Watching 1939: The Kid from Kokomo (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: The Kid from Kokomo

Release date: May 19, 1939

Cast: Wayne Morris, Joan Blondell, Pat O’Brien, Jane Wyman, May Robson, Sidney Toler, Maxie Rosenbloom, Stanley Fields, Ward Bond,

Studio: Warner Brothers

Director: Lewis Seiler

Fight promoter Billy Murphy (Pat O’Brien) is rarely on the straight and narrow with his fighters. One day he finds Homer Baston (Wayne Morris) on a farm, with a punch so strong that it sends men flying. Why did Homer punch them? Because they said Mother’s Day was a racket. Homer is loyal to a mother that he never knew and hopes one day she will return. Murphy recruits Homer to become a fighter, but Homer is reluctant to leave home in case his mother returns. To con him into fighting, Murphy creates a publicity hunt for Homer’s mother. Just as Homer is about to walk out, Murphy finds Maggie (May Robson), a drunken woman with a criminal past. He convinces Maggie to tell Homer that she is his mother to keep him from fighting. While Homer succeeds with his career, Maggie spends all of his money and bets it on horses.

Homer also meets and falls in love with Marian (Jane Wyman), who comes from a wealthy family and her father (Sidney Toler) is a judge…who recognizes Maggie.

1939 Notes:
• By 1939, Wayne Morris was one of the main contract players at Warner Brothers. He made eight films in both 1937 and 1938, but only two in 1939.

• This was one of six screenplays by Dalton Trumbo filmed in 1939.

Other trivia: 
• Adapted from the story “Broadway Cavalier.”

Pat O’Brien, Wayne Morris and Joan Blondell

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
This is an entertaining B-movie. I love Wayne Morris as the sweet, naïve farm boy (my heart melted to butter when I saw him carrying a lamb). But May Robson steals the show here as the criminal posing as a mother, who ends up carrying for this sweet guy. May Robson was 80 years old when this film was released, so really she could have been a grandmother to 25-year-old Wayne Morris!

The May 20, 1939, New York Times review by Frank Nugent said “line between comedy and sheer bad taste has rarely been more clearly overstepped than in the Strand’s “The Kid From Kokomo”…which I felt was a bit dramatic. The film is an innocent comedy that perhaps uses a guy’s love for his mother to get him into boxing.

“The Kid from Kokomo” is not a unique film for any of the leads and far from the only film they made in 1939. The only actor in less than three films was Wayne Morris, who only released two films in 1939:
• May Robson: 7
• Jane Wyman: 5
• Pat O’Brien: 5
• Joan Blondell: 5

Though it was released in 1939, “The Kid from Kokomo” has the same brisk feel of most Warner Brothers comedies from 1936 to 1940. The year of release doesn’t make it much different. In fact, Wayne Morris’s role is very similar to his character in the comedy “Kid Galahad” (1937), another film that features Morris plucked from his daily life and groomed to be a boxer.

Once World War II began, this type of fast-paced, con-artist comedy seems to stop being used as a basic plotline theme.

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The forgotten Hollywood war hero: Wayne Morris

Warner Brothers star, Wayne Morris in he 1930s

Warner Brothers star, Wayne Morris in he 1930s

He can be seen playing alongside Bette Davis as a boxer in “Kid Galahad” (1937) or a cadet running amok at the Virginia Military Institute in “Brother Rat.”

Wayne Morris may not be a name you’re familiar with but you have most likely seen the husky, affable blond in Warner Brothers 1930s and 1940s films.

But you may not be familiar with Morris’ war time record.
We frequently hear about Hollywood actors such as James Stewart, Clark Gable and Mickey Rooney who enlisted and were decorated for their bravery during World War II.

However, Morris is rarely recognized for his service and was one of World War II’s first flying aces.

His interest in flying started in Hollywood.

While filming “Flying Angles” (1940) with Jane Wyman and Dennis Morgan, Morris learned how to fly a plane.

Morris in 1944 in his plane "Meatball." The decals show how many Japanese planes he shot down.

Morris in 1944 in his plane “Meatball.” The decals show how many Japanese planes he shot down.

Once World War II began, Morris joined the Naval Reserve and became a Naval flier in 1942 on the U.S.S. Essex. He put his career on hold to fight. The same year he was married to Olympic swimmer Patricia O’Rourke.

“Every time they showed a picture aboard the Essex, I was scared to death it would be one of mine,” Morris said. “That’s something I could never have lived down.”

Morris flew 57 missions-while some actors only flew 20 or less- and made seven kills, which qualified him as an ace.  He also helped sink five enemy ships.

He originally was told he was too big to fly fighter planes until he went to his uncle-in-law, Cdr. David McCampbell who wrote him a letter, allowing him to fly the VF-15, according to “McCampbell’s Heroes: the Story of the U.S. Navy’s Most Celebrated Carrier Fighter of the Pacific”, Edwin P. Hoyt.

Three of his planes were so badly damaged by enemy fire that they were deemed unfit to fly and were dumped in the ocean, according to IMDB.

“As to what a fellow thinks when he’s scared, I guess it’s the same with anyone. You get fleeting glimpses in your mind of your home, your wife, the baby you want to see,” Morris said. “You see so clearly all the mistakes you made. You want another chance to correct those mistakes. You wonder how you could have attached so much importance to ridiculous, meaningless things in your life. But before you get to thinking too much, you’re off into action and everything else is forgotten.”

For his duty, Morris was honored with four Distinguished Flying Crosses and two Air Medals.

When he returned to Hollywood after four year at war, his once promising career floundered and Warner Brothers did not allow him to act for a year.

Jack Warner welcoming actors home from the war in 1945 including Wayne Morris, Ronald Reagan, Army Air Forces; Jack Warner; Gig Young, Coast Guard; and Harry Lewis, Army.

Jack Warner welcoming actors home from the war in 1945 including Wayne Morris, Ronald Reagan, Army Air Forces; Jack Warner; Gig Young, Coast Guard; and Harry Lewis, Army.

Morris’s most notable post-war films include “The Voice of the Turtle,” “John Loves Mary” and “Paths of Glory.” His career ended with several B-westerns.

At the age of 45, Morris passed away in 1959 from a massive heart attack.

But his service to his country was not forgotten. Morris is buried in Arlington Cemetery and was given full military honors at his funeral.

Morris with his wife Patricia and daughter Pamela in 1946.

Morris with his wife Patricia and daughter Pamela in 1946.

Though I am thankful for all men and women who serve our country, I wanted to recognize Wayne Morris.

For years I saw Wayne Morris in films and knew nothing about him except that I liked him. He is one of those character actors that can make a movie special.

Morris seemed like a regular guy. Before he started out in Hollywood, he played football at Los Angeles Junior College and worked as a forest ranger.

After I researched him and discovered his war record, I wanted to honor his service and his work in films.

Thank you to Wayne Morris and men and women in the military for serving our country.

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