Monday, December 13, 2010

FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO: ATOMIC EXPLOITATION!

Atomic Exploitation

And speaking of action, this picture has it along with two people who will rate star billing long before the effects of the atomic bomb have worn off—Barbara Hale and Tom Neal.

--Excerpt from The Hollywood Reporter review of RKO’s First Yank Into Tokyo, August 31, 1945

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Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still standing when Gordon Douglas’s[1] cheapie World War II adventure picture, First Yank Into Tokyo, completed production on March 3, 1945.[2] For months this movie about an undercover soldier who infiltrates the Empire sat on a shelf awaiting its turn for a bottom-rung release. But after Fat Man and Little Boy were dropped on the aforementioned Japanese cities, the fortunes of the neglected little picture changed dramatically. Indeed, with news of the fantastic new weapon dominating front pages around the world, the savvy producers decided to re-work a critical plot device in their film to capitalize on the mania for all things atomic. And they succeeded in beating their competition to theaters with the world’s first feature to exploit the Bomb.[3]

Lo-Picture Ad-Newspaper

In the original version of the movie written and produced by J. Robert Bren, the impetus for the action is a “vitally important” formula for a powerful, but unnamed new weapon. The plans for the device have been memorized by an ordnance expert named Louis Jardine (Marc Cramer) who has been captured by the Japanese. The enemy is unaware of their captive’s special knowledge, so while he sits in a prisoner of war camp outside of Tokyo, the U.S. military devises a daring scheme to rescue the data if not Jardine himself.

First Yank-Neal-Girl-Before

Lovelorn fighter pilot Major Steve Ross (Tom Neal[4]) volunteers for the mission because of his unique knowledge of Japan (he grew up there as the son of an American importer) and because he believes his fiancĂ©, an army nurse, was killed on Bataan. Without her, he has nothing left to live for and therefore agrees to undergo the radical plastic surgery required to transform him into a convincing Japanese solider. After a series of wildly implausible plot twists in the land of the rising sun, Ross successfully facilitates Jardine’s rescue, but not without great personal sacrifice. The pre-atomic version of the movie ends with Jardine and Ross’s still-very-much-alive girlfriend (Barbara Hale) being spirited away on a boat while Ross remains behind with a machine gun to ensure the pair’s escape. As the boat sails into the distance to an awaiting submarine, Ross continues to fire at the advancing troops as the film fades out.[5]

After the events of August 6 and August 9, 1945, First Yank Into Tokyo was quickly re-edited to identify the previously mysterious weapon as being most definitely atomic. This was accomplished by replacing a key scene in which a senior officer explains the importance of the mission to Ross. In the re-worked version, the following dialogue specifying the nature of the device is delivered by Colonel Thompson (Kenneth MacDonald):

For some time Ordnance has been working with a group of brilliant civilian engineers, among them, Louis Jardine. They were perfecting a new aerial bomb based on a revolutionary theory – atomic disintegration. We belive this explosive quotient will be the most powerful the world has ever known. We expect these bombs to play a decisive part in forcing Japan to surrender. Jardine was developing a vital part in the explosive container – trying it out in the South Pacific. He decided on certain major improvements and started home, but his plane was shot down over an enemy-held island. He was picked up and sent to Japan… Unless we get his data, the other engineers will have to, well, hope they arrive at his findings. It may mean a costly delay in smashing Japan. Our new weapon will save the lives of thousands of our men.

Later, in another re-shot scene, Ross—now in the POW camp—proves his identity to a skeptical Jardine by reciting some privileged information: “Your lab assistant was Professor Ethan Grey. He figured out how to use the atomic radial expansion in the explosive containers.”

The final scene in the movie, of course, is the most atomic of all. In a tacked-on coda to illustrate the significance of Ross’s heroism, footage of a B-29 and two mushroom clouds plays while a narrator intones the following over triumphal music:

An American soldier gave up his life on a beach but sixty miles from Tokyo. A group of scientists made untold sacrifices so that this B-29 could make its bomb run over the heart of the Japanese empire bringing final and terrible retribution.

Hiroshima! Destroyed!

Nagasaki! Devastated!

As surely as they had disappeared into dust, no more Allied soldiers will fall. Mankind can again walk unafraid in peace and goodwill toward men.

First Yank Into Tokyo had its world premiere a little over a month after the Enola Gay dropped the first combat atomic bomb in history on Hiroshima. The Motion Picture Herald reported on the charity event in its September 15, 1945 edition:

PREMIERE OF “FIRST YANK” IS HELD IN SAN FRANCISCO

“First Yank Into Tokyo,” RKO Radio feature, was given its world premiere in San Francisco Tuesday, September 11. Staged at the Golden Gate Theatre, the premiere featured the personal appearance of Tom Neal, Barbara Hale and other principals in the picture. Dick Powell was narrator in a broadcast from the theatre’s stage. Proceeds from the premiere went to the Wounded Servicemen Fund. Servicemen who once had been held as prisoners by the Japanese were guests of the theatre.

Unfortunately, the Herald failed to obtain quotes from any of the former POWs attending the premiere regarding the realism of the Hogan’s Heroes-esque Japanese camp depicted in the film.

Lo-LAT-Atomic Bomb Exploited

The reviews for the movie were mixed - the trade papers were predictably admiring of the studio’s exploitation gambit (the ad campaign for the movie naturally played up the torn-from-the-headlines atomic angle) while the newspapers sized up the movie on the more traditional factors of drama and acting. Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times took the greatest exception to film, calling it “the grossest kind of exploitation.”

Lo-First Yank Starts Tomorrow

RKO has a hot exploitation melodrama in “First Yank Into Tokyo,” which should be able to cash in on its title and fact that it is first picture on subject released since surrender of Japan. Completed some months ago, before any lively discussion of atomic bomb theory, plot is motivated by this very topic, with windup footage of newsreel shots of atomic bombs wreaking their destruction on Jap cities.

-- Variety, August 31, 1945

And speaking of action, this picture has it along with two people who will rate star billing long before the effects of the atomic bomb have worn off—Barbara Hale and Tom Neal.

--Hollywood Reporter, August 31, 1945

Indeed, I am not disposed to criticize the film on the grounds of plot extravagance. It is the dragging in of the atomic bomb, by means of an added dialogue scene and newsreel clips of the first explosion, to which I must strenuously object. This strikes me as the grossest kind of exploitation. At a moment when mankind stands appalled by his handiwork, when the world in truth doesn’t know whether it’s coming or going, here is R.K.O. solemnly deposing that a single performing employee of theirs named Tom Neal is responsible for the awful fix we’re in.

--Los Angeles Times, Philip K. Scheuer, November 13, 1945

The Palace presents a highly colored little thriller that must be among the last of the war melodramas, for a while at least. “First Yank Into Tokyo” is a frenzied piece that tries to link up its attempted excitement to the atomic bomb. That touch is quite as phony as the rest of this wild-eyed, heavily laboring film.

--The Sun (New York), October 25, 1945 by Eileen Creelman

“In a simple-minded way, it good, fast fun.”

--Time magazine, September 24, 1945

“This, we are assured, is the first picture concerning the atomic bomb. Now if some kind friend would assure us it would be the last, we’d be happy. Not that this isn’t a fair little thriller, but we feel certain that audiences are anxious to get away from all things atomic.”

--The Los Angeles Examiner, November 13, 1945 by Sara Hamilton

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Not mentioned in the reviews is the atrocious make-up work by Maurice Seiderman (though, to be fair, making Tom Neal look Asian would be a challenge for anyone[6]) and the technical direction on Japan provided by R. Andrew Smith, a former professor at the University of Tokyo.[7] Given the portrayal of the Japanese as cartoonish savages, it seems clear that the producers disregarded most, if not all, of Smith’s advice. What is most surprising is that the studio would pay for a “Technical Advisor on Japan” in the first place.

First Yank-Technical Credit

One constituency that no doubt loved First Yank Into Tokyo was the U.S. government. The movie could not have done a better job of reinforcing the Bomb-as-Savior propaganda initiated by Manhattan Project director Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves and the Truman administration. Twice, the weapon is praised (first by Col. Thompson and then by the film’s narrator – see quotes above) as an almost divine instrument. Of course, most audience members who saw the movie in 1945 agreed with this view.

First Yank-Undercover Reunion

Of the three movies that vied to be first out of the gate in the atomic feature film sweepstakes of 1945, Fist Yank Into Tokyo is easily the most entertaining. It is so shockingly bad that it keeps the viewer thoroughly engaged. Watching Mr. Neal attempt to portray an Asian character is nothing short of surreal. The far classier The House on 92nd Street (20th Century Fox) has a great finish involving a ring of German atom spies, but it is a mostly boring F.B.I. procedural sanctioned by J. Edgar Hoover himself (who has a cameo). Shadow of Terror (PRC) is a grade Z thriller about a weapons scientist that includes a tacked-on mushroom cloud explosion.[8] But it was First Yank Into Tokyo that kicked off the long-running genre of Atomic Film, so these also-rans will just have to wait their turn for the CONELRAD treatment.

First Yank Completed


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[1] Gordon Douglas (1907-1993) went on to direct another atomic-themed movie in 1954, Them! and many other interesting pictures including I Was a Communist for the F.B.I. (1951), Sincerely Yours (1955) with Liberace, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (1950) with James Cagney and Barbara Payton (with whom Tom Neal had a notorious relationship in the 1950s) and Viva Knievel! (1977) starring Evel Knievel.

First Yank-Original Story

[2] Evidence of the official completion date of the first incarnation of First Yank Into Tokyo is found on a document entitled “Revised Data for Bulletin of Screen Achievement Records” in the film’s production file at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California. It is interesting to note that the studio submission date on the document is August 6, 1946 – the first anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.

First Yank-Written-Produced

[3] According to an item in the Motion Picture Herald dated September 15, 1945 and the American Film Institute Catalog, First Yank Into Tokyo had its world premiere in San Francisco on September 11, 1945. The House on 92nd Street, according to the American Film Institute Catalog, had its premiere in New York City on September 26, 1945. The only trade paper review that CONELRAD could locate for Shadow of Terror was in the October 13, 1945 edition of the Motion Picture Herald (the movie does not have an AFI Catalog entry). The October 20, 1945 edition of the Hammond (Indiana) Times reported that Shadow of Terror was to open in that city the following week. Under the heading “Preview Nights,” syndicated Hollywood columnist Jimmie Fidler mentioned that Shadow of Terror “goes off with a mild pop” in the September 2, 1945 edition of the Joplin (Missouri) Globe. The August 31, 1945 Variety review of First Yank Into Tokyo noted that it was screened at the studio on August 28, 1945. Based on all of the material that we were able to review, CONELRAD is satisfied that First Yank Into Tokyo was the first theatrically released motion picture feature to reference the atomic bomb.

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[4] Film noir scholar Arthur Lyons has written an excellent account of Tom Neal’s tragic life and career for Palm Springs Life. “Killer Career – Actor Tom Neal” can be read here.

[5] A copy of the original, undated story synopsis was found in the film’s production file at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library in Beverly Hills, California.

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[6] Tom Neal’s Asian make-up in Behind the Rising Sun (1943) isn’t much better than what is seen in First Yank Into Tokyo.

[7] Detail on academic background of R. Andrew Smith was found in the American Film Institute Catalog entry on First Yank Into Tokyo.

[8] The story for Shadow of Terror was written by Sheldon Leonard.

First Yank-The End

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