June Allyson is TCM’s star of the day, one of the last as August draws to a close. A perpetually sunny screen personality, most of the movies in today’s lineup reflect that. The one exception is my recommendation, High Barbaree, her second film with best friend and frequent co-star Van Johnson. It is my favorite of their films, so different in tone from the boisterous comedies that would follow. The melancholy that permeates it is closer to Two Girls and a Sailor (1944), but there’s no slapstick or the usual pep in this wartime drama. It’s the only one of their movies where they both star that makes me sad.
The film unfolds primarily in flashback, and though Van and June have minimal screentime together, High Barbaree doesn’t suffer from this.
Alec Brooke and Nancy Fraser have known each other ever since they were kids. Alec proposed to Nancy when she was just seven years old. They’ve had the childhood defining adventures and the more bizarre ones. But the bucolic days in their Iowa hometown have been replaced by the war. The two are on board a ship with the canvas of sea and sky as a backdrop. The camera doesn’t ever frame them in close up but the anxiety on Nancy’s face is very apparent. Alec tries to soothe her with his words but they don’t have any effect. She’s desperately worried they won’t have any more time together.
“I think that I love you very much. I want to tell you and tell you and tell you.”
But then the time comes for Alec to ship out, and they say their bittersweet goodbye, sealed with a kiss and some tears. We next see Alec piloting an aircraft with High Barbaree painted on its side. Alec is shot down, all of his crew dying in the attack save himself and another, Lt. Joe Moore. As the two men drift in the Pacific, stranded and with no immediate chance of rescue, Alec begins to recount his life in Iowa, and of the most beautiful girl he ever knew, Nancy.
The flashbacks don’t contain anything extraordinary, just the simple joys of small town life and youth, a town that Alec can never feel disconnected from even in the middle of the ocean.
Meanwhile Nancy, a Navy nurse with Alec’s Uncle Thad (Thomas Mitchell) is suddenly awoken by a premonition. Alec is in trouble. She wants to go to him right away, but Thad, while sympathetic, rejects her pleas. “I’m asking you this with everything inside of me.” It’s the heartwarming intensity that characterized the best of June’s roles, and which made her such a convincing performer. It can also be applied to her personal life and the survivor’s spirit she had. She did it all with everything inside of her.
Back out on the Pacific, Alec has begun spinning one of Uncle Thad’s tales about High Barbaree, an island “rising high, high up out of the ocean.” He and Thad even marked it on a map once. But Thad has always been a weaver of fantasy, regaling his nephew and Nancy with his adventurous life on the sea. High Barbaree might not even be real, no matter how much Thad believes that he saw it. But Alec and Joe chart their position on the map, and see that they’re making a course for it. And that island is what motivates them as the water supply dwindles and despair begins to grip them, Joe especially. So Alec continues to tell stories about his home and Nancy.
Nancy moved away to Wisconsin. Her and Alec’s farewell scene was just as emotional as the one at the beginning of the film. Alec was running after her parents’ truck, he promised her that they would see each other again, with all the heartbreaking conviction of a kid. As the years went on Alec abandoned his dreams of becoming a doctor like his father and went into aviation. He rose through the ranks to become vice president of the company owned by his sweetheart’s father, John Case. The daughter is Julia (Marilyn Maxwell), a stunner with sparkling white blonde hair.
Everything is going great for Alec. He’s got everything a young man could want. When Nancy reappears in his life, he’s surprised, but glad to see his old friend again.
Marilyn Maxwell was a knockout. So the film stretches its credulity a bit when she sees Nancy at her family’s party and remarks to Alec that she’s very attractive. Would Aphrodite actually feel threatened by a mere mortal? Maybe she would be considering Alec’s history with Nancy. But there really isn’t anything between them, since his and Julia’s engagement is announced later that night. Poor Nancy though is crestfallen at the news.
Alec doesn’t heed Nancy’s words, at least not right away. But he does eventually. He does it because she’s right, because he loves her, because they belong together. He could never be disconnected from Nancy, the same way he can never be disconnected from home.
There’s an innocence to High Barbaree, a fragility. It’s got a vivid quality of tenderness. June and Van were always a winning combo but in this film they are so right, and so good.
Junie was adorable, almost too adorable. It made sense that she played teenagers well into her 20s and was always appearing younger onscreen for as long as it was possible. She was only 5’2, so seeing the height difference between her and Van, who was a foot taller, makes you just want to scoop her up! (Which Jimmy Stewart, who was 6’3, did on one occasion). In each of her films she was never helpless. She radiated a quiet strength – she could bend but she wouldn’t break. There was something so simple about her, from her unadorned face to her distinctive raspy voice, to her smile that creased her eyes and nose. Wholesome, sweet, and steely.
Watch High Barbaree, and the other films TCM is airing today and see for yourself.
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