This post is dedicated to Steve of Movie Movie Blog Blog II and his family.
In many ways, the 1943 war drama, A Guy Named Joe, is a movie about loss.
Spencer Tracy stars as a gutsy but somewhat belligerent American pilot killed while on a risky mission. However, his Tour of Duty ain’t finished; there’s a new assignment waiting for him in the afterlife, as a guardian angel of sorts. He’s been appointed to train rookie pilot Van Johnson, who doesn’t seem to have much skill or, at first, much personality.
Tracy’s character is arrogant and boastful, dismissive of Authority and teamwork, and he enjoys using Johnson as an earthy surrogate. He’s able to influence Johnson by suggesting courses of action and Johnson – being easily influenced – does what he’s told.
But. Before his character dies, Tracy is involved with a female pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary. Irene Dunne is as charming as she is beautiful, and she has Chemistry with Tracy. But we also wonder What Else she sees him, because he has the potential to make her life miserable.
And he does make her miserable, when he’s killed in action, and Dunne is utterly heartbroken. She has trouble Moving On with her life, even when she meets the handsome, affable Johnson.
Now, in our mind, there’s no contest between Johnson and Tracy, but to Dunne there is, and we don’t know if she’ll continue to grieve for What Might Have Been, or if she’ll throw the dice on a new relationship.
In other ways, A Guy Named Joe, being an MGM product, is a film of hope and redemption. Dunne begins to sort through her anger and sadness, and Tracy realizes the war (and, by extension, the world) doesn’t necessarily revolve around himself.
It is Tracy’s character who undergoes the biggest transformation, and not just in a physical sense. When he realizes Johnson and Dunne are falling in love, he tries to sabotage it, even to the point of endangering Johnson’s life.
That is villainy, and in lesser hands the character would be intolerable, but Tracy the actor gives us a man who, deep down, wants a reason to be redeemed, so we never give up on him.
The commanding officer of the afterlife, Lionel Barrymore, doesn’t give up on him, either. There is potential in Tracy to do Good, even if he must be coerced. Barrymore is gruff and No Nonsense, but he knows how to use high-pressure sales tactics when he has to.
He shows Tracy the value of contributing to the well-being of his fellow man, and Tracy does become a better person – er, angel – one who, ironically, would have made Dunne very Happy.
A Guy Named Joe was nominated for an Oscar for Original Screenplay. Yet it’s surprising the script was approved by the production code folks at all, even after required changes were made, because a couple of times it veers awfully close to communist ideology.
In our opinion, Dalton Trumbo’s screenplays can be hit-or-miss, but here he delivers a moving, inspiring story despite hearty servings of schmaltz.
Also: If you see this film, you have to pretend Tracy and Dunne are not too old for their roles. Johnson, on the other hand, is credible as a rookie pilot. Indeed, this film made Johnson a Star.
Alas! During filming, Johnson was severely injured in a car accident – doctors had to put a metal plate in his head – and MGM moved to replace him with another actor. But both Tracy and Dunne fought for him to stay in the role, even though he was several weeks in the hospital.
As for the name “Joe” in the title, it refers to a decent fellow in the U.S. Army. It’s a true compliment and, although it naturally applies to Johnson, it’s Tracy who earns it in the end.
This post is part of The LOVE GOES ON Blogathon, hosted by Movie Movie Blog Blog II.
A Guy Named Joe: starring Spencer Tracy, Irene Dunne, Van Johnson. Directed by Victor Fleming. Written by Dalton Trumbo. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1943, B&W, 120 mins.