Exactly one year ago today, America’s quintessential child star, Shirley Temple departed from this world – leaving behind an iconic legacy in the world of film. Many mourned her death as the end of an era, whether it be due to her work in Hollywood as that darling little song-and-dance girl, her victory over breast cancer as an adult, her unwitting commitment to the sales of grenadine syrup in bars and restaurants everywhere, or even her involvement in politics between the late ’60s to early ’90s. To the slightly off-kilter people around the globe like me, however – those of us who can appreciate true cinematic works of art, but tend to find more joy in bad movies – the demise of Shirley Temple marked the end of a slightly different era. For, had it not been for Shirley Temple, there would have been no John Agar.
Agar, a meat-packer turned Army Air Corps sergeant and physical training instructor, made history in 1945 when he married the famous actress, who was then just a girl of 17. And thus began his integration from “real” life into film: acting contracts, acting lessons, and acting alongside John Wayne. All because he married a child star. Of course, his performances always left something to be desired when he found himself cast in A-list movies. Thankfully, that less-than-graceful world of B-moviedom is only a stone’s throw away for the relatives of screen actors, and Agar would eventually be immortalized in certain circles for the star of several B unit sci-fi gems in the ’50s and many cheapo productions in the ’60s after their marriage officially ended in 1950, wherein Temple would wed businessman Charles Alden Black.
Now, anyone who knows me (or has read at least two of my other articles) has probably figured out that the latter sort of movies are my bread and butter. In all honesty, I have seen more works by John Agar than Shirley Temple. But that has nothing to do with the fact that he kept making movies long after Temple’s film career had faded to Black; it has everything to do with my own personal lack of “good” taste. In fact, as a teenager, John Agar became something of a bizarre, wholly unnecessary obsession for me. I still watch John Guillerman’s 1976 remake of King Kong (which was widely regarded as the bad remake until Peter Jackson won that coveted title), where Agar appears briefly, every year or so, and recently grabbed the Japanese Blu-ray just so I could enjoy ’70s-era John Agar in High-Definition.
Did you know that the now-defunct Dinosaur World in Arkansas was briefly renamed “John Agar’s Land of Kong” (with permission) during the late ’70s following the actor’s appearance in the film as the Mayor of New York? I did. It’s fascinating, folks – in a way that it genuinely, truly isn’t. But I digress. While I can’t say I have completely outgrown my obsession with John Agar, I cannot say that I have seen every single movie John Agar has appeared in (I don’t actively go out of my way to complete the list; why add fuel to the fire, right?). Thanks to the efforts of the Warner Archive Collection, I have been able to mark another movie off my very idle queue. But 1949’s Adventure in Baltimore is not your average John Agar flick, kids: it is actually the second and final film in which John Agar and Shirley Temple appeared together.
With their honeymoon long over and their marriage close to an end as well, the two stars do their best to play childhood friends who eventually realize they love each other in this romantic comedy/drama from RKO Radio Pictures. It’s not easy for the pair, however, mostly because the story is a fairly tepid one. In fact, were it not for a delightfully subdued performance by top-billed Robert Young as Temple’s onscreen father, Adventure in Baltimore would probably seem a lot worse than it actually already is. Here, Temple plays Dinah, the rebellious art-student teenage daughter of an Episcopalian pastor (Young), who is about as hip and streetwise as one can get in 1905 Baltimore. Expelled from art school for being too radical of a thinker (unlike her later political preference, Shirley’s very liberal in this one), Dinah returns home to stir up more trouble.
She doesn’t mean to, of course. It just happens that she’s good at causing uproar wherever she goes. And when you’re a headstrong open-minded teenage girl in a world where women are regarded as being only slightly better than a man’s dog – to say nothing of the fact Snapchat hasn’t been invented yet – the mere mention of your own opinions aloud are bound to cause some turmoil. In-between her unintentional antics, Dinah tries to catch the eye of her hardworking longtime male pal Tom (Agar), who is currently attached to the demanding qualities of a continental lass named Bernice (played, interestingly enough, by an obscure Baltimore-born actress named Carol Brannon, in one of her few credited roles). All the while throughout her Adventure, Dinah’s kick-ass minister of a father assures her that it’s OK to be herself, though her escapades could very well ruin his chance of becoming Bishop!
Frankly, Adventure in Baltimore has all the makings of a minor classic, and several highlights – such as Young’s hidden ballroom dancing skills emerging on the dance floor in an effort to cheer up his depressed daughter, to the scene where Agar reads an emasculating speech on equality penned by his lady-friend – are pretty fun. And then there’s that final shot at the close of the film, where Agar seats his soon-to-be ex-wife at the dinner table and, as he looks down, gives her a totally out-of-character glance just before the screen dissolves to the end title. Sadly, there’s just something bland about this particular Adventure in Baltimore on the whole. So much so, that many viewers probably won’t even realize that there isan adventure going on in front of them – and the charms of co-stars like Albert Sharpe and Josephine Hutchinson ultimately can’t keep the project afloat.
Audiences of 1949 didn’t particularly care for the movie, either, as the studio reported a substantial loss on the title. Despite the fact that I wasn’t entirely in love with the film, either, Adventure in Baltimore nevertheless makes for an interesting view, and I thank the Warner Archive Collection for bringing this obscurity to DVD. Presented in its original Academy aspect ratio, the video presentation of this Manufactured-on-Demand release is quite lovely, and the accompanying mono soundtrack sounds just fine. A bonus trailer, culled from a rather washed-out and fuzzy 16mm source by the look of things, is also included – and stands out for prominently depicting an ordinary, out-of-makeup Robert Young as it flashes through the cast. The movie’s artwork, which is used on the DVD cover, also (inexplicably) shows us a “regular” Robert Young instead of his film character.
Frankly, that may be much more interesting than Adventure in Baltimore itself, but at least the movie helped to satisfy a long-overdue John Agar fix I had been unknowingly craving for who knows how long. It’s certainly no Zontar, The Thing from Venus, mind you.
But then, that might be a good thing.