1920s, 3/4, Comedy, John Ford, Review

Salute

Salute (1929) - IMDb

This is largely forgotten, and it’s curious as to why. Never mind that I seem to like it a fair bit more than most who’ve seen it, but it’s the first John Ford movie with speaking roles by John Wayne and Ward Bond. Wayne has shown up as an extra in a handful of other films (I’ve never been able to find him, though I haven’t looked too hard), but he talks here! In a talkie! The movie itself seems to have been born from a simple idea: film the Army-Navy football game and build a movie around it, and the movie that came from that idea is an endearing little slice of life film about a pair of brothers.

Two brothers, John Randall (George O’Brien) and Paul Randall (William Janney) are the grandsons of a great naval hero, raised by separate relatives after their parents died. John, the elder, is a cadet at the United States Military Academy while the younger is about to enter the Naval Academy at Annapolis. The early scenes in the film are all about establishing the friendly relationship between the two brothers, hinting at the rivalry between the two schools, and establishing their mutual female friend Marian (Joyce Compton).

Paul goes to the Academy and learns the ropes of life on campus before the arrival of the elder classmen. He learns to march, makes friends with a fellow midshipman Albert (Frank Albertson), and gets to know a local girl, Helen (Nancy Wayne). When the elder classmen arrive, he immediately gets on the wrong side of Harold (Ward Bond) and Bill (John Wayne) in the midst of trying out for football. He ends up too small to be terribly effective on the field, and Harold becomes convinced that Paul got him in trouble for a bit of hazing he put Paul through. It isn’t true, but the retribution is enough to get Paul righteously angry, deciding to simply quit the Academy rather than be in an organization that allows for someone like Harold. Truth comes out, Paul misses roll call the next morning as he wanders with Helen, and Paul and Harold make up with Harold promises to help Paul become a better football player.

There’s a dance where John comes along with Marian. This is an amusing scene as Harold tries to dance with a series of girls, only to politely give up the dance every time to another as well as another midshipman, a nebbish little guy, tries to fill his absent sister’s dance card, being constantly rejected. The meat of this scene is that John ends up stealing Helen away from Paul, creating a rivalry between the two that can only be solved on one battlefield: the football field.

Yeah, it’s not challenging stuff, but it’s lightly told, amusing (I had one gut busting moment of laughter), and solidly built. The finale is the Army-Navy game, and it ends in a way that makes everyone happy with more amusing things along the way.

The most interesting thing about the game, to me, though is the sound design. In the earliest days of sound it was only possible to get a single track of sound onto the mono mix at a time, and it usually had to be captured live. Ford didn’t let the sound limitations prevent him from doing what he wanted visually, however. He cut this all together, using footage from the real game, small plays filmed with the actors, an announcer in a booth, a handful of spectators (including Marian and Helen), and some sideline stuff without any real concern for how the sound would cut together. It ends up creating a complete hodgepodge of sound that gets distractingly endearing to me. There’s no base sound running through it all like a cheering crowd, so we get shots of the sideline that are completely silent except for the dialogue cut right next to crowd shots that overwhelmed the microphones.

Another sound design note: the dialogue. The Black Watch was almost embarrassing in how Ford directed his actors in dialogue scenes, and he seems to have learned very quickly that it wasn’t the way to go. Filming on location at Annapolis and its surroundings, the delivery of the dialogue (often marred by environmental sounds from the locations themselves) are naturalistic and crisp. There’s no pausing for instructions anymore.

The film doesn’t really have much of a plot, but it does have an endearing story of two brothers on opposite sides of a historic rivalry, developing their own rivalry, and then finding the common ground in the end. It’s far from challenging, but it is amusing and a fun watch.

Rating: 3/4

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