Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Americanization of Emily (1964)

One of the goals of this blog was to watch films that I had never seen before.  THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY (1964) fell perfectly into that category.  James Garner stars in it and I like James Garner.  I always thought my father looked a bit like James Garner when they were both young men.  Julie Andrews plays the female lead and I quickly made two quick, rash judgments.  First, I was sure this film was directed by Blake Edwards, famous for THE PINK PANTHER films and also the husband of Julie Andrews.  Secondly, I thought the film might be similar to YANKS, a film about American soldiers in England during World War II mingling with English women.  Guess what?   I was wrong on both counts. 

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY is set during World War II in London just before the D-Day invasion. There is a relationship between an American Navy man (James Garner) and a young English woman (Julie Andrews) but EMILY is much more than just a love story.  It is a very funny, scary comedy drama about war, heroism, and cowardice.  It is directed by Arthur Hiller not Blake Edwards and written by Paddy Chayefsky who would go on to write more scathing black comedies like THE HOSPITAL (1971) and NETWORK (1976). 

Based on the novel by William Bradford Huie, THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY is about "dog robbers" or personal attendants to a general or admiral.  This particular dog robber is Lt. Commander Charlie Madison (James Garner) a personal attendant to Admiral William Jessup (Melvyn Douglas). Charlie is like a hotel concierge. His job is to entertain the admiral and his guests with food, alcohol, and women while the admiral tries to win favors for his beloved Navy.  D-Day is just a week away and Admiral Jessup feels the Navy is getting shafted in the buildup to the great battle, becoming "the runt of the litter" as the armed forces goes.

Charlie tries to enlist the help of a pretty English driver Emily Barham (Julie Andrews) to be one of his hostesses and play bridge with the admiral at one of his parties but Emily will have none of it.  She's not impressed with Americans over in London or their use of chocolate to bribe anyone for anything.  Charlie thinks she's a prig. Emily doesn't want to be "Americanized."  Emily has lost her father, her brother, and her husband to the war.  She's almost desensitized to being in love.  Charlie fought in Guadalcanal when he had an epiphany in the jungle.  He discovered he was a coward and loved life.  Naturally, Charlie and Emily will fall in love...but not without enduring several obstacles.

Admiral Jessup comes up with the insane idea to have Charlie and his fellow dog robber buddy Lt. Commander Paul "Bus" Cummings (James Coburn) go to Omaha Beach on D-Day.  Jessup insists "the first dead man on Omaha Beach must be a sailor" and  he wants Charlie and Cummings to film it.  In Jessup's view, this will ensure the Navy gets its due during D-Day.  He even proposes that this dead sailor will be buried in a brand new Tomb of the Unknown Sailor. When Jessup has a nervous breakdown, Cummings takes over the plan.  Neither he nor Charlie want to die for their slightly mad Admiral but as they try to not be on the first boats to France, circumstances put them directly in the battle with Charlie running for his life on Omaha Beach with surprising results.

Immediately upon viewing, EMILY has some striking similarities to a similar black comedy, Stanley Kubrick's DR. STRANGELOVE (also 1964).  Both films have satirical views on war and the so called generals and admirals and presidents who preside over war.  Both films were shot in England and in black and white.  Both films have crazy military leaders with cockeyed ideas. In DR. STRANGELOVE, it's General Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden)  instigating nuclear war. In EMILY, the Admirals's warped plan has Charlie's best friend Cummings trying to shoot him at Omaha Beach so that he'll be the first dead sailor. Even actor Keenan Wynn appears in both films. EMILY has a slightly more optimistic outlook but it's not a coincidence that STRANGELOVE and EMILY came out the same year.

Writer Paddy Chayefsky writes some great long speeches that both Garner and Andrews get to deliver. Not many movie screenplays then or now offer that luxury for actors.  One of Chayefsky's greatest speeches will be delivered by Peter Finch in NETWORK  as doomed news anchorman Howard Beale ("I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore") but I would rank Garner's speech to Andrews about Europe and England's view of Americans right up there with Chayefsky's best.

For me, the sign of a good screenplay is when both the lead actors and supporting actors all have great roles.  Supporting actors William Windom, Joyce Grenfell, Liz Fraser, Steve Franken, even the three  "nameless" broads that James Coburn tries to score with all stand out.

James Coburn would soon become a leading man in films like IN LIKE FLINT (1966) and it's easy to see why with his good looks, blond hair, and killer smile. But he was a great supporting actor too as he proved in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), CHARADE (1963) and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) which incidentally, he co-starred with James Garner in.

I have a great affinity for James Garner.  As previously mentioned, he reminds me of my father in appearance.  But Garner starred in my favorite television show of the 1970's - THE ROCKFORD FILES. Garner's golden years in film lasted about 12 years and then he headed to television to play Jim Rockford, a shaggy private detective who drove a cool Camaro.  It didn't dawn on me until later as I would see TV actors like Telly Savalas (KOJAK) or Rock Hudson (MCMILLAN AND WIFE) that television is where film actors go when their leading man days are over.  Garner and Julie Andrews, so good together in EMILY would do another film together VICTOR VICTORIA (1982), this one directed by Andrews husband Blake Edwards.

One of the pleasures of film watching is to come upon a hidden gem like THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY and be completely and utterly enthralled with it. Just when you think you've seen every great film ever made, you discover there are still some out there.  So go my movie loving friends.  Go and discover your hidden film gem.

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