I’m washing a ton of dirty clothes today, and that means I’m folding a ton of clothes, too, and THAT means I’m watching a movie while I fold clothes. Today, I’m watching Twelve O’Clock High.
I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this movie, but it’s not enough. I’m still not tired of it, and I haven’t memorized all the lines yet. I like to play favorite scenes over and over to make sure I’ve got the sound of the lines right as well as the words. If I could deliver the lines where Savage chews out Gately as devastatingly as Peck did, I could die a happy man.
Today’s favorite scene was Savage meeting Cobb for the first time. If you’ve never seen the movie, Savage is a general sent to take command of an army air force base in England during the early years of World War Two. He is played to perfection by Gregory Peck. I would like to say this is the role Peck was born to play, but I know he likes Atticus Finch best of all his roles, so I’ll say only this is *a* role he was born to play. Maybe I can get away with that.
Cobb is a pilot in one of the units stationed at the base. Savage wants to give Cobb the job of Air Exec, which would make Cobb second-in-command of the base, but Savage would like to know more about Cobb’s character first, so he goes looking for Cobb in the officer’s club the night he arrives. The club is a quonset hut with a fireplace at the far end and a tiny bar to one side in the middle. Someone is banging out “Don’t Sit Under The Apple Tree” on the upright piano right next to the entrance.
Peck strides manfully to the bar and barks, “Beer!” at the bartender. As Savage, Peck barks a lot in this movie. He’s good at it, too.
A major who had been standing in the foreground, just to Savage’s left, glances at the general’s star on Savage’s shoulder, then looks down into his beer as he decides he doesn’t want to make small talk with a general and wanders away, leaving Savage standing at the bar just one other officer, a major in a flier’s jacket and cap, slouched against the bar next to a half-empty shot glass of scotch. The major has his back to the general. Savage doesn’t know it yet, but this is Major Cobb, played by John Kellogg, who is about to steal the scene from Peck.
Peck looks the major up and down, then narrows his eyes at the major’s cap. Military personnel do not normally wear any kind of hat indoors, which is handily telegraphed to the audience by the fact that nobody else in the club is wearing a cap. Savage says evenly: “Remove your cap in the club, major.” He delivers the line just sternly enough that anyone would know it’s an order, but not so sternly that it’s a big deal, yet.
This is where it gets good: Kellogg swivels his head in Peck’s direction with enough of a glassed-over look in his eyes to give you the idea he isn’t drinking his first shot of scotch. He looks the general up and down and says, with enough disregard for the general’s rank to get noticed, but not enough to get him into trouble, “That’s regulations, is it?”
Before Peck answers, he stands a little straighter, a little stiffer, and he looks a little more serious. He clips his words a little shorter. The major has obviously ticked Savage off a bit. “It is,” Peck growls. He growls a lot in this movie, too, and he’s as good at growling as he is at barking.
Kellogg stands up straight, turns toward Peck and slowly takes the cap off his head, chucking it onto the bar between them. Then he scoops up his drink and tosses it back.
Savage picks up his own drink and downs a gulp, narrowing his eyes as he watches the major’s carefully balanced demonstration of defiance and obedience. Then his eyes widen a bit as he notices the major’s name tag, a tiny strip of black cloth with “MAJ J.C. COBB” in gold letters barely half an inch high on the left breast of the jacket. It’s almost invisible, and Peck’s reaction is so subtle that I missed this part of their interaction so many times. Really well-played.
Kellogg scoops up his hat and makes as if to go when Peck delivers his next line in an inviting, even friendly tone of voice, “Have another, Major Cobb,” he says, and Kellogg pauses long enough to let it register that he realizes he’s not in trouble, that he really is being invited to stay.
“Scotch,” he says to the bartender, and starts to dig out some change from his pocket, but Peck beats him to it, laying one of his own coins on the bar. “I’ve got it,” he says. (I love it there used to be a time when you could pay for hard liquor with loose change instead of folding money.)
“No regulation against buying my own, is there?” Kellogg says, not asks, a little proudly.
Peck says flatly, “That’s right,” and regards Kellogg with an icy look that reads: Are you sure you want to get into it like this?
Kellogg seems to waver for a moment but slaps his change on the bar after deciding he’s made his bed, now he’s going to lie in it. The bartender takes his money and sets a shot glass in front of him, and Kellogg settles an elbow on the bar. Peck grins at him but Kellogg doesn’t seem to notice, gazing straight ahead as he sips a bit of scotch from the glass. His expression says, I refuse to stick my other foot in my mouth.
The next day, after Cobb apologizes to Savage for the snark, Savage tells him admiringly, “You gave it to me straight.” These scenes where manly men beat on each other (sometimes literally – The Silent Man holds the gold standard for this) to size one another up are cliche, but I still love them, especially when they’re played as well as this one.