Special Veterans Day Edition: John Wayne in SANDS OF IWO JIMA (Republic 1949)

Critics of John Wayne gave him a lot of flak for not serving his country during World War II, especially in the turbulent 1960’s, labeling him a phony patriot and celluloid warrior. The truth is Wayne DID try to get into the war, but was stymied in his attempts on two fronts: Republic Studios boss Herbert Yates, who filed for deferments so he wouldn’t lose his cash cow, and Wayne’s first wife Josie, who failed to forward letters from OSS Chief Wild Bill Donovan’s office. Be that as it may, The Duke was no phony, and did what he could on the home front for the war effort.

SANDS OF IWO JIMA was made four years after the war as a tribute to the brave souls of the United States Marine Corps who fought against the Japanese in the South Pacific. Wayne plays the tough top kick Sgt. John Stryker, charged with molding a batch of new recruits into a fighting Marine Rifle Squad. Among them are Conway (John Agar ), the resentful son of Stryker’s former C.O.; Thomas (Forrest Tucker ), an ex-sergeant with a grudge against Stryker; Regazzi (Wally Cassell ), the obligatory hustler from Brooklyn; and the battling Flynn brothers (Richard Jaeckel , Bill Murphy).

Stryker’s hard-ass attitude causes many to dislike him, but the Marine lifer cares about the men’s safety and wants them all to come back alive. When the men are granted a brief leave, Conway meets and falls in love with Allison (Adele Mara ) at a dance, and marries her. But the honeymoon’s a short one as the squad is shipped to Tarawa, where a fierce battle is being fought. The island is taken, but at a deadly cost, as Stryker’s battlefield heroics saves the lives of many (but not all) of his squad, and Thomas’s slacking off to drink coffee gets one killed and another seriously wounded.

When Stryker finds out about Thomas’s lollygagging, they have it out in a knock-down, drag-out brawl that almost gets the sarge locked up, but Thomas turns out to be a stand-up guy, and his remorse is evident. After a brief stopover in Hawaii, their next mission is Iwo Jima, a raging battle that goes on for days and results in many casualties before they finally take Mt. Suribachi. But Stryker doesn’t live to see the iconic flag raising as he’s cut down by a sniper’s bullet. The men gather around their fallen leader, and Thomas reads an unmailed  letter Stryker wrote to his estranged ten year old son (and if your eyes don’t well up with tears during this scene, there’s something wrong with you). The flag is raised, and Conway calls the men back to battle using Stryker’s favorite saying – “Saddle up!”.

Wayne’s Sgt. Stryker is a contradiction in terms. He’s tough and relentless with his men for a reason – he wants to give them the tools to survive the brutal war. He’s a Marine Corps lifer whose dedication to service cost him his wife and child, and that in turn caused him to hit the bottle hard. The scene where, while on leave in Honolulu, he picks up a bar girl (Julie Bishop ) and goes back to her place, only to discover she’s doing what she does to feed her fatherless child, is a tender moment in a tough film, and went a long way to help Wayne receive his first Oscar nomination.

Director Alan Dwan was an old pro who made his first film in 1913. While not a stylist like Wayne directors John Ford or Howard Hawks, Dwan was more than competent in any genre, and his action scenes are second to none. Among his many film credits are the 1922 ROBIN HOOD, REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, THE THREE MUSKETEERS (’39 version) , BREWSTER’S MILLIONS, THE WILD BLUE YONDER, CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA, and THE RESTLESS BREED. Actual newsreel footage of the battles of Tarawa and Iwo Jima are cut into the film to match DP Reggie Lenning’s studio-lensed shots, and editor Richard Van Enger’s work earned an Academy Award nomination, as did T.A. Carmen and Howard Wilson for their use of sound. Harry Brown’s original story was also nominated; he cowrote the screenplay with Wayne’s personal writer James Edward Grant. Besides those previously mentioned, the cast includes James Brown, Peter Coe , Hal Feiberling (later Baylor), Arthur Franz , Don Haggerty, Martin Milner , William Self, George Tyner, Richard Webb, and Dick Wessel.

Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph

Also in the film are Rene Gagnon, Ira Hayes, and John Bradley, recreating that famous flag raising moment caught on camera for all eternity by photographer Joe Rosenthal. Real-life Marines 1st Lt. Harold Schrier, Col. David M. Shoup, Lt. Col. Henry P. Crowe, and Lt. Gen. Holland Smith make appearances as themselves. These men are the real heroes of the battle of Iwo Jima, and today we honor their memories, as well as the memories of all who fought and died in the service of our country, men like 94-year-old Hershel “Woody” Williams, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient from that grueling battle of Iwo Jima, which resulted in 26,000 American casualties and 6,800 dead…

Semper fi, Marine!

Wherever you are here in America, take the time to stop and thank a vet for their service. And keep those you love close at heart.

Puttin’ On The Ritz: THE THREE MUSKETEERS (20th Century Fox 1939)

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The cult of the Three Stooges is as strong as ever. The Marx Brothers are studied in universities as artists. Laurel & Hardy’s “Sons of the Desert” fan club grows daily. Yet the modern world ignores the Ritz Brothers, and that’s a downright shame. Harry, Jimmy, and Al Ritz were multi-talented comic anarchists who  influenced a generation of funnymen from Mel Brooks to Jerry Lewis. Signed to a 20th Century-Fox contract in 1936, they lent support to big budget musicals like ONE IN A MILLION and ON THE AVENUE before being cast in a series of starring comedy vehicles highlighting their rapid-fire banter, madcap musical routines, and slapstick humor. They’re at their best in THE THREE MUSKETEERS, a musical comedy take on the Alexandre Dumas classic with Don Ameche as the dashing D’Artagnon.

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The Ritzes are three dumb clucks who we meet plucking chickens at the Coq D’Or Tavern in Paris. Brash young D’Artagnon, a new recruit in the King’s Musketeers, has summoned veterans Athos, Porthos, and Aramis to duel with him and prove his mettle. The Musketeers arrive early, and wind up losing a drinking contest to the Ritzes. The brothers put the Musketeers to bed and don their uniforms to impress some damsels when D’Artagnon comes in. Mistaking the Ritzes for the real thing, the four end up battling Cardinal Richeleau’s guardsmen, then get entangled in a political plot involving royal court intrigue, romance, and plenty of swordplay interspersed with wacky Ritz bits and songs like “Voila”, “Milady”, “Song of the Musketeers”, and of course “Chicken Soup (the Plucking Song)”.

The Ritz Brothers handle all the comedy, and their slapstick shenanigans and precision dances are letter-perfect. Harry Ritz could mug with the best of them, and Jimmy and Al are equally silly. Their cymbal routine while trying to cover for D’Artagnon is a masterpiece of comic timing:

Ameche is fun as D’Artagnon, cutting a handsome figure and wooing lovely Pauline Moore (Lady Constance). Villainy is taken care of by none other than Lionel Atwill (DeRouchefort), aided and abetted by Miles Mander (Cardinal Richeleau) and Binnie Barnes (Lady DeWinter). Joseph Schildkraut, Oscar winner for 1937’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA, stands in as King Louis XIII, with Gloria Stuart a fetching Queen Anne. The Familiar Face Brigade in this one includes John Carradine, Douglas Dumbrille, Lester Matthews, and Gino Corrado. Alan Dwan had been directing movies since 1911, and kept steady at it for the next fifty years, amassing an impressive list of credits. He’s in fine form guiding the Ritz Brothers through their frenetic paces, as he also did in that year’s THE GORILLA. Some of his more popular films were the Shirley Temple REBECCA OF SUNNYBROOK FARM, SANDS OF IWO JIMA (with John Wayne), and the feminist Western CATTLE QUEEN OF MONTANA.

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The Ritz Brothers films went downhill after this, with Fox’s B-unit producer Sol Wurtzel taking charge of their careers, causing Harry to quip, “Things have gone from bad to Wurtzel”. They left the studio and moved on to Universal, where the quality of their films did not improve. Leaving Hollywood behind in the mid-40’s, the boys became headliners in Las Vegas and nightclubs across the country. Their impeccable timing, incorporating music and dancing into their slapstick repertoire, kept the Ritzes active until Al’s death in 1965. Harry and Jimmy made a last appearance together in Al Adamson’s sex farce BLAZING STEWARDESSES. Harry, who was considered a genius by his peers, did a cameo in the Mel Brooks comedy SILENT MOVIE. He died in 1986, a year after brother Jimmy. The Ritz Brothers are gone, but their creativity shouldn’t be left to rot away in dusty film cans. The zany trio deserves to be rediscovered by lovers of slapstick humor, and THE THREE MUSKETEERS is a good place to start.

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