In A Guy Named Joe (1943), a dead man’s spirit returns to Earth to watch over the woman he left behind and, eventually, to help guide her to a new love.
But Joe throws in a few twists. For starters, it was made in the middle of World War II and its hero is a bomber pilot stationed in England. Killed in an attack on a German warship, he comes back to help his fellow aviators and to hang around his old flame.
In effect, the movie reassured American families that the husbands, fathers, sons and brothers lost in battle remain with us, observing from the hereafter and still committed to the cause of democracy.
From nearly 70 years out, A Guy Named Joe might be dismissed as so much patriotic, propagandistic schmaltz.
Except that this fantasy – directed by the great Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind) – cleverly undermines our objections and goes straight for our romantic buttons. You can try to resist, but...
The film’s strengths begin with Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay, which is packed with great characters and whip-smart dialogue. And then there’s the cast: Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne in their prime. Toss in a young Van Johnson and you’ve got a winner.
Tracy’s Pete, a lovably cocky aerial daredevil, and Dunne’s Dorinda, a smart aviatrix in her own right, have a relationship that is part good-natured competition, part bickering, part utter devotion.
In fact, with their fierce love thinly disguised by ironic posing they offer a template for the characters Tracy would play with frequent collaborator Katherine Hepburn in films like Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike.
Like many other movies about the afterlife, Pete encounters a heavenly bureaucracy. In this case it’s organized like a military operation and populated with other dead fighting men, all dedicated to continuing the battle against the Nazis.
This raises an intriguing question: Are dead German pilots sent back to help train a new generation of Luftwaffe pilots? Are deceased RAF airmen assigned to watch over British troops? What happens to Japanese kamikaze flyers after they’ve crashed into a battleship?
Okay, okay. Too much speculation.
The point is that A Guy Named Joe is swooningly, irresistibly romantic. Which is why it was remade by Steven Spielberg as Always (1989), with Richard Dreyfuss as a pilot who dies fighting a forest fire and Holly Hunter as the girl he left behind.
See Bob's general introduction to the Beyond This Vale of Tears film series.
Other films in the series “Beyond This Vale of Tears: Hollywood Visits the Afterlife”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- December 3: Stairway to Heaven (1946) Not rated
- December 10: Between Two Worlds (1944) Not rated
- December 17: Hereafter (2010) Rated PG-13
- December 24: Heaven Can Wait (1978) Rated PG
- December 31: Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983) Rated R
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- December 5: A Guy Named Joe (1943) Not rated
- December 12: What Dreams May Come (1998) Rated PG-13
- December 19: The Lovely Bones (2009) Rated PG-13
- December 26: Defending Your Life (1991) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.