Sunday, July 9, 2017

Yellow Jack ( 1938 )

For hundreds of years people on the island of Cuba - and throughout other parts south of the equator - were dying of yellow fever, a disease that many doctors believed was unpreventable and, if not caught in time, incurable. What baffled these men of medicine the most was the fact that they were unable to determine what triggered yellow fever. Was it caused by germs in the air? Bad food? Sweat from dirty clothing? Was the disease something that spread from person to person? 

According to MGM's Yellow Jack, all these questions were answered in 1898 when, at a United States Marine camp in Cuba, three doctors ( Lewis Stone, Henry Hull, Stanley Ridges ), along with the aid of five brave guinea pigs....ahem, volunteer soldiers....tested out the theory of Dr. Finlay, a Scotsman who believed that yellow fever came from the bite of an infected mosquito. Other scientists felt this was the likely cause, too, but with over 700 species of mosquitoes on the island, they didn't even know where to begin their investigations as to which species was the culprit. Thankfully, Dr. Finlay ( Charles Coburn ) made the study of those bugs his life's work and had solved that mystery years prior. Now, with five plucky soldiers on hand ( Robert Montgomery, Alan Curtis, Sam Levene, Buddy Ebsen, and William Henry ) he was given the opportunity to put his theories into action. 
Yellow Jack was based upon the 1934 Sidney Howard-Paul de Kruif play of the same name, which starred James Stewart in the lead role as the Irish sergeant John O'Hara. It was his performance in this play that led to him coming out to Hollywood and signing an MGM contract. He could have done an excellent job with this part, but Robert Montgomery was given the lead instead and unknowing film audiences didn't mind the change for Yellow Jack did fairly well at the box-office. Robert Montgomery and Henry Hull ( certainly an underrated actor ) both give good performances and George B. Seitz directs the action with a steady hand. Both Seitz and Louis Stone were probably enjoying this trek in the jungle as a change of pace from the Andy Hardy films. 
Pretty Virginia Bruce, the only female lead in the film, portrays the nurse whom Robert Montgomery's heart thumps for. He's not as concerned about finding a cure for yellow fever, as much as finding a cure for the love-bug. He fails to realize that the interest she pays to him is merely out of her itching desire to find a soldier willing to stake his life for the cause of science and humankind. But ultimately, she falls for the winsome ways of the sergeant and comes to admire his selflessness as much as the audience does. 

For a decade after the release of The Story of Louis Pasteur in 1935, "medical discovery" pictures were a popular genre. These films usually featured stellar casts, engrossing scripts, and a touch of romance. Yellow Jack embraces all these aspects, too, with an added bit o' Irish humor. It is well worth watching on a hot and sticky day....just be sure to have your mosquito netting handy. 


  1. I had no idea that James Stewart was in the stage play that this film was adapted from! Charles Coburn was always solid in any film and I like his performance especially in this one.

    1. It doesn't quite seem like a role that James Stewart would take on, so I can see why Robert Montgomery got the part for the film version instead. And yes, Coburn is always top-notch.