From the Hudson River to Hollywood: West Point on Film

Michael G. Arden 

Reference/Audiovisual Librarian

Americans have always been fascinated by West Point.  Take a look at the Visitor’s Center any day of the week and note the crowds of people lining up for tours, so it’s no exception that Hollywood took note of West Point from the very beginning of the film industry.  The first motion picture commercially produced about the Academy was a documentary short, Artillery Drill at West Point, released in 1910.  Alas, that film is not in our collection of DVDs or VHS tapes, as it is not available on video.   

The following is a representative list of Hollywood films – all theatrical releases – that feature West Point in some way.  Most we have while others have not been released on video; all are worthy of mention.  The film industry’s “take” on life here is by turns noble, sappy, sweet, insipid, flag-waving, and awesomely inspired.  Some films were more successful than others in capturing that special West Point spirit.  

Here is an annotated list of the most notable movies of the 1920s through the 1940s; a list covering the 1950s through the 1990s will follow.  If the Library owns the movie, a link is provided within the text to the catalog.  Films not currently available are linked to their records in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).

 West Point (1927) William Haines, Joan Crawford

A silent movie about a wealthy cadet named Brice Wayne (William Haines), who is a stellar football player, but angers his fellow cadets with his arrogance.  As he is being disciplined by a coach, he even yells, “To hell with the Corps” before stomping off the field.  His hero-worshipping roommate, “Tex,” saves him from further discipline, but Wayne resigns from West Point anyway.  Of course, this being Hollywood, a happy ending is in store when he is reinstated just before the big game and leads West Point to victory, finds love with Betty Channing (Joan Crawford), the local hotel owner’s daughter.  This is a very early film for Crawford, destined to become a Hollywood super star.  Haines gives a good performance, very effective for a silent film, never “over the top.”  The film features excellent camera work as well.

 Flirtation Walk (1934) Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler (DVD/VHS)

Dick Powell plays Dick Dorsey, an Army private stationed in Hawaii who meets Kit Fitts (Ruby Keeler), a general’s daughter, before she sets sail for Manila with her father.  She falls madly in love with Private Dorsey when he croons “Aloha Oe” after they crash a beach luau.  Since she is already engaged to somebody else, they break up, to avoid scandal.  Later Dorsey is top cadet at West Point, producing the annual “100th Night” musical and now Kit’s father is Superintendent.  Dorsey and Kit reunite, so it’s one of those, “boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl again” stories, and, guess what?  There is a happy ending, amid much spirited singing and dancing.  This is the first time “100th Night” is featured as a plot element in a West Point film, but it won’t be the last.

 Rosalie (1937) Nelson Eddy, Eleanor Powell (DVD/VHS)

Another song and dance film about West Point, this one features Nelson Eddy as Cadet Dick Thorpe who falls in love with a beauty played by Eleanor Powell, who is really a princess from a tiny European kingdom travelling incognito.  The New York Times badly panned this film in their 1937 review, considering it overblown and pretentious fluff.  One modern reviewer basically agreed, though he stated the great Cole Porter score saves it, along with Eddy’s singing, Powell’s terrific dancing in black silk stockings at Trophy Point, and the spirited humor provided by character actors Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger, who would go on to play the Wizard and Scarecrow respectively from The Wizard of Oz. Unfortunately, there is no chemistry between the two stars, so both the romance and the plot, wherein he follows her home to her kingdom, come across as totally artificial.  Yet, no expense was spared on the lavish production, which included spectacularly mounted musical numbers.  When released, Rosalie was one of the most costly movies ever made, yet it all paid off as the film was a huge hit with the public.

The Duke of West Point (1938) Louis Hayward, Joan Fontaine (VHS)

The “Duke” in question is actually an American brought up in England, educated at Cambridge, the son of a diplomat.  He’s also a “natural” at any athletic endeavor he chooses, and woos the only girl within miles of West Point.  Naturally, he comes off to the other cadets as an insufferable snob, except for his loyal everyman American roommates, to whom the Duke is passionately loyal, even at risk of potential disgrace to himself.  Therefore, the audience sees his “heart of gold” through the eyes of his devoted roommates, even as he gets his comeuppance at the hands of the remaining Corps of Cadets.  The film had West Point script approval, and includes many skillfully filmed sports sequences.  Reviews at the time of release were mixed.  A modern reviewer sees the film as part of the Hollywood trend to portray rich scalawags with hearts of gold, since the public (experiencing the brunt of the Great Depression) loved to see depictions of wealthy and glamorous people being “just like us.”

 Cadet Girl (1941) Carole Landis, George Montgomery

Cadet Tex Mallory (George Montgomery) falls in love with Gene Baxter  (Carole Landis), who sings with his brother’s swing band in New York City.  Both brothers were to attend West Point; however, a slight eye defect kept brother Bob from attending.  When Tex becomes a guest singer with Bob’s band, they have a falling out over Gene, who follows Tex over to his own newly formed band.  When the two lovebirds become engaged, Tex prepares to leave West Point.  However, when Bob writes a patriotic ballad, Tex is reminded that his first duty is to his country.  Given that Cadet Girl came out the year the U.S. entered World War II, the patriotic theme naturally carries the day.  Carole Landis, fresh from her sensational role in One Million B.C earlier that year, brought in the crowds.

 Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942) George Montgomery, Maureen O’Hara

Carolyn Bainbridge (Maureen O’Hara) is a young Washington socialite in the early nineteenth century, who joins with others, fighting for Congress to reinstate West Point after it was shut down.  Congress agrees to reopen the Academy on a trial basis for one year, appointing Major Sam Carter, a martinet and harsh disciplinarian as Commandant.  Believing that a college cannot produce real fighting men, he plans to either make or break the cadets under his charge.  Cadet Joe Dawson is one of only ten cadets, along with his rival, Cadet John Sutton, a rough-hewn frontiersman, who can tough out Carter’s extremely difficult training regimen, after the rest of the Corps resigns.  The rivalry between the two cadets worsens when Dawson falls for Bainbridge, who has been seeing Sutton.  With only ten cadets left in the Corps, Carter gets word that the Indian chief Tecumseh is on the war path.  Heroics follow when Carter is captured by the Indians, and Dawson and Sutton leave their posts against orders to save him.  Helmed by the famous director, Henry Hathaway, best known for his Westerns, The Sons of Katie Elder and True Grit, the movie’s exciting battle scenes are skillfully staged.  Maureen O’Hara makes her first appearance in a West Point film as Carolyn Bainbridge (stay tuned for her second in West Point on Film, Part II), and George Montgomery plays his second cadet role as Joe Dawson.

 The Spirit of West Point (1947) Felix Blanchard, Glenn Davis (VHS)

Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, two All-Americans who play under legendary football coach, Earl Henry “Red” Blaik in the 1940s, portray themselves in this film featuring their gridiron heroics.  With oodles of newsreel coverage of their actual playing highlights, this would be a must-see for any Black Knights fan, as the team became known during Blaik’s tenure.  For movie fans maybe not so much.  One modern reviewer considers this the “Plan Nine of sports movies,” referring, of course, to the infamous Ed Wood sci-fi travesty, Plan Nine from Outer Space.  Seems the two leads were out of their league portraying themselves on film, and by no means in danger of losing their “amateur” status for acting.  At one point Blaik, checks his watch,  tells the team there is “two minutes to go.”  This scene apparently got big laughs among moviegoers down in football-savvy Texas; perhaps after watching the movie for 70 minutes they were just relieved that the film’s end was now in sight.

 Stay tuned for West Point on Film, Part II, coming soon….!