"Do not despair, For Johnny-head-in-air;
He sleeps as sound, As Johnny underground.
Fetch out no shroud, For Johnny-in-the-cloud;
And keep your tears, For him in after years.
Better by far, For Johnny-the-bright-star,
To keep your head, And see his children fed."
--John Pudney, "For Johnny," 1941
When is a war movie not a war movie? When it's "The Way to the Stars."
Two Cities Films, with the cooperation and encouragement of the Royal Air Force, produced "The Way to the Stars" (also known as "Johnny in the Clouds"), a 1945 British military film set during the Second World War but more about the effects of the War on the men and women who served in it, directly or indirectly, than the action of the War itself. A stellar cast of top British actors helps considerably in making the drama as persuasive today as it was all those many decades ago.
The story, written by Terrence Rattigan ("Brighton Rock," "The Winslow Boy," "The Browning Version," "The Prince and the Showgirl," "Goodbye, Mr. Chips") and directed by Anthony Asquith ("Pygmalion," "The Winslow Boy," "The Browning Version," "The Importance of Being Earnest," "The Yellow Rolls Royce"), chronicles the activities at a small British air base, Halfpenny Field, and a nearby hotel, from 1940-1945. The idea is to show audiences how the War affected the lives of the airmen, their families, and their friends. It is not a conventional "war" film but more of a slice-of-life, a psychological character study; as such, it is hard to fault on any level.
If the film suffers at all, however, it's from the lack of a strong central character. It tries to present the lives of a number of people, with the closest thing to a main character being Pilot Officer Peter Penrose, played by Sir John Mills. It seems a shame that today more people worldwide probably know Mills best as the father of an equally famous daughter, Hayley Mills; still John Mills was a fine actor, and playing the young man newly assigned to the airbase in 1940, he puts in a strong and convincing job. The character Penrose was a schoolmaster before the War, and as an inexperienced pilot, he's not too secure at flying a plane. Yet he has the spirit and the ambition to fly, to defend his country and the world, and it's that dedication that wins the day. That and the fact that he's a fine chap all the way around makes him a likable character to follow. His romancing a young woman, Iris Winterton (Renee Asherton), in the nearby town forms one of the film's several central conflicts.
Of almost equal significance is Flight Lt. David Archdale, played by Sir Michael Redgrave. Coincidentally, as with John Mills many viewers today may be more familiar with Redgrave's offspring: daughters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave and granddaughter Natasha Richardson. Archdale is Penrose's roommate at the base, and he becomes Penrose's best friend. Like Penrose, Archdale falls in love with a young woman from the town, Miss "Toddy" Todd (Rosamund John), who is also among the film's strongest characters.
The supporting cast seem of secondary importance, although each of them gets his or her time to shine. And there's a wonderful collection of them: Douglass Montgomery plays Johnny Hollis, an American airman who comes to the base as a part of the American contingent that assumes command of the place in 1942. He and his fellow Americans, like Bonar Colleano as Joe Friselli, a typical wise guy, bring American slang and mannerisms with them that establish a comical culture clash at the base. For instance, the British airmen find the term "buddy" funny; and American viewers may find a phrase like "...ruddy nearly pranged the kite" practically needs subtitles.
Then there are David Tomlinson (think "Mary Poppins") as "Prune" Parsons; Stanley Holloway (think "My Fair Lady") as Mr. Palmer; Trevor Howard (think "The Third Man") as Squadron Leader Carter; Bill Owen (think "Last of the Summer Wine") as Sgt. Nobby Clarke; and a young Jean Simmons (think "Guys and Dolls") as a singer.
Director Asquith pulls off the whole affair with good humor and high drama, yet not an ounce of sentimentality. There are several plot threads that you might think are going to turn corny or melodramatic or at the least be predictable, but they don't turn out that way. It's a neat trick, from the wonderfully effective pan through the empty RAF base at the beginning of the film to the amusing scenes at the base and the hotel to the beauty of the friendships to the pathos of the loneliness and loss.
"The Way to the Stars" scores on almost every emotional front it approaches, without mawkishness, without awkwardness, without mockery. The film makes a seriously rewarding viewing experience.
VCI digitally restored the film and present it in something close to its native aspect ratio, 1.33:1. Although there are a few indications of age--occasional flecks and specks--the screen looks remarkably clean most of the time. Black-and-white contrasts are excellent, with deep blacks and gleaming whites. What's more, for a standard-definition product, the object delineation and detailing are quite good.
It appears that VCI tried to leave the monaural soundtrack as close to original as possible, meaning they used only a modicum of noise reduction. The Dolby Digital reproduction has a small degree of noise left in the background--hiss, some buzzing at times--but it really only manifests itself if you turn the volume up too high. At a normal listening level, it's hardly distracting. The sound does exhibit a slight forward edge and offers little dynamic impact or frequency range, but we might expect this of so old a track.
As usual with an older film from VCI, the disc includes no extras beyond a few scene selections, in this case twelve. There are a couple of promos at start-up, and English is the only language choice. Fair enough.
"The Way to the Stars" provides good, straight-ahead drama, with fine acting and solid direction. While there is not a lot of action involved, there is quite a lot going on. It's just that most of what happens is on an interpersonal level. The emphasis here is on characterization, and the emphasis succeeds. We get to know and respect the characters; we become involved in their lives. That, too, is fair enough.
"Unter dem Lavabo
befindet sich ein Topf."