You know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Boston Blackie movie. I bring this up not because this is one, but because it co-stars Chester Morris, who went on to star in fourteen of them. Maybe I should take a look at one sometime. Actually, I’ve never actually seen a whole Charlie Chan movie, either.
The main star here is the great Wallace Beery, the beefy, truculent working man with the gravelly voice, the curmudgeon with a heart of gold. Nobody was better at that sort of character than Beery. There was always a comic element to his performances, and he was frequently a big jerk at least at the beginning, but he always managed to get me on his side.
The movie covers an area that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a picture before, and that is naval warfare in World War One. Frankly, I hadn’t even known the US really had a naval war in the brief time we went “over there.” But we did. As in WWII, the German subs attacked coastal shipping along the eastern seaboard, often sinking ships within sight of our shores. (I don’t know about this war, but in the Big One, to our shame, we knuckled under to the always craven “business community,” refused to order a blackout of coastal towns, so the U-Boats could even work at night. They picked off the sitting ducks of ships outlined against the lights. Shame on you, Mr. Businessman. The deaths of those brave men belong to you!)
Opposed to these raiders were small fleets of sub-chasers, which look a little bigger than PT boats, but fire depth charges that look exactly like the ones in use a few years later when we went Kraut hunting again. (In fact, almost everything here looks much more 1939 than 1918, from the ships to the clothing Beery’s daughter, Virginia Grey, wears. I certainly can’t vouch to the authenticity or lack of it here. But it is quite a lavish production, using the big tanks at MGM and shooting lots of sub-chasers with Navy cooperation on the East Coast. There is also excellent model work.)
Beey is a feisty (what else?) tugboat captain who nurses a grudge against a Heinie U-boat captain who sank his beloved tub. He joins the Navy, for which he is possibly the most ill-suited man in New England, and finds himself under the command of Boston Blackie, a man he hates because he (unjustly) thinks he dealt underhandedly with him. There is a sexual undercurrent between Chester and Virginia, Beery’s feisty (what else?) daughter. So they go out sub hunting.
What surprised me a little was that the Germans were not shown as slavering beasts by any means. They adhered to the rules of war, picking up survivors, pointing out that they were just doing what they had to do, as were we. Of course, in only a couple of years we’d be fighting Germans again, and this time it was not wartime propaganda; they were slavering beasts, much more apt to strafe survivors than rescue them.