Sunday, May 15, 2011

CMBA Movies of 1939 Blogathon - Five Came Back

Whether it was due to a special alignment of the stars or something in the martinis, few will deny that the late 30s in Hollywood was a time of incredible vitality and creativity. No greater evidence exists than the timeless entertainments released in 1939. Cast and crews working on top-budgeted dramas or fan-favourite series and everything in between did more than their best.

One of RKO's outstanding projects for the season is from a Richard Carroll story with the spoilerish title of Five Came Back. The diverse talents behind the screenplay were Jerry Cady (Call Northside 777), Dalton Trumbo (A Guy Named Joe), and Nathanael West (Lonelyhearts). Directing duties were ably handled by Naval veteran and screenwriter John Farrow (The Big Clock) with a seamless and sure hand. Farrow would revisit this story in Back from Eternity, 1956.

Five Came Back is a contemporary adventure/melodrama that concerns a fateful plane trip for a disparate group of passengers. For the movie's brisk 74 minutes we live with a brittle showgirl, a playboy running away with his secretary, an elderly professor and his wife, a revolutionary being escorted to his home country to face death and a gangster charged with caring for his boss' child. All lives are in the hands of our duty-bound pilots when a storm forces a crash landing in a South American jungle. Out of radio range and off their registered flight plan, survival and escape are paramount.

It is when we are under pressure that we really know ourselves and so it is with this group of strangers who must now rely upon each other. The dithery professor is quite a bright fellow and his worrying wife a practical and kind woman. The tough gal has a heart. The playboy reveals he has nothing to reveal. The anarchist is a builder.

The studio-bound set excellently creates the atmosphere of claustrophobia as characters are trapped by the jungle and its' surrounding danger while their spirits soar with unimagined freedoms. Nothing is wasted as the story unfolds because our characters have no time to waste. Life must be lived to the fullest as we race to our heart thumping, heart breaking conclusion in Five Came Back.

Five Came Back is a film on my personal list of favourite ensemble casts - a cast that works together contributing to a single effect. Like the characters in the movie, the actors are thrown together for a brief period of time with one goal. Where did they come from? Where are they going? How did the experience impact their lives?

Chester Morris (1901-1970) played pilot Bill Brooks.

Chester was born to show business parents and made his Broadway debut while a teenager under the auspices of the legendary George M. Cohan. He was nominated for an Oscar for Alibi, and some of his outstanding movies include The Big House and 3 Godfathers. From 1941 - 1949 he starred as Boston Blackie in a popular series of 13 movies which even gave him a chance to show off his skill as a magician.

Chester died by his own hand after receiving a cancer diagnosis.

Lucille Ball (1911-1989) played showgirl Peggy Nolan.

Jamestown, NY born Lucy is a tribute to perseverance as she carved out her place in show business from her beginnings as a model/showgirl to an actress always-on-the-cusp of stardom to a legendary and beloved comic star. The assistant director of Five Came Back, Argyle Nelson, would later be the production manager of Lucy's TV hits and the costume designer Edward Stevenson would give Lucy Ricardo her timeless fashion style.

Wendy Barrie (1912-1978) played secretary and future bride Alice Melbourne.

Wendy was born in Hong Kong to a King's Counsel, raised in a convent school in London and attended a Swiss finishing school. Born Jenkins, she took the name of her godfather, Sir James M. Barrie the creator of a famous "Wendy", for her professional name. Outstanding titles include The Private Life of Henry VIII and Dead End. It is said that her career stalled due to her romantic involvement with gangster Bugsy Siegel, however, her winning personality found a niche on television as a talk show host in the 1950s. Wendy's last years were spent in a nursing home after a stroke.

John Carradine (1906-1988) played Crimp, a government agent.

The voice. An artist and bohemian, born of the same and parent of same. Featured player in classic movies such as Stagecoach and Les Miserables and player who made films classic by his presence. With over 300 movie and TV roles to his credit there is a favourite Carradine performance for everyone from The Prisoner of Shark Island to The Grapes of Wrath to The Shootist.

Allen Jenkins (1900-1974) played Pete, an unlikely gangster/nanny.

Like co-star Chester Morris, Jenkins was born into a family of performers. He served at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during WWI and was a graduate of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The always busy actor was the father of three. Catch him in Destry Rides Again, Pillow Talk, Ball of Fire and as a cop in 3 episodes of I Love Lucy.

Joseph Calleia (1897-1975) played Vasquez, an anarchist.

Joseph Calleia was born in Malta and as a teenager traveled Europe as a singer/musician. It was in the late 1920s that he arrived in the States and found work on Broadway prior to his Hollywood career. Most familiar for gangster roles as in The Thin Man, Mr. Calleia gave us outstanding performances in Five Came Back, The Jungle Book and Touch of Evil. Apparently, Coppola wanted him for Vito Corleone, but poor health intervened or maybe he was enjoying his retirement in Malta too much. The Maltese government has issued two sets of stamps in his honour.

C. Aubrey Smith (1863-1948) played Professor Henry Spengler.

If you were to ask any classic movie fan to picture their idea of a typical Englishman, I imagine the majority of thoughts would first go to Sir C. Aubrey Smith. The Cambridge educated cricketer was given the Order of the British Empire in 1938 and Knighted in 1944 for his contribution to Anglo-American relations.

Smith began his acting career past the age of 30. Character actors require a lot of seasoning, but they are in it for the long haul. Among his famous titles are The Four Feathers and And Then There Were None.

Kent Taylor (1907-1987) played co-pilot, Joe.

Good looking Iowa farm boy Louis Weiss discovered the stage while in high school. A later move to California where he worked in his family's business brought about an introduction to director Henry King and a career in film which included over 130 roles in movies and television.

Co-star Chester Morris was the movies' Boston Blackie and Kent was television's Boston Blackie for two well-remembered seasons. Kent and his wife of 57 years, Augusta, were the parents of three children.

Patric Knowles (1911-1995) played Judson Ellis, wealthy ne'er do well.

The first in his family to enter show business, attempting to run away to the theatre as a teen, Patric Knowles ease in front of the camera is evident in such classic films as How Green Was My Valley, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Charge of the Light Brigade. Why he never became a top leading man is one of those mysteries of the ages.

During WW2 Knowles achieved the rank of Sergeant-Instructor in the Royal Canadian Air Force and later was a civilian instructor with the US Army Air Force at Miraloma Academy. Patric was married for 60 years to Enid Percival and the father of two. In his later years, he was a proud and involved grandfather, and a tireless worker for charities for elderly actors.

Elisabeth Risdon (1887-1958) played Elizabeth Spengler.

Versatile Elisabeth Risdon was a graduate of London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. She appeared in early silent films in England and made her Broadway debut in George Bernard Shaw's Fanny's First Play in 1912. Decades of Broadway appearances followed, and tours of North America with George Arliss. On-screen Elisabeth could be patrician as in The Canterville Ghost or shrewish as in Tall in the Saddle. Fans remember classic roles in High Sierra, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Theodora Goes Wild, and as Aunt Della in the Mexican Spitfire series.

Dick Hogan (1917-1995) played steward, Larry.

Dick was a nightclub singer whose gigs included working with Glenn Miller. His film career includes 40 roles, many uncredited, and a few mirroring his experience as a WW2 veteran, including So Proudly We Hail and Action in the North Atlantic. By the 1950s Dick left Hollywood for his Arkansas birthplace and entered the insurance field.

Casey Johnson played Tommy Mulvaney.

Casey Johnson had a brief career as a child actor appearing in 12 movies between 1939 and 1946. Popular titles include Boom Town, One Foot in Heaven and This Land is Mine.

Five Came Back was a few weeks work for these actors in 1939. A paycheque? Fulfilling a contract? The desired role? A hopeful stepping stone? A daily chore? A pleasure to get to work? A forgotten blur in a long career? A fond memory? Five Came Back may have been all of these things.

Five Came Back is an eternal treat for movie fans to this day. An adventure film with heart that stands the test of time with a magical glow.


  1. I really need to see this one, sounds so interesting :)I love these kind of movies, the ones that explore different stories of characters who are connected some way. Plus the casting is terrific. Thanks for your review, Caftan Woman.

  2. Caftan Woman, I haven't seen this movie in ages and definitely want to revisit it again based on your review. Wow, what an impressive list of screenwriters! I'm also a sucker for adventure pics with this kind of premise (FLIGHT OF THE PHOENIX is one of my favorite films). Thanks for another insightful, informative review and a great choice for the latest CMBA blogathon.

  3. This film has such a GREAT cast! It shows you don't need a film with just top A-list stars to make it good - what's so great about golden-age Hollywood is that so many actors were wonderful at all levels. I haven't seen this film, but your review makes me want to watch it - hope it's on DVD!

  4. "Whether it was due to a special alignment of the stars or something in the martinis, few will deny that the late 30s in Hollywood was a time of incredible vitality and creativity."

    Is this a great opening or what?

    I've never seen this one, but with luck I will one of these days. I love these stories where the action takes place in a confined space and so the movie is moved along through character development. Great job.

  5. A wonderful look back at a special film. I saw it as a teenager at the L.A. County Museum of Art and it made an unforgettable impression. I haven't seen it since -- in part because it was a fairly overwhelming experience seeing it on a big screen -- your review causes me to want to see it all over again. :) It really does show what a bunch of total pros could do with relatively little in terms of budget, time, etc.

    Best wishes,

  6. Five Came Back is sort of textbook proof that when people think B-movies mean "bad" they just don't understand the concept of programmers. Oftentimes the lower budget films were more entertaining than their stuffier "A" movie cousins and this one is a real pip--not only does it have an amazing cast and first-rate direction but the ending of the film is definitely one that stays with you long after having seeing it.

    And I laughed out loud at your reference to the title being "spoilerish" because I lent a friend of mine my copy of this movie (I had taped it off TV onto a videocassette) and he was ticked off because he thought I telegraphed the movie's plot.

  7. Except review of a great movie! I loved the bios of all the stars too. Your review of the movie really made it come alive!

  8. Thank you for choosing this film to blog about - it's such a sleeper but as you have so excellently pointed out - a real gem from RKO. Lucy fans should see this one for a a very different role for her. I'm lucky to have a costume sketch that Edward Stevenson did for Wendy Barrie from the movie.

  9. CW,
    I have to admit that I've not seen this film and it's most likely because I'm just not a big Lucille Ball fan. (I know that awful) then Wendy Barrie has never been a favorite either.
    After reading your great review the film does sound interesting so I promise not to ignore it the next time I see it's on.

  10. Thanks for all your kind words and your interest and memories of "Five Came Back".

    I first saw the movie as a teenager and the memory was so overwhelming that I was almost afraid to mar it by seeing it again. However, it ran a couple of years ago on Canada's Silver Screen Classics and proved to be as rich a viewing experience as ever.

    To those who have yet to join the club, you will not be disappointed.

  11. an overlooked gem...
    good director and cast...
    thanx for all the "mini-bios"

  12. Caftan Woman, FIVE CAME BACK is one of those films I keep hearing about and keep meaning to catch up with, but, to semi-paraphrase a line from John Lennon, life keeps happening to me while I'm busy making other plans. Your fascinating review and your mini-bios of the stars have me determined to catch up with it sooner rather than later. Thanks for your great post!

    Page, I was never a huge Lucille Ball fan, but I've found that I like her best in dramatic roles, like her performance in THE DARK CORNER. (By the way, barring unforeseen circumstances, I intend to blog about THE DARK CORNER on May 27th, if anyone's interested :-))

  13. Dorian,
    Thanks for letting us know about The Dark Corner. Who knows, I might become a Ball fan after all.

  14. I NEED TO SEE THIS MOVIE! Your review was wonderfully done and does what a great review should so - send me running to get this film!

  15. I have not seen this in a long time but I remember liking Lucy in it. The entire cast is quite good. A terrific B film. A decent remake was done in 1956 called BACK TO ETERNITY.

  16. Dorian, I appreciate the compliment and hope this moves "Five Came Back" up on the must-see list.

    Page, Lucy will win you over yet.

  17. Thank you so much, FlickChick. I hope when you see "Five Came Back" you will let me know what you think.

    John, pleased to meet another fan. John Farrow also directed "Back from Eternity" (what is it about some directors and certain material?), and while there is nothing wrong with it, it doesn't have the magic that I found in "Five Came Back".

  18. I watched “Five Came Back” not long ago for the first time in a long time - long enough that the experience was a kind of rediscovery. Great review of a picture that probably deserves more recognition than it gets. I especially liked your individual write-ups on each of the terrific cast members.

  19. Like Eve, I saw this just a few months ago again after many years and really enjoyed it. A good situation that has been used in so many films, and what a wonderful cast. No big stars, but what great actors! Along with "Stage Door" probably Lucy's best early role. The title may give away the ending, but what it doesn't reveal is the most critical thing--WHICH five come back and why?

  20. This film sounds really interesting and is one I'd not heard of before. Thanks for the great review!

  21. Thanks for your supportive comments, folks. Perhaps we've started a revival or cult for "Five Came Back".

  22. Can't tell you how many times in the past I've watched this film. I absolutely love it!! I was so pleasantly surprised to find it being talked about. THANKS SO MUCH FOR THIS POST about one of my favorite films.

    I think there were one or two re-makes of this story. I remember one with Anita Ekberg and vaguely remember another one. Each time the story works its magic.

    I need to see this again as soon as possible. Thanks for the truly GREAT review, Caftanwoman.

  23. I haven't seen this one in years but I need to see it again. It may be a B movie, but that's an A level cast. I knew about the leads, but didn't know there were so many great character actors in it.

    RKO made some of the best B movies in Hollywood's Golden Age.

    There's a video store by my house that has more than 20,000 videos and DVDs for rent. I was in there once talking to the owner and someone came into rent a VHS copy of "Five Came Back." The owner said to the guy, "This rents all the time."

    The guy said, "Well, its a great movie. One of my personal favorites." Looks like other people share your opinion of this one.

  24. C Woman, this is a really fantastic review. I've always liked this movie very much. As Ivan mentioned, low budget does not mean bad -- often the actors and crew work harder to offset the low budget! Your review of the movie is right on, and you put an incredible amount of work into your research about the actors. I loved it! I was tickled to see that Lucy Ricardo's character and unforgettable look were created by two of the excellent craftsmen involved in this movie, which came years before I Love Lucy! Great job!

  25. Yvette, Kevin, Becky - it does my heart good to read such complimentary comments from bona fide members of the "Five Came Back" club.

    Interesting as well to learn about the film's high rentability quotient. Three cheers for Farrow & Co.

  26. I'm so glad you reviewed this film. I really enjoyed it when I saw it many years ago, and I can't really add to what others said about the quality of B films. I am excited to see your review of "The Dark Corner," which is a terrific film.

  27. I'll admit, I watched this movie initially because it starred Lucille Ball, and I didn't expect much from it (let's face it, a few of the films featuring the "Queen of the Bs" were of the "stinker" variety). But I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this one in the end. The cast really is a "who's who" of supporting players--I remember pointing at the screen a couple of times and asking myself, "Now where did I see that guy/gal before?"

    Really enjoyed reading your review! I'm planning to watch or re-watch most of the films in Lucy's filmography this summer in honor of her 100th birthday, and now I can't wait to catch this one again.

  28. Wonderful review for a adventure thriller, in which we get to see how some will sacrifice themselves, while others will think only of themselves.

    You could not have a better cast: Lucille Ball, Chester Morris, Wendy Barrie, Patric Knowles, John Carradine, Allen Jenkins, Joseph Calleia and Sir C. Aubrey Smith.

  29. Classicfilmboy, trueclassics and Dawn - let the Lucy love begin! She really shows her mettle in this gem of a movie and it's been marvelous for me to see so many fans who appreciate "Five Came Back".

  30. CW, I am so sorry to be commenting on your post so late, I am still paying visits to fellow bloggers entries in the blogathon. I don’t recall seeing Five Came Back from beginning to end, although some of the story is certainly familiar. I think, sometimes, that it is a bit like Lifeboat on dry land (if that’s a fair comparison). Your background information on some of my favorite character actors, and those less familiar, is both entertaining and informative. I had no idea the various backgrounds and life experiences of Wendy Barrie, Allen Jenkins, Joseph Calleia and Patric Knowles (I agree, he was handsome and talented and should have made a wonderful leading man). I would also echo Jacqueline T Lynch's observation regarding your great stars and martinis opening.

  31. Whistlinggypsy, so pleased to see you here. You're welcome any time. Thanks for the compliment.

    Interesting comparison to "Lifeboat". Decisions under stress are decisions of necessity.

    Like you, I'm enjoying the 1939 blogathon and I'm stretching out my reading. Rain is continuing up here, so tomorrow it will be hot pots of tea and plenty of movie talk.

  32. You make me long to see Five Came Back again and I loved the fact that you took the time to write about the lives of each of the players. I am puzzled by the relative obscurity of Patric Knowles too, but suspect that it may have its roots in his similar appearance to one Errol Flynn. The world could probably only take one of those at a time, so apparently, the far more even-keeled Knowles had to settle for a full life instead of a comet-like existence.

    I am very fond of Joseph Calleia, whose singular acting always arrests my attention whenever I see him. His last scene in this film with C. Aubrey Smith and Elisabeth Risdon is so touching I get a lump in my throat just thinking of it.

    I did not know about Wendy Barrie and Bugsy Siegel! I guess he had good taste at least once in his life, though it may have been one reason why Wendy seemed stuck in B movies for so long.

    Thank you so much for writing this, Patricia--and have a Happy Victoria Day!

  33. Thanks for the holiday wishes, Moira. Three cheers for Her Majesty, and a long weekend!

    It's fun to discover and share things about these favourite actors such as Knowles WW2 duties, Barrie's love life and stamps issued in honour of our beloved Joseph Calleia. I really appreciate your feedback.

  34. Ooh, this sounds like a great one. I love adventure/disaster ensembles -- and Lucille Ball sounds like the icing on the cake (I'll watch her in anything). Great review and excellent contribution to the blogathon!


  35. Thanks, Caroline. I hope the Movie Fates put "Five Came Back" in your path soon.



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