Friday, May 21, 2021

Operator 13

Another of the movies that I recently got around to watching is a bit of a misfire, but an interesting one: Operator 13.

It's the early stages of the Civil War, and the North has just lost the second battle of Bull Run, creating not a small bit of panic in Washington. Gail Loveless (Marion Davis) is a stage actress in a show with one John Wilkes Booth, just to name drop, since this is a good three years before Lincoln's assassination.

Pauline Cushman (Katharine Alexander) runs the acting troupe, but that's just a front. In fact, she's a spy (called by the euphemism "operator") working under Maj. Allen Pinkerton (Sidney Toler), who is able to get into the South and get secrets out of it. Pauline thinks that Gail would be perfect for spy work, and Pinkerton agrees, so Gail becomes Operator 13.

The two women's first job together is to go down to Richmond to get some information on Confederate troop movements. Pauline is going to be a widow from New Orleans, accompanied by her one-eighth black maid from Martinique, to be portrayed by Gail in blackface that, well, is a topic for some discussion, which I'll get to later. But as a black servant, she's able to move somewhat freely among the other servants and thus get close to their masters and get the secrets. Along the way, she also meets Confederate Captain Jack Gailliard (Gary Cooper). He's actually a spy for the South, trying to figure out who the Northern spy is.

Gail falls in love with Gailliard's charm, although she can't act on it since she's a spy and she's supposed to be black, after all. She'll get a second chance, however. Pauline gets caught, the penalty for which is execution. But Gail saves her at the last minute and they both make it back north.

Gail now has another chance to go south, this time as her normal white self, since nobody will recognize her what with her having been black the last time. One again, she runs into Gailliard, and even has a chance to take the relationship further until she's caught out as a spy herself and has to try to make an escape.

As I was watching Operator 13, I couldn't help but think of Saratoga Trunk, another Gary Cooper movie that has two very distinct halves. In both cases, I didn't think the halves mesh well together. I also didn't find the ending of Operator 13 particularly realistic.

And then there's Davies' black disguise in the first half. Some people are obviously going to be very uncomfortable with this; I tend more to think about the dilemma Hollywood had on how to portray somebody who was of mixed race, since there's a fairly broad range of mixed-race. MGM wanted or needed to communicate to the audience that Davies was playing Martinican so they darkened her skin, but the problem is that it looks so ridiculous that you wonder how any of the Confederates could have thought she was really Martinican. Combine that with her mannerisms and phony accent, and it all comes across as really grating.

One bright spot in Operator 13 is the Mills Brothers, a black vocal group who here play part of a medicine show. Their harmonies are excellent, although they do come across as out of place.

Operator 13 is ultimately an interesting curio, but not a particularly good movie.

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