High Barbaree (1947) DVD Review: Van Johnson and June Allyson Drop a Bomb

As anyone who has ever judged a wet t-shirt contest in a college town can surely attest to, there’s nothing quite like a great pairing. And the same rule applies to film – especially when the chemistry of two actors always seems to ignite a certain spark amongst audiences. A grand example of such a cinematic union would be RKO’s dynamite combination of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, whose films together have withstood the test of time. But of course, for every grand pairing, there are usually some relatively minor fictional couplings. In fact, there’s a strong possibility that there are probably more of them in film history than there are wet t-shirt contests in college towns!

Though they weren’t as popular as Astaire and Rogers, a filmic marriage between Hollywood stars Van Johnson and June Allyson beget six MGM starring vehicles together, beginning in 1944 and ending nine years later. High Barbaree (1947) would prove to be their third feature together, and – if nothing else – taught MGM a lesson about what straying too heavily from a familiar formula will get you. In this instance, it was a loss of revenue, but that’s beside the point at the moment.

Set several years before in World War II, High Barbaree delivers the perilous plight of navy pilot Johnson, who – shortly after bidding his beloved sweetheart Allyson adieu – is shot down over the Pacific and proceeds to float off into the horizon with his one surviving battle buddy, as played here by a grumpy and very bored-looking Cameron Mitchell. In an attempt to keep the story afloat along with their PBY Catalina, Johnson begins to bore Mitchell even further with flashbacks of his childhood, wherein we witness lengthy moments of his younger self (Claude Jarman, Jr.) and the various misadventures he and the younger version of his gal (portrayed by Joan Wells) and his salty ol’ seadog of a habitual drunk uncle (Thomas Mitchell, one of two actors to have ever played Columbo apart from Peter Falk) in and around his hometown.

After moving on from his younger years as a little ginger daredevil dolt to a sadist who dreams of being a doctor – so much so that he likes to bandage up perfectly healthy animals for no reason whatsoever – we witness the eventual reunion of our lead (romantic) characters. Though Van is now (or is it “then”, since it’s all a flashback?) happily engaged to a hot blonde (Marilyn Maxwell) with money to burn and under the employ of her father at a prosperous aviation plant about to land a two-million dollar account with the US Government, June convinces him that’s not what he wants, as he once sort of promised to become a doctor and employ her as his nurse.

Wow, some people simply cannot let go of the past, eh?

And so, as their floating tomb moves toward where Van’s salty drunken uncle (who is now a captain in the Navy, naturally!) once alleged to see an island paradise he dubbed High Barbaree, the writers of High Barbaree even go as far as to flashback to the very beginning of their story as our otherwise fearless hero starts to run out of material to bore poor Cameron Mitchell to death with (and he does – he really does!).

Henry Hull (Universal’s original werewolf), Paul Harvey (yes, that one), Geraldine Wall, Charles Evans, and the uncredited voice of Audrey Totter are also featured in this lavishly lackluster blockbuster. Originally, the film was to have ended with our hero and his love perishing as well, but movie-going audiences – who simply love to love a happy ending, no matter how far removed from even something like a sappy romance tale with more flashbacks than an unstable ‘Nam vet who did LSD – disapproved, so MGM wasted more money on new finale. Alas, High Barbaree bombed just the same.

But it makes for an interesting view nonetheless. I mean, how often do you get to see future European B movie highlighters Van Johnson and Cameron Mitchell together? And the fact that the Warner Archive Collection has saw fit to finally give this one a home video debut is commendable. An original theatrical trailer is also included, and the presentation of this less-than-classic photoplay from yesteryear is a most decent one indeed. Granted, a wet t-shirt contest might be slightly more interesting (or even inspiring), but if you have nothing else to do, High Barbaree might just entertain you for a spell.

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Luigi Bastardo

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