It. tit.: Grande Sfida; Sog.: Tristram Tupper; Scen.: John Stone; Dial.: James Kevin McGuinness; Didascalie: Wilbur Morse, Jr.; F.: Joseph H. August; Su: W. Lindsay Jr.; Int.: George O’Brien (cadet John Randall), Helen Chandler (Nancy Wayne), Stepin Fetchit (“Smoke Screen”), William Janney (Paul Randall), Frank Albertson (Albert Edward Price), Joyce Compton (Marion Wilson), Cliff Dempsey (general Somers), Lumdsen Hare (admiral Randall), David Butler (coach of the Navy), Rex Bell (cadet), Ward Bond, Marion Morrison [John Wayne] (cadets); Prod.: William Fox; Pri. pro.: 1 settembre 1929. 35mm. D.: 86’. Bn.
A companion piece to Ford’s 1955 feature about West Point, The Long Gray Line, Salute is an early talkie shot at the U.S. Naval Academy, which had denied him admission when he failed the entrance examination. The plot about a rivalry between two brothers (George O’Brien, a West Point football star) and William Janney (a callow Annapolis midshipman) is tiresomely written and acted. The virtues of the film lie elsewhere – in the extensive location shooting and creative use of sound. For a 1929 film, Salute is amazingly fluid, with Ford moving his camera freely and disregarding all warnings about the supposed dangers of shooting live sound in actual locations (though sound editing was still a problem). Joseph H. August’s natural lighting is equally supple; the film has a fascinating semidocumentary feeling as it explores the historic setting and climaxes with a rough-and-tumble staging of the Army-Navy football game (combined with footage shot at an actual game). Ford’s characteristic themes of tradition, loyalty, and camaraderie give some weight to the thin storyline about Janney trying to find his way as a midshipman in the shadow of his more imposing older brother. The director’s love of prankish bits of business and extended vignettes involving secondary characters is on full display here, since even he seemed bored by the central situation and the two leads’ stilted line readings. Salute marked Ward Bond’s film debut, the beginning of a long association with Ford. He and John Wayne, who speaks his first dialogue for Ford as Bond’s midshipman crony, were part of the champion University of Southern California football team, who doubled for the Navy squad. The real scene-stealer is the otherworldly comedian Stepin Fetchit, whose bizarre antics as Smoke Screen, a servant who tags along with Janney to Annapolis, verge on the surreal. When Janney tries to send him back home, Smoke Screen says, “You know I got to nurse you – you know I’se yo mammy!” Stepin Fetchit would go on to other memorable performances for Ford in Judge Priest and The Sun Shines Bright.