Monday, December 26, 2016

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy


To an audience ever ready for a moral boost comes this feature about their boys successfully struggling valiantly overseas. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo recounts the dramatization of real events with magnificent special effects  and a suspenseful story, all while being in its own right a propaganda picture for the war effort. During the heart of World War II this MGM feature knocks the ball out of the park with this glamorized cinematic telling of the United States’ first retaliation on Japan after Pearl Harbor and is considered one of the finest cinematic achievements in the genre of war and aviation features.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is war drama of the United States first strike on Tokyo told through the eyes of a US bomber captain. Lt. Col. Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) assembles a fleet of Army Air Force volunteers to carry out the secret mission that although the audience by way of the title is aware, the main characters of the feature do not know is the US’s first attack on Tokyo. Among the volunteers is the crew of the B-25 “Ruptured Duck,” captained by Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson). Upon volunteering Lawson is required to leave behind his expectant newlywed wife Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter), and it is the thought of returning to her and their baby that is only thing that gets him through the horrors of war. We follow Lawson and crew through the secret experimental training and the dangerous mission itself. The hurried, but successful bombing mission takes a turn as the Ruptured Duck crashes lands before reaching its base in China, and the crew with the help of some local villagers strive to endure great injury and return home. Physically and emotionally scarred by his experiences, an uncertain Lawson reunites with his wife Ellen, pushing away the psychologically uncertainties his minds presents him, presenting an emotionally heavy moment of release for Lawson.

Despite the film being a propaganda sugar-coated version of the truth, this motion picture is a fabulous wartime feature with superb special effects, gripping suspense, and stirring emotions. As with many war films from its era, this picture draws up a happy representation of what serving in the armed forces was like, in this specific case the Army Air Corp.

The officers, especially Doolittle portrayed by Spencer Tracy, are made to appear to have greatly empathetically centered hearts for the crewmen, and the crew themselves appear ever happy and willing to do anything despite the dangers. In retrospect audience can see through it cinematic fa├žade, removing the rose-colored glasses the armed forces wanted the greater public to think of their leadership. Even when the air crews are aboard the carriers the Army and Navy members all have deep respect and admiration for each other. In the real world many may know that there was, is and always will be somewhat a heated rivalry between all branches of armed forces, despite fighting for the same cause. However, all in all, we push this aside to simply let the suspension of disbelief allow up to be taken on this journey.

Looking through all these polished pieces of propaganda we are presented the heart of the story, the dramatization of the “Doolittle Raid.” Director Mervyn LeRoy and crew do an exceptional job at depicting and pacing the story penned by gifted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the handful of Hollywood screenwriters whose patriotism would famously be questioned after the end of the war. Everything from framing, editing, timing, action, and even lack of action, add a perfect pitch to the telling of this dramatic story.

Americans then would have little in the terms of understanding of air warfare and this picture brings the audience into the cramped quarters of the bomber to, in the most cleaned up Hollywood way, present a more accurate sense of what it was like. Utilizing real bombers, both outside and in, as well as actual wartime footage, LeRoy assembles a picture that takes you to the center of the action. In some cases this feature presents for the first time minor versions of real issues these men had to face physically and emotionally, complete with crewmen suffering from motion sickness, the worry of even the slightest hiccup with the planes, and the feeling of helplessness in a bomber with little more than a thin, delicate metal shell to protect them.

Looking back on the feature from a contemporary point of view, perhaps the most dramatic moments of the feature are the moments following the crash, when the crew is in a foreign land, unable to speak the language, and do not know who to trust. Remember, the world was a much more separated culturally speaking at that time, and the hatred for the Japanese as enemies, would have Americans bred to be racist to all Far East nationalities, including Chinese, Koreans, and the like.

This film with a supporting cast full of Chinese-American actors portraying Chinese villagers is a brave movement in production. To see the American characters responses to first seeing the Chinese in the film manifest how ignorant Americans were at the time in a refreshingly honest, although still sugar-coated, manner. Typically in years prior Hollywood studios would have white men dressed up and in make-up to portray such nationalities, but to see men who surely would be looked down on in a predominately white Hollywood manifests at least a little change in the right direction socially, is only for the slightest bit.

In the end the Chinese villagers and American airmen become allies, even as close as brothers, sending a message that men beyond the US boarders can and are just as human as the rest. However there remains great room for improvement in the American social conscious as seen in this feature. The movie still has the Chinese characters appear a bit on the primitive side, with American missionaries needed to help lead the effort. In the gripping scene where Lawson loses his leg and must have it amputated, it would have to be a white American doctor that must perform the operation and the Chenese are said to not have the medicine and perhaps the not even the knowledge to do so. Hollywood and America was growing; slowly, but still growing.

the crew in front of the insignia for the "Ruptured Duack"
Van Johnson provides the All-American pluck and vigor in his performance as Lawson. In almost an innocent, Mickey Rooney-like way, Johnson is the every-man of the picture; an MGM ideal version of an American male. Spencer Tracy provides the star power in the feature, someone to shine on the marque of the 1944 movie theaters, even though his time on screen was very limited as high ranking officer Doolittle. His stern front was perfect in the cleaned up Hollywood-zed version of the actual man that concocted the mission, but any MGM actor could have filled the role to be honest. Tracy, in my opinion, is here purely for his name to attract 1940s audiences.

The picture marks the screen debt of Phyllis Thaxter, who portrays Lawson’s young wife Ellen. Ellen’s character fulfills the MGM ideal American female, who is young, slim, beautiful, ever ready to help serve her trusting husband. Her role for that time was to be a symbol of unconditional love and beauty for a generation coming up through this war, an ideal that was being injected in the minds of an America while being distracted by the tragedies overseas.

Curiously sharing a rather high starring credit is Robert Walker, a 26 year-old actor who is featured in the role of Corporal Thatcher, the “Ruptured Duck’s” young engineer. In a rather small supporting role, Walker portrays an innocently young crewmember, whose demeanor and dreams of returning home to Montana seems questionable as a one of the headlining “stars” of the feature. It appears MGM had their eye on Walker’s boyish charm to perhaps breed him into their line of stars. His innocence and youthful voice made him a mirror image for many young men joining the armed forces at that time. However Walker’s road in Hollywood would be troubled and end prematurely.
A photo from production of the Oscar winning special effects

Cinematically Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo would be remembered for its Academy Award winning special effects with its near seamless use of models, pyrotechnics, and other camera trickery to aid in the realism of air warfare. Even in an age of post-computer graphics filmmaking, this motion picture still stands up very well with special effects that feel as real as it gets. With these special effects and the wonderful acting to go with it, the film is remembered as one the best aviation films of its day and perhaps all time.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo remains a strong motion picture. Despite its dressed up look at America and the military, it remains a fine production that can be picked up by any modern film lover and enjoyed to its fullest.

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