When Johnny Comes Marching Home
When the men of the so-called "Greatest Generation" came limping home from World War II, they did not like what they saw. For while the men of that era had been off trading gunfire with the forces of fascism in the European Theater of Operations, their wives had ventured out of their kitchens, gone off to work in munitions factories, and gotten their pretty little heads filled with all sorts of biggity notions about equality of the sexes and all that. Then there were all those fairy pinkos running around in Hollywood and in the press and at the universities, questioning democracy and stirring up trouble. America's men had just fought the greatest battle in world history against a foe that was just plain rotten any way you looked at it, and they were in no mood to take any guff. As the nation cruised into the early '50s, there was a whopper of a social backlash; America's womenfolk were shoved back into the kitchen en masse and issued their regulation petticoats, aprons and valiums, and the Red Scare began in earnest. When Elvis showed up a few years later, with his wiggly hips and that goddamn sneer and everything the twisted little bastard represented, is it any wonder America's dads wanted to crucify the guy?
For all of its many virtues, The Blue Dahlia is perhaps most fascinating for the way it captures the pissed-off mood of so many guys in the late '40s. The compact but powerful Alan Ladd stars as Johnny Morrison, a war vet who comes home to find that his wife, Helen, is cheating on him with some greasy nightclub owner. What's more, she's killed their son in a drunken driving accident. The gal Johnny once loved has revealed herself to be nothing more than a deceptively sweet-smelling sack of garbage (as she puts it, "I take all the drinks I like, any time, any place. I go where I want to with anybody I want. I just happen to be that kind of a girl.") Johnny storms out, only to later learn that shortly after he left, his wife was killed. No great loss to the world there, but the killer has rudely availed himself of Johnny's own gun. As Johnny attempts to clear his name, he starts to take a closer look at his best pal, a hapless vet with a plate in his head who suffers from memory loss, flies into an uncontrollable rage every time he hears a loud noise, and was recently in the apartment where Johnny's wife was killed. Throw in a sleazy detective who is blackmailing Johnny, and it's no wonder the poor guy spends the movie looking like he's about to burst a blood vessel. Even Joyce (Veronica Lake), the one bright spot in Johnny's miserable life, is not to be trusted; sure, she's gorgeous and obviously hot to trot, but she has neglected to mention that she's actually the greasy nightclub owner's wife. She may have the face of an angel, but Joyce surely doesn't have the motives of one.
Director George Marshall was known mainly for comedies, including such wonderfully silly Bob Hope vehicles as 1940's Ghost Breakers and such painfully silly Bob Hope vehicles as 1966's Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number. Marshall was really stretching when he filmed Raymond Chandler's supremely noirish Blue Dahlia script in 1946, but he handled the material so well it's rather a shame he didn't take on more projects like this. Then again, it's hard to go too far off track with Chandler; while he has endured his ups and his down in critical esteem over the decades, Chandler's LA was a terribly vivid and plausibly corrupt place, a sun-drenched Hades full of cynics and floozies and cynical floozies. The Blue Dahlia hasn't lingered in the public imagination the way other noir pictures have, and Ladd and Lake haven't enjoyed the popular esteem enjoyed by Bogie and Bacall. But The Blue Dahliastill packs a hell of a wallop and reminds us why the Greatest Generation was always so damn cranky.
The Blue Dahlia screens at the Orange County Museum of Art, Lyon Auditorium, 850 San Clemente Dr., Newport Beach, (949) 759-1122, ext. 204. Fri., 6:30 p.m. $4-$6.
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