On this date, December 4th, in 1950, when the Korean War was roughly about six months old, Navy Ensign Jesse L. Brown was shot down near the Chosin Reservoir. His wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner crash landed his own plane on purpose to try to rescue Brown, but even when a rescue helicopter arrived to help, they were unable to free Ensign Brown from the wreckage of his Corsair. They were forced to leave him there, and Jesse Brown died.
That Ensign Jesse Brown was the first African-American Naval aviator in a newly desegregated US armed forces, and that Lt. Hudner later received the Medal of Honor for his daring attempt to rescue his pal are more than footnotes to the tragic story. This shadowy war is a grim backdrop, but a curiously subconscious one to the movie “I Want You.” It’s seldom discussed out in the open; it’s just there somewhere on the radio and in the back of the mind.
“I Want You” (1951) is roundly acknowledged to be producer Samuel Goldwyn’s Korean War answer to his wildly successful World War II era “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946). (For more on “Best Years,” see my four-part series from 2007 beginning here.) When “I Want You” succeeds, it is in moments of unconscious reflection that World War II might as well have ended one hundred years ago as five years ago, because the world is in a different place. The movie creaks a bit with slavishly trying to use “Best Years” as a template, though this must have been understandably irresistible to the Goldwyn staff. Despite this, it is a valuable film for showing us what 1950 looks like, even if inadvertently so.
At the outset we may note that the “template” aspect of using “Best Years” is employed first by using a handful of familiar actors from that film. Walter Baldwin, who played the worried father of disabled sailor Homer Parish in “Best Years” here plays the worried father of young recruit George, Jr., played by a very young Martin Milner. Ray Collins, who memorably played the insincere and controlling bank executive boss of Fredric March in “Best Years” here plays another man of great power over others, a judge who sits on the local draft board.
Most especially we have the central figure of Dana Andrews, who stars as a World War II vet, a husband and father, who runs a contracting firm. Sitting at a work bench, fiddling with a slide rule in his work shirt, the kind he wore at the end of “Best Years” when Fred Derry is finally offered a job in construction and peels off his iconic bomber jacket to go to work, Dana Andrews’ character, Martin Greer, is presented to us almost as an extension of Fred Derry. This is what Fred might have been like five years down the road, working in construction, sharing a modest suburban home with wife and kids. It’s the kind of thing Fred Derry used to dream about, but was afraid he wasn’t good enough for, or not lucky enough to ever have. We finally get to see Fred’s happy ending.
But in real life, happy endings are usually temporary. Then a new story begins.
Much of the film involves the contracting firm as being the key to avoiding the military draft. The World War II draft that ended in 1947 was reinstated in 1948 to be implemented for young men who were required to serve 24 months, eventually discontinued in 1973. The draft became a sword hanging over the heads of millions of young men and their families when hostilities broke out in Korea in the summer of 1950. Dana Andrews’ younger brother, played by charming and handsome Farley Granger, is a prime candidate for the draft, and so is his young employee Martin Milner, whose father Walter Baldwin also works for the firm.
Dana Andrews is being pulled in all directions to label the young men under his charge as “indispensable” to excuse them from the draft, like Noah pulling animals out two by two to be saved on the ark. He easily could save his brother, for as his mother reminds him, their family has given enough to their country. Another brother was killed in World War II.
The film begins with a kind of flashback to “Best Years”, in an aerial shot of his small town, emulating the ride that the three returning vets took at the beginning of “Best Years”, swooping low over the town. In Andrews’ narration, the scene is described as what the town would look like in a bomber run. His narration, like the character himself, is somewhat world-weary. In his voice over introduction he admits, “I don’t run as fast as I once did. I don’t sleep as well.” When he loosens his belt under the table while enjoying a big meal, he contentedly lets us know that he is going to “retire with honor” from ever being young again.
Dana Andrews also calls his father, who drinks too much, “Pop”, which what Fred Derry called his alcoholic father. His father is a bit of a fool, a man who brags too much, eats and drinks too much, and continually recounts his glory days in World War I as if he’d won that war by himself. He shirks his work at the family contracting business to socialize at the bar down the street. For all that he appears harmless and lovable, and as a result, his careworn wife appears aloof and strained, probably because she has had to bear on her shoulders the responsibility that her husband avoids.
Andrews’ younger brother is played by Farley Granger. He is a likeable rogue and as much a goof off as his father, and borrows money from an indulgent sister-in-law played by Dorothy McGuire. Granger playfully tells her, “When I get married, I must make sure to find somebody just like you.” He will all but insist that his girlfriend played by Peggy Dow take her for a model, and there lies one of many interesting differences between the World War II era generation and the Korean War generation, even though they are not really of different generations. They might as well be. Though it is only five years since the ending of World War II, the young people are different. Their world is different. And the next generation that is really a generation apart, the little son and daughter of Andrews and McGuire, read comic books about superheroes with atomic powers.
Peggy Dow is a college girl, sassy and independent, with no immediate desire to get married, so she says. She is not the small-town beauty queen that Dorothy McGuire was when she married her solider husband on a weekend pass. Miss Dow has far more advantages and far fewer cares, yet unlike Miss McGuire’s character, has no real ambition for herself, no purpose and no direction. And the young Farley Granger is clearly not his brother. He’s not a serious solider with serious post-war dreams. He’s a happy-go-lucky guy still storming about in the same jalopy he was so proud of as a high school kid. Granger resents her college education and sulks at her time away from him.
Clearly, Dow’s college career is seen by her, by Granger, and possibly by her parents as little more than finishing school experience. This was an era where some, though certainly not all, young women went to college not to obtain credentials for a particular career but to obtain upwardly mobile college men as husbands. We get the feeling Miss Dow is toying with Granger, holding out for something better. She ruminates that “maybe” she will one day get a job.
One of the best lines in the movie goes to Jim Backus, who plays Dana Andrews’ former colonel, “You still salute like a WAC in the Bulgarian Medical Corps.” Backus, who commanded Andrews in an engineering unit, might take a job with his contracting firm, but is waiting to see what transpires with this news from Korea. Backus might re-enlist.
They discuss building being an essential industry and their being fortunate to be considered “indispensable”. Andrews is too old to be drafted and has no desire to return to the military. He intends to apply for the exemption to which he is entitled. Their conversation, a casual plot exposition for our benefit, suddenly seems heartless when we see that his employee played by Walter Baldwin, the father of Martin Milner, has been listening. Only the evening before, Dana Andrews refused, though gently and politely, to write for a deferment for Milner. Baldwin is seething in his resentment.
Milner, called Junior by everybody, which he hates, is looking forward to the Army because he desperately wants to be a man. He is told, by the bombastic Robert Keith who plays Andrews’ foolish father, that the Army will make a man of him. Andrews invites Milner for his first beer to celebrate joining the army, but the bartender refuses to serve him, because he is only 19. Another WWII vet at the bar razzes him, and Milner barks back at him, “Because you guys were old enough to be drafted in the last war, you think you’re something. It wasn’t my fault I was born in 1931.”
Poor Junior is suffering from what every generation of young men experiences who have followed in the wake of heroes. They are emasculated by their very youth and lack of exposure to danger. We can imagine how acute was the humiliation of young men, both North and South, who came after the generation that fought in the Civil War. No matter what wealth or fame they achieved in their lives, they would never be a great as the private who suffered through the heat of Gettysburg and the mud and cold of Fredericksburg.
But then the radio behind the bar announces worse news from Korea, and the bartender grants Milner his beer. We may recall Homer Parish, hoisting a pilsner glass in his prosthetic hook in his homecoming visit to his uncle’s bar in “Best Years.” Homer is relaxed, and looking very manly with buddy Dana Andrews by his side, who is already half drunk and both happy because they think the worst is behind them. How stark is the contrast with Milner, who hoists his first beer with boyish excitement, and how Dana Andrews by his side watches him a little sadly. All the men in the bar watch Junior in complete silence, knowing better than he what he is in for.
Perhaps the scene still plays in Dana Andrews’ mind when he sits down late at night to try to write an excusal letter for his brother. But the radio interrupts again with news about action at some parallel. It is a war of “parallels” and not very parallel to World War II.
It is interesting that we do not see a single television set in this film. Though most people did not own one in 1950, some people did and perhaps we are still at the stage where movies are ignoring the enemy.
Retiring to find his wife still awake, Andrews remarks with his world-weary demeanor that the news is the same, “People shooting each other as usual. On the domestic scene, hair tonic as usual, rumbas as usual, saloons as usual.” In a world more parallel to the one we know today, the home front is disconnected from the frontlines and society seems rudderless because of it.
Miss McGuire sits up in her twin bed, her knees drawn up to her chest and asks wistfully, “Are you pleased with me? Has it turned out the way that you wanted back in that miserable little Louisiana town when you got your weekend pass and we got married?” In a very sweet scene teasing the Production Code, he sits on her bed and rests his head on her knees as they talk quietly. It’s really more a rhetorical question, and we find this husband and wife, this World War II couple, habitually re-evaluating where they are and where they are going. They take nothing for granted. They have been through too much to take anything for granted. Another difference between them and the younger set, who seem to own the world.
Farley Granger, much more self-confident than Martin Milner, and much more carefree than his older brother ever was or ever will be, gets angry when he is ordered to report to the draft board. Andrews could not bring himself to write the request for deferment, though never articulates why.
Granger’s girlfriend’s father, the judge, sits on the draft board and for a moment we get a brief lesson to Granger on freedom and how other people in the world don’t have any. But it bounces off the fuming Granger, like telling a little kid he should eat his spinach because people in some other country don’t have any. The little kid doesn’t care, and neither does Granger.
We get another lesson in geopolitics when Dana Andrews’ little son shows a neighbor lady his toy B-17 bomber, a gift from his war-mongering grandfather. The lady is a British war bride, and she relates her experience of being bombed in London. Like all young children, he is nonplussed, and helpfully tells her that in school they learned to “duck and cover” when the flash comes. He giddily romps behind a tree showing her how. I don’t know if that broke anybody’s heart in 1950, or if because we’re more aware of the futility of jumping behind a tree during “the flash” that it’s so heartbreaking now.
But his young uncle Farley Granger has a similarly defiant and naïve attitude about atomic weaponry. So self-pitying is he to be drafted, he sulks aloud that he was “railroaded” by his girlfriend’s dad to get rid of him, and wishes that we would just “drop the bomb” so he wouldn’t have to go to Korea.
Dorothy McGuire has a good scene here where she calls Granger down on the carpet for being so immature and heartless. Her moral outrage over his indifference to millions of innocent people shows us she is not just the settled suburban housewife. She is still in her heart the idealistic bride of a soldier who left his wife to make a better world, honestly believing that he would.
Her chastising Granger brings down a family rift between her and her mother-in-law, who shortly gets a fantastic scene of her own. When Granger leaves for duty, Mom, played by Mildred Dunnock, rips down all the old World War I souvenirs that Pop collected and hung on the living room walls, making their home look like a boy’s clubhouse. She knocks all the empty shell casings off the mantle, tosses aside bayonets and helmets, and berates him for what she has known all along: he was an orderly to a general in World War I in a Paris hotel. He never heard a shot fired. She calls him a liar to his face.
Robert Keith slinks, humiliated, to a chair, as she shouts, “Your son Riley was killed; you were proud. When Martin was missing for four days in France, it made you feel important…As of this evening, there are no more professional heroes in this house!” The backbone of the family has had it, and there will be only reality served up in this house from now on.
Strong women seem to be a thread running through this film, as even Peggy Dow confronts the still whining Farley Granger on his accusations against her father. She counters that her father was wounded in World War I, with the shrapnel still in his body and suffers pain every day of his life. He has kept this secret because he does not want pity. Granger, so deeply mired in his own self-pity, no sooner makes up with her than he churlishly goads her into marrying him despite her protestations. He wants her to be like his sister-in-law, to follow him from assignment to assignment.
This being an ensemble movie, we jump from character to character and most of the threads of their stories are held together pretty well. Milner and Granger, both in uniform, have a night on the town, which the jubilant Milner predicts, “It’ll be V-J Day all over again” as they imagine swarms of girls surrounding them. Another feeble and out-dated reference to World War II, and they are disillusioned when it does not happen. Milner even confesses to Granger that he has never kissed a girl. He gets his chance at the Army making him a man, though, when he is shortly sent to Korea and is listed as missing in action. “That poor little boy,” Miss McGuire remarks, and Jim Backus shakes his head, “That little boy.” Even after his sacrifice, Milner will never be called a man.
We wonder if Farley Granger will grow up. He is not going to be sent to Korea; he has drawn a luckier card and is being sent to Europe. He gets his war bride after all when Miss Dow quits college, like so many young women of her generation did, to marry him. When they leave on their honeymoon, it is in his teenager’s jalopy.
Eventually we get back to Dana Andrews’ date with destiny. We know, though it is not hammered at us, that he is tormented about re-enlisting. Jim Backus goes back into the Army and requests Andrews as part of his runway-building crew. The very essential industry of building that makes Andrews eligible for deferment, also makes him indispensable to the Army.
The notion of who is indispensable is given subtle but clever examination in the movie. Maybe nobody is indispensable, and maybe everybody is. Milner’s heartbroken father spends a lot of time at the bar down the street now. In a confrontation with Andrews, he broods on some people’s luck at being indispensable, and mourns of Junior, “Maybe he was only indispensable to me.” Sorrowing Walter Baldwin scoffs at the radio behind the bar with its updates on the war, “Bad news traveling from one end of the world to another before you can blink an eye.” He should see CNN. Or the Internet.
Mr. Andrews comes to conclusion that he can no more demand an exemption from service for himself than he could Milner or Granger. His simple articulation of this complicated decision to his wife is only, “I’ve got to make peace with myself. Ever since I was 15 years old I’ve thought of myself as honest and responsible.”
No mention of fixing of the world’s troubles; that is the remarkable thing. No end in sight to the troubles, either.
One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Dana Andrews puts his children to bed the last time before reporting for duty. He weaves a bedtime story for his daughter who falls asleep in his arms, about a princess who is partly her mother and partly herself. He is the picture of a man of his era, in his shirtsleeves and his burdens. He tells his wife that someday his son will want to know what Daddy did “when the world was going to pieces” and he wants to be able to tell his son he did more than build luxury hotels. In the hindsight granted to us old movie fans decades later, we know both his son and daughter will come of age during the Vietnam War, and they may never understand him. Only his wife understands him.
It is peculiarly fitting that their farewell takes place not at a crowded train station, but in their own quiet living room, the Shangri-La of the 1950s suburban couple. Miss McGuire sighs, looking around the room, “This is nice. This is a nice house, isn’t it?” It’s not just small talk before the final goodbye. It’s another re-evaluation of where they stand as a couple and where they are going and what they have accomplished together.
Embracing her, Andrews’ voice seems to catch when he says, “Your nose. I’ll never be able to get over your nose.” He might even cry in another moment. Dana Andrews plays the heart wrenching combination of sad and valiant like nobody. In any film, he can be terribly moving when life forces his character to face facts.
His father has faced facts as well. Andrews and Pop hug when it’s time to say goodbye, something pretty unusual in Hollywood films of this era to see two men embracing.
Our hindsight will also cause us to remember that the Korean War never really ended. An armistice was signed in 1953, but no peace treaty. Technically, North and South Korea are still at war, and therefore so are we. Even the morass that was the Vietnam War ended. Today, long after Jesse Brown died, in the cold of another December 4th, there are US military personnel on duty in South Korea on guard near the Demilitarized Zone. They could be the grandchildren or even great-grandchildren of Dana Andrews’ character.