(#12 in a 12-part series to be printed at the beginning of each month)
FIVE CAME BACK - The last forgotten classic movie in my monthly series is also the oldest production. 1939 was a most Golden of years, with today’s film-goers fondly remembering Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Ninotchka, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Also discussed: Babes in Arms, Beau Geste, Son of Frankenstein, Dark Victory, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, and Only Angels Have Wings.
Five Came Back should be included for a variety of reasons. RKO Studios may have been part of Poverty Row, but folks as Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant made fine films there in the early 1930s.
This “B” Movie was a pioneering flick in the Disaster Genre. Some of the biggest moneymakers in cinema were unabashedly influenced by this motion picture.
Essentially an ensemble cast, the film featured great character actors in starring roles, including Chester Morris, Wendy Barrie, Patric Knowles, John Carradine, Allen Jenkins, Joseph Calleia, C. Aubrey Smith, and remarkably, Lucille Ball. Carradine and Smith are featured in my Forgotten Hollywood -Book Series.
The script was co-written by the future acclaimed and maligned screenplay scribe, Dalton Trumbo. Director John Farrow is best known for his work on Wake Island, Hondo, and as the screenwriter for Around the World in Eighty Days.
The cast is magnificent; Lucille Ball, John Carradine, Patric Knowles, and especially, Joseph Calleia. As an anarchist, Calleia is the prototype of the anti-hero later popular in the 1950s. He’s so good, I’ll spotlight his career below…
<— Patric Knowles usually was cast in heroic roles (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Wolfman, The Charge of the Light Brigade), so his playing against type showcased his acting ability, and guaranteed a long career for the credible co-star.
The title of the film is also quite glib. The audience can easily figure out who will survive a plane crash. However, the melodramatic demise of certain characters guarantees to keep you at the edge of your seat. The words on the scripted page is really a strength.
Making an anarchist an anti-hero would come back to haunt Dalton Trumbo. Anarchists were known throughout American history in the disruption of our free society. In 1901, President William McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist. The government’s creation of The Federal Bureau of Investigation was in response to anarchist bombings in our Nation’s Capital. The anarchist character in Five Came Back was cited by the House Un-American Activities Committee as evidence that Trumbo’s politics lay in the American Communist Party. DALTON TRUMBO ->
The paranoia of our country did not allow the anti-hero in scripts to thrive. Other movies faced the same fate as they were pulled from theatres. 1948′s We Were Strangers comes to mind as an unfortunate example.
The billing of Joseph Calleia was pitiful. He steals this film from his peers. Sixth billing is an insult to his performance, and his character development in the script.
Supporting Actor Spotlight
Joseph Calleia often played villainous latin-types. But, he was born in Malta. He brought an early realism to Broadway roles. His parts include The Front Page, The Last Mile, and Grand Hotel. Hollywood felt his stage performances were as strong as the live work by Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, and curiously, Ethel Barrymore.
Signed by MGM, he was loaned to other studios due to his immense talent. He memorably appeared in After the Thin Man, Riff Raff, My Little Chickadee, Juarez, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Glass Key, The Jungle Book, Gilda, Touch of Evil, and The Alamo.
Calleia appropriately received the Critic’s Award in 1938 for his work on Algiers. Lionized by his birth-country, the actor was posthumously honoured by the Malta postal authority with a set of two commemorative stamps issued in his memory in 1997. In October 2005, a monument consisting of a bust of Calleia was erected in front of the house where he was born.
Joseph Calleia is one fellow I would strongly consider writing about in a future book in the Forgotten Hollywood-series. He was that good…
The real treat of Five Came Back is the historic early work of the great Lucille Ball. Despite an uneven movie career, elements of her comedic ability is in full display in 1939. I loved Lucy on celluloid!
The High and the Mighty, The Flight of the Phoenix, and the Airport-series of films owe a debt of gratitude to Dalton Trumbo’s script, John Farrow’s direction, and the fine ensemble cast that appeared in Five Came Back. This motion picture should be considered in the pantheon of great releases in 1939.
Until next time. “never forget”