by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
This morning I watched a movie on TCM called Joe Smith, American, a fascinating little topical “B” from 1942 that was the debut production of Dore Schary’s “B” unit at MGM, though he wasn’t credited with the production (Jack Chertok, who usually headed the unit that produced the Crime Does Not Pay shorts, was) and he didn’t write the script either (that was Allen Rivkin, based on a short story Paul Gallico published in Cosmopolitan back when it was still a prestige publication in the Hearst empire instead of a dating guide for affluent career girls) and was a major success at the box office, doing well enough to rate “A” playing time in some theatres even though it was only 62 minutes long.
The film opens on the shop floor of an airplane factory, then cuts to the offices of the company’s management and shows some of the workers being grilled by the manager and two officials from Washington, D.C. Among these is Joe Smith (Robert Young, surprisingly well cast as a proletarian Everyman instead of the spoiled rich kid he’d played in most of his movies before this), whose answers reveal that he has a wife named Mary (Marsha Hunt), they have a son (Darryl Hickman), they have a home with a mortgage on it from the FHA and a 1938-model car and some money saved up — Joe, who’s taken all the other questions and answered them with surprising patience, bristles when he’s asked how much and refuses to say — and it turns out that the interrogation was to establish Joe’s fitness for a top-secret assignment at the plant he’s under instructions to tell no one, not even his wife, about, which is to install a top-secret bomb sight inside the bombers the plant is building. (The plot gimmick comes from the real-life Norden bombsight that made Allied bombers during World War II considerably more accurate than Axis ones: though its actual design was top secret, its existence was enough of an open secret in pop culture that a number of movies employed it as a plot gimmick, including Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon — though the “bombsight” in that one looked like, and almost certainly was, a photo enlarger, while the brief glimpse we get of it in Joe Smith, American makes it look like a radiator.)
Joe Smith moves to another part of the plant and is set up to start installing bombsights and warned they’re going to keep him overtime; at 8:15 they let him go — and on his way home his car is run off the road by several bad guys (Noel Madison, Don Costello and Joseph Anthony) and he’s blindfolded, taken to a house and routinely beaten so he’ll give the baddies the design of the secret bombsight. The hired thugs behave exactly like the gangsters of the previous decade’s movies — as I’ve noted here before, Hollywood seemed to know only one way to depict evil, so the movie Nazis of the 1940’s acted exactly the way the movie gangsters of the 1930’s had, and the movie Communists of the 1950’s acted that way too — and as they torture Joe (depicted surprisingly graphically by 1942 standards, though compared to what goes on in movies now it looks commendably restrained, with tricks like giving us a P.O.V. shot of the baddies hitting Young and shaking the camera to represent the impact of the blow giving us a much more horrifying idea of what he’s going through than the more graphic approach that would be used today) he tries to keep his mind off the pain by reliving the most pleasant and inspiring moments of his life thus far, including his first date with Mary (she was a blind date set up by two of his factory “buddies”) and the birth of their son. (TCM was showing this film as part of their “Star of the Month” tribute to Ava Gardner, though there seems to be some dispute as to whether she actually appears at all — one imdb.com “trivia” entry says Gardner “is listed in some modern sources as an actress in this movie, but she is not identifiable,” while the imdb.com cast list for the film identifies her role as “secretary” — and I thought she was the nurse in the hospital flashback who comes out and tells Young his son has just been born.)
Anyway, midway through the film the baddies realize that Joe Smith, American will never tell them what they want to know with the meager persuasive devices available to them at that location, so they load him back in the car to take him somewhere else, and Joe determines to remember the details about exactly where they’re going (he’s blindfolded but he still has his other senses and he uses them to figure out the route so he can memorize it and tell it to the authorities later). During the ride he sees his chance and manages to leap out of the moving car, and with a rock on the curb he writes out clues as to where he’s been. An affluent couple drive by and the woman notices Joe Smith’s body; she asks her husband to pull over but he says no way, he’ll let the authorities take care of it — and evidently that happens, because the next shot is of Joe Smith lying in a hospital bed while the authorities question him and his wife tells him he should just let himself go to sleep. He gets into a car with the police and they have a couple of bum steers when Joe’s assumptions about what was going on around him don’t pan out — what he thought was the merry-go-round of a carnival was merely a broadcast of calliope music being played over loudspeakers by a radio store, and what he thought was a line of parked cars turns out to be the rails of a bridge — but eventually he and they find the location of the house where he was held and catch the three gangsters, who are still there in the middle of a card game. Joe recovers and several weeks later is taken to the airplane factory to be thanked by the bosses — and he recognizes the snake ring one of his assailants wore on the finger of company executive Blake McKettrick, thereby realizing (and alerting the authorities) that McKettrick was the head of the gang that had him kidnapped.
Joe Smith, American is full of felicitous touches — like Joe’s son Johnny recounting the story of Nathan Hale to him (thereby setting up the plot device that Joe Smith will have to put his life on the line for his country the way Hale did — though Joe, unlike Hale, lives) and a nice shot of schoolchildren reciting the Pledge of Allegiance 12 years before it was defaced by the words “under God,” a message that’s been communicated to me my whole life that atheists like myself can never be true American citizens. It’s a well-done movie that doesn’t overdo the patriotic sloganeering (like a lot of films made then as wartime morale boosters did) and communicates the message — they also serve who stay at home and build the weapons of war, including safeguarding their secrets, rather than actually fighting in combat — quite effectively and well, and its message of shared sacrifice is one that seems awfully welcome, if just a little quaint, in the era of you’re-on-your-own Tea Party America!