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Columbia TriStar Home Video presents
"You knew I was fresh out of a bad marriage when we met. I wanted to be sure this time, so I played it safe—until I knew that you were Mr. Right."
DVD ReviewHellcats of the Navy is a classic curio that most likely comes to DVD because it features a former President (you-know-who) in his only screen appearance with his future First Lady (you-know-who). Otherwise, this lackluster, uninspired World War II battle drama would have remained where it belongs, locked in the Columbia vaults gracefully gathering dust. But before calling me unpatriotic or a sour grapes Democrat, consider this: the film practically drove Ronald Reagan out of the industry. Following Hellcats, he made only two more movies before shucking the remnants of his Hollywood career in favor of life in the political limelight. And we all know what happened after that.
Obviously, he made the right decision. For despite a film career spanning two decades and more than fifty movies, Reagan never achieved the lofty star status necessary for cinematic immortality. Forever stuck in supporting roles or B-movie leads, Reagan tried his best to distinguish himself, but his earnest, dependable yet oh-so-bland acting style sabotaged his attempts. His work in Hellcats of the Navy showcases all these white-bread qualities, while at the same time allowing him to look rather presidential in the role of a submarine commander whose integrity is questioned and tested.
The film begins with none other than Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz soberly setting the stage for "one of the most daring and formidable operations in the history of Naval warfare." The year is 1944 and the U.S. Pacific Fleet is ordered to cut off the supply line between Japan and the Asian mainland. Commander Casey Abbott (Reagan) captains the USS Starfish, one of the subs enlisted to carry out the mission, but when a diver is left behind and perishes due to an emergency descent, Lt. Cmdr. Don Landon (Arthur Franz) believes Casey's fateful decision to submerge was irresponsible and personally motivated. It seems the dead sailor was fooling around with Casey's old flame, Nurse Lt. Helen Blair (Mrs. Reagan), so Casey might have deemed him expendable. The incident forges a rift between Casey and Landon and plants seeds of doubt in the crew's collective mind regarding Casey's leadership abilities. Over the course of two subsequent missions, Casey strives to win back their trust, his lost love Helen, and American dominance in the Pacific.
Part of the film's fun is watching Ronald and Nancy Reagan interact, given all that we know about them later in life. Nancy (she was Davis back then) often takes charge in their scenes together, bolstering Reagan's confidence but always strongly stating her opinions—shades of life in the White House. Yet surprisingly, the two possess little chemistry on screen. Their line readings drip with sincerity, but the fact that the Reagans had already been married for four years when Hellcats commenced production may account for the lack of sparks. Their one tepid kiss looks like the perfunctory peck most husbands give their wives before leaving for work in the morning rather than a passionate farewell embrace before departing on a dangerous top-secret mission.
Ironically, for a film that takes place largely at sea, the direction (by Nathan Juran) is as dry as a military briefing on CNN. Production values are typical of Columbia's bargain-basement mentality in the 1950s, with even the battle sequences looking as if they were shot on a military budget. Performances across the board are workmanlike and appropriately stiff, but while they may adequately represent the naval command, they can't help but alienate the audience. It's tough to get involved in Hellcats of the Navy because the cast seems so detached.
Far more affecting World War II submarine films exist (Run Silent, Run Deep; Das Boot, among many others). So unless you're a staunch Republican, a diehard Reaganite or a curiosity hound, let Hellcats of the Navy remain a family heirloom.
Rating for Style: C
Rating for Substance: B-
Image Transfer Review: Columbia has lavished enviable care on Hellcats of the Navy, presenting a widescreen anamorphic transfer remastered in "high definition." While the source material is far from pristine, featuring countless specks and blotches, the image itself has been scrubbed clean, resulting in razor sharp clarity, especially during interior scenes. Exteriors don't fare as well, often exhibiting a grainier look, although that might be attributed to the use of some stock military footage here and there. The black & white photography is far from spectacular, yet probably looks much better than it did on its original theatrical release, thanks to the efforts of the Columbia technicians.
Image Transfer Grade: A-
Audio Transfer Review: The mono soundtrack reproduces the familiar tones of Reagan and Davis in a clear and pleasant manner. Distortion and age-related imperfections are absent, although the audio does sound a bit tinny at times.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Japanese with remote access
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Bridge on the River Kwai, From Here to Eternity, The Guns of Navarone
Extras Review: Three trailers for other Columbia war movies are the only extras included on the disc.
Extras Grade: C-
Final CommentsDespite an excellent transfer and the novelty of seeing Ronald and Nancy Reagan acting outside the political arena, Hellcats of the Navy just doesn't cut it as a noteworthy film. The weak story, stale performances and autopilot direction effectively take the wind out of its sails, leaving this submarine drama dead in the water.
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