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The Remake of the «They Remade What?!» Blogathon: «A Guy Named Joe» (1943) and «Always» (1989)

In the two years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, over 60,000 American servicemen had died in combat overseas. The country was right in the middle of a costly war and thousands of families were mourning the loss of their loved ones. Taking advantage of this scenario, MGM became interested in making a film that would somehow console grieving families by fueling «hope in a connection between at risk or deceased loved ones and the folks they leave behind.»

LEFT: Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the attack on Pearl Harbor. RIGHT: The entrance to the MGM studios in Culver City, Los Angeles (1947).
Looking to match the critical and commercial success of the afterlife comedy Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), MGM chief Louis B. Mayer commissioned that film's producer, Everett Riskin, to find a story with a similar premise. He came up with «Fliers Never Die», in which a couple of brothers tutored their youngest sibling from the great beyond. The studio, however, was not impressed by Riskin's outline and decided not to green-light the project.
Riskin then convinced Metro to let him hire prolific screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who had already shown an affinity with the afterlife — his novel and screenplay The Remarkable Andrew featured the ghost of U.S. president Andrew Jackson. A well-known radical, Tumbo had endured an unproductive stint at MGM in the 1930s, before his script for RKO's Kitty Foyle (1940) earned him an Academy Award nomination. In the early 1950s his career would take a sharp downturn, as he was blacklisted due to his affiliations with the Communist Party.
LEFT: Original lobby card for Here Comes Mr. Jordan. RIGHT: Dalton Trumbo at the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings in 1947.
Instead of writing his own material, Trumbo adapted a story by Chandler Sprague and David Boehm called «Three Guys Named Joe», later renamed A Guy Named Joe. The title was taken from a phrase used by General Claire Chennault, who commanded the First American Volunteer Group, nicknamed «The Flying Tigers», between 1941 and 1942. The group was recruited before Pearl Harbor consisted of three fighter squadrons of pilots from the United States Army Air Corps, Navy and Marine Corps, whose mission it was to defend China against the invading Japanese forces. Chennault used the expression to refer to any of his pilots.
LEFT: 3rd Squadron (nicknamed «Hell's Angels») of the Flying Tigers. RIGHT: Brigadier General Chennault in his office in Kunming, China (May 1942).
Set during World War II, A Guy Named Joe tells the story of Pete Sandidge, the reckless pilot of a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber, who is in love with a Women Airforce Service Pilot named Dorinda Durston. Before being transferred back to the U.S. to be a flight instructor, Pete goes on one last mission with his best friend, Al Yackey, to check out a German aircraft carrier. Just as they reach their target, they are attacked by an enemy fighter and crash into the sea.

Pete then finds himself walking in clouds and soon realizes that he is dead. He meets «The General», who sends him back to Earth, where a year has elapsed, to pass on his experience and knowledge to Ted Randall, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter pilot. The situation becomes complicated when Ted meets the still-grieving Dorinda. As the pair fall gradually in love, Ted proposes to her and she accepts, much to Pete's jealous dismay. Some time later, Dorinda learns that Ted has been assigned to destroy the largest Japanese ammunition dump in the South Pacific. She steals his aircraft and manages to complete the mission with Pete's help. Upon her return to the base to Ted's embrace, Pete accepts what must be and walks away, his job done.
LEFT: Ward Bond, Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy. RIGHT: Irene Dunne and Van Johnson.
Before A Guy Named Joe could begin production, Trumbo's script had to go through a series of revisions. The first treatment sent by MGM to the U.S. War Department, Bureau of Public Relations, was rejected. Falkner Heard, chief of the office's review branch, stated in a memorandum, «A review of this manuscript indicates that no degree of supervision could make this picture a contribution to the war effort [...] It is suggested that Hollywood be told that the War Department recommends it not be produced

Riskin and director Victor Fleming worked together to revise the script, but that version also failed to win the approval of the War Department. Edward L. Munson, chief of the Information Branch, informed MGM that production of the script in its current form
«would be unwise because of the psychological effect it [the film] would have on potential fledgling and experienced pilots as well as their parents. The presence of hovering ghosts of deceased pilots, and the unreal, fantastic, and slightly schizophrenic character of the scenario hardly combine to produce a sensible war-time film diet
LEFT: Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy. RIGHT: Spencer Tracy as Pete Sandidge.
But the filmmakers would not give up. Trumbo, Riskin and Fleming built some flattery of the Army Air Forces into the screenplay and MGM continued to lobby for the support of the War Department. In November 1942, the film finally passed a new review board. According to Lieutenant John T. Parker Jr. of the Review Branch, the final script «presents a morale-building motif for the benefit of air cadets, as well as an interpretation of air combat casualties that can be helpful and perhaps comforting to the civilian point of view

Still, the Production Code Administration (PCA) was not convinced. For the PCA's chief, Joseph Breen, the problem was the original ending, in which Dorinda effectively commits suicide during the climatic mission to destroy the ammunition dump. He saw this as «self-destructive amorality» and suggested she should «take on a dangerous job that might result in disaster for Ted, then loses her life in the attempt.» After a subsequent reading, Breen also proposed that Japanese anti-aircraft fire shoot her down. «The point,» he wrote, «is the get away from the definite suggestion that she deliberately goes out in an heroic way to commit suicide.» Although the film's creators were not pleased, they ultimately acceded to Breen's suggestions.
Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy in publicity stills for A Guy Named Joe.
A Guy Named Joe finally began production in mid-February 1943. Two-time Academy Award winner Spencer Tracy was assigned to the role of Pete Sandidge. This was the third and final collaboration of Tracy and Fleming; they had previously worked together on Captains Courageous (1937), which had earned the actor his first Oscar, and Test Pilot (1938). To play Dorinda Durston, Tracy demanded that Riskin cast Katharine Hepburn, with whom he had been having an affair for the past two years. The producer reportedly told him to go «screw» himself and cast Irene Dunne instead. The part of Ted Randall was given to newcomer Van Johnson. Robert Young had been slated for the role, but studio executives eventually decided to hire Johnson to «attract a bigger teenage audience.» The supporting cast included Ward Bond as Al Yackey, Pete's best friend, and Lionel Barrymore as «The General.»

Since Tracy was furious at Riskin's refusal to cast Hepburn in the female lead, he initially proved very difficult to work with — especially to Dunne. Although she had been excited to work with Tracy, the actor «took an immediate dislike» to her, finding her «too prudish.» Reportedly, both Tracy and Fleming would sometimes kid Dunne to the point of tears. Things reached such an intolerable situation that there was even talk of taking Dunne out of the picture. 
LEFT: Al Yackey, Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, Irene Dunne and Ward Bond in A Guy Named Joe. RIGHT: Spencer Tracy and Ward Bond.

Two weeks into filming A Guy Named Joe, near tragedy brought out the best in Tracy. While driving to the MGM lot for a special screening of the Tracy-Hepburn vehicle Keeper of the Flame (1943), Johnson was badly injured in a car accident. The crash lacerated his face, neck and forehead, and damaged his skull so severely that doctors had to insert a metal plate in his head. He eventually pulled through, but had to spend three months in recovery. Both Tracy and Dunne went to see him in hospital at least three times a week. During this time, the studio wanted to replace him with either John Hodiak or Peter Lawford, but Tracy and Dunne vehemently refused to shoot another scene if Johnson was dropped from the picture.

Although Dunne and Tracy did not have the best relationship off screen, both agreed that removing Johnson from the project was «unthinkable». Eventually, Mayer worked out a compromise with Tracy: lighten up on Dunne and MGM would put A Guy Named Joe on hold until Johnson could return to the set. After the deal was made, Tracy and Dunne took the extra time to re-shoot some of the scenes where their hostility was noticeable.
LEFT: Irene Dunne and Spencer during a break from filming A Guy Named Joe. RIGHT: Irene Dunne, Spencer Tracy and Van Johnson.

A Guy Named Joe premiered at the Astor Theatre in New York City, on December 23, 1943, to mixed reviews. Kate Cameron of the New York Daily News wrote, «Tracy and Miss Dunne play their parts well and director Victor Fleming has at times given the story a touch of poetic magic that lifts it above the average war film.» However, she thought the film was flawed by a «tedious attempt to be whimsical about death.» On the other hand, the Chicago Daily News called it «a relief from the underscored realism of most war pictures.» Despite the lukewarm critical response, A Guy Named Joe became of the top-grossing pictures of 1943-1944, with total billings of $5,363,000, and received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Story.
Original lobby cards for A Guy Named Joe.
In 1974, during the making of the classic blockbuster Jaws (1975), director Steven Spielberg and actor Richard Dreyfuss discussed the possibility of remaking A Guy Named Joe, which they both considered a «classic» war melodrama. Dreyfuss had seen it «at least 35 times» and for Spielberg, «it was one of the films that inspired him to become a director.»
The adaptation, titled Always, involved many writers and re-writes over nearly a decade. Jerry Belson, who had contributed to the screenplay of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), also starring Dreyfuss, penned the first treatment in 1981. Two years later, Diane Thomas wrote a second version. After her draft, Belson re-wrote the film in 1988, when Dreyfuss and Holly Hunter became attached to the project. Ron Bass and playwright Tom Stoppard, both uncredited in the final version, also made contributions to the script.
LEFT: Holly Hunter and Richard Dreyfuss. RIGHT: Richard Dreyfuss and Brad Johnson.

Always followed the same basic premise as A Guy Named Joe, but changed the setting from World War II to that of a modern aerial firefighting operation. Dreyfuss starred as Pete Sandich (altered from the original Sandidge), a reckless aerial firefighter who dies after an engine fire causes his aircraft to explode during a bombing run. Paul Newman and Robert Redford desperately wanted the part, but Dreyfuss was ultimately chosen because «he is the everyday man with whom audiences can relate.» Hunter played his girlfriend, Dorinda Durston, a pilot who doubles as a dispatcher, and John Goodman appeared as Al Yackey, Pete's best friend. The character of Ted Randall, called Ted Baker in the remake, was assigned to newcomer Brad Johnson, in his first co-starring role. Academy Award winner Audrey Hepburn made her final film appearance before her death in 1993 as Hap, Pete's guardian angel. 
Steven Spielberg with Holly Hunter (left) and Audrey Hepburn (right) during filming.
Unlike A Guy Named Joe, production on Always went smoothly. The only major difficulty was producing forest fires for the shoot. Special effects supervisor Mike Wood and his crew solved this problem by fabricating trees that had the ability to «burn on cue.» In addition, to add authenticity, Spielberg used footage of the 1988 Yellowstone National Park fires, which burned throughout that summer and affected 63 percent of the park's total acreage.
Always premiered on December 22, 1989 to a tepid critical reception. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times highlighted the film's «lack of urgency», calling it «dated» and «a curiosity: a remake that wasn't remade enoughVariety gave it a more generous review, describing it as «engagingly casual, somewhat silly, but always entertaining fantasy.» Still, the movie did fairly well financially, grossing $77 million at the box office. The commercial popularity of Always gave way to a new crop of «ghost» pictures, including Jerry Zucker's hugely successful Ghost (1990).
Original release poster (left) and lobby card (right) for Always.
It is always risky to remake a film, especially one that was so successful and that spoke to so many people as A Guy Named Joe did. Always is an enjoyable film, but it pales in comparison to its predecessor. The central problem of «letting go» after a lover's sudden death and the theme of inheriting responsibility and living up to another's heroic sacrifice was crucial to the collective experience of wartime, but it lacks contemporary resonance. As Ralph Novak in People put it, «A Guy Named Joe responded to a most particular need.» During World War II, when young loves were so precarious, audiences needed comforting, something that would somehow create an emotional connection between them and their lost loved ones. Fleming's picture provided that for them, even if it was just an illusion. As such, Always comes across as a dated, easily forgotten imitation, an «oddity» in Spielberg's outstanding body of work.

This post is my contribution to The Remake of the «They Remade What?!» Blogathon, hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. To view all entries, click HERE.

Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood Rebel: A Critical Survey and Filmography by Peter Hanson (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2001)
Irene Dunne: First Lady of Hollywood by Wes D. Gehring (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2006)
Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Kathi Jackson (Greenwood Press, 2007)
Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master by Michael Sragow (University Press of Kentucky, 2013)
A Guy Named Joe at the American Film Institute Catalog


  1. Wow, what a fascinating and detailed review. I actually enjoy both films. But you are right, it is hard to remake a classic with the same success as the original.


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