|Operator 13 (1934)
Run time: Approved | 85 min | Drama, History, Romance
Director: Richard Boleslavsky
Writers: Harvey F. Thew, Zelda Sears
Stars: Marion Davies, Gary Cooper, Jean Parker
During the American Civil War an actress (Davies) who becomes a Union spy and finds herself involved with a Confederate guy (Cooper). Based on a true story believe it or not.
1) Marion Davies’ final film for MGM, where she had reined for more than a dozen years.
2) The first Marion Davies film to gross over $1M dollars. The average movie ticket in 1934 cost 25 cents.
3) The interior set of the Shackleford mansion was reused as the interior of Twelve Oaks in Gone with the Wind (1939).
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Marion Davies plays an actress recruited by the Union Army during the Civil War to be a spy. Gary Cooper plays an officer in the Confederate Army who is a spy in the north. Through a series of events they meet, but he doesn't quite know if she is a spy or not.
Davies' initial disguise is as a Black maid (she has fun with the accent and looks great in the black wig), but when her "mistress" (another actress from the north working as a spy) is discovered, she bails the South only to return as a famous northern sympathizer of the Confederate cause. Back in the South, she again meets Cooper.
Implausible story is made interesting by solid performances by the leads and some good cinematography (Oscar nominated). The battle scene montages are OK, but the ending seems choppy and hurried. Still, Davies looks great.
Big supporting cast includes Katherine Alexander (as a spy), Jean Parker and Henry Wadsworth (as young lovers), Sidney Toler, Douglas Dumbrille, Marjorie Gateson, Sterling Holloway, Clarence Wilson, Ted Healy, Robert McWade, and silent film villain Walter Long (as Operator 55).
Davies sings "Once in a Lifetime" and "The Colonel, Major and the Captain." The terrific Mills Brothers show up in a minstrel show and sing a few songs and are especially good with "Sleepy Head" and "Jungle Fever." There's a stunning scene where Davies is sitting on a staircase and crying; the long scene is shot from below looking up at her face. Another nice scene is with Davies on a huge swing, being pushed by Cooper.
After this film, Davies left MGM and moved to Warners, where she made four more films before retiring.
If it weren’t for George Folsey’s extraordinary cinematography, this would be just another B film. The story is totally implausible and the film’s structure is rather disjointed. Competent work from Cooper and Davies (if you can buy her in black face pretending to be a slave, you can buy just about anything). What is mesmerizing and what keeps one glued to the screen are the images. MGM had suddenly achieved its "look" in 1934. Compare to some of its 1933 releases when the photography was still "flat." Here there is a remarkable use of light and shadow, especially in the use of silhouettes. The soft focus in one early dawn river scene is breathtaking. Why MGM and Mr. Folsey would give this such class A treatment for visuals but betray it in other departments is an enigma. Whatever, it’s an entertaining and odd little film whose cinematography makes it a must-see!
Let's understand one thing before talking about Operator 13. It is a Cosmopolitan Picture meaning it is a Marion Davies film first and foremost. And it's the kind of film that William Randolph Hearst wanted her to be seen it, as he saw her, the brave little heroine, in this case during the Civil War.
Operator 13 is the kind of story that would have been popular on stage at the turn of the last century. It's also the kind of story that Cecil B. DeMille would have found appealing to do. I'm guessing that Hearst and DeMille would never have worked in tandem on any project given their egos.
Marion is an actress and in the beginning of the story as the north is badly defeated at the second battle of Bull Run, Davies is appearing on stage in a play with one John Wilkes Booth. She's recruited by Union spy-master Allan Pinkerton played by Sidney Toler to accompany Katherine Alexander playing Union Spy Pauline Cushman as her octoroon maid. The term 'octoroon' was used back in the day to describe a person who was 1/8 black and has deservedly fallen out of fashion.
Of course the various black stereotypes are present in force in Operator 13, however in Marion's case it can be forgiven somewhat as she is a spy on a mission and disguising herself. You might remember that in Going Hollywood she did the same thing to avoid the attention of Fifi D'Orsay.
One person she does attract the attention of is Confederate Major Gary Cooper who is intrigued by her. Later on not in disguise, Davies is sent on another mission and she meets up again with Cooper. Once again he's suspicious, but by that time they're in love.
If some of this sounds familiar you might recognize certain plot elements from MGM's later success, the musical The Firefly which starred Allan Jones and Jeanette MacDonald. That story is also about two rival espionage agents during the Peninsular War.
In fact Operator 13 almost qualifies for a musical. Between the songs that Walter Donaldson and Gus Kahn wrote, and the traditional Civil War era melodies sung by Davies, a campfire chorus and the Mills Brothers a lot of songs are packed into the 85 minute running time of the film.
Operator 13 was old fashioned even in 1934. However the battle scenes are done quite well and director Richard Boleslawski does make the characters somewhat interesting.
And apparently managed to work within the parameters of W.R. Hearst.
If you take the US History SAT, you're likely to encounter a question like this: "The main reason the North won the Civil War was…?' The answer is along the lines of "the War lasted too long." That is, the North had an advantage in numbers and industrial base, and wore down the South. However, this wonderful movie shows the real reasons the South lost:
1. Their officers were stupid. Marion Davies plays a slave in blackface. Anyone looking at her should be able to tell she's about as black as Jeff Davis. But Confederates must have believed no white would want to pose as a black.
2. Their officers were naive. We see them trusting blacks and minstrels implicitly, never believing any would be a Northern sympathizer.
3. They spent most of their time dancing. In half the scenes, Reb officers are at balls.
A fantastic film. Davies is wonderful as usual, and the film implies an anti-war message;both sides are brutal, with summary executions. It has an impossible happy ending.