's watch, meaning that his daughter is happy and safe at home, practising the Gettysburg Address for an elocution contest at school the next day, other children are not so lucky. God treats him to tableaux of other children in other countries fighting the same enemy, all in the image of his own, whether they be left screaming in bombed out houses in England, hobbling around with blown off feet in Greece, living in the gutter on thrown away melon in China and on out. God even brings in Lidice, completely missing the point but he did only have a few seconds to work with.

Of course the end comes when God points out that he's on John Jones's side, the side of the United States of America. While the film is only ten minutes long, it carries serious impact to the degree that it's only an hour later that obvious questions leap out like 'Why would God need to take sides when taking sides would imply involvement and if he was going to be involved then why didn't just use his omnipotency to win before atrocities like Lidice could take place?' Such dilemmas have plagued the theologians for years. Who'd have thought they'd plague Jimmy Cagney?

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