Saturday, April 15, 2017
BOMBERS B-52 (1957)
This CinemaScope production is Warner Brother's answer to the more successful and realistic 1955 release, “Strategic Air Command,” filmed in Paramount’s VistaVision format. It was superior in cinematography and for a script of accuracy by Bernie Lay, an airman himself who came to the table with first-hand details. Victor Young's opening male ensemble song and dynamic flying score captures the United States Air Force grandeur during this period. Highly renowned composer, Leonard Rosenman, on the other hand, wrote a soap opera opening theme (aside from the few exciting opening measures) which goes against the bold, two-dimensional title graphically spelled out on the screen. He does write a dynamic B-52 theme which I address below. Some big bucks spent here and it shows. The film gets high points for location filming on an active SAC base and the ground camera crew's work is to be applauded. The draw of Natalie Wood, Karl Malden and Efrem Zimbalist Jr.―all on career up-swings, especially Wood―helps it escape the B-movie category. Barely.
The film gets low points for Irving Wallace's soap opera screenplay which I already warned you about. Perhaps because of this, there are some authentic USAF procedural details which are ignored. Another low point is an over-the-top performance (once again) by Malden. He can be hard to stomach in this bull-headed, self-centered character. His performance as the over protective father and devoted husband dominates the movie, despite Wood receiving top billing. The sequence of antsy Malden awaiting Wood's pre-dawn return from a date with Zimbalist is a bit embarrassing. He already had a narrow-minded assumption of Zimbalist from the Korean War. The scenes where he paces the floor, blowing off steam to his wife, Marsha Hunt, while downing eight cans of beer―between trips to the bathroom―is humorless. A big dose of suspended disbelief will be necessary when considering the twenty-year age gap between the real Zimbalist and Wood. Yet it works on screen if you mentally subtract and add five years, respectively.
Zimbalist, in his first major screen debut, and Wood were contracted to Warner Bros. It would have been unlikely to have replaced either. As many film buffs know, Warner's original choice was Tab Hunter. This would have solved the age gap but probably made it implausible to believe he had achieved the rank of Lt. Colonel at such a young age. Given a larger role, maybe the better solution would have been for Wood to have had a romance with handsome co-pilot, Stuart Whitman, with only ten years between them. Just let Malden and Zimbalist come to terms on the B-52 story line. Curious to consider, too, three up-and-coming actresses cutting the age gap about a decade: Anne Francis, Tippi Hedren or Elaine Stewart. Either would have eliminated the “stay at home” daughter premise and in turn saved us from Malden's clichéd father performance.
If you are an aviation enthusiast of this era, the B-52, as was the B-36 in the “SAC” movie, will be your highlight and main reason for remembering the movie. It is a visual aviation history lesson of the USAF's formative years. The takeoffs and flybys are exciting, if not spectacular. The banter between tanker and bomber pilots is fun in one sequence. Zimbalist's “travelogue” comments and the accompanying back screen projected visuals during their twenty-four hour mission should have been left on the editing floor, however. Unless one has piloted Boeing's bomber, the interior mockups appear to be well done.
Rosenman wrote a majestic theme for brass and strings in a march-like rhythm. Though it takes nearly half the film before we see a B-52, the theme, along with an elevated camera position, is all goose-bumpy. The plane casting long, early morning shadows making for an impressive debut. Once the B-52 is front and center we hear the theme frequently. The theme should have debuted with this sequence. But just prior, it is hilariously misplaced during a sequence of Malden riding a ubiquitous scooter several hundred feet. With the gallant theme blasting away, we expect him to end his ride next to a B-52 as it fills the screen. Instead, he simply stops at the base barracks after putt putting past the base gate. Piloting a scooter is just not very majestic.
While blowhard dad is in the base hospital recuperating from a bail-out injury, Wood, sobbing, apologizes for being only nineteen and confesses she is no longer embarrassed by her dad's occupation. Planes are keen. Wood's constant crying is a bit tedious, but she and her father finally have an understanding. We assume Wood will marry, move out of the house and Malden will cut back on the beer volume. To end the film, Wood looks reward from Zimbalist's T-Bird, finally understanding the point of the eleven-ship B-52 formation roaring overhead. A large formation which would realistically never be done in combat.
I have always found the film’s title a bit strange. Not normal speak. As if stating, “Automobiles Ford.” The alternate title used in some outlets, “No Sleep Till Dawn,” makes more sense for this flying soap opera. The title would have covered the airmen's twenty-four hour missions and Malden's twenty-four hour angst over his daughter's dates until dawn. For Paramount’s “Strategic Air Command”―Air Command Strategic―recruitment went up about 25% because of its inspiring screenplay. I doubt the air force got that much of a jump following this movies’ premiere. Who wants to enlist and be supervised by a character like Malden? Most would gladly choose flight engineer, Harry Morgan.