Pete Sandidge (Spencer Tracy) is the reckless pilot of a North American B-25 Mitchell bomber flying out of England during World War II. He is in love with Women Airforce Service Pilot Dorinda Durston (Irene Dunne), a civilian pilot ferrying aircraft across the Atlantic. "Nails" Kilpatrick (James Gleason), Pete's commanding officer, first transfers Pete and his crew to a base in Scotland and then offers him a transfer back to America to be a flying instructor. Dorinda has a feeling that Pete's "number is up" and begs him to accept. Pete agrees, but goes out on one last mission with his best friend Al Yackey (Ward Bond) to check out a German aircraft carrier. Wounded after an attack by an enemy fighter, Pete has his crew bail out before bombing the ship and crashing into the sea.
Pete then finds himself walking in clouds, where he first recognizes an old friend, Dick Rumney (Barry Nelson). Suddenly becoming uneasy after remembering that Dick went down with his aircraft in a fiery crash, Pete says, "Either I'm dead or I'm crazy." Dick answers, "You're not crazy." Dick ushers Pete to a meeting with "The General" (Lionel Barrymore), who gives him an assignment. He is to be sent back to Earth, where a year has elapsed, to pass on his experience and knowledge to dilettante Ted Randall (Van Johnson) at flight school, then in the South Pacific, where Ted is a Lockheed P-38 Lightning fighter pilot. Ted's commanding officer turns out to be Al Yackey.
The situation becomes complicated when Ted meets the still-grieving Dorinda. Al encourages Dorinda to give the young pilot a chance. The pair gradually fall in love; Ted proposes to her and she accepts, much to Pete's jealous dismay.
When Dorinda finds out from Al that Ted has been given an extremely dangerous assignment to destroy the largest Japanese ammunition dump in the Pacific, she steals his aircraft. Pete guides her in completing the mission and returning to the base to Ted's embrace. Pete accepts what must be and walks away, his job done.
As appearing in screen credits:
A Guy Named Joe introduced Van Johnson in his first major role. When the filming was partially completed in 1943, Johnson was in a serious automobile accident. The crash lacerated his forehead and damaged his skull so severely doctors inserted a plate in his head. MGM wanted to replace Johnson, but Tracy convinced the studio to suspend filming until Johnson could return to work, which he did after four months of recovery. He then went on to become a major star. Because the movie was filmed before and after the accident, Johnson can be seen without and with the forehead scars he bore from then on.
One of the other reasons Johnson was allowed to stay was because a deal was made that Tracy and director Victor Fleming had to stop making Dunne's life miserable on set. Although she had been excited to work with Tracy, the actor took an instant dislike to her and endlessly teased her, sometimes driving her to tears. The deal was made, and Dunne and Tracy took the extra time caused by Johnson's recovery to re-shoot some of the scenes where their hostility was noticeable.
Budget restrictions precluded location shooting, and all the flying scenes were staged at the MGM Studios. For an air of authenticity, footage shot at various United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) bases throughout the United States was incorporated via an exterior backdrop process. Authentic aircraft were used, although they remained firmly on the ground. The pivotal scene with Irene Dunne flying a Lockheed P-38 Lightning was recreated at Drew Field, Florida, utilizing a surplus P-38E which had been acquired from the USAAF, where it had been used as an instructional aircraft. Electric motors drove the propellers and allowed for an authentic run-up sequence. The miniature work was the product of the same MGM special effects team of A. Arnold Gillespie, Donald Jahrus and Warren Newcombe that would later be responsible for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).
During the scene where Tracy's character dies, he was shown making a suicidal divebomb run on a German aircraft carrier, despite the fact that Germany has never had an operational aircraft carrier in service, before, during or after World War 2.Lockheed P-38E Lightning fighter ("static", propellers turned by electric motors)
North American B-25 Mitchell bomber (special effects scale model)
Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainer (static but flyable aircraft on loan from Luke Field Arizona)
North American P-51A Mustangs as Luftwaffe fighters
Martin B-26 Marauders as Japanese bombers
North American AT-6 Texan trainers at Luke Field
C-36 or C-40 in some scenes, C-47 and C-60 in others
A Guy Named Joe premiered at the Astor Theater in New York on 23 December 1943 to generally positive reviews. Life Magazine summed up the critical reaction: "MGM's A Guy Named Joe manages to remain strong and exciting despite such weaknesses as verbiosity and a climax that is pure 'Perils of Pauline'." Bosley Crowther of The New York Times considered it "a tricky excursion into metaphysical realms." that almost comes off.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated the team of David Boehm and Chandler Sprague for Best Original Story in 1944, but Leo McCarey won for Going My Way, at the 17th Academy Awards.
2002: AFI's 100 Years...100 Passions – Nominated
2006: AFI's 100 Years...100 Cheers – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
According to MGM records the film earned $3,970,000 in the US and Canada and $1,393,000 elsewhere resulting in a profit of $1,066,000.