Monday, August 7, 2023

Tender Comrade: A Review



This review is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon. Today's star is Robert Ryan.

Tender Comrade has a good idea behind it in its focus on the women left behind during the Second World War. Pity that it ultimately is just a good idea, but not a good movie.

Jo Jones (Ginger Rogers) is one of the thousands of Rosie the Riveters, longing for her husband Chris (Robert Ryan) to return. After a brief reunion, Chris goes to the front and she goes back to the airplane factor. She and her friends and coworkers are struggling both emotionally and financially in Los Angeles. Jo comes up with the idea that she and three of her fellow workers pool their resources to rent a house together.

With that, four women start life under one roof. There is elderly Helen (Patricia Collinge), whose husband and son are serving. Next is naïve newlywed Doris (Kim Hunter), whose marriage to Mike Dumbroski (Richard Martin) was so fast she doesn't even have a wedding photo, just a picture of him as a child. Finally, there is more sarcastic war wife Barbara (Ruth Hussey), who openly dislikes her husband Pete and has no issue going out on platonic dates. They are joined shortly afterwards by Manya (Mady Christians), a German hausfrau who married an American and is fervently anti-Nazi.

As our group lives out their lives, Jo has flashbacks to her prewar time with Chris before learning she is pregnant. Some of the women come close to being widows, some reunite with their husbands, and one learns that she will lose forever her "tender comrade".

Oddly, while watching Tender Comrade I thought how it might now work as a television series versus the feature length film it is. This is because while we have five women with distinct personalities and worldviews, we actually know little about them throughout the film. Dalton Trumbo's screenplay plays more like a stage play than a film. 

This is because most of the action outside Jo's flashbacks take place in the house, or more specifically the common room. I counted three flashbacks, and I think time has made the transitions now both dated and slightly comical. We hear Jo's narration, followed by Leigh Harline's music and two figures in the far distance.

It is to where someone watching will say, "Here comes another flashback", and they are not all that interesting to start with. Moreover, while it makes sense that Tender Comrade focuses on Jo and Chris, it curiously throws in a lengthy section for Doris and Mike. I think Trumbo and director Edward Dmytryk were going for some comedy, but it fell totally flat.

Part of it was the scenario (Mike finds everything the eager women serve him not to his liking). Part of it comes from the performances, which were mostly dull or one-note. I think that the combination fo Dmytryk's directing and Trumbo's screenplay worked to make these characters and situations almost boring.

Despite the five women living together, they do not appear to be that interested in each other's lives. They are not that interesting themselves. Outside of one characteristic (bossy, innocent, crass, old, old with a German accent), we do not get much of an idea who these women are. 

Collinge probably gets the worst aspect of things. She is all but forgotten in Tender Comrade, and her distinguishing characteristic is that she is the oldest of the four. We get little bits about her husband and son, but that is it. Hunter at times almost grates with her "innocent and retiring" schtick. Hussey made a desperate effort to make Barbara into a hussy (no pun intended), but it was more the script giving her little to work with.

Christians was almost comical as Manya, going into hysterics about getting an extra pound of bacon. When she, Jo and Helen are appalled that the butcher was nice enough to slip them an extra bit despite rationing, Barbara accepts that life sometimes can be contradictory: supportive of the men but with a desire for a little bit extra. Doris just wants out of the conflict, even if she has her own crisis of conscience when she admits to having loads of lipsticks. 

As for the leads, I think Rogers and Ryan were better than the material. Early on, they started quite well, making one appreciate how hard screen acting is when stripped of the music and mood. Rogers is quite beautiful, but she brings and eagerness and enthusiasm to Jo. She has a great moment when she confronts Barbara for her wicked ways and later chastises herself for doing so right before Barbara learns that Pete's ship has sunk.

Ryan is initially her equal early on. He too rises above the sappy dialogue to make Chris someone who does dream of a life after the war. Pity that as the flashbacks continue, they both seem to have lost enthusiasm and are just reciting the dialogue they are given. At their third flashback when Chris mistakenly believes Jo is pregnant, both play it so badly you know they do not believe a word they say.

Everyone acts as if everything they experience is supposed to be moving and emotional, but there is no reality to it. 

As I said, I think Tender Comrade might work if it were remade as a television series. That would give us a chance to explore these four women's lives and how they interact with each other, their respective spouses and those on the outside (curiously, we never see them at work again). As it stands now, Tender Comrade almost makes one understand why a decade later, it was used as evidence against Dmytryk and Trumbo for Communist sympathies. I didn't see any messages from Moscow here. I just saw a weak but not terrible film. 


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