This post is part of the WHAT A CHARACTER Blogathon, hosted in part by the lovely and talented Aurora at Once Upon a Screen. The blogathon runs September 22-24, 2012.
I'll get 'em, Papa

Annabella and Lee J. Cobb plot against the Nazis.

Here’s what we wish. We wish Lee J. Cobb were the star of this movie and that the story were told from his point of view.

What movie are we talking about? It’s none other than the 1943 war drama Tonight We Raid Calais, about a secret Allied mission in France during WWII.

Cobb plays M. Bonaparte, a French farmer trying to mind his own business despite being overrun by Nazis. He has a busy farm, an anxious family, disgruntled neighbours – and wearisome Nazis who continually boss everyone around. One of them is especially fond of his eldest daughter (Annabella), a beautiful young woman with a cranky disposition. Really, all of this would be enough to drive anyone crazy.

But not Cobb’s character. He’s a world-weary man who refuses to surrender his principles for a few conveniences. He’s the kind of person you would want on your side if you were facing similar circumstances.

This is also is the kind of actor that Cobb was. He was portraying middle-aged men while he himself was little more than a youth. Never the dashing romantic lead, he once quipped, “We all want to play romantic figures. But because I lost my hair I was stuck playing butchers and crooks.”

But what a career of “butchers and crooks”! Cobb was nominated for Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 1954’s On the Waterfront, and was nominated again in 1959 for The Brothers Karamazov. You can view his impressive list of awards here.

Cobb also found success on Broadway. They say playwright Arthur Miller had Cobb in mind when he wrote the role of Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman. Turns out Cobb did play the role in the original Broadway run, and it’s regarded as one of the best interpretations of Loman, ever. (He also won an Emmy for the role in 1966.)

But back to our movie. Cobb doesn’t play M. Bonaparte, he is M. Bonaparte. He speaks with a flawless French accent. He’s comfortable in his unshaven face and lived-in work clothes. You almost feel as though you are watching real-life footage of a brave and unassuming French farmer.

This is why we wish the film were told from Cobb’s point of view. To see the story unfold from the viewpoint of a worried husband and father – a man who has to negotiate with Nazis and still earn a living – would have made an even more engrossing film, especially with Cobb at the helm.

The actual hero of the movie is suave English actor John Sutton who plays a British paratrooper deposited behind enemy lines with orders to sabotage a German anti-tank factory.  Sutton lands near Cobb’s farm and, well, you’ll have to see the movie to find out what happens next. (We will tell you that Sutton plays a trick on the Nazis at the end of the movie that is so smart you will gasp at its brilliance, we kid you not.)

Here’s the thing about Tonight We Raid Calais: This movie is all business. It’s purpose is not to make you laugh; nor will it inspire you with lingering shots of the French countryside. It has a job to do and it gets to it right away. There’s no waste; no frivolity; no amusing little quirks that endear us to various characters. You climb in and hang on until it’s over.

Now, there are a few plot holes in the script but we won’t worry too much about those. Tonight We Raid Calais is so sincere and well-acted that you can easily overlook them. The biggest flaw – which we’ve already pointed out – is that Lee J. Cobb isn’t the star.

Tonight We Raid Calais: starring Anabella, John Sutton, Lee J. Cobb. Written by Waldo Salt. Directed by John Brahm. Twentieth-Century Fox Film Corp., 1943, B&W, 70 mins.

Happily blogging about old movies and using the royal "We".

27 Comment on “Lee J. Cobb: What a Character!

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