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Sunday 28 January 2024

The Eve of St. Mark (1944)

Director: John M. Stahl
Writer: George Seaton, based on the play by Maxwell Anderson
Stars: Anne Baxter, William Eythe and Michael O'Shea

Index: The First Thirty.

Here’s one that I hadn’t seen and apparently had no idea what it was about. I assumed that the religious title meant a religious film, thus following on from the big success of The Song of Bernadette. While that title does refer to the religious holiday, the film isn’t religious at all, being a war movie, yet another new genre for Vincent Price that isn’t outright horror.

It’s an odd movie, though, for a few reasons. For one, it’s obviously based on a play, with an acutely limited set of locations and a dialogue heavy script. However, it’s well written and an absolute gift for the character actors. I should mention that that doesn’t mean the leads, who are Anne Baxter and William Eythe. Neither of them fail at their jobs, as a young couple who are separated by his being drafted. They have plenty of screen time but few opportunities.

Eythe is the true lead, a young country boy named Quizz West, who’s one of a million and a half Americans called up for service in the first round of the Second World War draft. It’s October 1940, so before the United States was dragged into the war. That means that service didn’t mean much and Eythe can play Quizz, now Pvt. West, like Jimmy Stewart might, full of intent but without much chance of actually joining in the fighting. The draft law says they can’t be deployed outside the country.

Baxter is Janet Feller, his sweetheart. He fell in love with her in New York, having been as oblivious as could be about someone that he’s known his whole life until she orchestrates an accidental meeting there. She fell for him long ago and got fed up of waiting for him to notice her. It’s one of the cruelties of life that, having now made that happen, they’re separated.

You might imagine that the first half of the film, before we inevitably get to 7th December and everything changes, would be spent in the usual basic training scenes. It isn’t. Sure, Quizz is sent to Camp Grace, but we focus on life in the barracks and on leave. And there’s where we meet the folk who we want to see while we wait for the story to go somewhere.

I was reminded of prime time TV shows, in which I inevitably find myself bored with the lead actors playing their utterly routine lead characters and focus on the character actors tasked with providing support. With a nod for Harry Morgan, as Pvt. Shevlin, early enough in his career for him to still be credited as Henry Morgan, I’ll move swiftly onto Michael O’Shea, the most prominent of a host of actors tasked with reprising their roles from the Broadway play and the third of the three names written in large print on the movie poster. He has zero hesitation in stealing the entire movie.

He’s Pvt. Thomas Mulveroy and he’s both a class clown and a life of every party. In one of the earliest scenes at Camp Grace, he performs a stellar impersonation of their drill sergeant, Sgt. Ruby, who promptly walks in to witness it go down. Mulveroy doesn’t see so the sergeant lets him wrap it up before reading him the riot act. Sgt. Ruby is played by George Matthews, another of the original Broadway cast, which means that their back and forth charisma was built over a few hundred performances.

Eythe and Baxter have no chance against a couple of inveterate scene stealers like O’Shea and Matthews, so they mostly ignore that they might be supposed to. That’s easy for Baxter, who never has to share a scene with them, but Eythe is soon relegated to their shadow.

This is also where Vincent Price arrives and, if O’Shea steals the film from the leads, Price is happy to steal it from O’Shea. He’s Pvt. Francis Marion, who’s known as Moolah to one and all on account of how much debt he’s in to every other soldier. They realised en masse just how much money they’d collectively lent him, and have now restricted who he can borrow from until he’s paid them all back. His accent is his, but with a southern tinge that he occasionally forgets to employ. He’s far better spoken than anyone else in the film and he knows it, being both willing and able to quote Shakespeare at the drop of a hat. The girls love that.

Halfway through the film, these soldiers are on the train to San Francisco when the news is broadcast that the Japanese have bombed the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor and, just like that, they’re all at war. In fact, just like that, they’re under heavy fire in the Philippines sheltering in a cave. Price now has a beard and Mulvaney wakes up after three days of malaria, nursed by a local girl by the name of Pepita.

Rather than delve into an unnecessary high level overview of the Pacific theatre, we learn about what’s happening by listening into the radio news broadcasts that Janet and Quizz’s parents avidly tune into. That’s a neat touch.

Of course, they don’t hear details like how a majority of Quizz’s company are dead, all the officers included. The few soldiers are falling prey to malaria and either collapse into bed or die. Sgt. Ruby has the quinine and only three days of iron rations, until he’s gone too, and Eythe gets a good scene when all is presumed lost, talking with his loved ones telepathically.

You see, the survivors have received a note intended for a dead lieutenant, with a pair of options. Either evacuate their island and seek out a medical crew on another one or stay to fight longer, even though they can’t win. Mum and Janet both tell him to come home, but my mind took me to Jason Robards in a far more brutal war movie, Johnny Get Your Gun, stating that “for democracy, every man would give his only begotten son.”

It’s here that Price explains the movie’s title in a powerful scene. There’s an old legend: if a maiden stands in the porch of a church on the Eve of St. Mark, she’ll see the ghosts of all who will die in he next year. And Pepita’s standing in the entrance to the cave, where they’ve all likely said a prayer very recently indeed.

Their decision ends up being simple, as the morning brings a series of supply barges just begging to be shelled. So they fight. It means real drama late on and this is a better picture for it, even if it becomes a little inevitable. The overly patriotic scenes set to overly patriotic music prompt much eye rolling, but this came out in January 1944 when that made sense.

I liked this a lot more than I expected to. It is what it is and it suffers for that, not least with the leads distracting from the story more than contributing to it. We get that they’re in the movie to be representative and that’s fine. But we enjoy O’Shea and Mathews and Price a lot more and we can’t help but notice that the uncredited Filipino girl saves the day.

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