What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of a blog-a-thon celebrating Van Johnson, who comes in at #11 on my list of favorite actors.. This is an event hosted by a tremendous classic film blog Love Letters To Old Hollywood. If this blog is not in your bookmarks, you are a pretender, not a contender when it comes to being an aficionado of classic film blogs.
Here’s where you can see all the participating blogs:
The original Herman Wouk novel upon which this film is based is told from the perspective of the character Ensign Keith. The change in perspective for the movie is crucial in my opinion, because Keith’s role is to be the dynamic character who goes from the brand new “wet behind the ears”” officer to a guy who has to put the gold bars on his collar right where his neck could be by supporting the mutiny.
In the early part of the film, Keith’s naiveté shows from his early disapproval of the Caine’s captain, Commander DeVries (Tom Tully). On Keith’s arrival aboard the minesweeper, the Caine is sloppy and has a tired crew who Keith believes to be lacking in discipline. However, on one of his first assignments, Keith commits a serious error, and rather than punishing him, DeVries bails Keith out. Despite that, Keith still believes the Caine is headed in a better direction when DeVries is relieved of command, replaced as captain by Lieutenant Commander Queeg (Humphery Bogart).
In the meantime, the Princeton-educated Keith befriends the two other main officers of the Caine, Lieutenants Tom Keefer (Fred MacMurray) and Steve Maryk (Van Johnson). When all the officers of the Caine are introduced to their new captain, Queeg makes it clear he is an authoritarian and a disciplinarian of the first order.
“Gentlemen, to me there are four ways of doing things…the right way, the wrong way, the Navy Way, and my way. If you learn to do things my way, we will get along just fine.”
After this declaration during which Queeg makes it clear he is a “by the book” officer, Keith states “well, he certainly is ‘Navy,'” to which Keefer replies “Yeah…so was Captain Bligh” (the subject of another episode of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies).
This sets the tone for a degeneration of the relationship between Queeg and the officers of the Caine, not because of his disciplinarian tone, but because it is starting to become clear that he is unbalanced. This is why the aforementioned change in perspective from the novel is so crucial; Keith takes too long to understand it. Several incidents happen which allow Keefer to build a construct in which it’s easy to see Queeg as mentally unstable, and he eventually gets Maryk and Keith to buy his theory of Queeg’s paranoia.
Keefer, Keith, and Maryk go to the flagship of the fleet to see the admiral and tell him of Queeg’s odd behavior, but at the very last minute, Keefer convinces Keith and Maryk they won’t be believed, and might even be punished. The three officers of the Caine are urged to get back to their ship as heavy weather is coming.
In short order, the Caine finds itself in the midst of a Pacific typhoon and in serious danger of foundering. Queeg freezes in the crucial moment and his inaction forces Maryk’s hand, who is supported by Keith. The viewer knows that Maryk saved the ship and the crew from the briny deep, but the Navy high command wasn’t on the bridge of the Caine. Maryk and Keith are court-martialed for mutiny and even their lawyer tells them nobody wanted to represent them, even he would rather prosecute, and that they have “an excellent chance of being hanged.”
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
If there ever were such a thing as a “back-up quarterback” in classic Hollywood, there would be no better choice than Van Johnson. His portrayal of Lieutenant Steve Maryk in “The Caine Mutiny” makes the perfect example.
To understand why, one must first take a look at Johnson himself. His early career is marked by a tendency to play in light comedies and musicals; it wasn’t until 1943’s “A Guy Named Joe” that Johnson started plying his trade in what I most associate with him…war movies.
The analogies between what we Americans call football and war are self-evident; the only thing we need to concern ourselves with for purposes of this discussion is that to make a picture about either, you will need a large cast. This is why I believe Johnson did his best work as part a larger team; his strength always seemed to be the mortar which held the wall together while the brick garnered the accolades.
My introduction to the work of Van Johnson came on a sleepless summer night in the 1980s with a late-night cable screening of 1948’s “Command Decision.” Johnson’s “Sergeant Sanders” holds the movie together while allowing Clark Gable and Walter Pidgeon to get all the thespian “heavy lfiting.” To this day, I’m convinced that whoever created the character “Radar O’Reilly” for the television icon “MASH” borrowed more than one trait from Sergeant Sanders.
That theme is even more evident in what I consider to be Johnson’s best performance. A Columbia Pictures production, “The Caine Mutiny” had a cast featuring Hollywood heavyweights such as Humphery Bogart, Jose Ferrer, and Fred MacMurray, and being heavyweights they get the “heavy lifting.” If you’ve seen this film and care to recall it’s signature moments, they belong to those three. You’ll remember Captain Queeg’s meltdown, Barney Greenwald’s drunken “calling out” of Keefer, and Keefer’s sheperding of the plot from instigation to fruition. You’ll mention all of those before you mention the scene where Lieutenant Maryk saves the ship.
That’s because the way this movie plays out, by the time you get to that point, Maryk does exactly what you expect him to do. That fact is why casting of the role of Steve Maryk was so difficult. It required an actor of considerable talent as Maryk is in a position of leadership being the executive officer (second-in-command) on a World War II Navy ship, but by his own admission he was a below-average student.
Remember, this is the heart of the “Studio” era in Hollywood, when actors were for the most part under contract to a particular studio. Columbia had a formidable stable, but no one who really fit the role. William Holden was fresh off an Oscar win for “Stalag 17,” but the studio “suits” thought he might steal the movie from Bogart, and he might make Maryk an unlikable hero like J.J. Sefton (the subject of another blog-a-thon effort). Marlon Brando was also signed with Columbia, but he was already committed to making “On The Waterfront” and let’s be honest…even the biggest Brando-phile would have trouble buying him as Maryk. That’s why like a football team making a trade, Columbia obtained the services of Van Johnson on loan from MGM.
In other words, what Columbia needed was a “Star”quality actor, but one who was also willing to let everybody else have the glory; one who could live with expectations slimmed down to “just do your job and don’t screw up.”
There may not be a better description of Van Johnson, but do you know about whom that also could be said? An NFL back-up quarterback.
Think about it. Being a back-up quarterback by definition means you are one of the best football players in the world. When you stop to consider all the guys who played quarterback from the earliest levels of the sport on up to the professional ranks, at any given time there’s less than 100 guys on earth who can say they are NFL quarterbacks. Time Magazine once said about Van Johnson that he was “a talent capable of winning an Academy Award.” How many actors at any given time do you think that could be said about?
Steve Maryk’s rescue of a ship from peril could easily make my list of achievements by back-up quarterbacks, but the similarities don’t stop there.
The back-up quarterback is the most popular guy on a team when the fans don’t like the starter. When that’s the case, you can depend on some hack keyboard jockey to start the fan base barking.
Once underway, it doesn’t take very long for the officers of the Caine to think Captain Queeg throws too many interceptions. It takes even less time for the instigating keyboard hack to start the dogs barking. Playing the aspiring author Tom Keefer, Fred MacMurray is at his finest playing this duplicitous worm. Keefer is cursed with the unfortunate combination of having a way with words without the guts to stand behind what he says. It’s Keefer who sows the seeds of Captain Queeg’s infirmity with grandiose tales of paranoia, schizophrenia, and a host of mental maladies he’s really not qualified to diagnose. But being a writer, he knows how to spin a convincing yarn.
Back-up quarterbacks always come into the game after something awful has happened. The scene in which Maryk relieves Queeg is about a bad as it can get on-board ship. The Caine is in grave peril when Queeg turns into tapioca, forcing Maryk to act.
As far as my sports fandom goes, this has already been a banner year as the one team I had yet to see win a championship finally climbed the mountain. I’ve been a Philadelphia Eagles fan for more years than I’d care to remember. By Halloween, it really started to look like this could be the year. But having suffered football heart-break before, I didn’t let myself get too swept-up by the possibility of another trip to the Super Bowl.
Then came the Sunday In Los Angeles.
Most people wouldn’t the comparison between a typhoon and torn knee ligament, but when Philadelphia’s starting quarterback Carson Wentz’ knee pulled a “Captain Queeg,” I saw the Eagles’ ship as much danger of sinking as the Caine.
This is the part where Eagles’ back-up quarterback Nick Foles came in. The officers on a Navy ship are in many ways like the quarterbacks on a football team; they call the plays. They are the captains of the football ship, they have huge responsibilities and high expectations to perform. Having a good captain or quarterback can mean the difference between winning and losing…or life and death. Be it Carson Wentz’ anterior cruciate ligament or Captain Queeg’s brain, both needed the back-up quarterback to save the day.
The Moral of the Story:
This episode of Sports Analogies Hidden in Classic Movies tates a “Daily Double.” First of all, there’s really no denying that Tom Keefer is every bit the slimy, two-faced weasel perfect to be a reality-warper at ESPN. But most importantly, Van Johnson never won an Academy Award, but he certainly had the skill to do it. Nick Foles may never win a Most Valuable Player award, but on one Sunday night in February, he showed the world his best “Steve Maryk.”
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