DVD Review: A Guy Named Joe (1944)

Note: Some major plot points are revealed here, for the sake of the review, but the ending is not spoiled for you. Hey, you’ve had over sixty years to see this, so we’re clearly outside the spoiler window.

This Warner Archive release is a Manufacture-On-Demand (MOD) DVD. It is made to be played in “play only” DVD devices, and may not play in some DVD recorders or PC drives. This disc, however, played fine in the Toshiba DVD recorder used for this review. This title is available directly from WBShop.com by clicking here.

THE SET-UP
A brash World War II pilot (Spencer Tracy) is shot down and dies, only to learn he and other pilots are sent back to Earth from heaven to mentor young pilots as guardian angels. Also stars Irene Dunne and Van Johnson.
Directed by: Victor Fleming

THE DELIVERY
Directed by Gone With The Wind’s Victor Fleming, A Guy Named Joe is an unexpected treat, providing a different spin on the World War II romance dramas that seemed to be a dime a dozen during the 1940s.

I went in to the film without reading about it, as I prefer to see a film unspoiled and without reading other’s opinions. I realized fairly quickly that I had read about the film before; it was actually remade by Steven Spielberg in 1989 as the movie Always. There’s really no need to compare the two, but after watching A Guy Named Joe, it may be worth seeing the update, if you haven’t already.

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The film follows Pete (Tracy), a fearless pilot in World War II romancing a female American pilot named Dorinda (Irene Dunne). The Oscar-nominated original screenplay crackles with the snappy dialogue that we used to see so often in films from the era, but we rarely see in today’s films. Tracy and Dunne have a great rapport going, and it really sells the relationship, even when things are a bit melodramatic.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t last long, as Pete is shot down and killed in combat. It’s here that the film takes an unexpected turn, taking the drama into the realm of fantasy when he goes to heaven and learns he is being sent back as a guardian angel to mentor a young pilot named Ted (Van Johnson). Lionel Barrymore makes a brief but effective cameo as a dead general who gives the newly-departed pilots their heavenly assignments.

Of course, there is one more twist for Pete to endure: Ted meets and falls in love with Dorinda. This is difficult for Pete to accept, and it sets up a finale where their love story and the war come to a crossroads.

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While Tracy is very good as the brash but likeable Pete, Dunne absolutely makes the movie with her portrayal of the fiesty Dorina. It’s a surprisingly liberated role for the time, and Dunne proves why she was one of the finest actresses of the era. I later read about some criticism of her role, because she was almost twenty years older than Van Johnson, her love interest in the second half of the film. The criticism is unwarranted, even though Johnson is a bit baby-faced for the role. Dunne is strikingly beautiful, and is such an appealing actress, it all feels natural, despite the “cougar” implications. 

Without giving away the ending, near the end of the film, Dunne delivers the film’s finest moment without saying a word. While another character speaks, Dunne says nothing while we see her character struggle with her emotions, and then come to a sense of acceptance. A single tear runs down her face, and the moment is both heartbreaking and uplifting. I must admit, even I was misty-eyed.

Ward Bond deserves a mentionfor his wonderful portrayal as Al, Pete and Dorinda’s faithful friend, and James Gleason is a funny foil as “Nails,” Pete’s commanding officer, who likes him, but hates his shenanigans.

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A Guy Named Joe does drag at times, and it is too melodramatic for its own good. That much can be forgiven, as films released during the war were less concerned about realism and focused on uplifting war-weary Americans. Overall, the peformances shine through, and it is one of the reasons why the film has had such a following over the years. Have the Kleenex handy.

VIDEO AND AUDIO
The manufactured-on-demand DVD features a rather soft video transfer, and the quality varies wildly at times. Many of the set scenes have nice detail, but the extensive military stock footage used has extensive scratches and debris. A few random scenes featuring the actors, however, look to be in rough shape. Overall, there is some grain visible, and it doesn’t appear as if there are compression issues.

It looks like many of the drawbacks are with the source material, which is understandable considering the age of the print. Some of the scenes, especially Dunne’s close-ups, are deliberately frosted to give her features a softer look. Considering she was in her mid-forties, and Van Johnson in his mid-twenties, one can see why they decided to do that. The audio is excellent, with good clarity free of the expected “canned” sound or any pop and hiss.

SPECIAL FEATURES
A trailer is included, which I always find fascinating to see how films were marketed in those days. It does have some wear and dust specks. It is disappointing there aren’t more extras included, however.

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THE BOTTOM LINE: BUY IT OR REDBOX IT?
Ratings (1-10 scale)

Movie: 8

Video: 6

Audio: 7

Extras: 4

Overall grade: 6.25

Fans of A Guy Named Joe can finally get the film on DVD, which is reason enough for them to pick this up. Considering the following the film has, more special features and a remastered print would have been nice to see. However, if you really like the film, this is still a solid release, with quality above the previous VHS releases and an affordable price. 

DVD SPECS
Release Date: May 21, 2013

Running time: 122 minutes

Rating: Not rated

Aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0

Subtitles: None

Special features: Trailer

Label: Warner Archive

Click here to order A Guy Named Joe on DVD from Warner Archive!