Favorites List --- The Caine Mutiny --- Part One
Look back a moment and identify the first grown-up movie you ever watched, and understood as such, for broadening choices beyond stuff tailored for kids. For my viewing of features on TV, it was seeing color there for the first time that opened windows to adult content and shades of gray I’d missed (or ignored) in mostly black-and-white monster pics gone before. Late shows on NC stations were resolutely monochrome into the mid-sixties. I’d stay up for Blood and Sand or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon in B/W with little hope of seeing either properly presented. Local channels paid more for color prints then. Fewer of these were made for syndication. Late-night in our markets seemed dull as low contrast 16mm they ran. When The Caine Mutiny showed up on Charlotte’s Channel 3, after their 11:00 news, and in color yet, I knew owl slots had embarked upon a new era, a 60’s equivalent of High-Definition. Remember how TV GUIDE would print little "COLOR" boxes in front of select titles? These were a magnet to viewers for whom color itself was still a novelty. Our late shows never edited features, my surest incentive for watching after prime-time. The Caine Mutiny ran 124 minutes, so imagine treatment it received during daytime or evenings. I recall one station cleaving over twenty minutes to begin at Bogart’s introductory speech on deck. Being up till 2 AM seemed a fair exchange for seeing all of The Caine Mutiny. It clicks for me (still does) as thoughtful drama with rich characters and exceptional performances. Critical reputations wax and wane even among settled classics. Caine just kept waning from status never exalted to begin with. It’s another of those I’m resigned to loving mostly by myself. Sentiment for being introduced at an impressionable age blinds me to weakness others point out (eloquently so at imdb and similar forums), so I’ll not try justifying The Caine Mutiny’s placement among personal Favorites. It’s there simply for turning up at a moment in my life when I was ready for it. Doesn’t everyone’s all-time list come about pretty much the same way?
I looked at The Caine Mutiny again last week and was fourteen again, my pleasure enhanced by a widescreen DVD Columbia sells. Many 1954 critics said Caine was muffed by a romance subplot involving screen newcomers Robert Francis and May Wynn. For me, they’re a twisted sort of plus. Ensign Willie Keith was actually the Herman Wouk novel’s focal point, that read by millions and recipient of a Pulitzer Prize. Francis had been plucked from nowhere to supply point-of-view to characters we much prefer to him, called wooden and callow from then to now and standing not a chance beside veterans all at their best. Willie’s love spats and mother/son conflict are perversely allowed to dominate two opening reels of The Caine Mutiny. All this would seem an intrusion had I found the film more recently. As it is, the Willie/May narrative is a cherished friend, being a virtual tour through 50’s Tiki lounging (her crimson dress was a knockout on 16mm IB Tech prints) and furloughing at Yosemite locations there to confirm this is no ordinary Columbia programmer we’re watching. Francis actually paralleled James Dean for circumstances of a brief career and tragic early death. They were less than a year apart in age and both gone within two months of the other. Francis was prominent in four features to Dean’s three. They died violently in mishaps, Francis piloting a small plane (7-31-55) and Dean behind the wheel of a sport-car (9-30-55). Though he and May Wynn made two films together, no one’s tracked her down to ask what it was like working with Robert Francis, while Dean’s co-worker’s have been driven likely mad by inquiries over him. For all their similarities, it was image and disposition where Francis and Dean parted. Jim flatters still our notions of 50’s rebellion and was admittedly the better actor. His forgotten counterpart embodied conformism discredited since (a military man in all five features he did). The distraction of The Caine Mutiny’s Francis/Wynn subplot can be accounted for in part by Columbia’s investment in the careers of both young players. They’d be elevated by placement alongside Humphrey Bogart in a major production millions would see. Columnists more than once spoke of studio policy attaching neophyte talent to coattails of established names. Bogart for one realized he was being used to test-run untried Columbia merchandise and referred harshly (in print) to that company having gummed up Caine via too much emphasis on its love duo.
Producer Stanley Kramer suggested later that he’d have been better shunning Navy Cooperation on The Caine Mutiny, being it required script approval from image conscious Brass. Having had no mutinies on record, they didn’t want patrons thinking such events were fact-based, thus disclaimers/dedications on both credit ends for reassurance. Military endorsement wasn’t then the black mark upon creative integrity it would become in the sixties. As with Air Force-stamped Above and Beyond in 1952, outreach as indicated in the Navy endorsement above, plus a gala and colorful parade on Chicago’s State Street for that city’s opening (also above), neutralized fear that The Caine Mutiny might cast aspersions upon Naval personnel. Ticklish enough having Edward Dmytryk along to direct (shown at top with Robert Francis and May Wynn). He’d borne a Communist taint until recanting Party affiliation and was now fast-tracking a career path delayed by time served. The Caine Mutiny does play safe and was/is dismissed as middlebrow for doing so. Latter day thought police had 1954 counterparts at work here, only this was political correctness favoring the conservative side, and that paid handsomely with $8.5 million in domestic rentals.
For Humphrey Bogart, The Caine Mutiny was promise fulfilled by range he’d confirmed in Oscar-winning The African Queen. Finally he’d break for good with trenchcoat parts the faltering likes of Tokyo Joe and Sirocco. A few more of those might have eased him onto Alan Ladd’s slope, though Bogart was perceptive enough (and actor enough) to know that old ways with a gat were fast closing as patrons got (much) choosier. He was a prestige name now and safer Caine casting than first considered Richard Widmark, who might have been more appropriate as Captain Queeg, but had not the boxoffice insurance Bogart supplied. TIME reported the latter got $200,000 per show by 1954 … he also lends a film an aura of distinction, they added. That was a cover profile (above) showing Bogart as Queeg, sure indication he’d risen to a career peak. The role was sufficiently desirable as to tip the actor’s hand in negotiation … he showed up at a studio meet rolling steel balls to demonstrate fitness for work. That was hardly a way to score top money from paymasters thus made aware of his eagerness, but Bogart cared less about cash than parts he’d find rewarding, a policy that yielded legacy to surpass most every rival of HB’s generation (who else appeared in so many memorable pictures?). Bogart forwarded a Caine draft he knew was lacking to friend John Huston for comment, but was really in no position to force revisions the latter suggested, for he was on this occasion toiling for hire and unable to pull strings as with self-produced pics just previous. Frustration was vented to columnists who delighted in Bogart’s disparaging of movies completed. Distribution/exhibition accepted the knocks as cost of doing business with an iconoclast striving double-time to maintain the title. No wonder up-and-coming backlot rebels looked up to him. The Harvard cult would be youth's ultimate embrace of Bogart’s very calculated image. All it needed was for him to shuffle off (in January 1957) and leave behind aforementioned backlog seemingly tailor-made for a coming generation of fans.
Coming in Part Two: 1954 Exhibitors Mutiny Over Caine