Thursday, September 15, 2016
Pre-Code Parade: BEYOND VICTORY (1931)
A troubled production from the last days of the Pathe studio, before its merger with RKO Pictures, John S. Robertson's Beyond Victory is noteworthy for its precocious penchant for flashbacks and a cynical attitude toward World War I that was actually fairly typical of its time. The nearest thing the film may have to an auteur is James Gleason. Now known primarily as a character actor, Gleason was a playwright and sometime scriptwriter who collaborated with Horace Jackson on this project, which went through major edits after Robertson finished principal photography. Is Gleason responsible for the comic tone that redeems the picture? Possibly. Is he responsible for his son Russell being cast alongside him as an American soldier? Perhaps more likely. Was the film's flashback format his idea or Jackson's? I dunno, but whoever came up with it, it's what makes the movie distinctive. We follow a group of American doughboys into battle in 1918, and as they come under fire, some of them taking mortal wounds, we go back in time to see why each went to war. For the youngest of the group (Russell Gleason), enlisting was a form of rebellion against his mother, but it gets him killed. Wealthy Lew Kavanaugh (Lew Cody) tricked himself into signing up. Juggling two women, he tries to blow one off over the phone by telling her he's enlisted, but the other woman is in the room eavesdropping. Now Lew has to live up to his lie and his lover's pride, but it gets him killed. Jim Mobley (James Gleason), introduced early as something of a comic-relief dolt, joined to get out from under his overbearing wife, a vaudeville knife-thrower (ZaSu Pitts). He survives. Bill Thatcher (William "not Stage" Boyd) goes to war even though he loves a German girl (Lissi Arna). He not only survives but gets the girl, who finds him in a German Red Cross hospital when the Armistice comes.
Interestingly, our two survivors have the worst reasons for fighting, as far as the film is concerned. While the boy has understandable psychological motives, and there's a sort of farcical logic to Lew's decision, Jim and Bill seem simply to have been brainwashed by American propaganda. In one of the scenes that most likely bears Gleason's particular stamp, he tries to explain his motives to an ignorant but instinctively skeptical ZaSu Pitts, who lowers her voice somewhat from her usual Olive Oyl whine to express a more aggressive personality and is actually made to look almost pretty from certain angles. Her ignorance of current affairs only serves to expose the Gleason character's more dangerous ignorance: his uncritical parroting of pro-war, anti-German propaganda. While Bill Thatcher is our top-billed hero, his ignorance comes across as even more pig-headed and sinister. His lover, the German girl, opposes war; she supports neither Germany nor the Allies. But whenever she speaks against war, Bill snaps at her that to oppose war is to be pro-German. In the present, on the battleground of a ravaged town, Bill has been redeemed by losing his illusions. He tells Jim that he stopped believing in war propaganda after failing to find any little girls' severed arms in Belgium, that being a detail of anti-German "black" propaganda. In short Beyond Victory pretty much tells American movie audiences that World War I was a big con. To go beyond victory is to transcend artificial enmity, as when Bill and the German girl reunite and reconcile. That sort of reconciliation will be harder for some people than others, as Gleason shows in another standout scene in which Jim seems ready to pick a fight with all the wounded Germans in the Red Cross hospital -- and gets a knife thrown at him for his trouble, just like at home. The film ends flatly, aiming at a more comic than tragic tone as the German girl chides Bill and Jim for killing her countrymen as if the two Americans were mere naughty boys. But Beyond Victory definitely gets its point across, and it reminds us that the salaciousness of Pre-Code cinema wasn't the only thing that Hollywood would eventually have to suppress.