Thursday, April 2, 2020

Up Periscope: Early James Garner

The same night that he proposes marriage to a recent acquaintance, Navy Lieutenant Kenneth Braden (James Garner) is whisked away to conduct a secret mission in the Pacific. Once aboard the submarine Barracuda, Captain Paul Stevenson (Edmund O'Brien) explains that Braden will be dropped off in a lagoon near a Japanese-occupied island. His task is to locate a enemy radio transmitter, photograph a radio code book, and return to the sub.

As if that's not challenging enough, the journey to the island is fraught with its own perils. The most significant may be that the submarine crew has lost confidence in its commander. During an earlier mission, Stevenson played it "by the book" and waited underwater for six hours while Japanese boats patrolled the ocean surface. However, as a result of the long wait, a young sailor died of wounds sustained during the attack.

Edmund O'Brien frets a lot.
Apparently, Warner Bros. was grooming James Garner, one of its biggest TV attractions, for movie stardom in Up Periscope (1959). However, it's clear that the studio didn't want to put too much effort into this modestly-budgeted actioner. The trek to Braden's destination contains some minor thrills (e.g., an aerial attack on the sub), but the plot never gains steam until the final half-hour. Add a pedestrian script and what you have is a rather perfunctory picture that does little but showcase Garner's natural appeal.

Edmund O'Brien deserves better than the clichéd role of the vessel commander who begins to doubt his own decisions. The same can be said of an interesting supporting cast, which is mostly wasted. Still, it's entertaining to watch early appearances by football player/future broadcaster Frank Gifford, Edd Byrnes, and Warren Oates. Judging by Byrnes' limited screen time, I'm guessing the production started before he became a pop culture phenomenon as Kookie on 77 Sunset Strip.

Alan Hale, Jr. with beard!
Two other actors may have unknowingly auditioned for their most famous roles. As Garner's bunkmate, Alan Hale, Jr. provides most of the film's humor--preparing him well for playing the Skipper in Gilligan's Island. Meanwhile, Henry Kulky, who plays the Barracuda's Chief Petty Officer, would play one again in the first season of the TV series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea. (Sadly, he died of a heart attack, so the Seaview had a new CPO in seasons 2-4.)

If you're a James Garner fan, you probably ought to see Up Periscope. Garner displays everything that made him a film and TV star for decades, from the heartfelt love scenes with Andra Martin to the physicality of his (backlot) jungle scenes. That's the best recommendation for this otherwise soggy adventure.

James Garner and Andra Martin on the beach.

1 comment:

  1. I found that 6-years is my cut-off date on how long I remember a movie...and since Up Periscope was not seen in at least 12 years it is high time I watch it again. Even if it isn't the best Navy film, who could resist James Garner ( or a beared Alan Hale! )?

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