Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tonight's Movie: Yellow Jack (1938)

YELLOW JACK is the story of Major Walter Reed (Lewis Stone) and his work in Cuba -- circa 1900 -- discovering the cause of yellow fever.

Although the film is fictionalized, including changing the names of the soldiers who volunteered to assist Reed in his experiments, the basic outline of the story is true: with the help of human volunteers, Reed proved that mosquitoes transmitted the dread disease.

The lead volunteer in the film is Sergeant John O'Hara, an Irish soldier portrayed by Robert Montgomery, in a particularly fine performance. Virginia Bruce plays the dedicated nurse pursued by O'Hara.

The large supporting cast includes Buddy Ebsen, Sam Levene, Andy Devine, Henry O'Neill, Charles Coburn, Henry Hull, Alan Curtis, Phillip Terry, William Henry, and Jonathan Hale. The movie was shot in black and white and runs a fast-paced 83 minutes.

Cuba is obviously set entirely on MGM soundstages, except for some second-unit footage of a Cuban village near the end of the film, but the artificial setting doesn't detract from the film's power, especially as the viewer knows that the story of determined doctors and exceptionally brave volunteers is true. It's a very interesting piece of American, medical, and military history. The acting is uniformly excellent, as one might expect given the caliber of the names in the cast.

YELLOW JACK was directed by George B. Seitz. Seitz began directing in the silent era. He specialized in B pictures at MGM in the late '30s and '40s, including countless entries in the ANDY HARDY series. The Seitz-directed film MY DEAR MISS ALDRICH (1937) was reviewed here in 2007.

YELLOW JACK has not been released on video or DVD. It can be seen on Turner Classic Movies, which has the trailer available on the channel's website.

April 2016 Update: YELLOW JACK is now available on DVD from the Warner Archive. My review of the DVD is here.


Blogger Moira Finnie said...

While I think the real story of Yellow Jack (1938) is still terrifically interesting, I must admit I can never get past Robert Montgomery's awful Irish brogue in this movie--but that's probably just me. I did like the scenes when the film focused on the disease itself and the researchers' obsessive efforts to discover its cause and the depiction of the real heroism of the soldier-guinea pigs as patients. At those moments I thought the movie had some of the feel of a series of shorts that MGM produced during this same period, The Passing Parade, which I find holds up very well as entertainment leavened with a dash or two of reality.

Btw, the original cast of the 1934 Broadway production of this Sidney Howard play based on Paul de Kruif's book Microbe Hunters, which formed the basis of this movie is incredible.

James Stewart had the Montgomery part of O'Hara, and many character actors who would contribute to films later were in the cast, including Robert Keith, Millard Mitchell, Barton MacLane, Eduardo Ciannelli, Sam Levene (who made it into the movie) and more. The play was an okay critical success but not a box office one, and closed after 79 performances.

Stewart, not someone who we normally think of for an ethnic role, had auditioned, but when told his brogue wasn't going to cut it, he sought out Abbey Player Frank Cullinan in NYC and studied the accent with him until he was better at it, (though it was still far from perfect according to his friends, castmates and critics). The 25 year old was singled out by critics for his simplicity and sensitivity in the role. It was one of Stewart's first breakthroughs in the biz, helping him to earn a ticket to MGM after that studio's rep, Billy Grady, saw him in the play. (Grady was unimpressed with Stewart's accent too, but liked the actor anyway).

Having seen the movie a couple of times, I always wonder why Stewart wasn't considered more seriously for the part, but suppose that MGM wanted to anchor the movie with a real star already under contract instead of considering a neophyte for the part, (which I understand was beefed up for Montgomery, shifting the ensemble spirit of the piece a bit). I also found the soundstage-bound trappings of the production remarkably threadbare for the usually meticulous MGM. Any idea if this was made on a stricter budget than usual at the studio, Laura?

7:28 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Moira,

Thanks very much for sharing your thoughts and the extremely interesting background of the film as a play. I hadn't looked up the cast and agree it's a most impressive group!

My references have very little on this film. THE MGM STORY notes its "forceful realism," while THE DEBONAIRS says that MGM failed to give the film "the proper box office push."

I haven't found any information on MGM's casting decision or the budget; it's interesting, though, that it was assigned to a director who more typically worked on the "B" films. Like you, I thought it had a bit of the feel of a PASSING PARADE short at times.

As you noted, the sets were very bare bones. One could almost imagine the soundstage lights just out of sight, above the palm trees on the screen. It's to the great credit of the story and the cast that despite the visuals, the film still has the "realism" mentioned by the book above.

Best wishes,

9:15 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older