Edward Sedgwick | Subjects | Structure and Story Telling | Visual Style
Films: Spring Fever | West Point | Tell It To the Marines | Murder in the Fleet
Classic Film and Television Home Page
Haines works in the shipping office of a large company, along side his father and many other working class people. The office is surprisingly "real" looking. It almost seems documentary. It anticipates the realistic ship scenes in Murder in the Fleet, also work areas.
During his golfing scenes with Joan Crawford, Haines winds up on the ground, adjusting her stance - and also flirting. Sedgwick characters sometimes assume such horizontal, on the ground positions. Haines also winds up falling on his back, in the slapstick awning sequence on the wall outside Crawford's room.
William Haines was one of the most popular stars of the silent era, and this is one of his best vehicles. He ranges from comedy to drama here. One can see why he was one of the idols of the day. His early scenes show his brash comic intensity, as an cocky young man with an attitude the size of Gibraltar. People clearly loved seeing someone this confident, and fun loving.
The last section of the film deals with Brice's desire to be part of the Corps. On the surface, this is a militaristic theme. But in the film, it evokes other issues. Gay people have been systematically excluded from society. What many gay people want, more than anything else, is to be accepted by society, and to be part of the team. The film shows Brice's overwhelming feelings on the subject, and his struggle to become accepted by the social world around him. These sections awake deep feelings in the viewer. They emotionally invoke a whole world of gay experience. Haines' performance is strongly felt and expressive. He conveys to the viewer exactly how these situations feel. The screenplay and direction also closely reveal this world, with a step by step emotional logic.
There is not an exact correspondence between the surface story of the film, and the experiences it evokes. Brice has cut himself off from the Corps by his own arrogance. By contrast, in the real world, gay people do not have to do anything wrong to be rejected. Society will reject even the finest gay human beings, without any provocation.
Many of the middle sections of the film concentrate on Brice's relationship with his roommate, Tex MacNeil (played by William Bakewell). MacNeil is clearly in love with Brice, and the film comes very close to being about a gay love relationship. Bakewell's performance is also emotionally charged. He has not held back; instead his romantic feelings spill out all over the screen.
Both films start with characters from the outside world, arriving in a rural location by boat.
Both films have their male hero committing an act that deeply offends those around him. The hero then repents, and spends the rest of the film trying to gain re-acceptance from those he has offended.
Both films have the hero running to catch a train that is already leaving and in motion. In both, his fierce running and leaping onto the moving train, visually symbolizes his efforts to rejoin the world and gain acceptance from those he has offended. Stars George O'Brien of Sunrise and William Haines of West Point show a remarkable physicality and sense of energy in these scenes. In both films, the running is more important than the final jump on the train.
In both, the hero physically attacks (West Point) or attempts to attack (Sunrise) a Significant Other in his life, and then seeks forgiveness. In Sunrise, this is the hero's wife. In West Point, it is the hero's roommate Tex MacNeil. Having a male-male relationship at the core of the story, modeled on a husband-wife relationship in another film, is an indication of how strong a gay sensibility is embodied in West Point.
Sunrise contains a temptress character, who lures the hero away from his marriage. There is no such analogous character in West Point. Hero William Haines' own arrogance and ego does him in in West Point, without any encouragement from anyone else. In Sunrise, it is the temptress who arrives on the boat at the start. In West Point, it is hero Haines. Haines' character thus combines a bit both the hero and temptress roles from Sunrise.
The film is also strong on showing beautiful West Point landscapes. Silent filmmakers loved "pictorial values", as they were called back then, and were always looking for striking landscape views to put in their films. West Point is in this tradition. Sometimes these landscapes are in the background: for example, during the boat ride up the Hudson River that brings the characters to the school at the start. In others scenes, the characters are in the center: the outdoor staircases down which Brice runs on the way to the train are especially beautiful. There is a long overhead pan, showing him running down a whole series of staircases.
After he shows his stuff during an early football practice, the hero is congratulated by other team members. Many are wearing more conventionally all-phallic numbers, such as 41.
William Haines had had one of his biggest commercial successes a year before with George Hill's Tell It To the Marines (1926), in which he plays a raw recruit who is hounded by tough Marine Sergeant Lon Chaney. As Joe Franklin pointed out in Classics of the Silent Screen, this film has been imitated endlessly ever since. Allan Dwan's The Sands of Iwo Jima (1949) featured John Wayne's even tougher Sergeant Stryker. (Although Classics of the Silent Screen is credited on its title page to Joe Franklin, it might actually be written by William K. Everson.)
I did not like Tell It To the Marines at all. Haines shows little of the charm here that flows through West Point, King Vidor's Show People (1928), or his other best films.
George Hill's mise-en-scène is unpleasant, too. Hill specialized in portraying awful, grim, gritty and downright disgusting looking militarized institutions, both here, and in the pioneer prison drama The Big House (1930). These places are just plain depressing, and Lon Chaney's nasty Sergeant hardly makes them seem any more fun.
Haines does look good, in stills that show him wearing his large, dressy white Marine Corps cap, with a plain white tee shirt. This makes for a striking contrast. The formal cap is infinitely fancier than the tee shirt. The contrast has an erotic punch.
Both films have young, pretty boy leads: Robert Young in Diamond, Robert Taylor here. Both have given much better performances for other directors. Sedgwick emphasizes their juvenile quality. Both are neophytes in their respective organizations, with Young a rookie pitcher, and Taylor a Lieutenant just out of Annapolis. Second lead Donald Cook is much more convincing as a naval officer. He has the dignity, maturity and confidence that Taylor seems to lack. Taylor always looks doubtful, confused and apologetic. Oddly enough, Taylor often is partly out of his Naval uniform, whereas Cook is always in his. Usually the leading man of a movie gets to wear the sharpest clothes.
Both films also have "comedy" relief in the form of an ongoing battle between Nat Pendelton and Ted Healy. Their relentless comic duels are sometimes annoying and sometimes funny. Pendelton is a convincing tough guy, who adds to the atmosphere of Depression era, low brow, ordinary guy, working stiff machismo.
Both films recall Sedgwick's West Point: Death on the Diamond in its focus on sports teams, Murder in the Fleet in its emphasis on military uniforms, and membership in a Corps.
Both scenes show some basic anxieties. They suggest a team is vulnerable. In both cases, the body emerges from a team's infrastructure: the locker room in Diamond, a group of Navy men stiffly doing their job on ship here. There is an attack on team through its members. As the murdered members proceed from the vertical to the horizontal, we feel the sense of lost comradeship on the team.
Earlier in the picture, Wead develops another one of his persistent themes, a Naval officer whose girl friend is pressuring him to leave the service. We'll see this in more developed form later in Wead's life story in John Ford's The Wings of Eagles (1957). At the end, here, the heroine relents, and encourages the officer to stay in the Navy. She tells him, "You taught me about men and their feelings. I didn't know how all you guys felt about each other." This is a pretty direct look at men's emotions, and it would be unusual in the 2000's, let alone 1935.