Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Movie Review: Bombers B-52, starring Natalie Wood, Karl Malden, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. (1957)

Poster for Bombers B-52. The poster says it's Natalie Wood's "most exciting role!" It's lying.

Natalie Wood and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. make a cute couple in Bombers B-52, even if he is twice her age.

Natalie Wood and Karl Malden as father and daughter in Bombers B-52, 1957.
Natalie Wood’s only movie release of 1957 was Bombers B-52, a movie in which she received top billing, but played a supporting role to the Air Force’s latest long-range bomber. Wood stars along with the always excellent Karl Malden as her father, an Air Force engineer, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., as a flashy pilot. It takes a while for Bombers B-52 to figure out exactly what kind of movie it’s going to be. At first it seems like an elongated sitcom episode, as the plot involves Malden’s character going on a television quiz show and winning $4,000 by answering questions about baseball. (He buys his daughter a beautiful yellow Ford convertible with the winnings.) There’s conflict between Wood and Malden, as she tries to convince him to take a job in the private sector. Then Zimbalist shows up and gets put in charge of the base where Malden works. Malden is not happy about this. Malden and Zimbalist encountered each other in Korea, and Malden thinks Zimbalist is just a glory-seeking hot shot. But Zimbalist keeps Malden from resigning by showing him the new B-52 Stratofortress planes that the base will get. That’s enough to keep Malden happy. But he’s less happy once Zimbalist starts dating Wood. There’s some drama about test flights of the B-52, but it all ends well. Unfortunately, Bombers B-52 just isn’t a very exciting movie, although it does feature some great aerial photography of the B-52. The unintentional comedic highlights of the film are the mid-air refueling scenes, which just made me think of the opening credits for Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in which the sexual symbolism is played up as a B-52 is refueled to the romantic strains of “Try a Little Tenderness.” The most unintentionally funny line of dialogue in the movie is at the end of the refueling scene, when someone says, “Tanker to receiver-you’ve got it all.” Wink wink, nudge nudge. 

I would guess that Bombers B-52 was not a fun movie for Natalie Wood to make, as her character really doesn’t have much to do. Wood was trying to become a serious actress, and Bombers B-52 did not put any strain on her acting talents. It must have been a letdown for her after making great dramas like Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers. Wood certainly looks beautiful in Bombers B-52, but she’s just window dressing.

We don’t see enough of the romance between Wood and Zimbalist to really care about it, or be invested in their relationship. And while Efrem Zimbalist certainly looks more than capable of piloting a B-52, he’s a little old to be romancing an 18 or 19 year old Natalie Wood. Zimbalist was 19 years older than Wood! A more age appropriate love interest would have been Tab Hunter, who had already made two movies with Wood, but Hunter turned the role down. 

Zimbalist does a fine job in one of his early movie roles. Zimbalist is most well-known for his television work in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and 1970’s, on the long running series 77 Sunset Strip and The FBI. He was a handsome man, with good hair, a strong jaw, and an air of authority. You’d trust him to pilot a B-52. Zimbalist’s father, Efrem Zimbalist Sr., was a classical violinist, and his mother, Alma Gluck, was a soprano who made several popular records in the 1910’s. Both Efrem Zimbalist Sr. and Jr. lived to be 95 years old. Karl Malden made it to 97 years old, which means that Bombers B-52 starred two of the longest-lived leading actors ever. 

Karl Malden was one of the great film actors, as even in a potboiler like this, he gives every line his complete dedication as an actor. Malden’s rather ordinary looks, and his formidable talent, allowed him the versatility of moving between leading roles and character roles. Malden later starred with Wood in two more movies, 1962’s Gypsy and the 1979 disaster flick Meteor. Malden got along well with Natalie Wood, and Wood biographer Suzanne Finstad writes about an interesting anecdote during the filming of Bombers B-52: “Malden glimpsed the loneliness underneath Natalie’s surface gaiety when he discovered she had never been on a family picnic, and arranged to take her on one. She told him, afterward, that it was one of the happiest days of her life, which Malden found desperately sad.” (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.237) Like many child stars, Natalie really didn’t have much of a childhood, and thus she missed out on a lot of life experiences. 

The screenplay for Bombers B-52 was written by Irving Wallace, who wrote many popular novels, and was also one of the editors for The Book of Lists, which makes him a hero in my eyes, since that was my favorite book when I was 13 years old. Yay for books of random trivia!

Bombers B-52 was directed by Gordon Douglas, who has a lot of “second movies in a series” among his credits. He did 1967’s In Like Flint, the second Flint spy movie with James Coburn, and the second movie in which Sidney Poitier played detective Virgil Tibbs, 1970’s They Call Me Mister Tibbs! He also directed Frank Sinatra in five movies. 

Perhaps the best summation of Bombers B-52 was written at the time it was released in November, 1957, when Time magazine called it a “$1,400,000 want ad for Air Force technicians.” It’s no surprise when at the end of the movie there’s a credit expressing the filmmaker’s thanks towards the Air Force. Without the cooperation of the Air Force, there wouldn’t have been a movie.  

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