Tuesday 4 May 2021

Movie Review: A Guy Named Joe (1943)

A romantic fantasy, A Guy Named Joe explores love, commitment, loss, and death during wartime turbulence.

Pete Sandidge (Spencer Tracy) is a daredevil American bomber pilot stationed in England during World War Two. He maintains a romance with Air Transport Auxiliary pilot Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne). Although possessive, he never quite commits to her. After Pete and his best buddy Al Yackey (Ward Bond) are reassigned to a Scottish reconnaissance outpost, Dorinda senses Pete's impending demise.

Despite her best efforts to alter destiny, Pete does indeed die heroically while on a mission. In heaven, commanding officer The General (Lionel Barrymore) assigns him to be the guardian angel of rookie pilot Ted Randall (Van Johnson). Pete helps Ted develop into a brash leader, but jealousy bubbles to the surface when Ted meets the still-grieving Dorinda and they start to fall in love.

Combining wistfulness with clever wartime morale-boosting, A Guy Named Joe provides a multi-layered yet cohesively engrossing narrative. Dalton Trumbo's script is consciously lyrical, elevating the premise towards exhortations about the human condition and the nature of death to help make sense of catastrophic losses during a global war. Victor Fleming directs with panache, seamlessly melding the fantasy and romance elements into the pragmatic business of an imperfect war machine at work.

Legacies, carrying on, and letting go are themes underpinning Pete's journey in life and beyond. The influence of the dead on the living is physically represented (but not seen or heard), Fleming and the actors pulling off tricky staging and conscious evasion. For Dorinda, Ted, and Al, living and grieving are uninterrupted, although events, inner thoughts and emotions are occasionally nudged by forces unseen.

But Pete's attachment to Dorinda straddles the divide between his states of being. Helping Ted mature into a confident airman is all fun and games until he falls in love with Dorinda, and now the spectral mentor has to confront his earthly failings. Trumbo presents death as essential for collective progression and a process of individual transition, the departed, just like the living, in need of time and perspective to grasp the enormity of the change.

The cast never wink at the material, allowing the fantasy to take root and enrich the soil. Spencer Tracy sparkles as Pete, thoughtful, self-aware and reckless in life as in death, and on a journey to understand the opportunities, challenges, and audacious passion of loving life without committing to it. Irene Dunne, Ward Bond, and Van Johnson in his breakthrough role surround Pete with romance, friendship and a worthy protégé/rival.

The few scenes of aerial combat were created on the ground with the aid of stock footage and rear projection, and the results are surprisingly decent. But the machines and warfare are ultimately just a good backdrop to a universal story about every Joe's enduring resonance.

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