Tuesday, June 20, 2023

A Guy Named Joe: A Review



War always makes widows, but what about the sweethearts who lose those they love? A Guy Named Joe touches on this idea, and while perhaps longer than it should be, it is lifted by a strong performance.

Cocky fighter pilot Pete Sandidge (Spencer Tracy) does not care about rules but results. Despite taking no precautions in fighting the Germans, he is exceptionally sensitive when aviatrix Durinda Durston (Irene Dunne) does anything even remotely risky. He does not want to openly admit it, but Pete is quite smitten with Dorinda, who is more open about it. She wants him to stop taking so many risks, as does his commanding officer, Colonel "Nails" Kilpatrick (James Gleason), who sees Pete as an able but arrogant flyer.

As unofficial punishment, Kilpatrick sends Pete and his wingman/BFF Al Yakey (Ward Bond) to remote Scotland. A chance to train new pilots opens up in the U.S., and Dorinda is sent to try and convince Pete to accept. He does not want to, but he finally realizes that they love each other and agrees to. There is, however, one last mission.

Pete discovers that he is not crazy, but he is dead. Seeing his old friend Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson) verifies to Pete that he is, indeed, dead. Rumney serves as Pete's de facto guiding angel to help a new pilot on Earth, Ted Randall (Van Johnson), by whispering encouragement and instructions which Randall will think is his own voice. Dorinda, still grieving, reunites with Yakey and then meets Randall. A romance begins between Dorinda and Randall, much to Pete's irritation. After a talk with The General (Lionel Barrymore), Pete realizes that he can't hold on to Dorinda, while Dorinda on her own realizes that she needs to move on with her life. Will history, however, repeat itself when Randall is given a dangerous assignment? Will Dorinda and Pete be able to let go of each other?

A Guy Named Joe (the title comes from a group of British kids who say that every American pilot is named "Joe") at its heart has an interesting story about moving on past grief, to accept that the living need to keep living without losing love for the dead. This story would have resonated more with contemporary audiences who were still seeing so many wives and sweethearts who suffered the same fate.

The film is also elevated by a beautiful performance from Irene Dunne, who sings the lovely ballad I'll Get By (As Long as I Have You). Whether showing love for Tracy's Pete or grieving for his death, Dunne is perfection as the woman who loved, lost and loved again. Her scene with Bond as she attempts to hide her tears until she reveals the depths of her grief is a great moment. It is deeply moving scene.

Ward Bond is equally reliable as Yakey, the best friend who forces Dorinda to move on. He too balances moments of drama with comedy, such as his flustered efforts to hide the damage to Pete's plane. 

A Guy Named Joe was the film debut for Van Johnson, and I thought he did well. A particularly good moment is when this wealthy young man finds that a fellow pilot ignores a beautiful girl due to homesickness. Pete, who finds Randall an elitist snob, warms to him when Randall out of his own pocket makes a long-distance telephone call to let the pilot talk to his mother. Oddly, his love scenes with Dunne were a bit weak, not from her but from him.

The weakest performance in my opinion is Tracy. He is too snappy and makes Pete a jerk more than a lovelorn man. His casual cruelty towards Dorinda and Randall makes him an unpleasant figure, and to my mind he looks too old to be the love interest. However, when he has some monologues about the joys of flying or whispering to Dorinda about how loving is for the living, he does great.

I think A Guy Named Joe is longer than it should be (it is a full half hour of the doomed Pete/Dorinda romance). It also gives no reason for Don DeFore's character to be there (he plays Randall's best friend). 

A Guy Named Joe is worth watching for a good story and Irene Dunne's performance. While not the best film on the subject of afterlife love, it does a good enough job.


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