Fox // 1936 // 85 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // April 3rd, 2013
"In all this Cuban business, there is one man stands out on the horizon of my memory like Mars at perihelion." -- from the original essay, A Message to Garcia
In the latter half of the 19th Century, Cuba had begun taking steps to free themselves from Spanish rule. It wasn't until 1898 and the sinking of the USS Maine, though, that America decided to intervene. This started the Spanish-American War that, after a little over a hundred days, gave the Cubans their freedom. In order to deliver the message of aid to the leader of the freedom fighters, General Calixto Garcia, President William McKinley sent a single man through the jungle. That man became the subject of a popular essay, A Message to Garcia, by Elbert Hubbard which, in 1936, was adapted into a film. Was it a stirring tribute to the essay's message of freedom and hard work? No, no it was not.
After receiving the important note, Lt. Andrew Rowan (John Boles, Frankenstein) heads to Cuba under the cover of night to begin his journey. On his way through the wilderness, he is beset by trouble both from the environment and the Spanish, who have a stranglehold on the area. As he struggles, he finds help in the form of American expat Sgt. Dory (Wallace Beery, The Champ) and love in Raphaelita Maderos (Barbara Stanwyck, The Furies, the daughter of General Cortez. When she is shot and Rowan is captured by the Spanish, all seems lost, but if Dory can overcome his fear of retribution from both sides of the conflict, he might be able to save the day.
The first thing that one will notice in this sad sack of a film is that the great Barbara Stanwyck is, laughably, playing a young Cuban woman. This wasn't all that uncommon a practice in this era of cinema, but it's a pretty pathetic casting choice. Even with her immense talent, there is no way for her to overcome that little problem. I can't blame her, though; she and the other fine actors in the film certainly had little choice in the matter and, in virtually every aspect, A Message to Garcia is a total failure.
Directed by journeyman George Marshall (Hold that Co-Ed), the film is dull and predictable and bores even while playing fast and loose with the history. The characters that Beery and Stanwyck portray were completely invented, likely to give the story some kind of cinematic quality, or at least a semblance of a love story, but none of it works. Even though Stanwyck and Boles would show plenty of chemistry as the lead couple in Stella Dallas the following year, there's barely a hint of that here. They're young, attractive, and that's about it.
Beery is wasted as a bumbling fool who, unsurprisingly, is called into action to save the day. Despite his character having lived in Cuba for a decade since deserting the US military, he doesn't know a lick of Spanish. He does know his way around the wilderness, though, which is handy for the brave but, otherwise, lost Rowan. There are also a few notable appearances of other actors in small roles that will be of interest to classic film fans. These include Alan Hale (The Little Minister) and British comedian Herbert Mundin (Mutiny on the Bounty). The best one, though, is the portrayal of President McKinley. On screen, and only from behind, the actor is the little known Dell Henderson, but the voice is that of the one and only John Carradine (House of Frankenstein) brought in to give the character a more presidential sounding tone. Obviously, he's up to the task, but he's virtually the only one.
A Message to Garcia arrives on DVD as part of the Fox Cinema Archives collection and is typical of the quality from the on-demand label. The full frame image is pretty rough, with a fair amount of damage to the original print, more than usual even for a film of this age. The black and white contrast isn't nearly as stark as it should be and the entire thing lacks much detail. Some scenes look pretty good, but it's terribly inconsistent. The sound doesn't add much to the equation, with a simple, wan mono mix. There is little dynamic range, but the dialog is clear enough and what background noise exists isn't terribly distracting. As usual, there are no extras on the disc.
Barbara Stanwyck is, arguably, my favorite actress in the history of cinema and I'll jump at the chance to watch anything she appears in. She was in so many movies during her long career, though, that they can't all be winners and A Message to Garcia is far from her best work. It's not just that the race thing, though that's certainly part of the problem; it's just a clunky, dumpy production all around that probably never should have existed.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 1936
MPAA Rating: Not Rated