[Disclaimer: some of this post was written while under the fog of Percoset prescribed to me due to a massive kidney stone shortly before publishing. However, I made a commitment to have this thing up and ready, so here it is. It isn't anywhere near perfect or what I was hoping for, and I'm sure you'll be able to tell where/when the pain and drugs--and a little procrastination--got to be too much. Either way, I hope you take a little enjoyment from this. --Peter]
Getting into classic movies when you haven't really watched them before doesn't have to be a difficult prospect. You already know your own taste, so you can take it from there to decide where you want to start. But if you're looking for my advice...The Americanization of Emily (1964) is a good gateway to old movies (although I wouldn't call this movie old, per se).
It has humor; love and sex (well, 1964 sex); it has drama in the form of anti-war sentiment; an absolutely incredible cast--James Garner, Julie Andrews, Melvyn Douglas, and James Coburn; and Mary Poppins herself gets called a bitch! Are you intrigued yet? Read on.
Opening with a very martial score by Johnny Mandel (he and Mike Altman also wrote the theme to MASH), the first minute of The Americanization of Emily is all military courtesy and order...until Charlie Madison (James Garner) slaps a female motor pool driver on the butt as he passes her. The woman's response? "Hiya, Charlie." A few more butts are slapped before Charlie goes "a butt to far" when he hits Emily Barham (Julie Andrews). She turns and slaps him in the face, and the tone of the film is set; it will be impossible to turn it off now.
Set shortly before the allied invasion of Normandy, Garner's Charlie Madison is the aide (or dog-robber, as called in the film) to Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas), who just happens to be losing his mind since losing his wife. Charlie's duties are to see to anything and everything the admiral needs. He has access to all of the finest everything that the United States can provide, and they do provide it...mostly to the women in the motor pool who are also there to "entertain" the dignitaries.
Intrigued by her earlier slap, Charlie invites Emily to a party being held by Admiral Jessup. She is taken to the swanky hotel room where she will find exotic perfumes, beautiful clothes, and chocolate bars (which make other appearances throughout) in order to choose her outfit for the evening.
While she's perusing all of the goodies in the hotel, she comments on all of the lavish things before her, which prompts Charlie to make speech #1:
Emily's indignation at the excess of the Americans is pushed aside as she not only shows up for the admiral's party, but surprises Charlie in his room. She's not the prude she is accused of being, and professes to be, earlier in the film.
Admiral Jessup is worried that the upcoming invasion of Europe is going to be an all-Army affair and the Navy will be just a footnote. While Charlie is enjoying finding Emily in his bed, Jessup bursts in to make the announcement that "The first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor!" There are a lot of ways to ruin a romantic moment, but this has to be an all-timer. Charlie's interlude interrupted, he checks on the admiral, who seems a tad worse for wear and still out of sorts.
Although this movie is set during WWII, its release was in the middle of the Vietnam War; the following scene makes quite a statement about war, regardless of when it is fought, and how we have the tendency to glorify it...
Although Charlie's thoughts on war are very serious, the part you don't see in the above video is the humor he uses to disarm Emily's mother. He describes the new religion he has found: Cowardice. He extols the virtue of being a coward while detailing his previous wartime experience at Guadalcanal, much to the delight of Mrs. Barham.
"It's not war that's insane, you see; it's the morality of it. It's not greed and ambition that makes wars. It's goodness. Wars are always fought for the best of reasons--for liberation or manifest destiny; always against tyranny, and always in the interest of humanity. So far this war, we've managed to butcher some 10 million humans in the interest of humanity. Next war it seems we'll have to destroy all of man in order to preserve his damn dignity. It's not war that's unnatural to us; it's virtue. As long as valor remains a virtue, we shall have soldiers. So, I preach cowardice. Through cowardice we shall all be saved."
It's Charlie's "religion" that almost gets him into trouble with Jessup, who wants to film the D-Day landing (and subsequent death of a sailor!), by using Charlie to make the movie. Well, Charlie's not having any of that so decides to tell the admiral he's not planning on making any movie. Jessup then threatens Charlie with a court-martial and orders him to make the film. Coming to Charlie's rescue is Bus Cummins (James Coburn), who tells Charlie that he will cut so many orders for the film that the entire war will be over before any film can be made. This allows for Charlie to relax and take Emily on a little vacation. All is good, right? Not quite.
Admiral Thomas Healy (Edward Binns) finds out about Jessup's plan for a film and a Tomb of the Unknown Sailor. He also finds a letter from Franklin D. Roosevelt approving of the film and Tomb, prompting Healy to give the order to move forward. Charlie's good friend Bus decides that it is indeed their duty and honor to follow through, so he cuts the official orders to get this thing under way.
Charlie realizes that the time on his orders and the time for the invasion to commence do not jive, meaning he will not have to make the landing or the movie. As Emily is dropping off Bus and Charlie at the airport (they do still have to make the flight after all), she informs Charlie that his cavalier attitude toward the invasion is disgusting. He does his best to explain that she doesn't need to worry because he won't be a part of the invasion, but she then tells him she doesn't love him. That leads to some words between the two and then the following exchange...
Because the weather wasn't clear enough for the invasion to take place, the fleet needed to turn back to port. On waking the next morning, Charlie realizes that D-Day has been delayed and he will indeed need to be a part of the landings on Omaha. He enlists a camera crew of two: Keenan Wynn
(Do these two really look like they're ready for D-Day?)
Fast forward to the landing craft, the explosion that throws Charlie into the water, and his friend Bus shooting him in the leg so he doesn't retreat (because Almighty Cowardice remember), Charlie's apparent death on Omaha Beach, and the film starts to come to its close. However, I'll leave you to find out the ending on your own.
When it comes to the overall performances, Garner is as charming as in any other role you can name, and that is his appeal. Of course he's a good actor, but he disarms you with his charisma and then knocks you out with great performances--all of which he makes look very easy. If that scene with Mrs. Barham doesn't get you hooked on Garner, then I can't help you. James Coburn comes in as almost comic relief--acting a little depraved and then deciding to embrace the fact that he is an Annapolis Man. Melvyn Douglas is the kind of actor you don't necessarily think you'll enjoy if you haven't seen him in anything, but once you do see him you are a fan for life. Edward Binns's bit appearance is very pleasant, and you can never go wrong with a Keenan Wynn sighting, right? That leaves Julie Andrews. I have never found her to be more beautiful and sexy as I do when watching this film. She's lovable, fragile but not weak, damaged but not broken, and did I mention lovable? It's hard to watch Andrews in this role and not come away absolutely in love with her.
Love may be the backbone of the movie, but humor (or perhaps irreverence) is the blood that flows through it. It's not uproarious or slapstick, but well-timed and incisive. Perhaps my favorite line in the entire movie is when Charlie is setting up some women for a group of Russians--"These Russians still like their women short, fat, and reactionary?" Cracks me up every time.
This film is a perfect entry for the Try It, You'll Like It! Blogathon because I didn't really want to see it at first. Oh, I was a fan of classic film, to be sure, and I had heard of The Americanization of Emily, but made snap judgments of it based on the title and the fact that Julie Andrews was in it--I wasn't a big fan. However, it had James Garner. I grew up watching The Rockford Files, and was a fan of some of Garner's other films, like The Great Escape and Grand Prix. So when The Americanization of Emily came on TCM, I made the effort to watch it...and um, I tried it and I liked it. Actually, I loved it right from the beginning. I guarantee that you, too, will come to love this film and give others a chance in turn.
This post is part of the "Try It, You'll Like It!" Blogathon, hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently, where we write about "gateway films" that might bring non-classic-film lovers into the fold! For all the entries, click here!