Thursday, April 16, 2020

Tonight's Movie: Army Girl (1938)

ARMY GIRL (1938) is a melding of military film, romance, and courtroom drama starring Preston Foster and Madge Evans.

I was particularly drawn to the film because of my appreciation for Preston Foster and my interest in the movie's location shooting in Lone Pine, California.

According to the 2010 edition of LONE PINE IN THE MOVIES, subtitled CELEBRATING REPUBLIC'S 75TH ANNIVERSARY, ARMY GIRL was Republic Pictures' biggest, most expensive production to that point in the company's history.

The movie's initial premise, scripted by Barry Trivers and Samuel Ornitz from a story by Charles L. Clifford, is whether small tanks will replace horses in the U.S. Army Cavalry.

Captain Dike Conger (Foster) arrives with a tank at a cavalry post commanded by Colonel Armstrong (H.B. Warner). A competition ensues to see whether tank or horses can more successfully traverse rugged territory during a simulated military operation.

The tank wins and Conger is assigned to replace Armstrong commanding the unit. Unfortunately this puts the brakes on Conger's romance with Armstrong's daughter Julie (Madge Evans), who resents her father being forced out of his job.

A sergeant (Guinn "Big Boy" Williams) who resents Conger arranges for an accident to befall Conger and Conger's loyal aide Hennessy (James Gleason) in the tank, but at the last minute Conger is replaced in the tank by Colonel Armstrong, who dies as a result of the incident.

Conger is court-martialed, charged with being responsible for the deadly accident, but Captain Schuyler (Neil Hamilton), who wants Conger out of the way so he can romance Julie himself, knows the truth...

The storyline was only so-so, entertaining mostly due to the charms of Foster and Evans, backed by an excellent cast which also included Ruth Donnelly, Ralph Morgan, Heather Angel, Robert Warwick, Barbara Pepper, and Billy Gilbert.

I always enjoy Foster, especially as a romantic leading man, and Evans is a delightful leading lady. She was fortunate to work with some of the best leading men of the '30s; in addition to Foster she appeared numerous times opposite Robert Montgomery and Robert Young, and she also starred with Franchot Tone, Edmund Lowe, and Richard Dix, to name a few.

ARMY GIRL was Evans' last feature film. She married playwright Sidney Kingsley, known for DEAD END and DETECTIVE STORY, in 1939 and retired from the big screen; she did, however, do considerable work in television throughout the '50s.

While I only found the film's story to be middling entertainment, my interest in the film's locations lifted the movie to a higher level of enjoyment. LONE PINE IN THE MOVIES is curiously silent on the film's actual shooting locations, with Samuel M. Sherman's article instead focusing on Republic's history and the movie's plot.

I suspect the train station where Preston Foster and the tank arrive early in the movie is this train depot which is on Narrow Gauge Road outside Lone Pine; the higher roof in the back of the building matches what's seen in the film.

I saw this stone wall in the Alabama Hills on a tour last year. We were told by our guide that the origins of the wall had been a mystery for some years, until someone happened to watch ARMY GIRL and recognized it from the tank vs. horses sequence.

We also visited this dry lake bed on the opposite side of town from the hills during a tour of BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955) locations last fall. The cavalry can be seen drilling on the lake bed early in the film.

The military outpost location was a mystery to me, and I wondered if it could have been filmed at Lone Pine using the sets built for GUNGA DIN (1939).

Further research showed that I was on the right track, insofar as the movie was shot on a set originally meant to depict a British military post in India, but it turned out it wasn't filmed in Lone Pine. Instead, I learned from a blog that it was shot at Southern California's Iverson Ranch on sets left over from John Ford's WEE WILLIE WINKIE (1937).

Yakima Canutt was in charge of the film's stunts filmed in Lone Pine's Alabama Hills; an excerpt from his memoirs appears in LONE PINE IN THE MOVIES, where he explains how some falls were done and assures nothing harmed the horses, which is almost hard to believe, having seen the film.

Future star George Montgomery, who got his start in films as a horse rider and stuntman, was part of Canutt's team and is said to appear in the background as a soldier, but I didn't spot his face.

ARMY GIRL runs 80 minutes. It was directed by George Nichols Jr., with "B" unit work by B. Reeves Eason. The movie was filmed by Ernest Miller and Harry J. Wild.

The score by Victor Young was nominated for the Oscar, one of three Oscar nominations the film received; it was also nominated for cinematography and sound.

LONE PINE IN THE MOVIES says the last prints struck of the film were 16mm prints made for TV showings decades ago. The movie is not available for home viewing in an authorized release.

It's rather a shame that today this film is fairly hard to find, given its importance in the history of Republic Pictures and its Oscar nominations, not to mention being a wonderful visual record of some significant movie locations. I'm grateful to a friend for finding it for me, and I hope that at some point in the future it will be easily available for home viewing.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

I hope it will become available as well. Your informative post has piqued my curiosity, and I'm always up for a "new" Preston Foster movie.

7:31 AM  
Blogger barrylane said...

Madge was Clark Gable's leading lady in Sporting Blood, his first starring picture. Well worth a visit.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Caftan Woman! Hopefully raising a movie's profile a little is helpful over the long term. I share liking for Foster!

Barrylane, I don't believe I've seen SPORTING BLOOD yet! I love Gable so I'll put that on my list. Thanks!

Best wishes,

6:11 PM  
Blogger Jerry Entract said...

Not surprisingly, I've never seen "ARMY GIRL" but Republic used footage from it in their 1952 Rex Allen starrer, "OLD OKLAHOMA PLAINS" which has a storyline set around 1926 showing the Army testing their new tanks. That's sadly the nearest I have come to seeing this original.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Oh, that's very interesting info, Jerry! I didn't know about the reuse all those years later.

I'll see what I can do about you seeing this one. ;)

Best wishes,

5:17 PM  

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