Winged Victory (1944): George Cukor’s Tribute to the Air Force, Starring Lon McCallister, Jeanne Crain, Judy Holliday

George Cukor’s War project, Winged Victory, was just a routine chore for him, a feature in which he had no interest.

Unsurprisingly, it is one of his least distinguished and least kn0wn endeavors.

Grade: B-

Winged Victory
Winged Victory(film).jpg

Film poster

This joint effort of 20th Century-Fox and the U.S. Army Air Forces was based on the play of the same name by Moss Hart, who also wrote the screenplay.

Patriotic playwright Moss Hart, who wrote and directed the stage version, wanted to acquaint the public with the Air Force’s indomitable spirit. In order to gather material for the play, Hart put on a cadet’s uniform and set out on a jaunt by bomber that covered every phase in the training.

Lon McCallister, who was cast as one of the aviation cadets, recalled that the picture was a trying experience for him as well as for director Cukor. “We were both replacements,” he told me in an interview, “William Wyler had originally been announced to direct, but Cukor was released from the army before Wyler could return to civilian life.”

In May 1944, the Broadway cast moved from New York to Hollywood to make the movie. The entire crew was recruited from army ranks, including technicians, set designers, and musicians.

But the studio decided that they needed extra box-office insurance, so they added Jeanne Crain and McCallister to the cast, after the success of their film Home in Indiana that year.

McCallister was the only actor who had not been in the original show. He was cast based on the recommendation of George Cukor, who had known him from the time he was a boy, appearing uncredited in Cukor’s Romeo and Juliet in 1936, and Susan and God in 1940.

How Cukor Got to Direct the Movie

There was nothing set for Cukor to direct at MGM, and Hart’s script was ready to go into production.  Cukor thus came into the project with very little preparation. “It would have been a better picture if he had been given time to work with Moss Hart,” McCallister told me. “The brilliance of A Star is Born, in 1954, proved the value of their complete collaboration.”

Judy Holliday

There were very few roles for women in the film, mostly mothers and sweethearts. One of those was played by Judy Holliday, who in the next decade would become Cukor’s quintessential actress, appearing in five of his movies, and winning a well-deserved Best Actress Oscar in 1950 for Born Yesterday.

A joined effort of 2oth Fox and the US Army Air Force, the film opened after the play’s theatrical run.

Frankie Davis (Lon McCallister), Allan Ross (Mark Daniels) and “Pinky” Scariano (Don Taylor) join the Air Forces, hoping to become pilots. In training, they befriend Irving Miller (Edmond O’Brien) and Bobby Crills (Barry Nelson).

The five friends go through rigorous training to become pilots, facing success, failure, and tragedy in the process.

Allan, newly married, finds that wife Dorothy (Jo-Carroll Dennison) plans to go with him to aviation school. Frankie, whose hometown bride Jane (Jane Ball) is living with Dorothy near the camp, watches with concern as some of the other cadets receive “wash-out tickets.”

Pinky washes out when he fails his eye test, but he is classified a gunner and ships out for separate training. Frankie, Allan and their friends, Irving and Bobby are assigned to pilot training. During the cadets’ first night flight, Frankie crashes.

The group, now one more short, is devastated. Allan volunteers to give tragic news to Jane, who is expecting their first child.

When the group wins their wings and are assigned to their units, Pinky is assigned to the same aircraft flown by Allan and Irving, they name their craft “Winged Victory.”

Though trying to keep their assignment a secret, their wives guess their husbands are going to go into combat. At their South Pacific base in New Guinea, the exhausted crew of the “Winged Victory” join the other crews in a Christmas celebration. In the midst of the festivities, an air raid siren sounds, and they take off for battle. During the fight, a tire on the “Winged Victory” is damaged during combat, and Pinky is wounded. 

Back at the base, Allan learns that his wife has given birth to a son. Before taking off to rejoin the air battle, he writes a letter to his son, explaining the importance of his mission and hopes for the future.

Lon McCallister as Frankie Davis
Jeanne Crain as Helen
Edmond O’Brien as Irving Miller
Jane Ball as Jane Preston
Mark Daniels as Alan Ross
Jo-Carroll Dennison as Dorothy Ross
Don Taylor as Danny “Pinky” Scariano
Judy Holliday as Ruth Miller
Lee J. Cobb as Doctor
Peter Lind Hayes as O’Brien
Red Buttons as “Whitey”
Barry Nelson as Bobby Crills
Rune Hultman as Dave Anderson
Gary Merrill as Capt. McIntyre
George Reeves as Lt. Thompson

Directed by George Cukor
Produced by Darryl F. Zanuck
Written by Moss Hart, based upon his play
Music by David Rose, Leonard De Paur
Cinematography: Glen MacWilliams
Edited by Barbara McLean
Produced and distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corp.
Release date: December 22, 1944
Running time: 130 minutes
Box office: $4 million