By Norm Robins
On June 4, 1944, the largest amphibious assault in history was launched. Allied forces landed on five beaches of Normandy. They were from the U.S., Britain, Canada, Poland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway. It began with a 1200 plane assault. Then 160,000 troops landed from 5000 naval vessels. By August 1944, 2 million allied troops were in France. Playwright Paddy Chayefsky was one of them.
We looked at his The Hospital, a study in characterization. We then looked at his Network, a study in plot. Aristotle teaches us you need one or the other but not both. Too much of both can be overwhelming. The Americanization of Emily, directed brilliantly by Arthur Heller, is a morality play wrapped in a very, very funny comedy. It was a chance for Chayefsky to use the tool of the author’s spokesman in the person of Lt. Commander Charlie Madison played to the hilt by James Garner.
Charlie doesn’t like this war, but he is a dogrobber. He lives in opulence. He wears a gold braid looped over his left shoulder and under his arm to announce to the world he is indeed a dogrobber. What’s a dogrobber? He is an orderly, one step above a butler, to a general or admiral who acquires things (and people) for him. He would even rob a dog of its bone for his general or admiral, hence the name.
Foreigners, especially Americans, flooded Britain in preparation for the imminent invasion. The Brits complained that the Yanks were overpaid, oversexed, and over here. Charlie has Emily Barham, played beautifully by Julie Andrews, as his driver. She is a prig, and Charlie seems to have the morality of a streptococcus. They have an affair. They fall in love.
In London Charlie needs to find a fourth person for a bridge game that evening with his admiral, Charlie, and one other high-ranking officer. Emily plays bridge. She is chosen for the job. Charlie brings her into his hotel room where there is a small bed, a bit of other furniture, and a veritable mountain of goodies needed for his work, dresses from Saks for the Admiral’s escorts, Arpege perfume, silk stockings, champagne, bourbon, chocolate, etc. He tells her to pick out a dress suitable for that evening’s occasion. Emily the prig is appalled by the treasures in his room while Britain has endured 5 years of grinding privation.
This monologue isn’t the character Charlie talking. It is pure Chayefsky.
The love affair deepens. Emily brings Charlie to her mother’s house so they can have tea and chat. Her mother played initially with whimsey by Joyce Grenfell has lost a husband, a son, and the son-in-law who was Emily’s husband in battles. Mrs. Barham has snapped. She is delusional about the deaths denying they happened. Before the meeting Emily tells Charlie to humor her. Once again Chayefsky’s anti-war sentiments are employed with brutal candor against Mrs. Barham to the dismay of Emily. But Charlie seems to have stunned her out of her delusion. Whimsey is put to flight. She is thankful for that. She invites him back sometime.
Could there be acting any more touching and compelling than Joyce Grenfell’s in this scene? This film clip is worth watching more than once, once to hear Charlie’s monologue and a second time to keep eyes fixed on Mrs. Barham’s response during it. Grenfell’s acting is sometimes without lines. She shows us with desperate facial expressions and fidgety hands the turmoil going on inside her character. On the inside she breaks the delusion she has been suffering to cope with her losses. She is the star of this scene, and she walks away with it. Likewise, the directing is perfect. Heller frames Charlie and Mrs. Barham in the dialogue between the two and leaves Emily out. Emily’s comments are where she is framed by herself.
It was common wisdom that the invasion would bring the War to a close. Then the civilians would take over. Charlie’s boss, Admiral William Jessup played with his usual flawless integrity by Melvyn Douglas, has a nervous breakdown over the upcoming Congressional hearings on future funding of the Navy versus the Army. He thinks the Army always wins that one. To burnish the Navy’s image Jessup tells Charlie he wants Charlie to photograph the first death on Normandy’s Omaha Beach, and he wants the dead man to be a sailor. Charlie is to accompany the Navy demolition teams preparing the beach for invasion and film them.
The first combatant killed on Omaha beach is a sailor, Charlie himself, shot by Lt. Commander Paul “Bus” Cummings played with comic genius by James Coburn. Bus thinks Charlie refuses to go ashore as he was ordered. He wants to run back to the landing craft. Cowardice! Treason! Dereliction of duty! Conduct unbecoming an officer! He pulls out his 45 and plugs Charlie. But wait. No, Charlie was not indeed killed. They find him in a Southampton hospital recovering from Bus’s gunshot wound. The subsequent meeting between them is comic genius by both. It is hysterical.
What a marvelous film this is. It is funny, witty, and articulate. And it is serious as can be. It pulls no punches. This is a 1964 movie about a 1944 event, but it will be with us for a long time to come.
The Americanization of Emily is available for rent or purchase from Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, and Google Play for a pittance. Amazon Prime has given me messages lately that the video is currently unavailable. I rented it from Vudu for 4 bucks, cheap in my book.