You may be hearing a bit more than usual lately about Dana Andrews, and that to us is a very good thing.
Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today proclaim our admiration for Andrews, who correctly has been characterized as “one of the most undervalued actors in film history.”
With the publication of Carl Rollyson’s new biography, Hollywood Enigma: Dana Andrews, he may at last be getting the serious and comprehensive attention he richly deserves. While Rollyson’s book has its flaws, it makes a convincing case that Andrews was a first-rate if not “great” actor.
The British film journal Sight & Sound in its December issue reviews the Andrews biography, and in doing so damns him with faint praise. He was an interesting, distinctive actor with a talent for subtle underplaying laced with intriguing bits of moral ambiguity…But his career at the top was short…initial promise was curtailed by a decline into alcoholism and uninspired B movies.
Perhaps. We believe differently. That Andrews elevated just about any movie he was in. And his career at the top was considerable. In this debate, we are in author Rollyson’s corner. Inspired by his new biography, we’ll be publishing several blogs about Andrews in the coming days, and begin today be celebrating his greatest movie.
No, it wasn’t The Ox bow Incident, the psychological Western co-starring Henry Fonda.
No, it wasn’t 1944’s Laura, costarring Gene Tierney and directed by Otto Preminger.
Nor producer Samuel Goldwyn’s The Best Years of our Lives, directed in 1946 by William Wyler and costarring Frederic March and and Myrna Loy.
No, it was A Walk In The Sun, made by 20th Century Fox, directed by Lewis Milestone (nee Lev Milstein, a Russian) and released in January 1945. (A freshly minted DVD of the film came out not too long ago from VCI Entertainment.)
The movie has an all-star cast of character actors (George Tynes, Herbert Rudley, Sterling Holloway, Huntz Hall, Norman Lloyd, Steve Brodie and a very young-looking Lloyd Bridges) aided by bigger stars, John Ireland and Richard Conte — all portraying dog faces. After a hapless lieutenant’s face is blown away in the movie’s opening scenes, not a single officer appears in the rest of the movie.
A Walk In The Sun tracks an Army platoon in the 1943 Italian campaign from a Salerno beach landing through an assault on a bridge and a rural farmhouse infested with German machine gunners.
There are bursts of action but equally emphasized are the personality quirks of each GI, even their interior monologues. Ireland’s Pfc Windy Crave, for example, mentally composes letters from the battlefield to a female cousin. (We know this because we hear his voiceover narration of what he is composing.)
The movie is based on a book written by Harry Brown, originally published in 1944 by Alfred A Knopf Inc., and reprinted in 1998 by First Bison Books, Univ. of Nebraska Press.
“Of all the war films Dana ever appeared in, ‘A Walk in the Sun’ is the most distinguished, writes biographer Rollyson. (It) is director Milestone’s troubled tribute to America’s fighting men and the only picture that rivals his greatest anti-war work, “All Quiet on the Western Front.”
Milestone and Andrews had an extraordinarily sympathetic rapport. The director was not overly controlling (as were Wyler and Preminger) and Andrews flourished in the less inhibited setting. As Army Sergeant Bill Tyne, Dana takes control quietly, with the same unassuming power that (the actor) demonstrated in his earlier roles — but this time in the context of heightened realism that makes the war much less of a romance and more a gritty act of survival.
Andrews himself later was told this about A Walk in the Sun by an Army general: That’s the best goddamed Army picture I’ve ever seen. Somebody in the Army must have made it.
Rollyson reports that audiences of injured World War II vets, many amputees, would deride the heroics they saw in Hollywood combat movies. But, the biographer writes, they watched A Walk in the Sun in stunned silence.
Dana was very proud of the film and his performance, noted Rollyson. He was in tears at the premier in New York City, as the New York Sun reported on January 11, 1946. Andrews knew his best work when he saw it.