Watching 1939: Five Came Back (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Five Came Back (1939)

Release date:  June 23, 1939

Cast: 
Chester Morris, Lucille Ball, Wendy Barrie, John Carradine, Allen Jenkins, Joseph Calleia, C. Aubrey Smith, Kent Taylor, Patric Knowles, Elisabeth Risdon, Casey Johnson, Dick Hogan, Pedro de Cordoba, Frank Faylen

Studio:  RKO Studios

Director:  John Farrow

Plot:
A Coast Airlines flight from the United States takes off to Panama with 12 passengers. The plane crashes in the jungle, because of a storm. Piloted by Bill (Morris) and Joe (Taylor), the plane is filled with several personalities:
• An elderly couple (Smith, Risdon)
• A wealthy man eloping with his secretary (Barrie, Knowles)
• A police officer (Carradine) with an anarchist prisoner (Calleia)
• A woman with a past (Ball)
• A gangster (Jenkins) chaperoning the child (Johnson) of his boss
• Larry (Hogan) the steward
Of the survivors, the plane can only take off with five passengers. The survivors have to decide who returns and who stays in the jungle, which is inhabited by head hunters.

1939 Notes:
• First film of four-year-old Casey Johnson. Johnson was in three films released in 1939, and left films in 1946.
By the numbers:
• John Farrow directed six films that were released in 1939.
• Lucille Ball was in five films released in 1939. The film gave Lucille Ball the boost her career needed, Ball wrote in her autobiography, “Love, Lucy.”
• Chester Morris was in four films released in 1939.
• John Carradine was in nine films released in 1939
• C. Aubrey Smith was in eight films released in 1939.
• Elisabeth Risdon was in 10 films released in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• The role of Peggy Nolan was originally intended for Ann Sothern, who was too busy. The role went to Lucille Ball, according to Ball’s autobiography “Love, Lucy.”
• The film was remade as Back From Eternity (1956) starring Robert Ryan, Anita Ekberg, Rod Steiger and Phyllis Kirk. John Farrow directed the remake as well.
• Filming was delayed because of heavy rains and John Carradine became ill, according to the book Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball by Stefan Kanfer.

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
“Five Came Back” (1939) may not be a film in the Mount Rushmore of top films of 1939. But it was a sleeper hit of the year.

“When it opened, the Rialto in New York went on a 24-hour schedule to accommodate the crowds,” Lucille Ball wrote in her autobiography, “Love, Lucy.”

The film also gave Ball’s career a boost, according to autobiography. Ball started in films in 1930 and the quality of her roles improved in 1939. While it helped her career, “Five Came Back” is largely an ensemble cast, and even veteran actor Chester Morris isn’t the standout star of the film.

Each character in “Five Came Back” has their own story: two pilots, a gangster watching a child, a criminal escorted by a police officer, an eloping couple, an elderly professor with his stuffy wife, and a woman with a past.

After crashing in the remote jungle in South America, the group of 11 survivors change over the 25 days that they are stranded. They each show their true colors and act differently from when they are in civilization.

The group has to work together to survive and creates a community:
– Allen Jenkins becomes paternal towards the child of a gangster that he is watching.
– The eloping couple, Patric Knowles and Wendy Barrie, are at odds. Knowles, who plays a wealthy playboy becomes a drunk and doesn’t help out. His secretary fiancée (Barrie) becomes disillusioned and falls for one of the pilots (Kent Taylor).
– The professor and his wife (C. Aubrey Smith, Elisabeth Risdon) become less stuffy and more domestic.
– The police officer, played by John Carradine, becomes the villain while the criminal, Joseph Calleia, finds happiness away from civilization and mellows.

The changes are an interesting character development point in the film – showing “how would you act away from civilization for several weeks.

Though they live in harmony in the jungle, a tribe of head hunters is a threat. The pilots work on the plane so they can take off, but find that only five of the 11 people can board the plane. One of the members takes it into their own hands to decide who stays and who goes. From flight disaster to landing, the plot has some horrifying moments.

Along with a fascinating, “what would you do” type of story, “Five Came Back” also offers an interesting look at early flight travel. The film’s Coast Airlines flight is outfitted with sleeping berths and stops and deboards similar to a train or bus.

While a B-budget level film, “Five Came Back” is notable for 1939. Not only because it was a sleeper success, but also because it’s intriguing and exciting. Don’t skip this one.

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