As I’ve said before, with many of their bigger stars and directors overseas, Hollywood studios had to get creative as to what kinds of films they made. Actors and actresses who normally played character or supporting roles were commonly moved into lead parts, and one example of this is the 1943 film, Salute To the Marines. Featuring Wallace Beery of Min and Bill fame, and Fay Bainter, another durable character player, it’s an often-overlooked movie about the Marine Corps and the early days of war in the Pacific.
It’s 1940. Sergeant Major Bill Bailey (Wallace Beery) is all Marine. He’s been in the Corps for thirty years, and knows more about it than most guys ever forget. He’s rough and tough, regarding anyone with less than ten years in the service as a “recruit.” His commanding officer, Colonel Mason (Ray Collins) calls Bill an “institution.”
Only thing is, Bill hasn’t seen a battle. Never ever. Instead, he’s in the Phillippines training Marine battalions, putting them through their paces with all the vigor. Not surprisingly, the recruits can’t stand him because he’s so strict. On the side, Bill helps his Filipino buddy, “Flashy” Logaz (Keye Luke) train to re-enter the boxing world.
When war becomes imminent, Bill’s impatient to get in on the action, and the Colonel promises to take him along if he’s ordered to Asia. Meanwhile, Bill’s off to the Subic province to train civilians to fight, Leatherneck style. At first he doesn’t think they can hack it, but they both surprise and annoy him. An infantry is supposed to follow a tank, not ride on it, for instance. The men bring their own style to the training as well with a traditional bolo knife, which is similar to a machete. Either way, Bill’s company is one to be reckoned with.
Much to Bill’s chagrin, neither he nor the Colonel are ordered to Asia because both of them are too old. Colonel Mason breaks it to him gently, but not even a cigar and sympathy are enough for Bill. He and Flashy go to a bar, where Bill gets falling-over drunk and is a little too chatty to a group of Merchant Marines. One of them agrees with him about the Marines being a crummy outfit, and Bill takes great offense, so he starts a bar brawl which lands he and Flashy in the brig.
While Bill and Flashy cool their heels, Bill gets a visit from his wife, Jennie (Fay Bainter) and his pretty daughter, Helen (Marilyn Maxwell). Jennie is livid to find Bill in jail. Jennie’s the only person Bill is slightly cowed at–he calls Jennie “Mom.” She’s always hated the Marine Corps, and has ensconced she and Helen in an American-European-Filipino pacifist village called Balligan. Helen is a different story, though–she loves the Corps and is proud of her dad being in uniform, not to mention she has two boyfriends who are Marines.
Suddenly, Bill’s had enough of the Corps, and after a rousing retirement ceremony, he’s off to Balligan with Jennie and Helen. They rumble up to their house to find some of Bill’s new neighbors have come to welcome him. The ringleader of the town is Mr. Caspar (Reginald Owen), who owns a store in town. Bill sits uncomfortably while Mr. Caspar and the others talk about how soldiers are the weapons of industrial overlords. The hors d’oerves are mystifying, too, especially the heart-shaped sandwiches with anchovy paste. Bill squishes them together and takes a Marine-sized bite.
Jennie tells Bill she’s going to teach him how to relax. Bill tries, but it isn’t long until he’s organized the village boys into a pint-sized batallion and is teaching them to fight. Since everyone is a pacifist in Balligan, Bill and Flashy train the kids in an old shed with a sentry posted outside. There are spies everywhere, though, and a little girl spills the beans. Jennie and the other parents storm the shed to find Bill telling a Bible story, but Jennie doesn’t buy it. She’s livid.
Bill gets suspicious as he putters around town. Mr. Caspar in particular gives him pause, because he seems to be well-versed in American troop movements in the Phillippines. He also buys dry goods from Japanese fisherman whose boats are curiously well-appointed. The captain won’t let him on board to take a look, which gets Bill’s radar going even more. There’s nothing he can really do, though, except accidentally-on-purpose give the captain an arm drag off the pier.
One Sunday, right before church, Jennie rips a page off the calendar which ominously reads, “December 7, 1941.” This device was incredibly common in films of that period, because it reminded Americans of why they fought and likely gave them chills the way 9-11 does to us today.
The movie erroneously cites December 7th as the day the Phillippines were attacked, but it was actually on December 8th, and even a pacifist village like Balligan wouldn’t have been safe. Bill, in true Marine fashion, is the first to step up and fight, and he will find unlikely allies and confirmed suspicions.
Salute To the Marines doesn’t get a lot of attention nowadays. I first heard of it when I started listening to old-time radio, and then later on I got the DVD. Besides its lack of any big stars, it’s very dated, and begs descriptors like “of its time.” The Filipino men are often called “boys,” although their fighting methods are treated with respect. At the time of the film’s release, the Phillippines were occupied by the United States as a result of America’s victory in the Spanish-American war. While the two countries have always had good relations, America made it clear during the occupation that the Filipinos were subserviant to them, hence the condescending indulgence.
Meanwhile, Japanese people are regarded as little better than vermin in the film. It reflects plenty of stereotypes, like the proverbial, “So sorry,” when Bill flips the captain into the water. While a bit uncomfortable for today’s viewers, it reflects an America at war. Despite the Office of War Information’s original intention of mandating avoidance of hate in Hollywood films, the Japanese and Germans were fair game.
Unfortunate stereotypes aside, Salute To the Marines is a film that served a purpose. It paid tribute to the Marine Corps and showed a little of the plight of Americans living in the Phillippines. In that sense, it is an interesting film that reflects the mores of its day. Wallace Beery was a smart choice for the lead, as he’s all blustery and tough. Aside from occasional hammy moments, he was certainly able to carry the film. The supporting cast does an excellent job, making it a time capsule of World War Two propaganda.
November is jam-packed, you guys. Here’s what’s coming up:
Yep, there’s a lot going on. Anyone who wants to still has time to get in on this, so here are the people to see:
- Samantha at Musings of A Classic FIlm Addict;
- Tiffany and Rebekah at Pure Entertainment Preservation Society;
- Virginie at The Wonderful World of Cinema;
- Emily at The Flapper Dame;
- Debbie at Moon In Gemini;
- Crystal at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood;
- Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood.
Plenty of other goodies are in store as well, so I hope you’ll join me. Thanks for reading, all…
Salute To the Marines is available on Amazon.