Stand By For Action (1942)
Laurence Kirk’s “A Cargo of Innocence” was transformed by Captain Harvey Haislip and R.C. Sherriff (Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939)) into a World War II story about a Navy destroyer that rescues a boatload of babies and two pregnant women while on its way to covering a rear admiral’s convoy’s flank in the Pacific. Robert Z. Leonard (The Great Ziegfeld (1936)) co-produced and directed this frequently intentionally humorous drama which was scripted by George Bruce John Balderston (The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935)) and Herman Mankiewicz (Citizen Kane (1941)). Though the viewer really must “stand by for action” there were enough Special Effects that the film received a Best Effects Academy Award nomination. It stars Robert Taylor (who replaced Robert Donat; the story was originally to have been about the British Navy in the Atlantic Ocean) Charles Laughton Brian Donlevy Walter Brennan Marilyn Maxwell (in her film debut) Henry O’Neill Chill Wills Douglass Dumbrille Byron Foulger and Hobart Cavanaugh (among others).
It begins as a story of conflict and contrast between a wisecracking “blue blood” Harvard graduate officer Lieutenant Gregg Masterman (Taylor) and his hardworking up-through-the-ranks superior officer Lieutenant Commander Martin J. Roberts (Donlevy). Laughton plays the Rear Admiral Stephen Thomas who assigns his social director and aide Masterman to work under the old school taskmaster Roberts. This is just the first of several opportunities for Laughton to impart his character’s unique sense of humor as a frustrated desk jockey who’s spoiling to get into the fight. Maxwell plays Audrey Carr who appears briefly with Masterman and his Senator father (Douglas Wood uncredited) at a social function. Roberts had just been assigned the U.S.S. Warren a World War I destroyer when he had initially upset and then impressed the admiral with concerns about the slow repair of another ship. It’s the beginning of World War II and the Navy is badly in need of enough ships to wage war now instead of waiting for those being built hence the need to resurrect the moth-balled Warren. Once aboard Roberts discovers that the Warren’s former Chief Yeoman Henry Johnson (Brennan) is still on the ship and has been living there as its informal caretaker ever since the previous war. Masterman soon joins him and recognizing Johnson’s obvious love for the ship encourages his commander to find room for the old yeoman in this war. Roberts then speaks one of many clichés which come back to “bite him” through Masterman’s wit on their subsequent voyage – “you can’t run a Navy on sentiment” (this line is spoken again and again). In charge of obtaining the ship’s crew Masterman advices Johnson to dye his gray hair then hires him along with Chief Boatswain’s Mate Jenks (Wills) Pharmacist’s Mate ‘Doc’ Miller (Foulger) and Carpenter’s Mate ‘Chips’ (Cavanaugh) among others.
After the Warren is commissioned by Admiral Thomas the destroyer embarks on a mission encompassing a series of tests to ensure the ship’s (and its crew’s) readiness for action. Masterman et al prove their capability in various drills but he fails his first real test when a solo enemy bomber attacks the ship. Fortunately the Warren is undamaged before the Japanese pilot flies off then Roberts (and later Johnson) uses the event to teach instead of dress down his first officer. Rear Admiral Thomas is then thrilled to be assigned the task of bringing a convoy of ships from the Pacific back to the mainland (San Francisco?). When one of its destroyers has a problem the nearest destroyer (the Warren) is ordered to join the convoy to cover the flank. On its way there through rough seas Johnson is injured after saving Masterman from going overboard. Masterman then countermands one of Roberts’s orders to slow the ship for Johnson’s benefit (per Foulger’s characters pleadings). The commander gets angry with Masterman (and repeats the line about sentiment).
Still on its way to joining the convoy and the admiral’s ship the U.S.S. Chattanooga (Dumbrille plays its Captain Ludlow) the Warren comes across a wayward boat that turns out to be filled with a dozen or more babies and a couple of pregnant women evacuees from a maternity hospital in Honolulu. Much like the later (Cary Grant) film Operation Petticoat (1959) this one now becomes more comedy than war drama until its final scenes as the all male crew (particularly Wills’s character who sings to them) struggles to accommodate the infants and the women (one of which is Marta Linden’s character Mrs. Steve Collins) through two childbirths. Cavanaugh’s character as a father is called upon to assist with the latter as is O’Neill’s Commander Stone the medical officer on the admiral’s ship via ship-to-ship signaling once the Warren joins the convoy. Laughton’s quirky character gets to delight in the news and then gleefully repeats: “it’s a boy”. Eventually the long awaited action takes place when another Japanese plane discovers the convoy and a Yamato class Battleship engages it. Naturally the old and undersized U.S.S. Warren Roberts and Masterman assisted by the injured Johnson save the day with a wily fog maneuver. The closing scene has all three of the aged destroyer’s officers receiving the Navy Cross from the admiral.