Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Overlooked Movies: Swamp Fire (1946)

As big a fan of Tarzan movies as I was when I was a kid, I’m not sure how I didn’t even know this Johnny Weissmuller movie existed until recently. Of course, considering how different SWAMP FIRE is from your typical Tarzan movie, maybe my ignorance isn’t a surprise. But I’m glad I came across it.

Made relatively on the cheap in 1946, this movie finds Weissmuller staying fully dressed the whole time (despite the poster), although there’s still a considerable amount of swimming in it. He plays Johnny Duval, a Cajun bar pilot (a guy who guides ships through the sand bars in the Mississippi River) returning to his home in the Louisiana swamps after serving in World War II. Johnny is tortured by the memory of a ship he commanded during the war being sunk in battle, with considerable loss of life. He doesn’t want to go back to being a bar pilot. He’s glad to get back to his girlfriend, played by Carol Thurston, though.

Complications arise in the form of an arrogant society girl (Virginia Grey) who sets her sights on Johnny and an old enemy of his, played by none other than fellow Tarzan and Olympic swimming champion Buster Crabbe, complete with sinister, pencil-thin mustache and thick Cajun accent. Will Johnny get over his guilt? Will he decide between the icy socialite and the hot-blooded Cajun girl? Will he wind up rasslin’ an alligator at some point? Will he have a violent final showdown with Crabbe? I think you know the answers to all those questions, but getting there is pretty darned entertaining.

The script, which packs a lot in 68 minutes, is by “Geoffrey Homes” (Daniel Mainwaring), who also wrote the classic film noir OUT OF THE PAST and the source novel it’s based on. (Confession time: I’m not a big fan of OUT OF THE PAST. I saw it once years ago, didn’t care much for it, and haven’t rewatched it since.) SWAMP FIRE has some good lines and a little more depth than some B-movies. Director William Pine, who also produced, probably could have kept things moving along at a little faster clip. There are too many stock footage scenes of ships not really doing much of anything, and they go on too long.

That said, I still enjoyed this movie. Weissmuller was never any great shakes as an actor, although he manages some nice poignant moments in some of the Tarzan movies. But he was a big, likable lug with a lot of screen presence and that’s true in SWAMP FIRE, as well. Supposedly he was drunk during much of the filming, but I couldn’t tell it. Buster Crabbe, usually cast as the Stalwart Hero (really, how much more stalwart can you get then Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon?), seems to really relish playing a bad guy for a change. His mustache is too thin to twirl, but you get the sense that if he could, he would have. He’s pretty effective in the role, creating a nice sense of menace while not being out-and-out despicable. You can almost sympathize with him at times.

Although this movie came out several years before the Gold Medal paperback line was launched, in many ways it plays like an early Gold Medal novel with its tortured hero, its romantic triangle, and its naturalistic setting. I would have enjoyed SWAMP FIRE when I was a kid—hey, Johnny Weissmuller rassles a gator, what else would 10-year-old me have wanted, other than maybe some quicksand (how can you make a swamp movie with no quicksand?)—but I think I probably appreciated it more now. It’s available to watch various places on-line, and I think it’s worth investing an hour or so of your time.


Jeff Meyerson said...

It sounds like a Bill Crider movie for sure, despite the lack of quicksand.

As for swimming champions, Weismuller won FIVE gold medals at the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, as well as holding a world record in the 100 m. freestyle.

Crabbe won a bronze in 1928 and a gold in 1932 (at the LA Olympics), the latter by a tenth of a second.

And, as Crabbe's late, great commercial had him say, "That's where the simUlarity ends."

James Reasoner said...

I wouldn't be a bit surprised if Bill saw it at the movie theater in Mexia some Saturday afternoon.

Spike said...

I knew about this movie but never seen it. Want to after reading this. Sounds different than Jungle Jim and Tarzan.

I loved the Jungle Jim movies as a kid. Saturday morning viewing.

Anonymous said...

Wait, you didn't like Out of the Past?
I mean, you can find good things to say about Swamp Fire and see some Gold Medal Original paperback style in it, but you didn't like Out of the Past?

Out of the Past has so much Gold Medal flavor and so many tasty elements-- the ripe dialogue, the clash between Mitchum and Douglas, the IQ-damaging beauty of Jane Greer.

Please watch this. It's one minute and forty seconds long.
Maybe you'll see what I mean.
Maybe you'll try Out of the Past again.


John Hocking

James Reasoner said...

I know I'm in the minority when it comes to OUT OF THE PAST. I probably ought to watch it again. I'll check out the YouTube clip.

Unknown said...

I'm reading a Gold Medal PB right now. Knockover by Newton Thornberg. The guy who wrote Cutter and Bone, the basis for the movie Cutter's Way. Pretty darn good.

James Williams said...

Great Information,
Thank you for sharing..

August West said...

"It was the bottom of the barrel, and I was scraping it. "

One of many great quotes from OUT OF THE PAST.