On the surface, Berlin's energetic Broadway show is extremely dated. The Howard Lindsay and Russell Crouse book is a gentle satire of the Washington scene circa 1951, so there are a plethora of Harry Truman jokes that may have been hilarious in 1951 but in this post-history millennium may be greeted with obtuseness from viewers whose sense of history expired with Swing Vote. It is also an old-fashioned musical vehicle, the slim plot being a bald excuse to showcase Merman.
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As a polemic, Lifeboat is closer to John Ford's similarly themed and conceived Stagecoach (1939) than to any of the director's own movies. Hitchcock changes the terrain from land to water and replaces Fords' frontier travelers with the similarly disparate survivors of a U-boat attack. We have John (John Hodiak), a working-class American stiff pitted against Rittenhouse (Henry Hull), the inveterate capitalist (read: Nazi appeaser), and Constance Porter (Tallulah Bankhead), a saucy gadfly/columnist. Meanwhile, a gentle romance simmers between Alice (Mary Anderson), a lovelorn nurse, and Stanley (Hume Cronyn), a humble navigator. George (Canada Lee), a black cook (what else?) with a penchant for the Gospels stands as the group's moral pillar; he is apolitical and totally good-hearted. Hitchcock gives an episodic shape to Swerling's flailing narrative, focusing on the survivors' attempts to rescue one of their own, the wounded and mentally faltering Gus (William Bendix). As they do, they battle the stormy elements, the scorn and suspicion for each other that society has ingrained into them, and, chiefly, their collective mistrust for a Nazi U-boat sailor who's also in the dinghy, and in whom, despite his villainous credentials, they must invest their faith.
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