Jul 9, 2015

On DVD: Lucille Ball and Chester Morris in John Farrow's Five Came Back (1939)

Twelve people take a flight to Panama City, but as the title warns, Five Came Back. While there is great tension as to who makes that return journey, it is the interactions among a strong cast of characters, and economical, skillful direction by John Farrow that make this recent release from Warner Archives special.

The group is a tidy selection of types, among them a good-hearted prostitute (Lucille Ball), eloping socialites (Wendy Barrie and Patric Knowles), a kindly elderly couple (C. Aubrey Smith and Elizabeth Risdon) and a mob gunsel (Allen Jenkins) with some decent impulses, if not a heart of gold, with the young son (Casey Johnson) of a crime boss in his care.

They crash in the jungle, miles away from civilization, and it's a Hollywood-style crack-up all the way. No one appears to be injured, or even ruffled by the experience. Suits are unwrinkled and clean, Ball's hair remains perfectly curled, and even the little boy doesn't seem too fazed by the ordeal. Though the group appears to face near certain death, they collectively shrug their shoulders and make the best of it.

Still, it's an effectively made film, pulling at your emotions without dripping into sentiment. Though the RKO production had a lower budget than the studio's typical output, it never feels cramped or static. Farrow uses close-ups and sweeping shots of jungle foliage to give the proceedings texture, injecting enough life that it's hard to believe the actors are confined to a set. With so few settings that the film could easily be translated as a stage play the director makes you feel the danger lurking in the trees beyond their campfire.

The cast is fascinating as well. Rising star Lucille Ball is a standout as the tarnished but decent lady-of-the-night, while Chester Morris shows unusual depth as one of the pilots, just a couple of years away from his Boston Blackie series. John Carradine, Allen Jenkins and C. Aubrey Smith are always good to see in the credits, and they are reliably charismatic here. I thought Smith was particularly warm and sympathetic in his role, an interesting change from his typically more severe and elitist characters.

Child actor Casey Johnson is cute in a refreshingly natural way and Wendy Barrie and Kent Taylor are nicely nuanced in less showy roles. I was particularly impressed with Maltese actor Joseph Calleia as an anarchist on his way to be executed. I've seen him in several other films, but never has his intensity grabbed me as it does here. He demonstrates through his actions just why he got himself in trouble--and how he still might have more sense than any of the other passengers.

While I'm not claiming that Five Came Back is as good as Casablanca (1942), given the limited resources Farrow had I think it similarly ended up being much better than expected. If it hadn't been released in a year packed with instant classics, it might have gotten a bit more breathing room and the acclaim it deserves.

Farrow would remake his own film as Back from Eternity (1956), starring Anita Ekberg and Robert Ryan. While I don't think that more lavish version was as elegantly conceived, it is also a solid production and well worth checking out. It is currently available on the Warner Archive Instant streaming service.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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