Cukor's 'Victory' back in radar range

Cukor's 'Victory' back in radar range

NEW YORK -- A "lost" film (briefly) resurfaces: One of George Cukor's major films of the 1940s that never shows up in any Cukor film retrospective is the 1944 Fox release "Winged Victory." It is always a curious omission given that the film not only was one of Fox's major productions of its year (running time 130 minutes and the studio's big Christmas 1944 attraction at Fox's primary Manhattan outlet, the Roxy, where it filled the house's 5,886 seats for five weeks) but also boasts Cukor's celebrated directing skills as well as producer Darryl F. Zanuck, then the head of 20th Century Fox, who personally guided only one or two special film projects per year. It also has to its credit an esteemed screenwriter (Moss Hart), a much-respected music composer (David Rose) and a cast peppered with all sorts of respected names, including four future Oscar winners (Judy Holliday, Karl Malden, Edmond O'Brien, Red Buttons) along with Lee J. Cobb, Gary Merrill, Kevin McCarthy, Don Taylor, future TV Superman George Reeves and, this time as an actor, future "Hud" director Martin Ritt. (The dialogue director of the film was no less than Lee Strasberg; it was his first movie credit.) So why is "WV" such a forgotten film? Well, for one thing, it seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth except for one lonely 16mm print in Chicago, something Joanna Ney, the producer of arts programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, discovered when she was putting together a Holliday film retrospective at N.Y.'s Walter Reade Theater. Ney wanted every one of Holliday's 12 film appearances to be included, so she went sleuthing for "WV" to no avail, until she found that single print in Illinois. Fox no longer seems to have the negative or rights to the film, which was made for and in cooperation with the Army Air Force based on a play written and directed by Hart. He scripted it, gratis, at the request of Gen. "Hap" Arnold, the commanding general of the branch then known as Army Air Forces. In 1943, while the war was raging, Arnold asked Hart to write "an intimate story about AAF flyers." Hart did, and it opened as a Broadway play on Nov. 20, 1943, with all the males in the cast made up of actual AAF members (including Malden, O'Brien, Cobb, et al.). It was a resounding hit, with all proceeds from the run donated to the Army Emergency Relief Fund. (Worth noting: The stage manager was "Swifty" Lazar, then an AAF lieutenant.) Soon after came the movie version, which began filming in May 1944, with the stipulation that every male in the cast had to be a member of the AAF. That necessitated one case of swift military maneuvering: Fox wanted one of the leading roles played by Lon McCallister, who had become a popular movie idol just before being drafted into the Signal Corps; Pvt. Mc-Callister was quickly reassigned to the AAF. Another new Fox star, Jeanne Crain, also was added for extra boxoffice appeal. Kudos to Ney for finding the "Victory" print and letting some New Yorkers of 2006 see it, at last. It's a big film, classy and at times extremely touching. One hopes that someone will start digging to find where, and if, a 35mm master negative still exists and, if one does, bring it back to life and allow more people a chance to have a look at this rare document from World War II about World War II, done by masters of their craft.
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