Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Bombers B-52 (1957)

BOMBERS B-52 is a mildly diverting tribute to the title plane. The film has a good cast and beautiful widescreen cinematography, but is hampered by a meandering, fairly lame plot.

Karl Malden plays Chuck Brennan, a 20-year Air Force mechanic. He's had it in for Jim Herlihy (Efrem Zimbalist Jr.) since Korea, and when Jim becomes the new C.O. of Chuck's base, Chuck decides to retire for a more lucrative career in the private sector, despite his love for the military. Jim wants Chuck to remain in the Air Force to work on the base's new B-52 planes, but when Jim begins romancing Chuck's daughter Lois (Natalie Wood), Chuck is all the more determined to leave.

The plot bounces all over the place, depicting unconnected trivial incidents which don't really have any bearing on the story: See Chuck's car overheat. (Well, maybe that's to illustrate he's not making much money...) See Chuck go on vacation. (Of course, all we see, other than the car overheating, is a visit to a friend and a stop in a cafe.) Most inexplicably, see Chuck be a game show contestant. (?!) See Chuck give his daughter a yellow convertible. See daughter be a total ingrate! See Chuck arrest saboteurs on the base. And so it goes. Yawn...

The second half of the film isn't a great deal more exciting, but the storyline flows a little better as it depicts test flights of the B-52. Some of the aerial footage is quite interesting, especially the in-flight refueling of the B-52.

I love Karl Malden, but his Chuck is a bit of a one-note character -- a problem which plagues all the characters in the movie. It's easy to anticipate that Chuck's longtime antagonism toward Jim is based on a misunderstanding, which makes Chuck's tiresome antipathy toward the level-headed, charming Jim seem a bit pointless. Malden's Chuck spends most of the movie fuming, which gets old quickly.

Despite the film's poster art, the romance between Zimbalist and Wood is more talked about than actually seen; it's sweet but tepid. I couldn't help wondering if the filmmakers were a bit leery of showing then 18- or 19-year-old Natalie being romanced by a man who in real life was almost two decades her senior. Natalie doesn't do much more onscreen than pout that Daddy isn't "respected" because he's a lowly sergeant who doesn't make a lot of money.

Marsha Hunt plays the peacemaking, supportive wife and mother. I love Marsha Hunt and the movie is better any time she's on the screen, but in all honesty it's a nothing part, with her emotions written to run the gamut from A to B. Her overly placid character is there to reassure her husband and her daughter, but she doesn't get to do much reacting herself, even when her husband bails out of a plane and is missing.

One of the funniest moments comes in the climactic sequence when a search and rescue operation is underway. The voice heard over the intercom at headquarters is unmistakeably that of...James Garner! This film was released the same year he appeared in SAYONARA and began starring on MAVERICK. He also played a supporting role in Randolph Scott's SHOOT-OUT AT MEDICINE BEND that year.

The film has some attractive '50s set design. I loved the greens and reds in Malden and Hunt's little base home and the Fiestaware pitchers on view. The cookware with glass lids Hunt used made me think of this story I saw today on Guardian Service cookware; I wonder if that's what she was using?

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film, living in the unsettling shadow of this week's news, is its clear statement of the United States policy of nuclear deterrence and the film's theme that the United States is a force for good in a scary world.

If you don't blink, you'll spot Juanita Moore (IMITATION OF LIFE) as a maid and Will Hutchins (SUGARFOOT) as a navigator. Don Kelly, Nelson Leigh, Ann Doran, and Russ Conway are also in the cast.

This film was directed by Gordon Douglas. The striking cinematography was by William H. Clothier. The movie runs 106 minutes.

BOMBERS B-52 is available in a beautiful DVD print as part of the Natalie Wood Collection. The only extras are the trailer and a cartoon.

Glenn Erickson reviewed the Natalie Wood DVD set at DVD Savant.

BOMBERS B-52 is worth seeing if you like the cast, appreciate nice widescreen photography, or have an interest in films depicting the Cold War era...just don't expect anything especially exciting.

December 2018 Update: This film has been reissued on DVD by the Warner Archive.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

I reviewed this boxed set and this movie a while back. You are right, it is pretty lame even with a good cast. I really wanted to like it and at first I tricked myself into liking it. There was some suspense towards the end. But this film and a few others in the boxed set confirmed that I really just don't like Natalie Wood!

Thanks for reviewing this!!!

6:38 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks for the reminder that you reviewed this set, Raquelle! I remember enjoying your post. (Here is the link for anyone who'd like to check it out.) I can't believe it took me a year to catch up with it, but I guess that's what happens with so many viewing options. :)

Best wishes,

8:44 AM  
Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

I know what you mean. I have movies friends have sent me months ago that I should have gotten to write away but it's so easy to take them for granted because they are there waiting for you whenever you want to see them! My Netflix and Classicflix rentals always take priority.

Thanks for the link.

9:59 AM  
Blogger Carrie said...

LOL, great review! I like the film purely for the aviation shots.

Gotta agree about the Colonel's age vs. the daughter's - kinda on the creepy side, but they, er, pair up well - you know what I mean.

4:15 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Carrie! The aviation shots are gorgeous.

I think the fact that Natalie had been a beloved child star might have made the filmmakers particularly reticent to show her in a romantic scene with someone so much older, when she was still pretty young herself.

Best wishes,

8:56 PM  
Blogger Phil said...

I caught the last half of this movie this morning on TCM and realized that there's something intriguing about these Cold War propaganda films that I enjoy.
Like you said, the plot is pretty lame. To me it's tantamount to the Navy's, "See the World", tagline.
It's its own special genre, having that patriotic music with sweeping panoramas of nuclear killing machines.
Somehow Jimmy Stewart made the whole concept almost plausible, "scare the other guy into not attacking..." in Strategic Air Command -- who knows maybe that's why we're still breathing uncontaminated air here old earth.
I was kind of sniffing around for a site where I could stream this movie and stumbled across your blog.

6:59 AM  

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