Cast & Crew
Veda Ann Borg
Although they are frustrated to see Communist enemy agents plead the Fifth Amendment and walk free, Jim McLain and Mal Baxter, special investigators for the House Un-American Activities Committee, undertake a new mission to investigate a Communist cell headquartered in Honolulu. At the airport, Phil Briggs, a Honolulu newspaper reporter, agrees to cooperate with Jim and Mal in return for a scoop. To begin their investigation, Jim and Mal present subpoenas to known Communist party members in Hawaii, but are unable to find former party treasurer Willie Nomaka. Posing as a creditor, Jim gets Nomaka's address from Nancy Vallon, the secretary of Nomaka's psychiatrist, Dr. Gelster. Then he asks Nancy for a date. Meanwhile, Sturak, an elite party member, orders Gelster, who is also in the party, to "get rid of Nomaka," as his nervous behavior and drinking habits jeopardize their security. On weekends, Jim courts the widowed Nancy and later proposes to her, and during work hours, Jim and Mal find their investigation supported by Police Chief Dan Liu and local businessmen who want to protect Hawaii from the Communist menace. A former party member tips Jim and Mal that Nomaka may soon crack, as he has been drinking heavily in public, which is against party rules. Hoping to get information from Nomaka, Jim and Mal go to the address supplied by Nancy, but instead meet Nomaka's brazen landlady Madge, who tells them that Nomaka had a nervous breakdown and was taken to a sanitarium by Gelster. As they talk, two thugs arrive to pick up Nomaka's trunk, and Jim notes their license plate numbers. Liu has the men picked up for questioning for an unrelated incident and the contents of Nomaka's trunk are photographed. Then the men are tailed to a ritzy club, which, unknown to the police, is Sturak's center of operation. When the film is developed, Mal realizes that the contents look like insurance policies, and later the Washington office confirms that they have found evidence of insurance fraud. Jim learns that Nomaka's ex-wife is a nurse on Molokai, and he goes there to meet her. Penitent for her years as a party member, she admits that she had not heard from Nomaka in years, then recently received two incoherent messages in which Nomaka accused himself of "fratricide," although he has no siblings, and mentioned returning to the religion of his childhood. Jim next visits the Shinto temple, where Reverend Ito reveals that Nomaka has been seen praying there. Meanwhile, Liu tips Mal that Gelster's phone bills included calls to Sanford Sanitarium. Mal proceeds there with a search warrant and finds Nomaka, who is in shock from the breakdown, heavily drugged and unable to talk. A local businessman introduces Jim and Mal to Edwin White, a union leader who appears to be routing out Communists in the workplace. However, Jim and Mal coincidentally receive a call from the Lexiters, a retired, first-generation Polish-American couple, who say that their son, a Communist, is working in Honolulu using the name Edwin White. Later, Madge calls, claiming she has something of interest for Jim. After dragging him to several bars, she finally hands over an opened letter from overseas addressed to Nomaka, which reveals his involvement in the sabotage of a U.S. Navy vessel, which resulted in the death of Nomaka's childhood friend and fellow Shinto. Meanwhile, Mal is murdered while following a lead, and the autopsy reveals that he died from an injection of truth serum that aggravated his heart condition. Later, Jim tries spreading rumors that the investigation is off, but Sturak recognizes the old police trick and calls a meeting of local party leaders, unaware that his club has been wired by the police. Unhappy that Gelster killed Mal, he orders the doctor to confess his party membership and implicate seven others, hoping that the authorities will believe the ring has been dissolved. Then three "essential" members will be free to continue with plans: Whelan, a labor relations counselor, and White, a labor union leader, are to create dissent among the workers and halt production, while Mortimer, a bacteriologist, is to create an epidemic on the island. After rounding up Briggs, Jim crashes the meeting and starts a brawl, and Liu and his men arrive shortly after to arrest the party leaders. Later, Gelster and two others are charged with Mal's murder, but the others are brought to a special House Un-American Activities Committee hearing held in Honolulu. Again, Jim sees the Communists plead the Fifth Amendment and go free. Later, with Nancy at his side to comfort him, Jim watches a parade of servicemen.
Veda Ann Borg
Madame Soo Yong
Honolulu Chief Of Police Dan Liu
Zinko "lucky" Simunovich
Bishop Kinai Ikuma
Sam "steamboat" Mokuaki
Charles "panama" Baptiste
Al Kealoha Perry
Nate H. Edwards
James Edward Grant
Big Jim McLain
Wayne once remarked that his main purpose was entertaining the public, but "if at the same time, I can strike a blow for liberty, then I'll stick one in." His associates at Wayne-Fellows Productions stuck quite a few into Big Jim McLain. As soon as the storm has blown the credits off the screen, a manly voice starts quoting from Stephen Vincent Benét's popular 1937 story "The Devil and Daniel Webster," in which the nineteenth-century statesman asks about the state of the union from beyond the grave; if he gets an answer he doesn't like, the story says, "he's liable to rear right out of the ground." With these words the camera pans to the hearing room of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, better known as HUAC, the Congressional equivalent of Daniel Webster's ghost. And now an off-screen narrator chimes in, telling us that we owe these congressmen a great debt because they have staunchly pursued "their stated belief that anyone who continued to be a communist after 1945 is guilty of high treason." This is an interesting belief for congressmen to have, since the Communist Party was a perfectly legal organization. But to patriots like Big Jim, this is a technicality. He works for the committee, and his investigations provide the evidence that's used when suspects are interrogated under oath. The most frequent question in those interrogations was extremely famous in the 1940s and '50s, especially in Hollywood, where the committee hunted subversives with particular gusto: "Are you now or have you even been a member of the Communist Party?"
A congressman is asking that very question as the story of Big Jim McLain finally gets under way. But the committee isn't having much success, since every witness chants the same refrain, invoking the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent if an answer would be self-incriminating. Jim tells us in a voiceover how angry he gets when all these obvious communists get away with high treason, such as the teacher who's just wiggled off the hook. "The good Dr. Carter would go right back to his well-paid chair as a full professor of economics at the university," says Jim, "to contaminate more kids." His fellow investigator Mal Baxter is even madder, since he holds every communist responsible for shooting at him in the Korean war.
Leaving the committee room in a huff, Jim and Mal get word of their next assignment visiting Hawaii to track down the members of a communist cell. They fly to Honolulu, take on phony names, and start poking around for signs of un-American activity. It's slow going at first, but Jim gets lucky in another way snooping on a subversive psychiatrist, he meets Nancy Vallon, a psychologist-in-training who works in the bad doctor's office, unaware that her boss is guilty of high treason. There's not a communist bone in Nancy's body, so Jim falls immediately in love, and even their quarrels have a funny, romantic flavor. Jim has his limits, though, and when Nancy starts psychoanalyzing the communist mentality, he puts his foot down. "I've heard all the jive," he thunders. "This one's a communist because mamma won't tuck him in at night, and that one because girls wouldn't welcome him with open arms. I don't know the why. The what I do know." We all know what the `what' is by now, and at the end of this speech Nancy knows too. No more psychoanalysis for her, at least when Jim's common sense is available.
As directed by Edward Ludwig from a screenplay credited to three writers, Big Jim McLain is too preachy and polemical for today, when the cold war and HUAC are long gone. Even in 1952, it's hard to imagine how audiences could have applauded when a pair of parents turn in their communist son to Jim and Mal, automatically assuming that he's better off in prison than hanging out with his pinko friends. What the movie lacks in political power, though, it makes up in unexpected twists. The most harrowing comes near the end, when a particularly contemptible commie hurls a racial slur in Big Jim's presence, and Big Jim finally gets into the fistfight he's been avoiding (and itching for) all through the picture. The most amusing is a meeting Jim and Mal have with a one-time communist who's lost whatever wits he ever had and lives in a fog of strange delusions believing he's invented a secret weapon, for instance, that will somehow end war by making everybody on earth look exactly like everybody else. It's a witty episode, thanks largely to Hans Conried's excellent acting, and it's also a fascinating precursor of Don Siegel's classic 1956 thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which uses universal likeness as a metaphor for Soviet-style groupthink and capitalist conformity. Sharp-eyed viewers will spot echoes and anticipations of numerous other Red-scare movies as well, including My Son John (1952), another drama where patriotic parents send their son to the slammer, and Red Planet Mars (1952), a science-fiction oddity so obsessed with communism that it puts "Red" right into the title. Those pictures also debuted in 1952, a banner year for cold-war paranoia and Hollywood-style groupthink.
The cast does as well as can be expected with their uneven material. Wayne is laid back and likable as Jim, and the film never lets you forget how big he is people keep mentioning it, and a secondary character nicknames him Seventy-Six, which is his height in inches. Nancy Olson is nicely impish as Nancy Vallon, and James Arness, whose nickname could be Seventy-Nine, plays Mal with undertones of simmering rage at commies everywhere. Other standouts include Conried as the demented inventor, Veda Ann Borg as the female informant, and Madame Soo Yong as a reformed Marxist who's atoning for her sins by working in a leper colony where Jim visits her. Big Jim McLain occasionally takes time out for Hawaiian music, and Archie Stout's cinematography makes the region look alluring without turning it into a merely exotic postcard. His restraint is one of the picture's most quietly effective assets.
Producer: Robert Fellows
Director: Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: James Edward Grant, Richard English, Eric Taylor
Cinematographer: Archie Stout
Film Editing: Jack Murray
Art Direction: Al Ybarra
Music: Emil Newman, Arthur Lange, Paul Dunlap
With: John Wayne (Jim McLain), Nancy Olson (Nancy Vallon), James Arness (Mal Baxter), Alan Napier (Sturak), Veda Ann Borg (Madge), Hans Conried (Robert Henried), Hal Baylor (Poke), Gayne Whitman (Dr. Gelster), Gordon Jones (Olaf), Robert Keys (Edwin White), John Hubbard (Lt. Cmdr. Clint Grey), Madame Soo Yong (Mrs. Namaka), Honolulu Chief of Police Dan Liu (Dan Liu, Honolulu Chief of Police), Red McQueen (Phil Briggs)
by David Sterritt
Big Jim McLain
Edwin Layton has a cameo that was arranged by the studio as a favor for getting permission for John Ford to film the actual Midway battle. Layton was the Pacific Fleet's Fleet Intelligence Officer at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.
After the opening credits, a voice-over narrator recites quotes from the short story "The Devil and Daniel Webster" by Stephen Vincent Benét, immediately followed by a voice-over tribute to the House Committe on Un-American Activities for its pursuit of inquiries "undaunted by the vicious campaign of slander launched against them." A title card at the end of the film states that the incidents in the film were based on the files of the Committee, although names and places were changed, and acknowledges the cooperation of the Committee in the making of the film. The film was copyrighted by Wayne-Fellows Productions Inc. on September 2, 1952, LP1884, as Big Jim McLain. The September 18, 1952 copyright, LP1926, was titled Big Jim McLean. Production charts list the production company as The Fifth Corp., but all other sources list it as Wayne-Fellows Productions. The Fifth Corp. was also owned by Robert Fellows and John Wayne, and named for a recurring theme in the film, that proven Communists were freed after pleading the Fifth Amendment. According to a March 1952 Variety news item, Big Jim McLain was to be the first in a series of films of Wayne-Fellows Productions for release by Warner Bros. The news item speculated that Warner Bros. had agreed to release Big Jim McLain after the studio and Wayne failed to agree on a project to fulfill Wayne's one-picture-a-year contract.
June 1952 Hollywood Reporter news items add Peter Brocca and Andy Iona and His Polynesians to the cast. Their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed.
The film was shot entirely on location in Hawaii and includes scenes of Pearl Harbor, Molokai, Waikiki and Honolulu, according to reviews and production notes. According to Warner Bros. production notes, several of the people cast in the film were Honolulu citizens: Honolulu Chief of Police Dan Liu, news reporter Vernon "Red" McQueen, wrestling champion Zinko "Lucky" Simunovich, University of Hawaii professor Joel Trapido, Bishop Kinai Ikuma, Sam "Steamboat" Mokuaki, Charles "Panama" Baptiste, Rennie Brooks, Akira Fukunaza and Ralph Honda. According to an August 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item, the film was rushed into release to beat two other John Wayne films, RKO's The Jet Pilot, which was not released until 1957, and Republic's The Quiet Man (see entries below).
Released in United States 1952
Released in United States 1995
Released in United States on Video March 13, 1991
Released in United States 1952
Released in United States 1995 (Shown at AFI/Los Angeles International Film Festival (The AFI Fest Movie Marathon All Night: Left Wing versus Right Wing) October 19 - November 2, 1995.)
Released in United States on Video March 13, 1991