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A Message to Garcia (1936)

I got more than I bargained for when I pressed play on this 20th Century Fox release that I was drawn to thanks to the participation of screen legend, Barbara Stanwyck. What I did get was action, adventure, heroism, romance and redemption. All rolled into one enjoyable film from director George Marshall.

The year is 1898 and President McKinley (Dell Henderson) calls forth a young officer played by John Boles to deliver a handwritten message to General Garcia deep in the jungles of Cuba and through the lines of the Spanish enemy. Chances of survival seem minimal and like all those that will come after him in one movie after another, Boles, will be on his own with no official backing from the U.S. if he is caught.

Damn, that President McKinley sure sounds like John Carradine. No fooling me. After a quick internet check, it is indeed John dubbing Mr. Dell in the oval office.

From the outset of his journey disguised as a Canadian (hurray for Canada!) working a steamer heading to Cuba, Boles, is under the suspicion of Alan Hale who is a mercenary for hire currently employed by the Spanish and looking for American spies attempting to reach Garcia. Realizing Hale has him pegged, Boles jumps ship and will swim to shore narrowly evading the bullets Hale and his soldiers will be firing into the ocean waters.

Let the rollercoaster of action begin.

Hiding out from a military search party led by Hale, Boles, will meet an unsavory expatriate in a dive bar played by the top billed Wallace Beery. Beery sees a money belt on Boles and will quickly lend him a hand at evading Hale and Co.

Playing the con, Beery, will convince Boles that he and he alone can help him get to General Garcia and all they need to do is enlist the help of a beautiful Cuban girl who’s brother is one of Garcia’s top officers. Yes if you said that Cuban girl must be Barbara Stanwyck, you’d be right. And for Wallace? There’s the gold coins in the money belt to be paid.

The trio set out to find Garcia but will have to carefully avoid military search parties led by Hale who is out to stop Boles from accomplishing his mission. It’s not only Hale that the trio will have to overcome but also the swamps, alligators and a searing heat not to mention the bullets flying overhead at every confrontation they encounter.

They’ll even come across the comic relief specialist Herbert Mundine as a traveling salesman of sorts in the jungles who will figure prominently down the stretch. During the 1930’s Mundine made a career out of playing the bumbling oaf. He could be seen in films ranging from Chandu the Magician to Mutiny on the Bounty to The Adventures of Robin Hood as one of the Merry-Men flirting with Una O’Connor. Sadly Mundine was killed in 1939 at the age of 40 in a car accident.

While Beery is always looking out for number one, Boles and Stanwyck are falling in love on the trail to Garcia. Hale continuing the chase always pushing them towards exhaustion. When Stanwyck is wounded in a skirmish, she’s going to be left behind so that Boles and Beery can deliver the vital intel to Garcia.

There is still plenty of drama ahead when Hale will meet Boles and Beery will find his redemption as the film races to a climatic battle where all our main characters will collide in an action packed finale.

While John Boles scored third billing, the film really belongs to his heroic everyman. Boles began his career in the silent era and remained busy in the 1930’s including a role as Colin Clive’s second in Frankenstein. His movie career seems to have faded once the 40’s hit. Interesting side note, according the IMDB, Boles, was in France during the first World War and actively spying for the U.S. He’d rejoin his leading lady Miss Stanwyck the following year in Stella Dallas. Easily one of her most fondly remembered roles.

Early in her career, this was a very physical role for Barbara and would prove that all those westerns and Noirs in the future were no fluke. Here she’s up to her neck hiding in the swamps, horseback riding, getting shot and playing it tough while at the same time she looks stunning with Rudolph Mate’ serving as the cinematographer. Mate’ would graduate to a directing career and among his assignments was the superb 1955 western, The Violent Men, with Stanwyck playing villainess opposite Glenn Ford.

Classic film fans will note that popular character player of the era, Warren Hymer, makes an all too brief appearance at the start of Garcia but at least he appears on camera as opposed to Carradine’s unmistakable voice coming from another man’s lips. And of course Alan Hale delivers his usual solid turn and even when he’s playing the bad guy, you can’t fool me. He’s just too damned nice of a guy thanks to all those Warner Bros. films I’ve seen him in. Most notable the many he appeared in opposite Errol Flynn.

Lastly we have scene stealer extraordinaire and recent Oscar winner, Wallace Beery, shining bright in the second lead role despite his scoring top billing. The chubby actor was on a roll having shared the best Actor Oscar in 1932 with Frederic March. Beery for The Champ, March for Jekyll and Hyde. For Beery, Grand Hotel, Dinner at Eight, Treasure Island, Viva Villa! and China Seas quickly followed. That’s a hell of a run for any actor let alone one who didn’t exactly have Gable’s looks.

A first time viewing for me thanks to the film being released in the made on demand market via Fox’s Cinema Archives branch on DVD. Easy to recommend to fans of Stanwyck and the boys or those who enjoy action adventure films of the period.

7 Comments »

  1. Have never seen this one, and always been curious. More so now. Big Stanwyck fan. My brother-in-law did a “Big Valley” episode with her and said she was really cool.

  2. Oy this movie!!! I’m glad you enjoyed it but I thought it was terribly miscast outside of Beery. I adore Barbara Stanwyck but a native born Cuban named Raphaelita Maderos she ain’t! I doubt that it would have saved this turkey but they could have at least cast Lupe Velez or Dolores del Rio, neither were Cuban but they would have been more believable.

    And then there’s Boles being his usual dull black hole at the center of the picture which never felt like it was taking place anywhere but the Fox backlot.

    • I can appreciate the Stanwyck comment but didn’t phase me. It was an energetic role that she was suited to outside of the obvious as you pointed out. Backlot? So were the Weissmuller films but that never stopped my enjoyment in watching them numerous times over the years. As a matter of fact, most everything was made on a backlot in those days.

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