Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Four Men and a Prayer (1938)

FOUR MEN AND A PRAYER has a grand cast and was directed by the legendary John Ford, but while it's quite entertaining, it's also not an entirely successful movie.

Colonel Loring Leigh (Sir C. Aubrey Smith) is dishonorably discharged from the army. He calls his four sons home so they can help prove his innocence -- barrister Wyatt (George Sanders), pilot Christopher (David Niven), diplomat Geoffrey (Richard Greene), and Oxford student Rodney (William Henry).

Before the colonel can share his evidence with his sons, he is murdered and his papers stolen. The four men embark on a multi-nation quest to discover the truth about their father's court-martial and death, with Geoffrey's remarkably persistent lady love Lynn (Loretta Young) hot on their heels.

The film has a wildly uneven tone, light and funny one minute, shockingly violent the next, and at times downright silly. There's an extended revolution sequence that left me slack-jawed due to its brutality...which was all the more jarring as some of it was handled with humor, and all while lovely Loretta manages to dodge bullets without so much as a scratch. The sons, meanwhile, are quite amateurish in their efforts at times; perhaps that should be expected, as none of them are professional detectives, but the quick capitulation of a villain at the end was a bit hard to buy, given what was at stake.

The story had great potential and there are some lovely moments, but one can't help wishing that the movie had been taken to the next level of quality and that the story had been handled with greater seriousness and believability. The only hint that this is a John Ford movie is the presence of Barry Fitzgerald and John Carradine in the cast, and perhaps there's a glimpse in the touching camaraderie when the sons welcome their father home.

I thought David Niven came off the best of the four brothers, offering welcome comic relief -- I loved his double takes, although I confess I'm still mystified by his exchanges with a ship's steward in the voices of Disney characters; that bit comes out of absolutely nowhere.

Sanders doesn't have his fair share of screen time, more's the pity, but he does have a couple of touching moments near the beginning and end of the movie.

Greene is all right as the romantic leading man, but not a standout; I thought he was much better in YELLOW CANARY (1943). The same year FOUR MEN AND A PRAYER was released, Greene also appeared in Ford's SUBMARINE PATROL and costarred with Loretta Young in KENTUCKY.

William Henry, who plays the hotheaded youngest son, had a very long but not particularly memorable career; however, he will certainly be recognized by devoted fans of THE THIN MAN (1934).

Loretta Young is fun in a series of dazzling (if sometimes strange) wardrobe changes, mainly serving as comic relief.

The supporting cast includes Reginald Denny, Alan Hale, J. Edward Bromberg, Berton Churchill, and John Sutton. The film was shot in black and white and runs 85 minutes.

This movie is on DVD in a beautiful print as part of the mammoth Ford at Fox Collection. The DVD is available at Netflix.

This film has also been shown on both Turner Classic Movies and Fox Movie Channel.

FOUR MEN AND A PRAYER is a fast-paced and entertaining film which should be seen by those who enjoy the film's creative talents, but given those said talents, it must be said that the movie falls short of the mark it should have reached.


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