Pride of the Marines is a disappointment. It never gets particularly good, but it does have a lot of potential–at least from its cast–so when it starts getting better and then slips, it’s a disappointment. The film starts before Pearl Harbor with John Garfield’s would-be bachelor falling for Eleanor Parker. Garfield’s reasoning for wanting to be a bachelor is he wants to live his life like a nine year-old boy, going to sporting events, going hunting, never having a woman tell him no.
Garfield’s reasonably likable, but he’s not good in this part. Albert Maltz’s writing for Garfield is juvenile, while everyone else in the cast gets a good part. It’s not just Parker, who actually gets to act when tolerating Garfield’s hijinks, it’s even Garfield’s friends (and landlords) Ann Doran and John Ridgely. Garfield’s friendship with their daughter, played by Ann E. Todd, is his most honest character relationship even though it doesn’t make any sense given how juvenile he behaves. There’s one caveat to Doran and Ridgely’s performances–when they have to spout exposition about how Garfield just can’t grow up, they can’t sell it. Only Parker can sell those moments, at least until the second part of the film.
During the first part of the film–there’s a lot to Pride, given it’s two hours and has three distinct sections–Daves is ambitious with his direction. Lots of extravagant setups. They usually work, except Owen Marks’s editing of the footage is very messy. It looks like Daves didn’t shoot the right coverage, especially when he has to account for Garfield and Parker being much shorter than Ridgely and Doran. But Daves goes for big shots. They work.
Then Garfield goes to war. After some understandably used, but ill-fitting, real footage from the Pacific Theater, Daves settles into a decent battle sequence. It’s a nightmarish sequence with excellent photography from J. Peverell Marley (his best in the film) and music from Franz Waxman (his best in the film). Even Marks’s editing is strong. It’s also the best sequence in the entire picture, because once it’s over, Pride moves on to its next location and an all new set of problems.
Garfield’s injured. He’s possibly blind. Can a nine year-old boy imagine his girl back home wanting him? No. But he also can’t imagine anything else. But Pride of the Marines is a forties patriotic picture and so everyone else around Garfield is pretty much handling their wounds with dignity. Although Maltz doesn’t exactly have anything for them to talk about. There’s one rousing scene where Dane Clark–who’s great–talks about fighting for himself and his country (as a Jewish guy in the service–there’s even a great anti-racism sequence, albeit only in regards to Mexicans, it’s from 1945 and Warner after all), but otherwise these guys have nothing to talk about except girls. If a reverse Bechdel didn’t sound like a tricky Olympic dive, I’d say it fails the reverse Bechdel. But, really, all these guys have to talk about is their girls back home for the most part. The acting from the bit players is fine, Maltz just doesn’t give them anything to say.
Rosemary DeCamp shows up in Garfield’s recovery as his suffering Red Cross worker. She has to hold his hand through everything because otherwise how can we see Garfield’s struggle. Only it’s not a struggle. Daves doesn’t give him much to do as far as acting. He just acts up. The one or two chances he gets for a good scene get messed up by over-production.
The acting from Parker is good no matter what, no matter how lame the writing gets. Same goes for Clark, who seemingly gets better as his material gets more obvious. Doran, DeCamp, Ridgely, Todd, all good. Garfield sort of gets an incomplete, sort of gets a pass. The film drops the ball on a lot–like how does Garfield feel about being a national hero who loathes himself–and the ending feels tacked on.
Pride of the Marines has its built-in constraints–it’s a forties propaganda picture, after all–but every opportunity it gets to surmount them, it fails. Though Daves’s first act creativity does come back for one shot at the end. Only for him to screw it up with the boringly directed finale.