A Wartime Melodrama Showcases An Unlikely Trio of Classic Hollywood Stars
DIRECTED BY LEWIS SEILER / 1942
BLU-RAY STREET DATE September 10, 2019 / KINO-LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
For all of America’s love affair with the ‘Rugged Individual,’ our most enduring myths are those of groups of people working together to achieve something for the good of all. Consider the stories we tell of America’s independence. Thomas Jefferson was the one who wrote the Declaration of Independence, but he was just one man among many who worked hard to give birth to the ideals of American democracy. Look at the western: the real heroes are the forces of law, order and civilization who band together to carve a society out of the wilderness of the American frontier. The lone gunslinger is a popular figure, but they are often cast as an outsider. They can help bring justice and peace to the west, but must forever be apart from it.
The propaganda surrounding America’s entry into World War II was no different. Posters, newsreels, stage shows- almost every facet of American pop culture all enforced the same message: Everyone needs to do their part. We must all work together if we are to achieve victory.
Enter the movie Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is a fairly standard ‘rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches’ tale starring Marlene Dietrich, Randolph Scott and John Wayne. Scott and Wayne, two actors better known for their role in cowboy movies, play a pair of coal miners. Wayne plays Charles ‘Pittsburgh’ Markham and Scott is Cash Evans. They’re best buddies, even when Pittsburgh cons his pal into a prize fight for money, so Pittsburgh can buy a fancy suit.
During the fight, the two meet Josie Winters (Dietrich). Pitt is instantly smitten. When Josie tells him she has no use for a lowly coal miner and wants someone with big plans, that spurs Pitt on to quit his job (quitting for Cash as well). This starts him on his way towards building a steel empire, promising Cash that when they’re on top, they can really change things for the better for the common man.
Pitts actions soon give lie to all of his fancy talk, however. He becomes short-sighted, focused only on his goals of amassing more wealth and power. He dumps Josie and marries the daughter of a wealthy steel magnate when it becomes advantageous for him to do so. He cuts off funding to his professor friend’s lifelong research when he doesn’t see any immediate earnings in it. And when Cash sides with the workers over Piit’s profits, Cash quits, delivering his resignation letter with his two fists! One by one, all of the people Pitt cares about drop out of his life, and he finds he’s made many more enemies than friends along the way.
It’s no spoiler to tell you that everything is made right between the two men by the end of the movie. The story begins during the war, as the steel mill celebrates the efforts everybody is making for the boys overseas. The whole tale is then told in an extended flashback, as the professor explains to Cash and Pitt how everyone got to this point, as if they hadn’t lived it. It’s an incredibly clunky structure on what is otherwise a perfectly fine melodrama.
The real draw to Pittsburgh is the cast. Watching the unlikely combination of Dietrich, Scott and Wayne play off of each other is a real treat. This was actually the second time this group appeared together on screen. The first was in Universal’s The Spoilers, released the same year. In that one, Wayne and Scott’s roles were reversed, with Scott playing the heavy and Wayne playing the hero. Despite Wayne having the larger and more important role in both films, Scott was billed above him, a testament to Scott’s star power at that time. Dietrich was billed above them both.
Another noteworthy member of the cast is the once-and-future Stooge, Shemp Howard. Howard plays Shorty, a tailor who’s cheated out of a suit by Pittsburgh early in the film. It’s a bit part, but a memorable one. And a great reminder as to how funny Howard could be on his own merits, and not when forced to ape the antics of his younger brother, Curly.
If Pittsburgh works as a movie at all, it works to serve as a fine piece of that aforementioned war propaganda. Pittsburgh is a man who’s only out for himself from the get-go. Sure, he’s a charmer, but he’s also a man uses others for his own ends all of his life. Whether that’s for stealing a bottle of whiskey back in his coal mining days, or for squeezing out extra profits by cheating his workers while he’s on top. He’s only redeemed when he puts aside his selfish pursuits and joins in a cause bigger than any one man. Patriotism and service for the greater good are held in higher esteem than the pursuit of wealth.
As a child who grew up on classic Looney Tunes cartoons, the heavy handed approach to wartime propaganda isn’t new to me. The message of everyone chipping in, making sacrifices and doing their part for the common good found their way even into the antics of a cartoon duck and rabbit. It’s a message that’s been lost somewhere along the way, but one that’s well-worth keeping in mind as we face the global challenges of today.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-Ray of Pittsburgh is presented in the classical Academy format, at 1080P. The only feature packaged with the movie is the theatrical trailer.