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September 10, 2010

A Yank in the R.A.F.

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Henry King - 1941
20th Century-Fox Region 1 DVD

A Yank in the R.A.F. was not a propaganda picture. It was a story worth telling, a story that was happening. At the time, North American Aviation in Los Angeles was building trainers (airplanes). Canada and England bought a tremendous number of them for their training programs because England was already in the war. They couldn't build, they had to buy outside. Civilian pilots here would fly these trainers up to a little place in Montana, just at the Canadian border. You couldn't violate international law, so the Canadians would throw a rope across and tie it onto the trainer and tow it over the border.
- Henry King

One of the footnotes to the history of World War II is that the United States was officially neutral during the years that saw Nazi troops march across Europe, and conduct bombings of Britain. The first scene in A Yank in the R.A.F. illustrates that point, and sets the tone for a film that alternates between screwball comedy and more sober, and sobering, scenes of war. Tyrone Power flies in a trainer, in spite of international law, claiming to confuse Trenton, Ontario, Canada, with Trenton, New Jersey. At one thousand dollars a flight, he next takes the job of flying a plane to England. A planned overnight visit to London changes when he bumps into old flame, Betty Grable. It becomes apparent that Grable has never forgiven Power for a past indiscretion, real she says, imagined says he. They bicker, he catches her nightclub act, they bicker some more, he tries to kiss her, she calls him a worm, and fade out as the two clutch each other tight.

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Discussing Samuel Fuller's China Gate, Andrew Sarris describes how "the distinction between the personal plot and its political context evaporates with the first leggy sprawl of Angie Dickinson". One might make the same case for A Yank in the R.A.F. where the first image of Betty Grable is of her famous legs. The camera follows the legs, out of the car, displaying the top of the stockings, panning across the sidewalk to some steps and back again to the car before tilting up to a medium shot of Grable in a military uniform. Betty is doing something, not exactly made clear, in supporting the war effort in England, and performing a nightclub where R.A.F. officers pull rank to get a good view of her. At the same time, Betty Grable virtually steals a whole movie from top billed Tyrone Power.

Evidently, Henry King must have loved Betty Grable, too. I can't recall Tyrone Power getting the kind of close-up Grable gets, virtually filling the screen. Visually, even though the tone is never quite that serious, the film looks very noirish with dramatic lighting and deep shadows. At one point I thought that Power was going to morph into his character in Nightmare Alley, and run off to the nearest carnival to become a sideshow geek. Most of the story is devoted to Power chasing after Grable, while fending off his rivals, who also happen to the men he's flying with on bombing missions over Germany.

Henry King was a pilot himself, who would fly around in search of locations for his films. Still, for all of his passion regarding aviation, A Yank in the R.A.F. has to be regarded more as a personal project for producer Darryl Zanuck. Real wartime footage was commissioned for the film, and one of the cinematographers was future director Ronald Neame. The film went through several changes from inception to final release. The British government objected to Tyrone Power's character dying at the Battle of Dunkirk, believing it would discourage future American volunteers. Henry King added a couple of musical numbers when Betty Gable was cast to take advantage of her talents. I would have to disagree with King's statement - A Yank in the R.A.F> was certainly propaganda, albeit without hectoring the viewer regarding anyone's point of view. There was some unintended prescience on the part of King and Zanuck. Considering the ubiquity of her image, especially on airplanes, it may have seemed to some that Americans were fighting World War II on behalf of Betty Grable.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 10, 2010 03:43 AM