Pittsburgh has a dull title, but the experience of watching this film is anything but. A rather slapdash effort from 1942, when stars were pressed into making entertainments that would remind audiences of a bigger picture relating to a world at war, Lewis Seiler’ film perhaps doesn’t have the sheer polish of Marlene Dietrich’s other vehicles, but a number of random elements make it more than worthwhile for modern audiences. It’s the pick of the bunch featured in the BFI’s blu-ray boxed-set of Universal Marlene Dietrich movies, out this week and reviewed elsewhere on this blog.
Coal, unexciting coal is the subject; this is a film where every ten minutes, someone starts a lecture about just how important coal is to the war effort. The story revolves around three dynamic figures who are rivals in the coal-production business; miner Pittsburgh, played by John Wayne, goes from rags to riches due to his expertise with coke. ‘How about a contract to set me up with a year’s supply of coke?’ Wayne brusquely demands, and soon he’s built a career from the black stuff. Pittsburgh takes a fancy to Hunky Winters (Dietrich) but she’s more taken with rival Cash Evans (Randolph Scott), and spats, brawls and misunderstandings ensue. Pittburgh ends up on the wrong side of things, but fortunately WWII breaks out and gives all three of them an opportunity to put their disagreements aside and work together to help the Allied push.
Pittburgh may be a routine film, but the presumption is often amusing. An early scene makes comic hay out of the idea of turning up at the cinema without a collar on, if such uncouthness was imaginable. ‘He seems awfully sure of himself,’ muses Honky of Pittsburgh, and she’s right. Flagged down by a police car, Pittburgh cheerfully yells; ‘Out of the way, you old fools!’; white privilege doesn’t cover the kind of attitude John Wayne displays here. Dietrich is also very much at home in a ridiculous role that allows her to be super-glam in mundane circumstances. When a rash, prospective suitor promises Honky everything, she coyly replies ’I thought you told me I already had everything.’
Pittburgh is the kind of demonstrably daft film that sees the three protagonists move from nightclub shenanigans to rescuing trapped minors within seconds of screen-time, with Dietrich still in full evening wear. The last of multiple helpful lectures on coal make it clear exactly why; we’re all in it together, and such dramas are to be set aside for the greatest good. The gear shifts might have jarred at the time, but Pittburgh is a rocking melodrama in the style of Errol Flynn’s Gentleman Jim; a two-fisted, wholesome comic romp that gives big stars a chance to shine under the unifying flag of patriotic endeavour.
Pittsburgh is part of the BFI’s Marlene Dietrich at Universal 1940-1942 boxed set.
Thanks to the BFI for access to this blu-ray.