CineSavant obsesses over yet another obscure bit of cinematic sociology: a glossy pre-Code MGM melodrama about mothers and war, which half-debates issues like pacifism, the losses of world war one, military vigilance, cowardice, chemical WMDs and foolish idealism! But don’t worry, the title statement is the ultimate answer to everything. Oh, it’s also political sci-fi: it takes place in the future year of 1940, when New York City comes under aerial attack, with skyscrapers bombed to bits and poison gas dropped in the streets. No, this is not new, it was released in 1933.
Men Must Fight
The Warner Archive Collection
1933 / B&W / 1:37 flat Academy / 72 min. / Street Date January 15, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 19.99
Starring: Diana Wynyard, Lewis Stone, Phillips Holmes, May Robson, Ruth Selwyn, Robert Young, Robert Greig, Hedda Hopper, Donald Dilloway, Mary Carlisle, Luis Alberni.
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Film Editor: William S. Gray
Written by C. Gardner Sullivan from the play by S.K. Lauren, Reginald Lawrence
Directed by Edgar Selwyn
They really expected it to be The War to End All Wars.
An early example of political science fiction, the once-obscure Men Must Fight (1933) is fashioned from elements never proven popular with audiences. The futuristic story predicts a 1940 war with an enemy called Eurasia, an idea that echoes the earlier British sci-fi potboiler High Treason. The film depicts a bombing raid on New York City by fleets of aircraft, which of course precedes H. G. Wells in Things to Come. An element or two that will be featured in George Orwell’s 1948 book Nineteen-Eighty-Four come into the mix as well. With its radical view of America under siege by hostile foreign powers, the show also has a tangential affinity with Gregory La Cava’s delirious, pro-Fascist Gabriel Over the White House. The tensions of the Depression Era launched a thousand radical fantasies.
The show is minor MGM but a major curiosity based on political and social assumptions that should have been outdated in 1933. That’s part of the appeal, for folks looking for crazy pre-Code entertainment. No sex or scandal here, as the film’s morals are squeaky clean. But conspiracy nuts anticipating a sneak attack by vague foreign powers will feel right at home.
The working title was “What Women Give,” and story is framed around a mother’s dilemma. A society woman tries to keep her son from suffering the fate of his father. Star Diana Wynyard had just starred in Cavalcade, another soap opera about a mother between the wars. When World War 2 finally came, the generational sacrifice of fathers and sons would figure in patriotic films like The White Cliffs of Dover and to a lesser extent Mrs. Miniver. The movie tries to have it both ways, talking up pacifism while actually preaching that war is inevitable.
The only pre-Code material is in the very first shot. In a 1918 WW1 prologue, battlefront nurse Laura (Diana Wynyard) has had sex with a newly arrived flyer Geoffrey Aiken (Robert Young). She’s only known him for three days. He’s killed and she’s pregnant. The solution is for Laura to marry Ned Seward (Lewis Stone), an older Colonel she had turned down before. Ned doesn’t even ask for love, just the opportunity to take care of Laura.
Twenty years later (1940) Laura is a confirmed pacifist, the Fifth-Avenue-penthouse kind. Now the Secretary of State, Ned has brokered a peace pact between the U.S. and the belligerent empire of Eurasia. Newly graduated from college in Europe, Laura’s son Bob (Phillips Holmes) returns on a luxury liner with his lovely fiancée Peggy Chase (Ruth Selwyn). Peggy’s mother (Hedda Hopper) becomes incensed when Bob says that patriotism and pride in the flag are silly ideas. But a political assassination scotches Ned’s treaty. Upset that her husband is helping the President prepare for war, Laura throws herself into a Peace Campaign. Pro-war thugs trash one of her giant televised (!) rallies, and threaten to storm the Sewards’ fancy town house. Ned pacifies the mob, but when Bob refuses to work creating chemical weapons, Ned retaliates with the truth about Bob’s parentage. A Eurasian air fleet bombs NYC, wounding Laura when her car is hit in the street. Soon America is fighting and losing another world war. Hundreds of thousands of American defenders have already died. Will the threat change Bob’s pacifistic bent? Will Ned accept Bob again? What about Laura’s anti-war position?
The source play for Men Must Fight debates the political extremes of war and peace — on a simplistic level, however. Pacifists Laura and Bob subscribe to ‘a higher morality’ but the text abandons their efforts as naïve. The Seward family spends seventy minutes finding different ways to behave nobly, with glossy MGM production values smoothing the path. The players live in dazzling white town houses and are always dressed as if going to the opera. Although 1940 is seven years in the future the cars and the planes haven’t changed. The one concession to sci-fi is the invention of video. Laura’s big peace rally is broadcast on television, and the TV camera looks like an ordinary mirror (just above ↑). Ned and Bob converse on a picture phone that somebody must have remembered from Metropolis. The only effort to depict futuristic fashion are a couple of weird hats. One hat looks as if Pinocchio’s Monstro the Whale took up residence on Hedda Hopper’s head.
“Talking about peace always ends up in a fight!”
The war crisis forces Bob to question everything he knows, including his personal identity. He frets and fusses before putting niceties aside to become a warrior for his nation. As Lewis Stone’s character says, “Any call of peace now is not only cowardice, it’s treachery!” Bob wants to fight like the aviator father he never knew. Noble, noble. The play forgets that father was a reluctant warrior, and was wiped out on his first mission because he had so little experience.
As is hopefully being made clear, the level of drama here isn’t exactly George Bernard Shaw. The clunky war vs. peace debate drives a wedge between father and mother, mother and son, and son and girlfriend. The pivotal dramatic scene, where Ned tells Bob he’s not a Seward but a bastard, pretty much blows away any integrity the movie had; it’s not helped by a weak performance from Phillips Holmes. Okay performances by Diana Wynyard and Lewis Stone do enforce a feeling of sincerity, but the play is a mass of undigested conflicts. Even Grandma (May Robson) butts in with opinions. Can’t we all just get along?
However, the war policy saber-rattling we see does feel very topical. The unseen President sends the fleet to ‘warn’ the Eurasians against further perfidy, pretty much begging for a conflict to spontaneously ignite (sound familiar?). Ned condemns Laura’s subversion of the war effort but can’t stop her from officiating at the big Peace Rally. He’s in favor of poison gas to win the war, and Bob will be disowned if he doesn’t help formulate chemical weapons. Lunch isn’t served at the Sewards’ because the Italian cook (comical Luis Alberni) is quitting — he’s going to go fight for Eurasia, his homeland. And you think your family has disputes.
The play is opened up via some montages and scenes of war preparations. Images in the World War One prologue look like outtakes from The Big Parade, and shots of the fleet and marching troops are news film. But at the 59- minute mark Men Must Fight suddenly brings out an elaborate special effects sequence to depict the bombing of Manhattan. The sequence is brief, but quite convincing. The sky is filled with biplanes laden with armaments. Skyscrapers topple into the streets. Gas bombs mow down pedestrians on the sidewalks. Even the Empire State Building and the Brooklyn Bridge are destroyed. H.G. Wells and Alexander Korda must have taken a gander at this outlandish, big-scale destruction, which uses impressively photographed miniatures of buildings and bridges. The one angle on the Brooklyn Bridge being blasted is flawless.
Just imagine, New Yorkers in 1933 had barely recovered from the destructive rampage of Denham’s Folly, and now this.
How 1933 audiences responded to this realistic fantasy is not known. Although bombs had been dropped on civilian populations in WW1, the notion of wholesale air raids as a campaign of terror was just picking up momentum, with appalling news of slaughter from Spain and China. That the show advocates building up a stockpile of poison gas feels uncomfortable to say the least. But there’s no denying that boys will always want to go to war because they’re taught that it’s the manly thing to do. War movies have never stopped delivering that message. This movie’s no different but it does end with a weird, flippant mixed message. A final dialogue exchange is downright chilling. Snooty socialite and smug patriot Peggy Chase finally sees Laura’s point of view, when her boyfriend is the one putting his life on the line:
Peggy (forlorn): “If I ever have a child, he won’t have to go through this. I won’t let him.”
Grandma (sarcastic): “Fat lot you’ll have to say about it. You’ll be just another mother.”
Cue the jaunty end title music!
Playwright Edgar Selwyn also directed the award-winning Sin of Madelon Claudet and the excellent pre-Code melodrama Skyscraper Souls. The screenwriter C. Gardner Sullivan is attached to quality product by Roland West, Cecil B. De Mille, and Lewis Milestone.
Diana Wynyard has a number of dedicated fans, still. She’s good but she has certain affectations, like flashing looks at the camera as if appealing directly to her audience. Wynyard is famed for starring in the Best Picture winner Cavalcade, but the movie to best appreciate her is the original 1940 version of Gaslight. Rasputin and the Empress is rather good too.
May Robson will be remembered as Frank Capra’s Apple Annie in Lady for a Day, and for playing straight-woman to Hepburn and Grant in Bringing up Baby. In an odd parallel with his role in Men Must Fight, actor Phillips Holmes later joined the Royal Canadian Air Force to fight Hitler, but died before going on active duty, in a non-combat air accident.
Some of the cast was more than a little inbred with the MGM brass. Ruth Selwyn is director Edgar Selwyn’s wife. Director Fred McLeod Wilcox was Ruth’s brother, and the wife of Nicholas M. Schenck was her sister. It gets complicated; add the relatives and in-laws of Louis B. Mayer and MGM was almost as much of a nepotism-ocracy as was Universal.
Variety’s review of Men Must Fight landed on the same page as Warner’s new musical 42nd Street, a movie that feels much more alive and up to date. The review said that the original play was a flop, but they liked the special effects in the movie’s air attack sequence. With America embracing snappy, light entertainment it’s difficult to imagine a moralistic downer like Men Must Fight pulling in audiences, but it reportedly did okay business.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD of Men Must Fight has not been remastered but is the standard older transfer that can be seen from time to time on TCM. The picture quality is okay but not sensational, with instances of wear and damage showing up. One shot appears to have been double-printed, perhaps to stretch a scene over damaged footage. A couple of repaired torn frames pass by as well. On the other hand, the audio is clear and mostly clean.
I’d put up photos of the effects of the spectacular air raid sequence, but none seem to be online, and taking new frame grabs is discouraged, for fair reason.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Men Must Fight
Movie: Good -minus, but definitely Unique
Video: Good -minus
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson