Wartime Stars, Genres, and Production Trends
7Hollywood's On-screen Conversion
Wartime Stars, Genres, and Production Trends
Stars and the Star System
Genres and Production Trends
The War Film
On 8 December 1941, a Warner Bros. story analyst filed a report on an unproduced play, "Everybody Comes to Rick's." The story centers on the American expatriate Rick Blaine, whose café in French Morocco is a haven for European war refugees, and whose life is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Lois Meredith, the wanton American beauty who, years before, had broken up Rick's marriage and family and cost Rick his law practice in prewar Paris. The story analyst considered the property a "box-office natural" and a suitable vehicle "for Bogart, or Cagney, or Raft in out-of-the-usual roles and perhaps Mary Astor."1
A few days later, the report reached the desk of the Warners production chief Hal Wallis, who was encouraged to purchase the property by his savvy story department head, Irene Lee. In light of Warners' current hit, The Maltese Falcon, Wallis agreed that "Everybody Comes to Rick's" had potential as another near-A, offbeat thriller. But Wallis had bigger plans for the project, seeing it as an ideal Á-class vehicle for his own move to unit producer and for Warners' conversion to war production. Weeks later, when Wallis signed a new contract giving him first crack at the studio's contract talent and story properties, he designated "Everybody Comes to Rick's" as the first project for his production unit. He tapped Michael Curtiz to direct and assigned several top writers to overhaul the story, strengthening both the political and romantic angles. He also entered negotiations with David Selznick for the services of his fast-rising contract star Ingrid Bergman, to costar with Warners' own emerging star Humphrey Bogart."2
The result, of course, was Casablanca, Hollywood's seminal wartime "conversion narrative." The conversion of studio operations and the retooling of established story formulas into war films were crucial factors, but the key factor in this conversion was the narrative itself. The love story was recast in terms of wartime separation and duty by reworking the female lead: the American seductress Lois was transformed into an innocent European refugee, Ilsa, whose commitment to the French Resistance leader Victor Laszlo actually motivated her earlier betrayal of Rick. And the signal conversion, finally, is Rick's. Early on, Bogart's Rick Blaine is very much the hard-boiled Warners hero: cynical and self-reliant, repeatedly muttering, "I stick my neck out for nobody." But in the course of the story, he rediscovers his own self-worth, along with his love of woman and country. Rick's final heroics—sending Ilsa away with Laszlo, killing the Nazi officer, and leaving Casablanca to join the Free French—crystallized the American conversion from neutrality to selfless sacrifice.
In a more general sense, Casablanca signaled the wartime conversion of Hollywood's classical narrative paradigm. As Dana Polan suggests in his study of 1940s film narrative, Hollywood's classical paradigm, with its individual protagonist and clearly resolved conflicts, underwent a temporary but profound shift to accommodate the war effort.3 The two most fundamental qualities of Hollywood narrative, one might argue, were (and remain) the individual goal-oriented protagonist and the formation of the couple. During the war, however, these two qualities were radically adjusted: the individual had to yield to the will and activity of the collective (the combat unit, the community, the nation, the family); and coupling was suspended "for the duration," subordinated to gender-specific war efforts that involved very different spheres of activity (and conceptions of heroic behavior) for men and women.
Actually, Hollywood always had found conflict in its contradictory conception of the idealized male and female—the untrammeled man of action and of few words (and with well-concealed sentiments) who's "gotta do what he's gotta do," and the supportive, sensitive but stoic Madonna whose natural (even biological) destiny is to tame that freespirited male for the higher cause of civilization. The resolution of the classical film narrative invariably involved the overcoming of that contradiction in the lovers' final embrace. But the war effort created radically different requirements, indefinitely postponing the climactic coupling while celebrating the lovers' dutiful separation and commitment to a larger cause—the lesson learned from Rick in the final moments of Casablanca.
By the time Casablanca was released in late 1942, Hollywood's wartime transformation had been under way for nearly a year. Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, and with the Senate propaganda hearings only a few months past, Hollywood shifted from outspoken denial of any overt promotion of U.S. involvement in the war to active on-screen support of that involvement. By mid-1942, about one-third of the features in production dealt directly with the war; a much higher proportion treated the war more indirectly as a given set of social, political, and economic circumstances.
Predictably enough, Hollywood's initial response to the war and to FDR's implicit call to arms was to convert established stars and genres to war production. Abbott and Costello stopped doing their service comedies in late 1941, in deference to the gravity of the military recruiting and training effort. That turned out to be a singular exception; the vast majority of stars and genres underwent just the opposite progression, converting to cinematic war production as soon as the United States entered the war. As the war and Hollywood's treatment of it progressed, the fit between various genres and the war conditions became clearer. Spy, detective, and crime thrillers, for instance, were easily reformulated (perhaps too easily) into espionage thrillers or underground resistance dramas in the early war years. The musical and woman's picture were recycled for war production as well and remained enormously effective throughout the war. The backstage musical was recast to depict groups of entertainers putting on military shows "for the boys," while working-girl sagas and melodramas of maternal or marital sacrifice were ideally suited to war conditions.
Hollywood dealt more directly with the war in combat dramas, documentaries, and newsreels. As the war progressed, in fact, the interplay of fiction and nonfiction war films became increasingly significant and complex, with war-related features evincing a documentary realism by 1944-1945 that was altogether unique for Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, film noir, a stylistic countertrend, developed; this 1940s period style expressed the bleaker side of the American experience during (and after) World War II. Thus, the war era represents a particularly complex and contradictory period in terms of Hollywood's production trends and on-screen accomplishments. Remarkably few canonized film classics were produced during the war, and yet Hollywood's social impact was more pronounced and more profound than ever before. Never in American film history had the relationship between cinema and social conditions been so direct and so politically charged; never had Hollywood films constituted so distinctly a national cinema. While Hollywood stopped short perhaps of functioning as a state-run propaganda agency, clearly the cinema's role as a culture industry was different during the war than at any other time in its history.
As seen in chapter 5, the war's most immediate impact on the film industry—and certainly its most widely publicized impact—was the manpower shortage and the departure of a contingent of Hollywood male stars for military service. The first top star to leave the industry for military service actually was the British actor David Niven, who enlisted in England in October 1939 after the outbreak of war in Europe. The exodus of American stars did not begin until March 1941, when James Stewart joined the Army Air Corps only days after the Academy Award ceremony in which he won the Oscar for best actor (and delivered the shortest acceptance speech on record: "Thanks").4 Stewart's departure signaled a steady drain of male talent and notably leading men.5
There were frequent jokes about male stars being replaced by dogs (Lassie), horses (Flicka), kids (Margaret O'Brien, Baby Jean), and aging character actors (Charles Coburn and Barry Fitzgerald, both of whom won Oscars during the war). The studios also tried to compensate for the loss of male stars by emphasizing other production values—Technicolor, music, presold properties, and so on—and some in Hollywood openly welcomed the opportunity to develop less star-oriented pictures. A new generation of wartime stars emerged, of course, although the male replacements, such as Alan Ladd, Van Johnson, Roy Rogers, Gregory Peck, and Ray Milland, were overshadowed by a coterie of rising female stars, including Betty Grable, Greer Garson, Rita Hayworth, Veronica Lake, Margaret O'Brien, Lauren Bacall, and Jennifer Jones.
Many of the male stars who joined the service maintained high media profiles through popular press and newsreel coverage, particularly those who became decorated officers or qualified as bona-fide war heroes. Clark Gable, for instance, rose from the rank of private to major in the air force, winning an Air Medal for bombing missions over Germany during which he manned both machine guns and newsreel cameras. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. won a Silver Star for his service at Salerno, and two destroyers under Robert Montgomery's command sank in the Pacific. Jimmy Stewart's wartime exploits were perhaps the most celebrated. He began his military career as a private and within nine months had won a commission as a second lieutenant. After serving as a flight instructor in the western United States, he was assigned in 1943 to a Liberator bomber group in England as squadron commander (at the rank of captain) and flew dozens of strategic bombing runs over Germany. In 1944, he rose to the rank of colonel and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.6
Besides the drain on male acting talent, the war era also saw the studios' established control of the star system continue to erode. Stars not only took temporary leave for military duty but also went freelance in increasing numbers with no intention of returning to studio employ. Moreover, the studio's established contractual methods were severely undercut when, in 1943-1944, the courts in California upheld Olivia de Havilland's suit against Warner Bros. for unreasonable suspension policies, thus establishing an actor's right to refuse roles and to sit out the duration of his or her contract.7
Despite the depleted ranks of male stars and eroding studio authority over stars' careers, the industry remained as star-driven and audiences as starstruck as ever during the war—arguably more so, considering the stars' unprecedented importance offcreen. Pinups of Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth were taped inside helmets and mess kits; Donald Duck was featured in more than four hundred official military insignias (the Disney animators designed well over a thousand such insignias during the war); and stars actively publicized and promoted the war effort, raising billions in war bonds in movie theaters across the country and entertaining the troops around the globe.8
This last point was especially important in terms of the role, status, and visibility of movie stars during the war. Carole Lombards death in a January 1942 plane crash while on a war-bond tour generated enormous publicity and sympathy, as did the decision of Myrna Loy to retire for the duration to work for the Red Cross. There was an unprecedented amount of personal contact between stars and the public. Hundreds of thousands of servicemen talked and danced with stars at the Hollywood Canteen and the Stage Door Canteen while passing through Los Angeles and New York City. And Bob Hope, whose wartime work for the USO's Foxhole Circuit became legendary, had appeared before an estimated two million servicemen by late 1944.9
Many stars regarded filmmaking as their patriotic duty—as did the government, which declared Hollywood stars "essential" to the industry (and thus subject to draft deferment). SAG publicly decried this policy as preferential treatment, and in fact Mickey Rooney was the only major star whose studio (MGM) applied for such a deferment. The resulting negative publicity was so severe that MGM rescinded the request; Rooney then proceeded with his induction but failed his draft physical. He remained at MGM until Roosevelt's "work or fight" edict in early 1944 revoked his deferment, at which point Rooney joined the army.10
The top stars during the war era ranked as follows in terms of their popular and commercial appeal, with the order based on yearly rankings from 1942 to 1945 in the Motion Picture Herald's annual Exhibitors' Poll."11
|1. Gary Cooper||11. Mickey Rooney|
|2. Betty Grable||12. James Cagney|
|3. Bob Hope||13. Clark Gable|
|4. Bing Crosby||14. Walter Pidgeon|
|5. Abbott and Costello||15. Dorothy Lamour|
|6. Greer Garson||16. Wallace Beery|
|7. Spencer Tracy||17. Cary Grant|
|8. Humphrey Bogart||18. Tyrone Power|
|9. Judy Garland||19. Alice Faye|
|10. Bette Davis||20. Van Johnson|
During the four war years, the stars in the first six positions utterly dominated the box office, and all but Cooper became fixed in the public imagination (and still are widely remembered) as wartime stars. Only four from this elite group—Cooper, Hope, Grable, and Garson—ranked in the top ten all four war years. Crosby and the team of Abbott and Costello placed in the top ten three out of the four years; Crosby climbed to the number-one spot in 1944 and 1945, while the comedy duo started the war at number one but declined slightly each year. A dozen stars remained in the top twenty-five all four years, including all of the top ten in this combined list, plus Rooney and Pidgeon; Pidgeon was the only one of that dozen who failed to crack the top ten at least once during the war.
Several stars fell from the annual Exhibitors' Poll after joining the service: Gable, Autry, Power, and the newcomer Alan Ladd. A few stars who remained in Hollywood during the war also fell from the rankings, notably Cagney and Errol Flynn. A crop of new stars—like Ladd, Van Johnson, and particularly Betty Grable—were virtual unknowns before the war but became top stars by 1944-1945. In fact, nine of the top twenty-five stars in 1944 and eleven in 1945 had not been ranked at all in 1942 or 1943, including Margaret O'Brien, Roy Rogers, Betty Hutton, Ingrid Bergman, Van Johnson, Danny Kaye, Joseph Cotten, and John Wayne.
Productivity was a key factor in the rise of many of these stars. Despite prewar studies by both Gallup and Leo Rosten indicating that top stars should do two to three pictures per year to maintain their currency, Hollywood's elite made fewer films during the war. The top ten stars in the combined list averaged two per year in 1942-1943 but fell to less than one and a half annually in the next two years. The market was changing along with pay scales, tax laws, and war-related obligations, and top stars seemed perfectly willing, in most cases, to cut back. And the market was hot enough that the cuts in productivity barely affected the rankings of several stars. Spencer Tracy maintained his number-five ranking in 1944 and 1945, for instance, while turning out only three pictures; Garson placed in the top ten despite doing only one picture in each of those two years; and remarkably, Bob Hope remained in the top ten both years with only one release in 1944 and none in 1945. Other top stars, including several Oscar nominees and winners—Joan Fontaine, Barbara Stanwyck, and Katharine Hepburn, for example—never even ranked in the top twenty-five, let alone the top ten, owing primarily to low output.
While top stars tended to make fewer films as the war went on, many emerging and second-rank stars gained a competitive edge by working at a much higher rate of output; some actually increased their rate during the war. The ascending male stars, in particular, took advantage of the dearth of leading men and the lighter workloads of their topranked colleagues. Ray Milland did eleven pictures during the war, Fred MacMurray did fourteen, and both Van Johnson and John Wayne did fifteen. The war era also saw a reversal of the prewar trend toward male stars atop the rankings: a number of women broke into the top ten. Four of the top ten in the combined listing were women, two of whom (Bette Davis and Judy Garland) were established prewar stars while the other two (Betty Grable and Greer Garson) rose to stardom just as the war broke out.
Greer Garson was a wartime phenomenon of the first order among Hollywood's stars. Arguably the most potent propaganda weapon in Hollywood's arsenal, Garson's stardom coincided almost exactly with the war itself. Born in Ireland in 1908 (and thus well into her thirties when she became a star), Garson was educated in London, where she trained on the stage before joining the MGM-British unit. She was an instant success with Metro, scoring an Oscar nomination in her first role as Robert Donat's dutiful spouse in Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The maternal role and Academy nomination set a dual precedent for Garson, although in the future hers would be the title role—invariably with Walter Pidgeon as the dutiful spouse. Pegged by Mayer in 1941 to succeed the poised and well-bred Norma Shearer (who turned down the Miniver role), Garson quickly emerged as Metro's wartime Madonna: a rare beauty of heroic courage, repressed sexuality, and indomitable spirit who nurtured orphans, offspring, and spouse in one lavish melodrama after another. She was nominated as Best Actress every year from 1941 to 1945 for Blossoms in the Dust (1941), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Madame Curie (1943), Mrs. Parkington (1944), and The Valley of Decision (1945)—all sizable commercial and critical hits, as was her other major star vehicle during the war, Random Harvest (1942).
Most of Garson's pictures were period pieces adapted from popular novels and were among MGM's most ambitious wartime productions. She worked with top studio personnel, notably the producer Sidney Franklin, the director Mervyn LeRoy, and the cinematographer Joe Ruttenberg. Her pictures racked up dozens of Academy nominations and quite a few Oscars; Mrs. Miniver was by far the most successful, virtually sweeping the 1942 awards—including Best Actress for Garson. And perhaps the best indication of her popular and commercial success during the war was Garson's legendary
"monopoly" over Radio City Music Hall. Her films routinely did holdover business there, with Mrs. Miniver and Random Harvest setting then-record runs of ten and eleven weeks, respectively, in 1942 and 1943. Madame Curie enjoyed a long run at Radio City in 1944, and by June 1945, as The Valley of Decision began its eighth week there, Garson's playing time at Radio City had reached fully eleven months during the war years alone. The nation's busiest theater, in other words, devoted one-fourth of its screen time during World War II to Greer Garson.12
Betty Grable, Hollywood's other leading female star and wartime icon, presented a marked contrast to Garson. Whereas Garson proved ideal for MGM's dignified and somewhat subdued prestige pictures, Grable's brassy blonde with "million dollar legs" and well-honed song-and-dance skills proved ideal for Fox's slick, high-energy musicals. While Garson personified the tastes and sensibilities of Louis B. Mayer and MGM, Grable was the consummate Zanuck-Fox star: unabashedly sexy and attractive, with a screen personality that, like Tyrone Power's in his signature action-romances, utterly dominated one formula picture after another. For Grable the formula was Technicolor musicals with threadbare plots and promising titles that were quite literally constructed around her performance and her figure. While Grable invariably was teamed with an adequate male star like John Payne or Victor Mature, she clearly carried films like Song of the Islands (1942), Springtime in the Rockies (1942), Coney Island (1943), Sweet Rosie O'grady (1943), Pin-Up Girl (1944), and Diamond Horseshoe (1945). These were money in the bank for Fox, and their success put Grable atop the 1943 Exhibitors' Poll.
Gary Cooper was the leading male star during the war years. Interestingly enough, Cooper's image as an ascetic loner and strong silent type softened during the war, beginning with his initial wartime effort, Ball of Fire (1941), a screwball comedy hit costarring Barbara Stanwyck and directed by Howard Hawks. Cooper followed that with a reversion to form and an even bigger hit, The Pride of the Yankees (1942), a biopic of the baseball legend Lou Gehrig (who had died recently at age 37) directed by Sam Wood.
The Pride of the Yankees ended Cooper's association with the producer Sam Goldwyn, although Goldwyn did have a hand in Coopers next two pictures. Those involved deals with Selznick, Paramount, and Warners, turning on the services of Cooper and Ingrid Bergman (and the directing services of Sam Wood, also under contract to Goldwyn). Goldwyn orchestrated the deal whereby Selznick loaned Bergman to Paramount to costar with Cooper in For Whom the Bell TOLLS, which led in turn an arrangement in early 1943 whereby Warners reteamed the pair Saratoga Trunk.13 Both were directed by Wood, and both huge hits. For Whom the Bell Tolls, a 168-minute Technicolor adaptation of Ernest Hemingway's war romance, emerged as the biggest box-office hit of 1943. Saratoga Trunk, another ambitious adaptation of a best-seller (by Edna Ferber), was produced in 1943 but then consigned to Warners' stockpile, where it remained for over two years—reasonably enough, since it was a period piece with two top stars. When Warners finally released Saratoga Trunk in early 1946, the Cooper-Bergman vehicle earned over $5 million.
After The Story of Dr. Wassell (1944), a war-related biopic for DeMille and Paramount, Cooper teamed with the screenwriter Nunnally Johnson (who had recently resigned from Fox) to set up an independent unit with UA. Cooper and Johnson collaborated on Casanova Brown (1944), a romantic comedy written and produced by Johnson that reteamed Cooper with Teresa Wright and the director Sam Wood, and Along Came Jones (1945), a Western comedy-drama produced by Cooper and written by Johnson that playfully undercut the Cooper persona. While the independent pictures were commercial disappointments, Cooper remained atop the Exhibitors' Poll because of the tremendous "legs" of For Whom the Bell Tolls. AS of January 1945, the 1943 release had earned over $4 million and still had not gone into widespread general release.14
Cooper's laconic individualist was utterly at odds with Hollywood's other top male wartime stars: Hope and Crosby, and Abbott and Costello. Both tandems enjoyed extraordinary wartime success, refining and to some extent varying their prewar routines and musical-comedy personas. Abbott and Costello appeared only as a team in eleven wartime comedies, eight for Universal and three on loan to MGM. After moving away from service comedies once the war broke out, they specialized in genre parodies—including Pardon My Sarong, a 1942 spoof of the Hope-Crosby Road pictures. They also reworked the "in the navy" angle with Abbott and Costello in Hollywood (1945) and In Society (1944). The Abbott and Costello comedies relied less on music and musical costars during the war, although a few musical numbers were still worked in. The box-office returns were consistently in the $2 million range, even when the overall market was rising, which helps explain why their ranking fell each year during the war. The team remained invaluable, however, to Universal, which managed to keep their picture costs down to a bare minimum. In Society, for example, cost only $660,000, remarkably little for an A-class picture in 1945.15
Paramount's Hope and Crosby, whose costarring ventures (with Dorothy Lamour) had propelled them to top stardom, began and ended the war era together with hit Road comedies: Road to Morocco in 1942 and Road to Utopia which was produced 1944 but stockpiled until late 1945. There were no intervening Road pictures, although Hope and Crosby appeared together in several revue-format pictures like Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) and Duffy's Tavern (1945). Crosby also had a memorable cameo in the climactic battle scene in Hope's 1944 swashbuckling spoof, The Princess and the Pirate. Hope and Crosby each costarred with Lamour during the war: Crosby in a 1943 musical biopic, Dixie, and Hope in a 1943 espionage comedy-thriller (increasingly his forte), They Got Me Covered. Lamour also starred in her familiar tropical excursions, such as Beyond the Blue Horizon (1942) and Rainbow Island (1944).
As successful as Hope and Crosby were in tandem, and as firmly as the two are fixed in wartime cultural memory in the Road pictures, they actually had their greatest success during the war in separate and quite different ventures. In fact, Crosby's two biggest wartime hits teamed him with other male costars: Fred Astaire in Holiday Inn (1942) and Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way (1944). The latter was a wartime sensation, netting Paramount $6.5 million, scoring seven Oscars (including Best Actor for Crosby and Best Supporting Actor for Fitzgerald), and propelling Crosby to the number-one spot in the Exhibitors' Poll. He remained on top in 1945, owing largely to The Bells of St. Mary's opposite Ingrid Bergman. Hope, meanwhile, devoted himself to the USO, the War Activities Committee, the Hollywood Canteen, and other wartime causes. In fact, Paramount suspended Hope in 1944 for failing to appear in a third picture that year (after The Princess and the Pirate and Road to Utopia).16 Hope shrugged off the suspension and continued to perform on the Foxhole Circuit overseas, and Paramount eventually relented when Hope was awarded a special Oscar for his warrelated humanitarian efforts.
Paramount's suspension of Bob Hope was not for lack of product. The studio had built the industry's largest inventory by 1944—even after unloading that sizable package to UA—and successfully developed new talent as well. In 1942, Paramount scored with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake in two stylish low-cost thrillers, This Gun for Hire and The Glass Key. Military service interrupted Ladd's rise, while war-plant work had a curious impact on Lake's screen persona. She was asked to modify her "peek-a-boo" hairstyle with its wave of hair over one eye; popular with women workers, it interfered with machinery operation. In the later war years, two of Paramount's lesser comedy stars had breakthrough roles in dramatic films: Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (opposite Barbara Stanwyck) in 1944, and Ray Milland in an Oscar-winning performance in The Lost Weekend in 1945, both directed and coscripted by Billy Wilder. Meanwhile, the wartime comedies of another Paramount hyphenate, Preston Sturges, helped bring Betty Hutton, Joel McCrea, and Eddie Bracken to star status.
MGM was even more successful in developing new talent during the war. Besides Garson and Pidgeon, several younger Metro players were on the rise, including Lana Turner, Van Johnson, Red Skelton, Robert Walker, and two precocious preadolescents, Margaret O'Brien and Elizabeth Taylor. The wartime ascents of Van Johnson and Margaret O'Brien were particularly impressive. Van Johnson began in 1942 with bit parts and a supporting role in Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (replacing Lew Ayres, who left the series and the studio after declaring himself a conscientious objector to the war).17 By 1945, Johnson had matured into Metro's consummate boy-next-door type, rising to number two in the Exhibitors' Poll and competing with Frank Sinatra for the hearts and screams of Americas bobby-soxers. Margaret O'Brien was five years old in 1942 when she was cast as a wartime waif in the London blitz in Journey for Margaret (1942). After a series of minor roles in major pictures like Madame Curie (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944), O'Briens' breakthrough came in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), costarring with Judy Garland. In 1945, she joined Johnson, Garson, Tracy, and Garland among the top-ten box-office stars—MGM's strongest showing since the 1930s—and won a special Oscar as Hollywood's top child actor.
In 1942, the MGM stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn first teamed up in a hit romantic comedy, Woman of the Year, and then did a somber but effective political drama, Keeper of the Flame. Each starred in a rather heavy war film in 1944—Hepburn in Dragon Seed, from Pearl S. Buck's story of Chinese resistance to the invading Japanese, and Tracy as a prisoner of war in The Seventh Cross. In 1945, they reteamed in a comedy-drama, Without Love, which was something of a disappointment. In fact, Tracy's most effective teaming in the later war years was opposite the fastrising Van Johnson in a Guy Named Joe (1943) and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944)—two of MGM's biggest hits of the war.
MGM's postadolescent star duo, Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, teamed successfully in two more Freed-produced, Berkeley-directed musicals, Babes on Broadway (1941) and Girl Crazy (1943), also enjoyed considerable success working separately—Rooney in three more Hardy Family installments, and Garland in three other Freed unit musicals, notably Meet Me in St. Louis. Each also was top-billed in a serious wartime drama: Rooney as Homer Macauley, the telegram delivery boy (and bearer of bad tidings) in The Human Comedy (1943); and Garland opposite Robert Walker in The Clock, a romantic drama directed by Vincente Minnelli (in his first nonmusical) and a surprise hit in 1945.
Another wartime MGM star of note was Wallace Beery, the hard-bitten, semiarticulate screen veteran who was pushing 60 and, along with a few other aging male actors, enjoyed renewed stardom during the war. Beery had risen to top stardom in the early 1930s opposite Marie Dressier, but her death in 1934 ended that unlikely pairing. In a savvy bit of casting, MGM paired Beery with the equally cantankerous Marjorie Main in The Bugle Sounds (1941), Jackass Mail (1942), and Rationing (1944). Beery also lumbered through Salute to the Marines (1943) and This Man's Navy (1945), working his way to number eleven in the 1944 Exhibitors' Poll and winning yet another contract from MGM in early 1945.18
The Warner Bros, star roster saw heavy changes during the war, although few were due to military service. The studio's only significant loss to the military was Ronald Reagan, who joined up shortly after Pearl Harbor and just as the release of Kings Row (1942) put him on the verge of top stardom. Cagney won an Oscar in 1942 for his portrayal of George M. Cohan in Yankee Doodle Dandy, then abruptly left Warners to set up shop at UA. Edward G. Robinson left Warners in 1942 as well, doing his best work of the decade shortly thereafter: in Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity and then two Fritz Lang psychodramas, The Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945).
Errol Flynn remained at Warners but faded badly, despite the success of his first two pictures with the director Raoul Walsh, Custer biopic They Died with Their Boots On (1941) and as the boxer James J. Corbet in another period biography, Gentleman Jim (1942). Flynn's slide, which began with the subsequent war-related dramas (Edge of Darkness, Northern Pursuit, 1943; Uncertain Glory, 1944), owed less to the material than to his increasingly dissolute lifestyle and difficult behavior at the studio, as well as the negative publicity surrounding two separate statutory rape charges in 1942. By 1945, Flynn's star status and matinee-idol appeal had waned, although he did close out the war years with an effective and uncharacteristically grim performance in his one distinguished war picture, Objective Burma (1945).
A more positive wartime note for Warners was the success of Bette Davis in such well-crafted star vehicles as Now, Voyager (1942), Old Acquaintance (1943), Mr. Skeffington (1944), and The Corn Is Green (1945)—Warners' prestige equivalents, in effect, to Metro's Greer Garson vehicles. Davis also was effective in Warners' 1943 adaptation of Lillian Hellman's wartime drama Watch on the Rhine, although in a supporting role. None of Davis's wartime films was a breakaway hit, but they routinely returned $2—3 million to Warners, which confirmed her value by giving Davis a profitsharing deal in 1943 and allowing her to do outside pictures—long a sticking point between Davis and Jack Warner.19
Warners also made three significant additions to its stable of female stars in 1944, signaling a more aggressive pursuit of the women's market. Barbara Stanwyck signed a five-year, ten-picture deal (at $100,000 per picture), which took effect in January 1944.20 In April, Warners signed Rosalind Russell to a three-year, three-picture deal (at $150,000 per picture).21 That same month, Warners cut a three-picture, three-year deal with Joan Crawford (at $100,000 per picture).22 Interestingly enough, all three were under consideration by the producer Jerry Wald in May 1944 for the title role in Mildred Pierce, and reportedly all three wanted the part.23 Crawford was particularly eager, having reconsidered her strident refusal to play maternal roles at MGM only a few years before. Crawford won the part and an Oscar in the 1945 picture, thus consolidating her position alongside Davis as Warners' top female star.
The 1944 Warners deals with Stanwyck, Russell, and Crawford signaled not only a significant change in the studio's long-standing male ethos but also an important change in the wartime industry at large. Clearly Warners had plans to increase its output of women's films, and to do so with more mature stars: Russell turned 36 in 1944, as did Bette Davis; Stanwyck was 37, and Crawford 40. By some Hollywood standards, each was well past her prime—as could be said of Garson as well, at age 36. But those standards were changing, both because of the war and because of the increasing importance of women's films and female audiences.
While Warners increased its investment in women's pictures (and female audiences) during the war, it scarcely abandoned its traditional commitment to male action pictures. In fact, the 1942 departure of Cagney and Robinson was countered by the rapid wartime rise of two new resident tough guys, both of whom had been with Warners since the late 1930s. One was John Garfield, reminiscent of the young Cagney and an ideal Warners type in combat dramas such as Am FORCE, The Fallen Sparrow (both 1943), Destination Tokyo (1944), and Pride of the Marines (1945). The other was Humphrey Bogart, who emerged during the war not only as Warners' top star but as Hollywood's consummate male hero, a wartime icon as distinctive in his way as Greer Garson or Betty Grable.
Case Study: Humphrey Bogart
In December 1941, The Maltese Falcon was Warners' surprise hit of the year and Humphrey Bogart's contract option was up for renewal. Bogart had signed a five-year contract back in December 1937 starting at $1,100 per week, with yearly options pushing his salary to $1,850 per week in 1941. Picking up Bogart's final option in that standard term contract would take him to $2,000 per week. Jack Warner had no reservations about renewing the contract, but he was still unsure whether Bogart was top star material. In fact, Warner had just cast Bogart in two second-rate crime thrillers, All Through the Night and The Big Shot (both released in 1942). His star potential was obvious enough, however, and Warners' leading filmmakers considered Bogart a nononsense professional with a workhorse mentality. So Warner decided to tear up the 1937 contract, and on 3 January 1942, he signed Bogart to a new seven-year deal starting at $2,750 per week—a reasonable sum but nowhere near what the studio's top stars were making. Flynn at the time was pulling down $6,000 per week, for example, while Cagney was earning $150,000 per film plus 10 percent of the gross over $1.5 million. The Bogart pact was exceptional, however, in that it was a straight seven-year deal with no annual option clauses.24
Among Bogart's chief supporters at Warners was Hal Wallis, who as unit producer had two Bogart projects under way. In late December, Wallis secured the rights to aSaturday Evening Post serial, "Aloha Means Goodbye," and he had the staff writer Richard Macauley rework it with a post-Pearl Harbor angle.25 Retitled Across the Pacific (1942), the film featured Bogart as an ex-naval officer working undercover who exposes a group of Japanese sympathizers planning to destroy the Panama Canal. Wallis assigned the director John Huston to the film along with two of Bogart's costars from The Maltese Falcon, Mary Astor and Sidney Greenstreet. (The picture was completed by the director Vincent Sherman when Huston left for military duty.) Unlike All Through the Night, a fairly clumsy amalgam of gangster and espionage clichés, Across the Pacific was politically subtle and dramatically sharp, winning critical accolades and earning Warners $1.3 million.
While Across the Pacific was an important star turn for Bogart, it was essentially a B-plus project which, like The Maltese Falcon, was lifted to A-class status by the talent involved. Bogart's next picture, however, was designed from the outset to be a first-class Warners production. After Wallis bought the rights to "Everybody Comes to Rick's," both Ronald Reagan and George Raft were considered for the role of Rick Blaine. But by April 1942, Wallis had decided on Bogart for the picture, now titled Casablanca, and had signed Ingrid Bergman to costar.26
With Bogart and Bergman cast, Wallis sent the script into rewrites, and the story underwent extensive changes, as mentioned earlier. As the picture neared production, Wallis had various writers work on different aspects of the script—all of them involving Bogart's hero. Casey Robinson, who specialized in romantic melodrama, worked (uncredited) on the Rick-Ilsa love story. The Epstein twins, Julius and Philip, known for light comedy (and just off a rewrite of Yankee Doodle Dandy), did a complete dialogue polish and also worked on the rapport between Rick and Louis Renault, the local prefect of police (played by Claude Rains). Meanwhile, Howard Koch (The Sea Hawk, Sergeant York, etc.) reworked Bogart's character with an emphasis on both the action and the political intrigue.
Casablanca was shot during the summer of 1942, with Michael Curtiz directing, and was completed in November at a final cost of $878,000. Warner and Wallis considered adding a tag scene to clarify the fate of Rick and Louis, but those plans were abandoned when the Allies began Operation Torch, a massive offensive in North Africa in the very region where the film was set. So Warners rushed the picture through postproduction for a Thanksgiving premiere, clarifying the ending simply by redubbing the final exchange between Rick and Louis as they walk away in the fog; Wallis himself reportedly came up with Bogart's immortal closing line, "Louis, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."27 Casablanca officially opened in January 1943, just as Roosevelt and Churchill began a series of summit talks in Casablanca, further exploiting the picture's topical appeal. Casablanca became one of Warners' all-time biggest hits, returning $4.1 million, winning an Oscar for best picture, and confirming Bogart's status as an A-class star.
Bogart followed Casablanca in 1943 with two straightforward combat films, Action In the North Atlantic and, on loan to Columbia, Sahara. The former celebrated the U.S. merchant marine convoys, and the latter celebrated the Allies' efforts in North Africa; both reinforced Bogart's wartime persona as the hard-bitten realist who realigns his rugged individualism with the collective war effort and emerges as a natural leader in the process. Both pictures were hits: Action in the North Atlantic returned $2.6 million to Warners, while Sahara was Columbia's top release of the year, netting $2.3 million. Those pictures, along with Casablanca, vaulted Bogart from twenty-fifth to seventh in the 1943 Exhibitors' Poll—the first of seven straight years for Bogart in the top ten.
Wallis developed Bogart's next Warners picture, Passage to Marseilles (1944), as a follow-up to Casablanca, reuniting Bogart, Rains, Lorre, Greenstreet, and Curtiz. But the story, depicting a group of disparate losers who escape Devil's Island to join the Free French, was an oddly uneven and disjointed affair which devoted far too little time to Bogart's character. While engaging in retrospect as a consummate example of what might be termed "Warners noir," with its convoluted time frame, exotic darkness, and cynical outlook, Passage to Marseilles was Bogart's only wartime disappointment.
Bogart's career then took a rather dramatic turn, owing in large part to Hal Wallis's departure for Paramount and Bogart's collaboration with Howard Hawks on his next two pictures, To Have and Have Not (1944) and The Big Sleep (1946). Each picture refined the Bogart persona, and each displayed an ideal melding of the Bogart, Hawks, and Warners styles: they are taut, economical thrillers whose action, pace, and penchant for violence are offset by elements of comedy and romance and by a wry self-awareness that typified both Bogart and Hawks at their best. Crucial to this effect was Lauren Bacall, who costarred with Bogart in both pictures.
The first of the Hawks-Bogart pictures was initiated in 1943 when Hawks, after completing Air Force for Warners, created an independent company, H-F Productions (with his agent Charles K. Feldman) and purchased the rights to Hemingway's 1937 novel To Have and Have Not from Howard Hughes for $97,000. Hawks then sold the property to Warners for $108,500 plus 20 percent of the film's gross up to $3 million, and he agreed to produce and direct the picture.28 H-F also sold Warners the contract of Hawks's 19-year-old discovery, Lauren Bacall.29 Hawks brought in William Faulkner and Jules Furthman for the adaptation. Furthman had scripted Only Angels Have Wings for Hawks in 1939 as well as several Von Sternberg-Dietrich films, and at Hawks's behest, he modeled Bacall's character on the surly, sultry Dietrich persona.30
Ostensibly an adaptation of Hemingway's best-selling novel, To Have and Have Not was also indebted to Casablanca. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times described it as "'Casablanca' moved west into the somewhat less hectic Caribbean," a transformation accomplished "with surprisingly comparable effect."31 Like Casablanca (and unlike the novel), To Have and Have Not was a romantic intrigue, with a war-related backdrop, whose enigmatic hero finds love and sheds his cynical neutrality to take on the nefarious Nazis. Again the action is set in an exotic foreign locale and centers on a saloon, replete with ceiling fans, sunlight slanting in through the Venetian blinds, and an array of colorful characters, including a piano-playing sidekick and an overweight heavy. Despite the similarities, several qualities of To Have and Have Not, particularly the Bogart-Bacall relationship, set the film off rather dramatically from Casablanca. AS with many Hawks-directed thrillers and action films, To Have and Have Not is an offbeat romantic comedy involving a self-reliant, resolutely unattached male and a wisecracking, aggressive woman who violates his space and his all-male group, eventually breaking down his defenses and winning both his affection and his respect. Bacall played the role to perfection, evoking from Bogart an emotional depth that he had not previously displayed on-screen—not even opposite Bergman in Casablanca.
While To Have and Have Not was still in production, Hawks and Bogart decided to follow it with a detective thriller in the mold of The Maltese Falcon—only this time with Bogart playing Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled private eye, Philip Marlowe. H-F Productions purchased the screen rights to Chandler's 1939 novel The Big Sleep, and Hawks set Faulkner to work on the adaptation with the newcomer Leigh Brackett (while Furthman remained on To Have and Have Not).32 By late fall, the Hemingway adaptation was completed and released, and in December 1944 the Hawks unit opened pro duction on The Big Sleep.
Hawks and company initially treated The Big Sleep as a straight detective story and Bogart vehicle, with Bacall relegated to a supporting role. But by the time Hawks finished shooting in the spring of 1945, the full impact of Bacall's popular appeal and of the Bogart-Bacall chemistry in To Have and Have Not had become evident. The earlier picture was a major hit ($3.65 million in rentals), Bacall had been dubbed "The Look" by the press, and the gossip columns were rife with stories of Bogart's breakup with his wife, Mayo Methot, and his plans to marry Bacall. (They wed in May 1945.) Hawks and Jack Warner were acutely aware of the opportunity missed in The Big Sleep, especially after test audiences responded poorly to preview screenings in early summer. Warner decided to postpone release and to rush out Confidential Agent (1945), a war-related spy story starring Bacall and Charles Boyer (her only film during the 1940s without Bogart). That gave Bacall additional exposure and gave Hawks time to rework The Big Sleep as a Bogart-Bacall picture.
Actually, the strategy for Hawks's overhaul of The Big Sleep had been outlined by the film critic (and later screenwriter) James Agee in his November 1944 review of To Have and Have Not in The Nation: "The best of the picture has no plot at all, but is a leisurely series of mating duels between Humphrey Bogart at his most proficient and the very entertaining, very adolescent new blonde, Lauren Bacall."33 That observation turned out to be a blueprint for the later overhaul of The Big Sleep. AS Hawks's partner Charles Feldman explained in a letter to Jack Warner: "Bacall is more insolent than Bogart [in To Have and Not], and this very insolence endeared her both in the public's and the critic's mind." The retakes, he said, would "give the girl [Bacall] at least three or four additional scenes with Bogart of the insolent and provocative nature that she had in To Have and Have Not."34
The added scenes effectively recast The Big Sleep as an offbeat romantic intrigue and undoubtedly improved its box office, which netted Warners $3 million after the film's release in early 1946. In fact, the Bogart-Bacall courtship—itself tinged with intrigue, since the girl's allegiance to Marlowe is uncertain until late in the story—may have provided the film with an element of coherence that was otherwise sorely lacking. As Hawks and others have related, the writers had considerable difficulty with Chandler's convoluted plot, as did critics and audiences.35 The love story made perfect sense, of course, and countered the pervasive darkness and brutality of the film, which was still among the more nihilistic thrillers of the period.
The Big Sleep provided a fitting vehicle to carry Bogart out of the war years, just as The Maltese Falcon had fittingly ushered them in. Indeed, there was a remarkable symmetry to Bogart's career in the early 1940s: his prewar portrayal of the detective Sam Spade and his postwar Philip Marlowe effectively bracketed the war era, while Bogart opened and closed the war period itself with two other oddly symmetrical films, Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. These in turn bracketed several straightforward combat films done in 1943, in the midst of the war. There is a linear trajectory here as well, a clear development of Bogart's screen persona. The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca firmly established Bogart's persona just when Cagney and Robinson left Warners, and they also distinguished Bogart from Warners' other top male star, Errol Flynn. Whereas Flynn was vigorous and athletic, Bogart was contemplative and a bit sedentary. Flynn was hyperkinetic; Bogart was quintessentially "cool." Flynn flashed youthful good looks and exuded sexuality; Bogart was rumpled and pushing middle age. (Bogart was, in fact, ten years older than Flynn.) Flynn was in constant, breathless motion; Bogart was a figure in repose, hunched in a trenchcoat with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Bogart also proved in Action in the North Atlantic and SAHARA to be more adaptable to the war film than Flynn, while he could hold his own in more romantic roles as well.
The intervening war films as well as his rapport with Bacall were crucial to the maturation of Bogart's screen persona, motivating a commitment to something beyond himself while reinforcing the viability of his personal code. Bogart's persona reached full maturity in the Hawks films, which were more than a mere rehash of The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, despite the similarities. Thus, the vaguely earnest and aggressive Sam Spade gave way to the postwar Philip Marlowe—older, more subdued, and more world-weary, yet with a sense of humor, a deeper resolve, and the capacity for genuine affection. Bogart, in other words, had become "Bogie."
Few periods in Hollywood's history were as overtly genre-oriented as World War II; war themes permeated a range of established genres and the war film steadily coalesced into two dominant cycles: the combat film and the home-front drama. These war-related cycles (treated in detail later in this chapter) were distinct, but the fact is that virtually all of Hollywood's major genres were affected by the war and might in some way be included under the general rubric of "war film." This can be said not only of feature films but of Hollywood's secondary products as well—serials, newsreels, live-action shorts, and cartoons. In fact, the cartoon underwent a particularly swift and effective transformation after Pearl Harbor.
Within weeks of the entry of the United States into the war, both Warners and Disney began work on war-related animation projects, which were released in January 1942: "Any Bonds Today?," a two-minute Bugs Bunny cartoon produced by Warners' Leon Schlesinger unit for the Treasury Department; and Disney's "The New Spirit," a Donald Duck cartoon designed, as one Treasury official put it, "to stimulate public interest in the payment of income taxes."36 The Disney cartoon was the more ambitious and effective of the two, largely because of Disney's investment of resources as it converted its entire operation to war production. It also established Donald Duck as the key figure in Disney's war-related output. Second only to the upbeat, naive Mickey Mouse in the constellation of Disney stars, Donald was deemed more suitable for wartime conversion and thus was featured in a remarkable array of war-related films, from informational cartoons like "The New Spirit" to "good neighbor" films geared to the Latin American market on behalf of the Office of Inter-American Affairs. The latter included not only animated shorts but two featurettes as well, Saludos Amigos. (1943) and The Three Caballeros (1945).37
The most notable of Disney's wartime efforts was a Donald Duck cartoon produced for the War Department, "Der Fuhrer's Face" (1942), which won an Oscar for best short subject and may have been the single most popular propaganda short produced during the war. In it, Donald dreams he works in a Nazi munitions factory where he must constantly salute images of Hitler and other Axis leaders; he awakens to the comforting sight of a small replica of the Statue of Liberty on his windowsill. "Der Fuhrer's Face" and other Disney cartoons did terrific business, and in fact Disney led the Exhibitors' Poll of top moneymaking shorts in 1944.38
The other studios' animation units turned their attention to the war more sporadically than Disney, although Hollywood's overall war-related cartoon output was indeed substantial. Paramount's Fleischer unit featured Popeye in such films as "You're a Sap, Mr. Jap" (1942) and "Spinach fer Britain" (1943). In 1942, 20th Century-Fox's Terrytoon unit created "Mighty Mouse," an animated superhero who battles Axis foes in numerous cartoons. MGM's Hanna-Barbera unit won an Oscar in 1943 for their patriotic Tom and Jerry cartoon "Yankee Doodle Mouse"—although by far the more popular wartime cartoons released by MGM involved a cycle based on "Red Hot Riding Hood" (1943) featuring the oversexed Wolf and the alluring showgirl Red. Created by Tex Avery, the Wolf-Red cartoons occasionally deal directly with the war, as in "Swing Shift Cinderella" (1943). But regardless of plot, the lecherous Wolf and voluptuous Red proved remarkably popular with wartime audiences—and especially with military personnel.39
Warners' Schlesinger unit was, next to Disney, the most aggressive and successful in its cartoon treatment of the war, the enemy, and the home front. The humor was more scatological, self-reflexive, and irreverent, and thus as propaganda the Warners cartoons were somewhat more complex than their Disney counterparts. The Schlesinger unit, notably the animation directors Friz Freling, Bob Clampett, and Chuck Jones (along with Tex Avery and Frank Tashlin, before their wartime departures to MGM and Fox, respectively), cranked out a remarkable spate of war-related cartoons, from parodies of the studios features, such as "Confusions of a Nutzy Spy" to parodies of their established cartoon stars, such as "The Ducktators," featuring web-footed versions of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. Bob Clampett created a surrealist pro-Soviet piece, "Russian Rhapsody," wherein a grotesque caricature of Hitler is assaulted by "Gremlins from the Kremlin." Bugs takes on the Germans in "Herr Meets Hare" and the Japanese in "Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips," while Daffy Duck dodges a ubiquitous draft-notice server in "Draftee Daffy."40
Bugs also made occasional cameo appearances in the "Private Snafu" cartoons, which Warners and MGM produced for Army-Navy Screen magazine. These had modest production values (black-and-white film stock, running times of three to four minutes, etc.), were shown only to military personnel, and were far more raunchy and risqué than theatrical cartoons. Thus, the Private Snafu cartoons gave Hollywood animators the opportunity to experiment with the political, sexual, and topical humor of cartoons, while they gave millions of adult moviegoers a very different cartoon experience. But these experiments were scarcely as significant, finally, as was the retooling of mainstream animated fare, which effectively recast the wartime experience for adults and children alike in the distinctive formal and narrative logic of the Hollywood cartoon.
In terms of features, the musical was the established form most effectively enlisted into the war effort, primarily in a cycle of musical "revues," which were little more than filmed versions of military stage shows. The single biggest hit of the war era, This Is The Army (1943), not only sparked this trend but dominated the entire war era. Produced onstage by the War Department as an all-soldier musical revue with music by Irving Berlin, "This Is the Army" premiered on Broadway on the Fourth of July in 1942 and was a huge hit. Warner Bros. purchased the screen rights later that year and began production in early 1943, while the stage version continued to play to record audiences. The producer Hal Wallis and the director Michael Curtiz (between stints on Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca) fleshed out the play's paper-thin plot about army recruits staging a big show for the troops, incorporating about a dozen second-rank studio stars (George Murphy, Joan Leslie, Alan Hale, Ronald Reagan, et al.) along with a few cultural icons like the boxer-soldier Joe Louis. On both stage and screen, This Is the Army ran uninterrupted throughout the war. Warners' film version returned $8.5 million in rentals, and the stage show enjoyed a thirty-nine-month run from July 1942 to October 1945, generating $19 million for army-navy relief and playing to an estimated 2.5 million servicemen.41
The studios turned out revue musicals in record numbers during the war. Most of them were laden with top talent but very thin on plot, and what plot there was invariably involved the war or the military. Widely disparaged or dismissed by critics, the wartime revue musicals also were among the most popular and commercially successful films of the era, and they were relatively inexpensive films by musical standards. The most successful revue musicals were Paramount's Star Spangled Rhythm (1942) with Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dorothy Lamour, Veronica Lake, Alan Ladd, Cecil B. DeMille, et al.; Warners' Thank Your Lucky Stars (1943) with Eddie Cantor, Dennis Morgan, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, et al.; UA's Stage Door Canteen (1943) with Katharine Hepburn, Paul Muni, Harpo Marx, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Edgar Bergen, et al.; MGM's Thousands Cheer (1943) with Kathryn Grayson, Gene Kelly, Margaret O'Brien, Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, June Allyson, Lena Home, et al.; and Warners' Hollywood Canteen (1944) with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, the Andrews Sisters, Roy Rogers, Ida Lupino, et al. Some revueoriented musicals like Four Jills in a Jeep and Here Come the Waves (both 1944) developed quasi-plausible characters and plot lines, invariably blending comedy and romance, as in the backstage and show musicals of the 1930s. But as with their wartime musical-revue counterparts, the climactic show invariably lapsed into an extended stage-bound revue.
Musicals generally were deemed escapist fare by exhibitors and industry executives, whether they were related to the war or not. Thus, the military revue musicals provided something of an ideal screen formula: they supported the war effort while giving audiences the essential escapist elements of comedy, music, and romance. These elements were evident in traditional musicals as well, particularly the historical period musical—a prewar trend which accelerated during the war. The most successful of these was MGM's Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), which charted the experiences of a turn-of-the-century midwestern family, culminating in the St. Louis World's Fair.
Fox had been turning out period musicals since before the war and continued to exploit the cycle with films like Coney Island (1943), Diamond Horseshoe (1945), and State Fair (1945). Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review of Coney Island noted, "Twentieth Century-Fox has a formula for high, wide and fancy musical films which seldom fail." The basic requirements of the formula, wrote Crowther, were a "locale and period of glitter and gaudiness," several standard tunes "of a certain nostalgic quality," and "a pat little love triangle" centering on "a lady singer"—usually Betty Grable.42' This formula signaled a merger of sorts with the biopic, and in fact a number of wartime period musicals centered on the careers of vaudeville, ragtime, and Tin Pan Alley stars. Warners' Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) typified the trend and was among the biggest hits of the era. Other musical biopics were Dixie (1943), on the career of Dan Emmett; Stormy Weather (1943), an all-black musical based on the career of Bill Robinson; Shine on, Harvest Moon (1944), on Nora Bayes; and Incendiary Blonde (1945), on the nightclub queen Texas Guinan.
While musicals made up a fairly limited proportion of Hollywood's overall output, they generated a sizable share of its income. Twenty-five of the seventy wartime releases earning $3 million or more at the box office were musicals, including three of the top ten (This Is the Army, Meet Me in St. Louis, and Yankee Doodle Dandy). Also among the ten biggest wartime hits were Leo McCarey's sentimental quasi-musicals with Bing Crosby, The Bells of St. Mary's and Going My Way. AS in the prewar era, the studios developed star-genre musical formulas around key personnel—Betty Grable at Fox; Bing Crosby and Betty Hutton at Paramount; Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Kathryn Grayson at MGM; and Rita Hayworth at Columbia (notably with Astaire in You Were Never Lovelier in 1942, and with Gene Kelly in Cover Girl in 1944). MGM also devised a musical formula for the swimmer Esther Williams—notably in Bathing Beauty (1944) and Thrill of a Romance (1945)—reminiscent of Fox's ice-skating musicals with Sonja Henie, whose career was winding down during the war. The genre's wartime currency also was evident at the low end of the spectrum: low-budget musical production surged during the war. While the dominant trend was the ever-popular singing cowboy pictures (with Republic's Roy Rogers succeeding Gene Autry as the top singing B-Western star), the period also saw an increase in musical output by B units at Fox and Paramount.
The Western genre ran directly counter to the musical in output and income during the war. The Western led all genres in sheer numbers, but that output included very few high-end productions or top moneymakers. In fact, the prewar resurgence of the A-Western all but ceased during the war, owing especially to restrictions on sets and location shooting, as well as to the general shift of male action-adventure production to the combat film. The seventy leading moneymakers included only two Westerns: Howard Hughes's much-troubled Jane Russell vehicle The Outlaw (produced in 1940-1941 but not released until 1943, with most of its earnings coming after the war), and a 1945 Errol Flynn picture, San Antonio. Two other A-Westerns of note were They Died with Their Boots On, Warners' 1942 Custer biopic featuring a romanticized account of the Little Big Horn massacre (giving it considerable resonance in that year of Wake Island, Bataan, and Corregidor), and The Ox-bow Incident, a dark and somber study of mob violence and social injustice produced by Zanuck and Fox in 1943.
These two films, along with The Outlaw, were actually quite important to the Western genre's evolution. They Died with Their Boots On set the stage for the postwar cavalry film, a fruitful melding of war film and Western; The Outlaw was the first A-Western to deal directly and overtly with issues of sexuality and along with The Ox-Bow Incident was a precursor to the "adult" and "psychological" Westerns of postwar era.
While the A-Western saw limited wartime action, B-Westerns continued to flourish. As with Hollywood's overall output, B-Western production declined during the war—steadily falling from 130 in 1941 to only 80 in 1945. But low-budget Westerns still consistently accounted for one-quarter of all features produced in Hollywood.43 Out of a total of 572 Westerns produced during the war, only 38 came from the five majors—and over half of those were from RKO, which continued B-picture production longer than the rest of the Big Five. UA released 18 Westerns during the war, most of them Hopalong Cassidy series pictures picked up in the deal with Paramount. Columbia and Universal continued heavy B-Western production, turning out 53 and 35 wartime Westerns, respectively. Virtually all of the remaining 400-odd Westerns released from 1942 to 1945 were from the three minors; Republic's Roy Rogers pictures (Sons of the Pioneers, 1943; King of the Cowboys, 1943; The Yellow Rose of Texas, 1944; Don't Fence Me In, 1945) and occasional John Wayne Westerns (In Old California, 1942; Dakota, 1945) were by far the most successful.
The historical drama and period biopic suffered a wartime decline along with the A-Western, and for many of the same reasons, especially restrictions on location shooting and set construction. Another reason for the biopic's wartime decline was Hollywood's tendency to shy away from any social issues except those related to the war. Thus, biographies of social crusaders, so prevalent in the 1930s, were relatively rare during the war, with a few notable exceptions like MGM's Madame Curie in 1943. The musical biography discussed earlier was the most prevalent biopic form during the war, and it illustrated the biopic's wartime penchant for escapist subjects. In fact, the most successful nonmusical biopic of the era was The Pride of the Yankees (1942), a baseball picture that also signaled the tendency of wartime biopics to avoid heavy social subjects.
Yet another sign of this tendency was the commercial failure of Darryl Zanuck's pet wartime project, Wilson (1944), despite tremendous promotional buildup, generally favorable reviews, and half a dozen major Oscar nominations. After returning to Fox from the Signal Corps in July 1943, Zanuck began working on a project he hoped would recapture and revive Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations crusade. Eschewing a star-vehicle approach, Zanuck cast a little-known, Canadian-born, British character actor, Alexander Knox, in the title role.44 Wilson was a prestige production every sense of the word, with elaborate sets replicating the House chamber and the Wilson White House, and a final cost of about $4 million.45
Wilson was enthusiastically supported by the Office of War Information, but before its initial release Zanuck was informed by the War Department that the picture would not be shown on military bases and camps because of the Soldier Vote Act, which prohibited any media materials "considered to have political content."46 This restriction was deemed a political setback of little commercial importance, especially after the picture's strong road-show performance. Wilson quickly lost momentum in general release, however, earning a respectable $3.1 million but failing to return a profit or secure a best-picture statuette.47 Zanuck considered Wilson one of the major disappointments of his career, and its lackluster performance also convinced him to drop plans to adapt Wendell Willkie's best-selling political memoir, One World, purchased in July 1943 (for $100,000) just as Fox began preproduction on Wilson.48
An offbeat period biopic that did score for Fox during the war was The Song of Bernadette, the surprise hit of 1943 that made an overnight star of Jennifer Jones (on loan from David Selznick). Based on the popular "fictionalized biography" of the peasant girl who had visions of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes, the picture (under the direction of Henry King, who also directed Wilson) displayed simple verities and modest production values and did particularly well with female audiences.
The Song of Bernadette signaled a general wartime surge in women's pictures, which ranged from lavish adaptations and period films to contemporary romantic and family melodramas, and which clearly were keyed to the social, industrial, and economic conditions of the time. An important factor was the wartime segregation of male and female audiences; the women's pictures did well at home but were rarely played in military camps. Indeed, the GIs' idea of a "woman's picture" featured pinup stars like Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and Dorothy Lamour, who rarely appeared in the kind of wartime melodramas targeted at female moviegoers.
As in the prewar era, women's films during the war focused on female protagonists suffering choices and making sacrifices, and the films tended to fall into five categories: maternal dramas, love stories, working-girl stories, Gothic thrillers, and biopics. Many women's films were quite timely; the war and related social conditions provided ready-made themes and conflicts, particularly for the maternal and romantic dramas. These included wartime home-front dramas like Mrs. Miniver and Since You Went Away; historical sagas centering on powerful matriarchs, like The Valley of Decision, Mrs. Parkington, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945); and a few multigenerational or highly elliptical stories which managed to incorporate both a historical and a war angle, such as Random Harvest, Mr. Skeffington (1944), and The White Cliffs of Dover (1944).
Some of the numerous melodramas about separated, soon-to-be separated, or otherwise troubled couples were historical or contemporary stories not directly related to the war—as in two 1942 Bette Davis pictures, In This Our Life and Now, Voyager. In a related vein, Mildred Pierce and Old Acquaintance (1943) focused on female protagonists whose choices of a career or the company of other women carried wartime resonances as well, although the war was not invoked in either film. Indeed, Hollywood's adaptation of the woman's picture to the war effort was so effective, as Linda Williams notes in her analysis of Mildred Pierce, that domestic melodramas could be "about" the female war experience—the working and economic conditions, relationships with husbands and lovers (absent or otherwise), and so on—without even acknowledging the war in the narrative.49
The majority of successful romantic melodramas made during the war, however, dealt directly with the war's impact on women and on couples—as in such 1945 hits as I'LL Be Seeing You, The Clock, and The Enchanted Cottage. The working-girl dramas often involved both war-strained romances and war-related female labor. Tender Comrade (1943), for instance, focuses on women war-plant workers sharing an apartment and the pain of loss and separation, and So Proudly We Hail (1943) honors military nurses serving and dying with their male military counterparts in the Pacific. Of the various women's subgenres, only the Gothic thrillers consistently avoided the war, although here again hasty marriages and psychologically scarred male protagonists had interesting wartime implications.
As discussed earlier, the wartime woman's picture was dominated by Bette Davis and Greer Garson, both of whom worked almost exclusively in that genre and had a penchant for maternal and romantic melodramas. Joan Fontaine and Ingrid Bergman formed a kind of second rank, specializing in Gothic thrillers such as Suspicion (1941) and Gaslight (1944). Other female stars who specialized in women's pictures included Claudette Colbert, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and Dorothy McGuire, all of whom could lighten up these otherwise weighty emotional dramas and also worked successfully in wartime comedy.
Screen comedy thrived during the war, sustained largely by a very real need for diversion and by the exhibitors' continual clamoring for escapist product. Hollywood delivered in considerable quantity, although very few major hits were straight (nonmusical) comedies. In fact, Warners' Christmas in Connecticut (1945) was the only wartime comedy to earn over $3 million. Still, the mid-range of studio output was dominated by comedy, particularly romantic and screwball comedies, male buddy comedies, and home-front comedies.
The year 1942 marked the wartime peak for screen comedy, and especially for the romantic and screwball strains. The biggest comedy hit of 1942 was Road to Morocco, the third Hope-Crosby-Lamour junket. Among the other notable 1942 comedies were Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story, with Colbert's delightfully unruly woman opposite Joel McCrea; The Male Animal, a campus comedy about socialism and football starring Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland, written and directed by Elliott Nugent (from his play); and two George Stevens-directed comedies, The Talk of the Town, with Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, and Ronald Colman, and Woman of the Year, the initial Tracy-Hepburn pairing and easily their best comedy until Adam's Rib in 1949. Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant and Priscilla Lane also was "in the can" and ready for release in 1942—and in fact was released to servicemen in early 1943—but was shelved by Warners until 1944.
Interestingly enough, none of these 1942 comedies directly involved the war effort, although all of them treated the anxieties and conflicts related to the changing gender roles and sexual politics that were endemic to the period. One of the few 1942 comedies that did take on a war-related subject was The Major and the Minor, Billy Wilder's debut as a Paramount writer-director; it costarred Ray Milland as a befuddled and unhappily betrothed military officer on a cross-country train trip who finds himself allied with Ginger Rogers, who is passing as a child because she cannot afford the full fare. While not quite up to Wilder's later standards, the picture was a mild success, suggesting that audiences might take to war-related comedy. Paramount reinforced the point with My Favorite Blonde, a 1942 war-related spy comedy starring Bob Hope—the first in a series of spy spoofs, including They Got me Covered in 1943, playing off Hope's cowardly-hero persona. While Hollywood's output of screen comedies continued during the war, the overall quality (and critical accolades) fell sharply after 1942, in part because the established comedy directors abandoned the genre after 1942 for the duration of the war. Hawks turned exclusively to action films and Wilder to drama, Lubitsch took ill, and both Capra and Stevens joined the service.
One director who stayed with the genre was Preston Sturges, whose meteoric rise continued during the war and peaked with two 1944 home-front farces, Hail the Conquering Hero and The Miracle of Morgan's Creek. Those two comedies were in something of a class by themselves during the later war years. Both were all-out comic assaults on motherhood, home, family, hero worship, the military, small-town America, and ultimately the very logic of the home front itself. Hail the Conquering Hero starred Eddie Bracken as a Marine Corps washout (due to chronic hay fever) who is hustled home and passed off as a war hero by a group of well-meaning marines on a five-day pass. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek costarred Bracken as a tongue-tied hick and Betty Hutton as a hapless girl he befriends after she finds herself married and pregnant—the result of a drunken frolic with a now-departed soldier whose face and name escape her. Both films sent the PCA and the OWI into paroxysms, while the critics raved and Sturges parlayed his success into an independent venture with Howard Hughes.
Rounding out Hollywood's wartime comedies were the male-buddy escapades of Abbott and Costello, Hope and Crosby, and Laurel and Hardy. Most of these were aggressively escapist farces and genre parodies, treating the wartime male ethos only by radical indirection. Crosby also strolled amiably through Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary's, two contemporary religious fables which blended elements of comedy, sentimental melodrama, and the musical. The huge success of these latter films, along with The Song of Bernadette and Keys of the Kingdom (1944), confirmed that Hollywood was undergoing something of a religious cycle during the war. These rather ponderous religious dramas were complemented, in turn, by such offbeat afterlife comedy-dramas as Lubitsch's Heaven Can Wait (1943) and MGM's Spencer Tracy-Van Johnson hit, A Guy Named Joe.
Another noteworthy but limited wartime cycle involved children and animals, spurred largely by the success in 1943 of the MGM Schary unit's Lassie Come Home, costarring Donald Crisp, Elizabeth Taylor, and Roddy McDowall, and Fox's My Friend Flicka, starring McDowall. Both bred offspring in 1945: Son of Lassie and Thunderhead—Son of Flicka. Like their predecessors, these were sentimental family comedy-dramas shot in Technicolor with an emphasis on action scenes and outdoor cinematography. They were near-A's whose solid production values compensated for their second-rank stars and running times of under 90 minutes. MGM actually upgraded the form that same year with National Velvet (1944), which was based on a bestselling children's book, featured a top star (Mickey Rooney), and ran 125 minutes. The result was an A-class hit which earned $4.25 million—and thus outperformed all three of Rooney's wartime Hardy pictures, an MGM family cycle that was clearly fading.
In a darker vein, Universal sustained its signature horror films during the war, primarily through B-grade formula rehash with Lon Chaney Jr., who starred in an incredible nineteen pictures from 1942 to 1945. Most of Universal's reformulations were utterly predictable: the 1932 classic The Mummy, for example, begat Mummy's Hand (1940), The Mummy's Tomb (1942), The Mummy's Ghost (1944), and The Mummy's Curse (1944). The studio rehashed its Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man franchises with comparable titles and variations. Universal's one significant wartime innovation with these stock horror figures was the recombination of its horror subgenres in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), and House of Dracula (1945). Each of these so-called reunion pictures increased the number (and variation) of monsters, mad scientists, and miscreants on-screen, thus providing a remarkable study in the logic and textual limits of Universal's horror formulas. The studio also turned out an occasional A-class horror film, such as the 1943 Technicolor remake of Phantom of the Opera starring Claude Rains.
The most innovative and influential horror films during the war era were produced not at Universal but at RKO by the newly formed Val Lewton unit. A former poet, novelist, and screenwriter, and recently a story editor for David Selznick, Lewton joined RKO in 1942 to produce low-budget thrillers. Working with the directors Jacques Tourneur, Robert Wise, and Mark Robson, Lewton produced ten pictures during the war, including Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie, The Leopard Man, The Seventh Victim (1943), The Curse of the Cat People (1944), The Body Snatcher, and Isle of the Dead (1945). Most of them were modest critical and commercial hits, and several now stand as minor horror classics. All ran about seventy minutes, were shot in black and white, and stressed mood and atmosphere rather than star, story value, or special effects. Cat People, in fact, managed to be quite frightening without ever showing its "monster." Lewton's earlier productions also brought the horror genre closer to home in that the films were generally set in (or near) the United States.
The fascination with the dark side of America's wartime psyche and the invocation of the female Gothic tradition in Lewton's films evinced another crucial wartime trend—film noir. Indeed, although that 1940s period style had its roots in the prewar era and reached full expression after the war, its wartime development was among the more significant and pervasive stylistic trends of the era.
Case Study: Film Noir
Throughout the 1940s, an increasing number of Hollywood films displayed an incipient darkness in tone, technique, theme, and narrative form, a style that came to be termed film noir by postwar French critics. The term had clear associations with roman noir, which French literary critics applied to the recent hard-boiled crime fiction and pulp melodramas by American writers like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Cornell Woolrich.50 And in fact this type of fiction was crucial to Hollywood's development of film noir through a remarkable cycle of crime thrillers and detective films in the mid-1940s—notably Double Indemnity, Laura, Murder, My Sweet, Phantom Lady, The Woman in the Window, The Mask of Dimitrios, and Christmas Holiday in 1944; Mildred Pierce, Cornered, Detour, Scarlet Street, and Hangover Square in 1945; and The Big Sleep, The Killers, The Postman Always Rings Twice, and The Blue Dahlia in 1946.
The development of film noir into a distinctive period style in the 1940s was evident not only in the dark crime thrillers and hard-boiled detective films of the era but in many other genres and cycles as well. As Robert Sklar aptly points out, film noir "describes the psychology and the look not simply of a genre, but of a surprisingly pervasive tone in Hollywood films of the 1940s." Sklar finds evidence of this period style in a range of wartime genres and cycles, from the "psychological thrillers" of Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang to Warners' crime dramas and woman's pictures and the "black comedies" of Preston Sturges.51
Despite Sklar's admonition, discussions of film noir have focused almost exclusively on the male-oriented action and crime films, with their obvious debt to hard-boiled American fiction and to serie noire detective novels. As Deborah Thomas notes, "Most critics and viewers share a sense … of the essential male-centeredness of film noir." But as Thomas and others argue, this orientation overlooks the role that other genres and cycles played in the development of the noir style, particularly the female Gothic variation of the woman's picture.52 While the emergence of film noir can be traced to prewar detective films like The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane, the style was equally pronounced in prewar women's pictures like Rebecca and Suspicion continued in a distinctive wartime cycle of female Gothics such as Shadow of a Doubt in 1943; Jane Eyre, Gaslight, and Experiment Perilous in 1944; and Spellbound in 1945. And like the crime thriller, the female Gothic found new intensity in the postwar era—as evidenced by such 1946 releases as Undercurrent, The Spiral Staircase, Locket, Dragonwyck, and Notorious.
As these titles suggest, two key figures in the emergence of the noir-style female Gothic were David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock. Selznick personally produced two Hitchcock-directed Gothics, Rebecca and Spellbound. He also loaned Hitchcock and Joan Fontaine to RKO for Suspicion, and in 1945 he sold RKO the Notorious package (including the Hecht-Hitchcock script as well as the services of Hitchcock and Ingrid Bergman). Selznick prepared Jane Eyre for Hitchcock but then sold the package (including the script and the services of Fontaine and the director Robert Stevenson) to Fox, which produced the film in 1944. That same year, he loaned Ingrid Bergman and Joseph Cotten to MGM for Gaslight. And as mentioned earlier, Val Lewton assisted Selznick in preparing Rebecca and in packaging Jane Eyre, work that clearly influenced his first two RKO productions, Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, two inventive amalgams of the female Gothic and horror and steeped in the film noir style.
The roots of film noir can be traced to the Gothic romances of the nineteenth century, the more recent popular fiction of Daphne du Maurier (author of the best-selling Rebecca ), and the frequently cited detective fiction of Hammett and Chandler. Important cinematic influences included Josef Von Sternberg's exotic Marlene Dietrich vehicles, the horror and gangster pictures of the 1930s, and period styles in European cinema, especially German expressionism in the 1920s and French poetic realism in the 1930s. The European influence was even more direct through the work of filmmakers who migrated from Europe to Hollywood, notably Wilder, Lang, Hitchcock, Otto Preminger, Robert and Curt Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer, Anatole Litvak, and Julien Duvivier.
Film noir was affected by technical and technological developments in the early 1940s as well, especially faster, more sensitive, fine-grain black-and-white film, improved lighting equipment, and coated lenses. A contingent of top cinematographers also played an important role, particularly the monochromatic (black-and-white) specialists who hit their stride in the 1940s, like James Wong Howe, Gregg Toland, John F. Seitz, Lee Garmes, Lucien Ballard, Tony Gaudio, Sol Polito, and John Alton. Moreover, the war-induced confinement to the studio, owing to the myriad restrictions and the demand for production economy and efficiency, led not only to technical invention but to something of a break with the classical film style.
Analyses of film noir have tended to treat it in social, psychological, and formal aesthetic terms. Among the more insightful analyses is Paul Schrader's 1972 essay "Notes on Film Noir," which examines the style in both social and aesthetic terms. Schrader notes that "film noir attacked and interpreted its sociological conditions, and … created a new artistic world which went beyond a simple sociological reflection, a night-marish world of American mannerism which was by far more a creation than a reflection."53 Positing The Maltese Falcon as the film noir prototype, Schrader suggests that "most every dramatic Hollywood film from 1941 to 1953 contains some noir elements." He provides an inventory of the "recurring techniques" of film noir: most scenes are lit for night; as in German expressionism, oblique and vertical lines are preferred to horizontal; the actors and setting are often given equal lighting emphasis; compositional tension is preferred to physical action; there is an almost Freudian attachment to water (and also to mirrors, windows, and other reflective surfaces); noir films have a penchant for voice-over first-person narration which is cynical yet oddly romantic; and often a complex chronological order reinforces a sense of hopelessness and lost time.
David Bordwell argues that film noir undercut not only the formal techniques of the period but basic narrative conventions as well—notably in its ambivalent treatment of good and evil and the heroic and the villainous, especially as embodied in the protagonists and antagonists. Bordwell also notes that a fundamental (and often unresolved) antagonism between the principal male and female characters undercuts—through arbitrary, inadequate, or otherwise unsatisfactory "happy endings"—the movies' most basic and cherished narrative operation, the formation of the couple.54
While Schrader treats film noir in terms of recurring techniques and Bordwell stresses narrative conventions, others have emphasized more subtle or abstract qualities. Sklar, for instance, privileges noir's thematic and atmospheric attributes:
The hallmark of film noir is its sense of people trapped—trapped in a web of paranoia and fear, unable to tell guilt from innocence, true identity from false. Its villains are attractive and sympathetic, masking greed, misanthropy, malevolence. Its heroes and heroines are weak, confused, susceptible to false impressions. The environment is murky and close, the settings vaguely oppressive. In the end, evil is exposed, though often just barely, and the survival of good remains troubled and ambiguous. (Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies [New York: Random House, 1975], p. 253)
David Cook follows a similar tack, describing film noir as a "cinema of moral anxiety" whose films "thrived upon the unvarnished depiction of greed, lust, and cruelty because their basic theme was the depth of human depravity and the utterly unheroic nature of human beings." Cook notes that this style first emerged during the war but reached full maturity only with the paranoia, pessimism, and social angst of the postwar era.55
When considering the formal and stylistic qualities of film noir, it is scarcely surprising that the detective story has been its privileged domain. In fact, two wartime noir classics, Double Indemnity and Mildred Pierce, were adaptations that literally imposed a detective framework on what were essentially romantic melodramas. Both were adapted from salacious potboilers by James M. Cain, and in each film the drama is reconstructed as a detective story through a flashback framework and an investigation format. (Double Indemnity was reworked for Paramount by Billy Wilder in collaboration with Raymond Chandler; Mildred Pierce was reworked for Warners by various writers and the director Michael Curtiz under the producer Jerry Wald.) The detective structure reinforced the noir stylistics and served a number of more practical uses as well. It broadened the potential appeal of the films (especially to male viewers) while retaining the appeal of the novels, provided a more conventional and manageable plot trajectory, and provided a means of mollifying Breen's and the PCA's "compensating moral values" mandate.56
Interestingly, critics and historians of 1940s women's pictures have treated the female Gothic in terms quite similar to the detective thriller, although few have related the cycle to the concurrent development of film noir. Molly Haskell in From Reverence to Rape, for instance, notes the number of wartime women's films wherein "relationships are rooted in fear and suspicion, impotence and inadequacy."57 Thomas Elsaesser notes that "Hollywood tackled Freudian themes in a particularly 'romantic' or gothic guise, through a cycle of movies inaugurated possibly in Hitchcock's first big American success, Rebecca. " He finds in these films "an oblique intimation of female frigidity producing strange fantasies of persecution, rape and death—masochistic reveries and nightmares, which cast the husband into the role of sadistic murderer."58
Thus, as the two cycles developed during the early 1940s, the female Gothic displayed a remarkable "family resemblance" to the hard-boiled detective film in basic structure, thematic and gender-related concerns, and deployment of noir stylistics. Each subgenre's central concerns were gender difference, sexual identity, and the "gender distress" which accompanied the social and cultural disruption of the war and postwar eras. Each had an essentially good although flawed and vulnerable protagonist at odds with a mysterious and menacing sexual other: the femme noire, who invariably initiates both the detective's case and an uneasy romance with the hero; the suave, enigmatic husband or lover in the female Gothic, almost always an older man with a past and with something to hide.
In a larger sense, both the hard-boiled detective and the Gothic heroine are at odds with a social milieu that is seen as crass, duplicitous, and amoral. For the Gothic heroine, this conflict is a function of her sexual inexperience and social naïveté—she is an innocent who finds herself in a dark, disturbing world. The detective has "been around" and is in fact a bit seedy and cynical, but there is a commonness and an innocence to his character as well. As Raymond Chandler, in a 1944 essay, said of his hero: "Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor."59
The plot in both subgenres (the detective's case, the Gothic heroine's courtship and marriage) generally is initiated by the sexual other. It gradually becomes evident to the protagonist—and to the viewer, whose knowledge and "identification" are closely allied to the protagonist—that this motivating figure and object of desire is in fact both duplicitous and possibly deadly. This realization is hardly surprising in the detective film, but when the protagonist of the female Gothic finds out that her spouse has something to hide, what began as a romantic drama is transformed into a detective story and, quite often, into a murder mystery. The protagonist in each becomes obsessed with the past, with the discovery of the truth, and also with surviving an embrace that may prove fatal.
As the search develops, the hero's anxieties increase, as does the potential menace of the sexual other. It is notable, however, that even those female Gothics wherein murders do occur—and even those like Shadow of a Doubt and Gaslight whose male other is in fact a killer—do not simply lapse into a crime-film mode, nor do they focus on the killer being brought to justice. The stakes in the female Gothic remain primarily domestic rather than social: the problems are identified and worked out in interpersonal and familial terms. But like the detective film, the female Gothic builds to a climactic resolution of its conflicts and enigmas—the truth about the mysterious secret, the real motives of the sexual other, the protagonists survival (and happiness). In both forms, however, the resolution rarely marks a return to complete stability or moral equilibrium. Sexual tensions and uncertainties linger, as do doubts about the larger social milieu.
Invariably, the solution to the detective's case, when there is one, fails to resolve the deeper issues and conflicts at hand or to bring the appropriate culprits to justice. Ultimately, the hard-boiled hero grimly acknowledges his inability to escape or fully redeem his noir netherworld, and thus he simply rediscovers what he already knew and would like to forget. He may prevail over the femme noire (as in The Maltese Falcon and Murder, My Sweet), or she may prove herself to be a genuine love interest after all (as in Laura and The Big Sleep). But human contact offers the hero little more than a temporary respite from his own malaise and from the mean streets outside his dingy office, and one can be certain that upon meeting the detective hero again in another film, he will be resolutely alone.
In that sense, the noir detective film was consummately a matter of style—ultimately of the hero's style, which was perfectly suited to his environment. Once allied with the legitimate forces of social order (the police force, the district attorney's office), the detective hero now works alone as a private eye in a decadent urban milieu. His isolation signals a rejection of that milieu and its values, including those of his former employer. A self-styled existentialist, the detective has refined his personal code of honor and justice, realizing that the cops and the courts are as inept and prone to corruption as the criminal element. A cultural middleman, the detective's streetwise savvy and penchant for violence enable him to operate within the urban jungle, while his moral sensibilities and innate idealism align him with the forces of social order. But that very idealism ultimately dooms him to failure, which he accepts with a shrug, lighting another cigarette and returning to his seedy office to await another case.
This conventionally downbeat resolution was countered in the female Gothic, whose heroine not only tends to survive but to attain a new awareness of herself and her world. This outcome was most prevalent in the wartime Gothics, whose penchant for happy endings suggested that the evil at work in the film is simply a function of the heroine's neuroses and/or the diseased mind of a single criminal. The resolution of the female Gothic involves a redemption of sorts—not only of the heroine but of the world as she has come to know and to see it. And thus the frequent observation that the out-come of these films seems rather perfunctory, as if the noir stylistics (and all that they represent) could be overcome by a sunlit tag scene and the heroine's return to emotional equilibrium.
The best of the noir Gothics, however, manage to turn this convention back on itself, presenting resolutions so rife with irony as to seem positively Brechtian. Consider Shadow of a Doubt, which is particularly instructive in its variations on the Gothic formula and the detective film. Scripted by Hitchcock and Thornton Wilder, the latter fresh off his stage success with Our Town, Shadow of a Doubt was one of the first of the wartime female Gothics to be set not in England but in America; in fact, it was shot almost entirely on location in Santa Rosa, California. The film recasts the marital angle, centering on the dark (and vaguely incestuous) romance between the suave, seductive Uncle Charlie (Joseph Cotten) and his namesake niece (Teresa Wright). On the verge of womanhood and decidedly bored with her middle-class existence, young Charlie welcomes the unexpected arrival of her world-traveler uncle, only to realize that he is a serial killer of wealthy widows and is on the run from the authorities. With that realization, young Charlie steadily descends into darkness and terror, especially once Uncle Charlie realizes she knows the truth and begins engineering her murder as well.
Hitchcock presents young Charlie's descent into the maelstrom in increasingly dark, claustrophobic, and compositionally off-balance visual terms. At one point Uncle Charlie comers her at night in a seedy bar and delivers a veritable testimonial to the world of film noir:
You think you know something, don't you? You think you're the clever little girl who knows something. There's so much you don't know. So much. What do you know, really? You're just an ordinary little girl in an ordinary little town. You wake up every morning of your life and you know perfectly well there's nothing in the world to trouble you. You go through your ordinary little day and at night you sleep your untroubled, ordinary little sleep filled with peaceful stupid dreams. And I brought you nightmares.…
How do you know what the world is like? Do you know the world is a foul sty? Do you know if you ripped the fronts off houses you'd find swine? The worlds a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?
Young Charlie prevails, but without the help of a well-meaning but ineffectual detective (Macdonald Carey) who, of course, falls in love with her. Careys soft-boiled detective is a wry parody of his pulpfiction counterpart, a fact underscored by the obsessive interest of Charlie's father and his best friend (Henry Travers and Hume Cronyn) in dime-store crime magazines. Charlie finally kills her uncle in self-defense, pushing him in front of a train—a fate he had planned for her. In a brief epilogue, young Charlie and the detective sit outside a church in bright sunlight while, inside, her family and neighbors, who suspected nothing about Uncle Charlie, are mourning what they believe was a tragic accident. While the upright detective muses knowingly that "people go crazy now and then, like your Uncle Charlie," young Charlie manages only a wan smile and half-hearted nod of agreement. But the detective cannot understand or explain away the darkness she has seen. She has stared into the abyss, and we get the strong impression that her world, however brightly lit, can never be the same.
That final exchange is the closest anyone comes in Shadow of a Doubt to mentioning the war (although there is a fleeting glimpse of a war-related newspaper head-line at one point). Like the hard-boiled detective film, the female Gothic deals with a troubled, wartorn world, but without attributing those troubles to the war itself. Indeed, the conflicts and tensions addressed in these cycles were in many ways deeper and more profound than those of the geopolitical struggle at hand, and they certainly were more endemic to the American experience. Both the female Gothic and the hard-boiled detective film, like the film noir style itself, tapped into social conditions and anxieties that not only preceded the war but would gain even greater currency in the postwar era.
The dominant wartime production trend, of course, centered on the war itself. Early on, the term "war film" actually was little more than a useful generalization as Hollywood injected war themes into a wide range of genres and formulas. In time, however, the movie industry dealt with the war more directly and effectively, particularly in combat films and documentaries, which provided, in Lewis Jacobs's provocative description, a "vast serialization" of the American and Allied war effort.60 And remarkably enough, Hollywood's treatment of World War II ended almost as abruptly as the war itself, with combat films and other war-related cycles—military musicals, prisoner-ofwar films, home-front dramas, postwar rehabilitation films—disappearing from movie screens soon after V-J Day. Thus, the war film was doubly exceptional: on the one hand, it emerged virtually by social mandate and was refined in direct response to social and historical conditions; on the other, it followed a historical trajectory that coincided almost identically with the events it depicted.
Various studies have charted Hollywood's war-related film production. One conducted by Russell Earl Shain, among the more exhaustive studies, provides these figures on the industry's war-related output from 1940 to 1947:
|Year||Total War Films||Total Films||% War Films|
Shain notes that during the sustained peak in Hollywood's war-related output from 1942 to 1944, one-fourth of all features (312 of 1,286 releases, or 24 percent) dealt with the war. According to Shain, Hollywood released 340 war-related features during the four war years, or 20 percent of the industry total. Shain's figures cover only films dealing directly with World War II, not films about World War I or the Spanish Civil War, for instance. Studies that examine all war-related films indicate an even heavier overall output. Dorothy B. Jones of the OWI's film reviewing and analysis section, for instance, found that over 28 percent of Hollywood's total output from 1942 to 1944 (376 of 1,313 releases in her sample) were war-related.61
Despite the overall decline in the annual output of war-related films from 1942 to 1945, these films remained a viable box-office staple throughout the period. In fact, their stock steadily improved during the war. In 1942, 19 of the 101 films that returned at least $1 million in rentals were war-related. The number and proportion of war-related hits more than doubled in 1943, when they comprised 41 of the 95 releases returning $1 million or more.62 Moreover, the top two hits in both 1942 and 1943 were war related: Mrs. Miniver and Yankee Doodle Dandy in 1942, This Is the Aarmy and For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1943. The war-related films' box-office currency peaked in 1944, when they comprised 11 of the 19 releases returning $3 million or more. For the entire wartime period, a remarkable 32 of the 71 $3 million releases were war-related—including 10 musicals, 9 combat films, and 6 home-front comedies or dramas.63
Actually, what Hollywood termed "war themes" were likely to show up in any number of genres during the war era. Meanwhile, the term "war film" took on steadily narrower connotations as Hollywood refined specific war-related formulas. The dominant formula was the combat film, although espionage films and home-front dramas involving the training of soldiers and/or the day-to-day experiences of wartime Americans were significant cycles as well. Among the more interesting developments in Hollywood's war-film production, in fact, was the prominence of spy, espionage, and war-related crime thrillers in the early years of the war, especially 1942, and the subsequent surge in home-front dramas and combat films in the later war years. As these figures from Shain's study clearly indicate, by 1944-1945 the combat film was by far the dominant war-related type:
|*Note that the figures do not total 100 percent; Shain does not explain this discrepancy.|
The year 1942, particularly during the first six to eight months after the United States entered the war, was a singularly odd, exceptional period in terms of war-film production. Because Hollywood had been fairly tentative in its treatment of the war until Pearl Harbor, and because top features took nine to twelve months to produce and release, very few A-class war films depicting U.S. involvement were released in 1942. (Casablanca, for instance, was optioned within weeks of Pearl Harbor and went into immediate preproduction, but it did not go into general release until January 1943.) Thus, most of the war-related A-class films released in 1942 were initiated in 1941, and they tend to take one of three tacks: they focus on the British war effort (Mrs. Miniver, This Above All); they depict Americans or "good" Europeans dealing with enemy aggression (Nazis in To Be or Not to Be, Desperate Journey, and The Pied Piper; Japanese in Somewhere I'll Find You and Across the Pacific); or they feature American fliers fighting for other nations (England in Eagle Squadron; Canada in Captains of the CLOUDS).
There were B-grade versions of these trends in 1942 as well, such MGM's Journey for Margaret, mentioned earlier, and Republics Flying Tigers, in which John Wayne leads a group of fighter pilots assisting the Chinese against Japan. The majority of B-grade war films in 1942, however, had little in common with Hollywood's A-class treatments, nor were they prone to historical accuracy or the depiction of actual combat. Their penchant for exploitation and ability to make their low-budget films rapidly enabled B-class producers to scoop their A-class counterparts in terms of war-related topicality; in fact, on-screen references to Pearl Harbor began turning up in Â films within weeks of the Japanese attack.64 But these were invariably jingoistic celebrations of American heroism and superior know-how, depicted in terms of B-movie formula rather than the conditions at hand.
Hollywood's rapid conversion of various B-grade series to war production in 1942 was actually quite remarkable. Espionage and sabotage films dominated, not only because of genuine public concern but because they were easy reformulations of low-grade crime formulas. B-grade G-men and undercover cops simply turned their sights from gangsters to foreign agents; the trappings of the story—props, sets, costumes, cast, and plot structure—remained much the same. A few A-class features in 1942 dealt with spies and sabotage and did give the formula a certain legitimacy, notably Hitchcock's Saboteur. But shrill, jingoistic B-grade thrillers were far more prevalent. Gangster and spy formulas were refitted in pictures like Sabotage Squad, Unseen Enemy, and Counter-Espionage, while Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were updated into wartime sleuths in and Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror Holmes and the Secret Weapon. B-Westem series were recruited in films like Republics Valley of Hunted Men, in which the Three Mesquiteers battle Nazi spies, and Monogram's Cowboy Commandos, in which the Range Busters pursue Nazi saboteurs.65 Even the Universal horror film was converted to war production in Invisible Agent; Jon Hall's "invisible man" took on both Nazi and Japanese spies.
Many 1942 B-grade spy and crime thrillers also exploited the American public's anger about Pearl Harbor and anxieties about the Japanese threat—as evidenced by such titles as A Prisoner of Japan, Menace of the Rising Sun, Danger in the Pacific, and Remember Pearl Harbor. These and other 1942 B's demonized the Japanese and embellished the "stab-in-the-back" thesis which was haphazardly applied to all Japanese—including Japanese Americans, in some cases.
The OWI grew increasingly alarmed by these trends; its September 1942 report openly criticizing Hollywood's B-grade war films received extensive coverage in the trade press. The OWI asserted that "the emphasis of the entire industry is still too much on the exciting blood-and-thunder aspects of the war." The report noted that 31 warrelated espionage and sabotage pictures had been released in the previous six months, a number that "tended to give the public an exaggerated idea of the menace."66 In October, the OWI's Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) reported that 70 of 220 pictures released in the preceding six months were war-related, but that few of these substantially advanced the war effort. A Variety headline in November blared, "OWI Frowns on 'B' Types," and the subhead noted the agency's "Drive to get the studios to lay off cops-and-robbers formula." That story noted that whereas six "saboteur-spy type" war films were released in October 1942, there were none in the OWI's "all-important 'The Issues—What Are We Fighting For' category."67
This latter refrain would persist throughout the war years as Hollywood continued to avoid dealing with the conflict in sophisticated social or political terms. As the OWI's Dorothy Jones pointed out in a 1945 assessment of Hollywood's war-related films, no more than fifty or so had "aided significantly, both at home and abroad, in increasing understanding of the conflict." Jones accused the Hollywood community of thinking only in terms of escapist entertainment, asserting that "when faced with the task of making films which would educate the public about the war, most Hollywood movie makers did not know where to begin."68
The industry's defense, of course, was that the primary obligation of commercial filmmakers is to make pictures that sell. Walter Wanger, then the Academy president, outlined that rationale in Public Opinion Quarterly: "Film with a purpose must pass the same test that the escapist film more easily passes. Theater-goers must want to see the picture." Convinced that the kind of pictures the OWI espoused "can effect no purpose except to empty theaters," Wanger argued that any "truths" about war-related issues "had better be skillfully integrated" into the drama.69
By early 1943, when Wanger's article appeared, a growing number of films actually supported his view. While Hollywood would never quite satisfy the OWI, there was a clear improvement in the overall quality of war films as the ambitious first-run features made after Pearl Harbor finally reached the theaters in late 1942. Among the first and most important of these was Wake Island, a Paramount near-A released in August 1942; starring Brian Donlevy, William Bendix, Macdonald Carey, and Robert Preston, it dramatized the devastating defeat (in December 1941) of a marine contingent on a remote island outpost near Hawaii. As Jeanine Basinger suggests, Wake Island was a watershed release and in many ways the first true World War II combat film. While incorporating many traits of earlier war films, Wake Island also "begins to relate the meaning of these 'old' devices directly to World War II." Key factors, according to Basinger, were its focus on an actual U.S. military battle and on the combat unit, "that unique group of mixed individuals, so carefully organized to represent typical Americans."70 The film also established the conventions of the World War II "last-stand" drama. In Wake Island and later films such as Manila Calling (1942) Bataan (1943), a small, isolated unit of American soldiers fights to the death against impossible odds, with the narrative invariably concluding just before the last American is killed.
The popular and critical response to Wake Island underscored its watershed status. Returning $3.5 million in rentals, it was among the top box-office hits of the year and scored four Oscar nominations, including best picture. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called Wake Island "a realistic picture about heroes who do not pose as such," and Newsweek called it "Hollywood's first intelligent, honest, and completely successful attempt to dramatize the deeds of an American force on a fighting front."71 Made in cooperation with the Marine Corps and endorsed by the OWI, Wake Island clearly established the viability of the violent, downbeat, hyperactive combat film, while toning down the jingoistic flag-waving, blatant racism, and gross historical distortions of so many previous B-grade war films. This is not to say that these qualities were eliminated altogether Most of Hollywood's wartime combat dramas were set in the Pacific, and most of them depicted the Japanese enemy as not only uncivilized but essentially inhuman—a view that pervaded the American media and colored the mindset of the public as well. As the war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote: "In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here [in the Pacific] I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman or repulsive."72
In 1943, Hollywood's wave of A-class war-related films hit the nation's theaters with enormous impact. These included big-budget musicals like This Is the Army and Stage Door Canteen; resistance dramas like Watch on the Rhine and The Moon Is Down; and wartorn romances like Casablanca For Whom the Bell Tolls. There was also a marked increase in both the quantity and quality of A-class combat films, including Air Force, Action in the North Atlantic, Bataan, Guadalcanal Diary, The Immortal Sergeant, So Proudly We Hail, Cry Havoc, and Sahara. Moreover, a number of British war films were released in the United States in late 1942 and early 1943—notably In Which We Serve, The Immortal Battalion (British title The Way Ahead), The Invaders (British title 49TH Parallel), and One of Our Aircraft Is Missing All were critically well received, and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve also was a solid commercial hit.
Critics and the Academy responded enthusiastically to the 1943 surge in A-class warrelated films. The National Board of Reviews top ten selections for the year included seven war-related pictures, and the Academy's ten nominees for best picture likewise included seven war-related films, with the Oscar going to Casablanca. And in the Film Daily poll of over 400 critics, every film on the top-ten list was war-related (including Random Harvest, with a World War I story, and For Whom the Bell Tolls, its Spanish Civil War context).73
The World War II Combat Film
The combat film saw significant advances in both quantity and quality of output in 1943. Two key films were Air Force and Bataan, which solidified the essential conventions of the World War II combat film while establishing its two dominant variations. Air Force, an early 1943 release shot on location (at a Florida air base) and made in cooperation with the Army Air Corps, won critical praise for its semidocumentary style. The story focuses on a group of men isolated within a powerful warship—an authentic B-17 "Flying Fortress"—that was involved in air-sea battles in the Pacific during the early months of the war. The men learn both the value of group cooperation and the finer workings of their bomber, which gradually emerges as the crew's mother, lover, and sacred vessel. The finale of Air Force is relatively upbeat, with the warship taking part in the Battle the Coral Sea (in May 1942)—one of the first important Allied victories in the Pacific.
Bataan also involves an early battle campaign in the Pacific theater, but it is a more stylized, studio-bound production, and considerably more brutal and downbeat as well. The story centers on a combat unit of thirteen men in an isolated jungle outpost on Bataan, which is being overrun by invading Japanese troops. The unit is assigned to destroy a bridge and prevent the Japanese from rebuilding it; in carrying out that assignment, the men are killed, one by one, by the relentless, faceless enemy. The consummate last-stand picture, Bataan ends with the unit leader and lone survivor (Robert Taylor) throwing curses at the swarming Japanese and swinging his machine-gun fire directly into the camera for the film's powerful closing image.
These two types, centering on the warship and the infantry unit, steadily coalesced into Hollywood's standard, war-issue combat formulas. The group dynamic and celebration of technology of Air Force recur in all manner of warships, from submarines and ships to tanks and aircraft, while the infantry films grimly trace the horrors of combat and the psychopathology of soldiering. For Basinger, Air Force and Bataan "contain the new genre" of the World War II combat film. "In fact, they are the new genre. They are the two most important films … because they are the first that are totally in and about World War II combat." She contends, however, that the infantry variation is "the truest and purest combat format," because it is so relentlessly "about" actual fighting. While the bomber can take its crew back to the relative security and domesticity of the barracks, and even the submarine has its social and hospitable attributes, the infantry film offers "no relief from the war."74
Basinger considers Bataan "clearly the seminal film" of the World War II combat genre for three reasons. First, unlike all of the preceding combat films made during the war, Bataan provides no "denial" of the war through furloughs, returns home, or other noncombat situations but focuses only on soldiering and combat. Second, the nature and composition of the combat unit in Bataan became a veritable paradigm for subsequent films, along various social and cultural lines—the ethnic, racial, and religious background of unit members; their ideological, economic, and class-related status; their geographical and regional origins; and their military rank, experience, and professionalism. As Basinger notes, Bataan set the standard not only for the composition of the group in infantry combat films but also for the structure of authority, the likelihood of death, and even the order in which the unit members are killed.75
Third and perhaps most important, Bataan integrated these conventions into a dramatically compelling narrative—and thus into effective propaganda. The group constituted what Lewis Jacobs has termed "a national collective hero," although Basinger aptly notes that the unit's "democratic ethnic mix" necessarily included a leader "who is part of the group, but is forced to separate himself from it because of the demands of leadership."76 Those demands generally include a military objective (in this case the bridge) related to a specific military campaign, as well as dealing with the inevitable internal conflicts of the group. Meanwhile, the individual group members partake in the myriad rituals of infantry life, the articulation of what they are fighting for, and the necessary horror of fighting and dying. With Bataan, asserts Basinger, "the foundation of the World War II combat film is in place"; the various "generic requirements" of the form were "firmly established and repeated" in the films that followed, as was readily apparent by late 1943 in films like and Sahara, Guadalcanal Diary, Cry Havoc, Destination Tokyo.77
The infantry and warship variations of the combat film were not altogether distinct from one another, and in fact a few war films effectively combined the two. Among the most notable of these was Sahara, a late-1943 Columbia release starring Warners loanout Humphrey Bogart as the leader of a disparate band of Allied soldiers (Dan Duryea, J. Carrol Naish, Rex Ingram, Lloyd Bridges) crossing the Libyan desert aboard a U.S. tank who eventually make a stand at a desert well against an entire Nazi division. One of the more underrated combat films of the war era, Sahara is noteworthy on several counts—particularly the warship and the military unit involved, the deft blending of the warship and infantry variations, and the heightened realism of the production.
Sahara opens with the tank commander Sgt. Joe Gunn (Bogart) and his two-man crew crossing the North African desert alone in their tank during the chaotic retreat after the fall of Tobruk. At a bombed-out military hospital, they come across a British medical officer and five infantrymen: two Britons, two Australians, a South African, and a Frenchman. Gunn offers them assistance, but the British dismiss the tank as an "old scow" and a "tin hearse." Gunn takes offense, not only extolling his tank but romanticizing and feminizing it in the process. "She's an M-3 air-cooled job that can cross 200 miles of desert as easily as you'd walk around in that Piccadilly Circus of yours," he says. "When I go into Berlin I'll be riding that tank, the same one that's standin' there with the name Lulubelle on her." With no real choice, the soldiers climb aboard, riding atop the tank while Gunn and his crew (a radioman and a gunner) ride inside.
Sahara is clearly a star vehicle, with Bogart's Sgt. Joe Gunn another wartime synthesis of rugged individualist and team player. Yet Joe's conversion to the collective war effort has long since been made, and he is presented as the ideal leader; in fact, the ranking British officer readily cedes authority to the American tank commander early in the film. The soldiers eventually are won over by the Lulubelle, of course, as are a black British-Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner (a sympathetic figure with relatives in America) who join the ragtag unit in its desert journey. Lulubelle's efficiency is further evinced when the crew shoots down a German fighter plane and captures the pilot, adding a dedicated Nazi to the group. Thus, the group, a diverse amalgam of eleven Allied soldiers and their two Axis prisoners, is complete; it is one of the more remarkable units in any wartime combat film and clearly represents the principal combatants in the Atlantic theater in microcosm.
The first half of Sahara delineates these various characters—and the varied stakes and views of the nations they represent—as they search with increasing desperation for water and fuel. The group discovers water at a modestly fortified well, where they decide to dig in and try to hold off a division of some five hundred parched Nazis en route to El Alemein. Shifting to a last-stand drama, the Allies are killed one by one by the Germans, who themselves die in massive numbers in their repeated assaults on the well. The two prisoners also are killed, each under tellingly symbolic circumstances. The German pilot murders the Italian for defaming Hitler and Nazism, and then while trying to escape he is killed in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the black Sudanese—an obvious comment on Aryan superiority. Eventually the Allied force is down to only two men (including Gunn) and low on ammunition. But the Germans, succumbing to thirst and, because of Gunn's successful ploys, unaware of the Allied numbers, suddenly surrender. Thus, Sahara veers from last-stand drama to an upbeat, updated version of Sergeant York, and its positive outcome is underscored as the two survivors and their Nazi prisoners are met by Allied troops who inform them of the victory at El Alemein.
Despite its star-vehicle status, careening patchwork plot, and upbeat resolution, Sahara is an altogether effective war film—in large part because of the style and visual treatment of the narrative by a production unit which was nearly as diverse as the military unit in the film. Of particular note are the director Zoltan Korda and the cinematographer Rudolph Maté, two Hungarian-born émigrés to Hollywood from wartorn Europe (Maté via Germany and France, and Korda from England, where he had worked with his brother, the producer Alexander Korda). The two treated soldiering and combat in a quasi-documentary style, while bringing a stylized poetic realism to the depiction of the otherworldly desert milieu. Maté's camera work was nominated for an Oscar, and the critic James Agee wrote of Sahara's distinctive style: "It borrows, chiefly from the English, a sort of light-alloy modification of realism which makes the traditional Hollywood idiom seem as obsolete as a minuet."78
As Agee suggests, the realism in Sahara can be attributed in part to European influence, which came not only from the filmmakers directly involved but from the growing number of émigrés working in Hollywood and from the British films showing in the United States at the time. Equally important, however, was the documentary influence that became increasingly pronounced in Hollywood's combat films of the later war years.
Nonfiction War Films, Documentary Realism, and the Hollywood Combat Film
Crucial to the combat film's 1943 surge were the massive advances in news coverage of the fighting overseas, not only in the print media and on radio but in motion picture newsreels and documentaries as well. Roughly 80 percent of all newsreels in 1942 were devoted to the war at home and abroad, and in 1943 that total rose to nearly 90 percent.79 As Thomas Doherty notes in chapter 12, the six newsreel companies vastly improved their coverage in 1942-1943, moving beyond a headline-service role to provide timely and graphic depictions of military action. This improvement was facilitated by the easing of military restrictions on the filming of actual combat in late 1942 (at FDR's behest) and by rapid improvements in the technology and logistics of combat reporting.80
Documentary film coverage improved as well, as in-depth nonfiction war films—both shorts and features, many of them created by top Hollywood filmmakers in the military—became standard screen fare in 1943. Several British war documentaries enjoyed widespread U.S. release and favorable critical response as well. In fact, the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1943 went to Desert Victory, a British-American coproduction on the Allied campaign in North Africa, while the award for best documentary short went to John Ford's The Battle of Midway.
Advances in nonfiction war coverage encouraged Hollywood filmmakers not only to dramatize combat but to do so with a greater degree of verisimilitude and historical accuracy. In the process, the narrative and dramatic emphases of combat dramas, as well as the number of Hollywood filmmakers doing documentary work, clearly influenced nonfiction war films. Thus, by 1943 fiction and nonfiction war films were entering a stage of remarkable symbiosis, with combat dramas providing a (belated) fictional counterpart to the newsreel and documentaries, all of which not only depicted major military engagements but also defined and dramatized the war experience for millions of Americans at home.
Regarding the symbiotic interplay of fiction and nonfiction war films, a number of coincidences and parallels are worthy of note. The breakthrough combat film Wake Island was released in 1942 within weeks of Ford's Battle of Midway, which itself was precedent-setting on several counts. It was the first document of an actual U.S. military engagement, and it was the first to use 16mm Technicolor photography. Moreover, it was the first battle record by an established Hollywood director; in fact, Ford's hand-held camera work would set the early standard for first-person combat coverage. In 1943, as other Hollywood filmmakers became involved in documentary production, they introduced dramatic qualities and narrative strategies somewhat similar to their fictional counterparts.81
Consider William Wyler's film treatment of bombing runs over Germany from a Flying Fortress in Memphis Belle (1944), and John Huston's treatment of fierce infantry fighting in the Liri Valley in Italy in The Battle of San Pietro (1945). Among the more important and critically acclaimed wartime documentaries, both films effectively integrate fiction and nonfiction techniques. They extend and intensify the first-person technique of The Battle of Midway, and as hourlong documentaries they develop strong narrative and dramatic lines to delve the human as well as the military stakes involved. Moreover, the two are documentary versions of Hollywood's dominant combat trends—the specialized unit operating (and confined within) a high-tech warship; and the isolated, interdependent, war-weary infantry unit trudging from one deadly engagement to another.
As documentarians like Ford, Wyler, and Huston dramatized and humanized their wartime subjects, fictionalized accounts of combat developed a more pronounced documentary realism. In 1944-1945, interestingly enough, the number of fictional and documentary combat films released was almost identical (sixteen and fourteen, respectively), and many critics and historians have argued that these two forms of combat film can (and should) be considered manifestations of the same genre.82 In fact, James Agee named San Pietro and a dramatic feature, The Story of GI Joe, as the best films of 1945, and for essentially the same reasons: their direct, unsympathetic, anti-romantic portrayal of professional soldiers in combat, and their gauging of military conflict and outcome in human terms.83
Released in October 1945, The Story of GI Joe, directed by William Wellman, was the dramatic counterpart of Huston's San Pietro; a grim depiction of an American unit in the Italian campaign, it stars Robert Mitchum as the reluctant unit leader and Burgess Meredith as the war correspondent Ernie Pyle (who had been killed in combat a year earlier). For Agee, The Story of GI Joe was "the first great triumph in the effort to combine 'fiction' and 'documentary' film"—an effort he had been tracing since the release of Air Force in 1943. Besides Wellman's direction, the "great triumphs" of the film also included its "anti-histrionic casting and acting," which Agee considered crucial to this kind of war film. Indeed, Agee's one misgiving about the otherwise effective Objective Burma (1945) was that, for him, it could never quite overcome the onus of being an Errol Flynn picture—a criticism which could be leveled at Sahara (and Bogart) as well.84
Remarkably, both The Story of GI Joe and San Pietro were regarded as antiwar films by some critics, because they were so downbeat in their portrayal of men at war and so sensitive to the psychological and physical trauma involved. The Battle of San Pietro, in fact, so concerned military officials in Washington that it was withheld from distribution until the end of the war in Europe, and then it was released only in an abridged version under the (also abridged) title, San Pietro.85 Agee noted the debate that had arisen over the antiwar issue in his October 1945 review of The Story of GI Joe, and his own take was appropriately ambivalent:
Nobody [in the film] is accused, not even the enemy; no remedy is indicated; and though every foot of the film is as full an indictment of war as I ever expect to see, it is clearly also demonstrating the fact that in war many men go well beyond anything which any sort of peace we have known, or are likely to know, makes possible for them. It seems to me a tragic and eternal work of art. (Reprinted in Agee on Film [New York: Grossett and Dunlap, 1958], vol. 1, p. 174)
Two other fictional war films released just after the war, They Were Expendable (December 1945) and A Walk in the Sun (January 1946), also displayed the documentary-style realism of The Story of GI Joe, as well as its tone of grim resignation and weary professionalism. Few critics gauged these as antiwar efforts, however. As Roger Manvell points out, the Ford-directed They Were Expendable clearly accepts "the fatalism bred of combat conditions," while it also "brings out the ancient ethos of war, the aspiration to heroism, a profound acceptance of self-sacrifice for the 'cause' of the nation, the near-worship of the charisma of military authority implicit in such terminology as high command and supreme command."86 At the same time, these films are willing to consider both the possible breakdown of the group cohesion as well as the price—in both individual and collective terms—of military victory.
Ultimately, the more realistic and somewhat disillusioned combat films of the later war era marked a significant departure from infantry dramas like Wake Island, Bataan, Sahara, and Guadalcanal Diary. While sharing many qualities with their flag-waving, heroic, and aggressively prowar antecedents, the differences in style and tone of the later combat films clearly set them apart. Again James Agee offers a useful distinction. In his review of Bataan, Agee termed the film a "war melodrama" much like Wake Island, and he went on to describe it as "a small triumph of pure artifice," constrained as it was by its star, its obvious studio setting, and its utterly predictable heroic posturing. While Agee found this anything but "realistic," still he recognized the power and appeal of films like Wake Island and Bataan: "We may not yet recognize the tradition, but it is essentially, I think, not a drama but a kind of native ritual dance. As such its image of war is not only naive, coarse-grained, primitive; it is also honest, accomplished in terms of its aesthetic, and true."87 Hollywood continued to produce this type of ritualized war melodrama with films like Destination Tokyo (1943), Winged Victory (1944), God Is My Co-Pilot (1945), and Back to Bataan (1945)—all sizable hits. And while critics praised the documentary-style combat films, audiences clearly preferred the energetic hokum of war melodramas like A Guy Named Joe over the grim realism of The Story of GI Joe.
As noted earlier, Hollywood's production of combat films ended rather abruptly after the war, owing mainly to the industry perception that audiences were no longer interested in them.88 By late 1945, exhibitors and studio executives alike had developed a firm conviction that for a war-weary populace—not to mention the millions of returning veterans—the war film's appeal ended with the war itself. So as the government and the military rapidly dismantled the nation's vast war machine, the movie industry began reconversion as well, mustering out the war-related themes and formulas that had prevailed for the past four years. This was most evident in the combat film, but the home-front drama also underwent a postwar decline as Hollywood shied away from stories of returning vets, postwar rehabilitation, and the domestic "return to normalcy."
The World War II combat film hardly disappeared altogether, of course. After lying dormant for fully three years, the genre would undergo a remarkable, unexpected resurgence in 1949, keyed by three major hits: Battleground, Twelve O'Clock High, and Sands of Iwo Jima. The genre's currency would continue for decades to come, since the American (and Allied) experience of World War II provided a curious parallel to cold war-era films involving U.S. military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Despite its later resurgence, however, the World War II combat film could never be the same—nor, for that matter, could the home-front drama. From 1942 to 1945, Hollywood created a parallel universe for a nation at war, an odd amalgam of information and entertainment, of fact and propaganda, of realism and collective national fantasy. Thus Hollywood's warrelated output represents a collective cultural experience altogether unique in American film history.
Case Study: Air ForceandSince You Went Away
Air Force and Since You Went Away provide excellent examples of the combat film and the home-front drama. They reflect other significant wartime trends as well: the relationship between the military and the studios; the increasing authority of top talent and independent producers; the efforts of the OWI as well as the PCA to regulate movie content; and the pronounced wartime distinction between male action films and women's pictures, a function of the marketplace as well as the narrative and thematic qualities of the films themselves. Despite these obvious distinctions, Air Force and Since You Went Away display a number of significant similarities as well.
The most basic similarity between the two films is their mutual celebration of distinctive American "fortresses"—one a Boeing B-17 bomber and the other a two-story brick colonial home—while valorizing the occupants and the special wartime rites of each domain. Air Force presented the saga of a B-17 Flying Fortress and its crew, whose training flight of 6 December 1941 across the Pacific becomes an odyssey of the disastrous early months of the war—but then culminates in the Battle of the Coral Sea. Since You Went Away is an epic of a different sort, dedicated in its opening credits to "the Unconquered Fortress: the American Home." It charts a year in the lives of a woman and her two daughters, beginning in early 1943 with the departure of the husband and father for active duty. The lives of the three are transformed by the war effort and war-related experiences at home, as well as by the fate of the absent patriarch—who is reported missing in action midway through the year (and the film), and whose reported return to safety provides the story's climactic moment.
Air Force was one of many top studio productions initiated immediately after Pearl Harbor. It was made at the behest of Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold, head of the Army Air Corps and a personal friend of Jack Warner. In early 1942, Arnold began looking to Hollywood for on-screen support, and Warner played a key role in this effort. Warner was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps in April 1942 and assigned as a public relations officer based in Los Angeles. He helped set up the First Motion Picture Unit, a nonfiction production unit housed at the Hal Roach studios that made training films and documentaries for the Air Corps and other military branches. Later in 1942, Warners gave the Air Corps use of its Vitagraph Studios in New York. Jack Warner also took on Air Force as a personal and professional project, with assurances from Hap Arnold of full Army Air Corps support.89
While Warner monitored the project, Air Force actually was produced by executive-turned-unit producer Hal Wallis and the freelance producer-director Howard Hawks, whose new contracts with Warner Bros. in February 1942 specified Air Force as among their initial projects. (Because both contracts also stipulate producer credit, Air Force is introduced as "A Howard Hawks Production" yet Hal B. Wallis receives producer credit.)90 While Warner and Wallis lined up the production, Hawks signed the screenwriter Dudley Nichols in March 1942 to do an original script based, at Arnold's suggestion, on an actual incident. The Mary Ann, a B-17 training plane, was separated from its flying group while heading toward Hickham Field in Hawaii on the morning of the Japanese attack. In the course of the film, the Mary Ann sees action in several of the major military engagements during the early stages of the Pacific campaign. Nichols completed the script by early summer, shortly after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, a spectacular air-sea battle and an early Allied victory which provided an ideal culmination to the story.91
Air Force was an ambitious production by Warners' standards but scarcely a star vehicle; it featured the rising star John Garfield and an ensemble of (available) male feature players, notably Harry Carey. The real star of the film was the Mary Ann, an authentic Flying Fortress supplied by the Army Air Corps, along with its facilities at a training base in Florida. Filming on location made the picture a wartime rarity, pushing its cost to about $2 million, and allowed Hawks to work without direct studio supervision—and without interference from Wallis and the front office.92
The minor problems that Warners ran into with the PCA over language and violence were adjusted (or negotiated away) easily enough. The OWI, however, was then in the midst of its campaign to upgrade the accuracy and curb the blatant racism and xenophobia of war films, and the agency was severely critical of the film. In October 1942, with Air Force in postproduction and nearing release, the OWI complained that virtually all Asians in the film, both enemy soldiers and "friendly" civilians alike, were depicted as treacherous, bloodthirsty savages. (The Japanese were referred to as "stinldn' Nips," "buck-toothed little runts," and so on.) The film also suggested that Japanese sympathizers and saboteurs were in some ways responsible for U.S. defeats in Hawaii and the Philippines. Despite these complaints, however, the filmmakers did little to mollify the OWI—particularly after receiving approval from the Army Air Corps and the PCA.93
Air Force was released in early 1943 with considerable fanfare and widespread promotion, including Grossett and Dunlap's publication of John O. Watson's "novelized" version of Nichols's screenplay. The picture returned $2.7 million and was Warners' fourth-biggest hit among nine 1943 releases which earned at least $2 million (seven were war pictures). Critical response was mixed: the film's authenticity and semidocumentary style were often praised, while its war melodrama formulaics were routinely criticized.94
Any sense of realism in Air Force results from three factors: the use of an actual B-17 as the principal set for the picture; the story's depiction of actual war-related events; and the incorporation of newsreel footage at various points in the film, notably in the climactic Battle of the Coral Sea. The story and characters, on the other hand, are standard Hollywood war issue. Air Force presents a group of disparate individuals (and two outspoken individualists) who gradually coalesce into a unified, efficient, gung-ho fighting unit. The group hails from all points of the social, ethnic, and geographical map; it includes a Jew, a Pole, an Irishman, a Minnesota farm boy, a Texan, a streetwise New Yorker, and so on—all distinctions that purposefully become meaningless by the end of the film.
Like most combat films, Air Force is a conversion narrative; its conversion theme operates on several levels. In a general sense, the Mary Ann herself is converted from a training ship into a fighting machine, and the crew members into functional components of that machine. In terms of human drama, the story focuses on two converts: Winocki (John Garfield) is a surly loner and flight school washout who eventually accepts his role as a team player and gunner; in fact, he is credited with inventing the tail gun for the B-17. Tex Rader (James Brown) is a professional loner, a pursuit pilot forced to ride in the Mary Ann when his fighter is shot down. Tex initially denigrates bombers (while the crew, in turn, dismisses his "pea shooter"), but he eventually takes command of the plane after the pilot is killed and the copilot wounded.
The trajectory of Air Force takes the crew from one major Pacific battle to another—from Honolulu to Wake Island to the Philippines. Each stage takes the Mary Ann and her crew deeper into the war experience, and each stop is punctuated by a hospital scene which underscores the point. The first involves a nurse at Hickham in Hawaii who is the copilot's sweetheart and the sister of one of the crewmen; she has been wounded during the Japanese attack, indicating the enemy's brutal disregard for helpless women and children. At Wake, the crew visits the wounded base commander, who despite his condition insists on staying with his fliers and the doomed marines trapped on the island. He urges the Mary Ann's crew to proceed to the Philippines, where they encounter heavy combat. The Mary Ann is shot down, and Winocki heroically crashlands the plane after the crew has bailed out and the pilot, Quincannon, has been mortally wounded. The third hospital scene depicts the death of Quincannon, their pilot and leader, and is perhaps the most dramatic moment in the film. Scripted by William Faulkner during production, the scene features the dying pilot hallucinating a final takeoff in the Mary Ann, going through the various verbal procedures as the crew, at his bedside, assume their respective roles as well. This deathbed experience gives an emotional edge to their individual responsibilities as well as to their "family" unity and motivates the crew to return their warship to action.
Inspired by Quincannon's death, the crew literally rebuilds the plane overnight under the supervision of the crusty, paternal crew chief (Carey), assisted by marines awaiting the imminent Japanese attack. They complete the job just as the enemy swarm the airfield; the Mary Ann miraculously escapes and joins the Allied air armada over the Coral Sea just as it intercepts the Japanese fleet en route to Australia. The Mary Ann asserts her superiority in the ensuing battle, taking the lead in the attack and sinking several enemy vessels—thus marking an early turning point in the war and also the successful conversion of the Mary Ann and her crew into a professional fighting machine.
In precise counterpoint to Air Force, David O. Selznick's Since You Went Away presents an idealized portrait of the fight waged by women, individually and collectively, on the home front. Unlike many women's pictures and home-front dramas which invoked the war more indirectly, Since You Went Away was quite clearly a war film, tracing the conversion of home and family—the American community in microcosm—to the war effort. Indeed, it was Hollywood's wartime woman's picture par excellence, focusing directly on the American female's experience of World War II. And thus, it was quite a bit different from the "American Mrs. Miniver" which Selznick set out to produce. Whereas that 1942 MGM film depicts the initial impact of the war on a fully intact British family, Since You Went Away charts the experiences of a woman and her two daughters in 1943, with her husband overseas and the nation's wartime conversion well under way.
The film was based on a wartime memoir by Margaret Buell Wilder, "Since You Went Away—Letters to a Soldier from His Wife," which had been serialized in Ladies' Home Journal and was awaiting publication as a book when Selznick purchased the rights for $30,000 in early 1943. He brought Wilder to Hollywood from her home in Akron, Ohio, where the story was set, and started her to work on the adaptation while he prepared production.95 Just as Air Force relied for its authenticity and primary setting on the Flying Fortress, so too did Selznick's production rely on its earthbound domestic fortress—a two-story, seven-room brick colonial. Rather than seek out an appropriate location in some Ohio suburb, however, Selznick had a full-scale house constructed (along with a sizable stretch of its city street) as a standing set inside his studio.
In contrast to the nonstar ensemble in Warners' Air Force, Selznick's production featured three top female stars: Claudette Colbert as Ann Hilton, the stalwart matriarch; Jennifer Jones (a sudden star after The Song of Bernadette) as the 17-year-old daughter, Jane; and Shirley Temple as the 14-year-old "Brig" (Bridget). Colbert, significantly enough, had just starred in So Proudly We Hail, a story of nurses serving in the battle-torn Pacific and a rather odd admixture of women's weepie and wartime action picture. James Agee, in The Nation, dismissed So Proudly We Hail as "probably the most deadly-accurate picture that will ever be made of what the war looks like through the lenses of a housewives'-magazine romance."96 This perspective may have accounted for the film's popular success (it earned $3 million and was the twelfth-biggest box-office hit of 1943), as well as for Selznick's decision to cast Colbert in Since You Went Away.
In the three important male roles, Selznick cast Joseph Cotten as Tony Willett, the longtime friend of the Hiltons who for years has been carrying a torch for Ann (from a discreet distance); Monty Woolley, reprising The Man Who Came to Dinner, as the autocratic curmudgeon Colonel Smollett, who rents a room in the Hilton home to help the family make ends meet; and Robert Walker as Corporal Bill Smollett, the colonel's estranged grandson and Jane's love interest. (Walker and Jones were married at the time but would separate during production, with no apparent effect on their portrayal of the innocent young lovers.)
Ever the "creative producer" with a blockbuster mentality, Selznick's creative role and personal stake in Since You Went Away was exceptional, even for him. The film marked his return to active production after a four-year hiatus; at a cost of $2.78 million, Since You Went Away was Hollywood's most expensive production since Gone with the Wind. Selznick also had developed a close personal relationship with Jones (whom he would later wed after she had divorced Walker and he had divorced Irene Mayer Selznick), and he recently had added Shirley Temple to his stable of contract stars. He was adamant that the film redefine the screen image of both stars, as Tones looked ahead to more mature romantic roles and Temple entered her teen years.
Selznick's creative involvement began with an overhaul of Wilder's screenplay, which he began to revise immediately after her return to Ohio in August 1943—only weeks before the picture went into production. Selznick's rewriting continued throughout the 127-day shoot, primarily to keep the picture as current as possible with war conditions and to build up Jones's role. He eventually rewrote enough of the script to warrant sole screenplay credit, despite Wilder's appeals to SWG. (The film's writing credits read: "Based on an adaptation of her book by Margaret Buell Wilder," and later, "Screen Play by the Producer.") The director John Cromwell tolerated Selznick's last-minute revisions and also his insistence on seeing a camera rehearsal of every scene before it was filmed. Selznick was unhappy with the camera work and lighting, however; he replaced George Barnes (who had won an Oscar for Rebecca) with Stanley Cortez, and he later replaced Cortez with Lee Garmes, who finished the shoot.
Production closed in February 1944 after five months of principal photography, and Selznick immediately began editing with Hal Kern while Max Steiner composed the score. The completed picture, with its 205 speaking parts and meandering narrative, runs two hours and fifty minutes—long even by wartime standards, though a half-hour shorter than Gone with the Wind. Since You Went Away was released in June 1944 to uniformly respectful but somewhat tepid reviews. Bosley Crowther, for instance, admired the film but considered it "a rather large dose of choking sentiment."97 Meanwhile, the public took to it in droves; the picture returned rentals of $4.9 million and was one of the biggest hits of the war.
As a sentimentalized portrait of America's wartime women and the domestic front, Since You Went Away was enormously effective. Indeed, the film's ardent sentimentality is firmly and effectively established from the very outset. The titles play over a shot of the "home fires" in a hearth, followed by a fade-in on an exterior shot of the Hilton home, framed by a leafless tree in a dark, driving rainstorm. A series of dissolves takes the viewer closer to the home, then closes in on a downstairs window, and finally inside. A long tracking shot surveys a cozy, well-appointed den, moving from an empty leather chair to a bulldog on the floor, then across a desk revealing a calendar (it is January 1943), a telegram (Timothy Hilton, USN, has been ordered overseas), and a memento of Tim and Ann Hilton's honeymoon (they were wed in 1925). The shot continues, sweeping past bronzed baby shoes, a picture of Ann and her daughters, and finally back to the window, as Ann returns home after seeing off her departed soldier-husband. Crucial to the emotional impact of the scene is Steiner's score: the "Since You Went Away Theme" flows subtly, seamlessly into strains of standard American tunes—"You're in the Army Now," "Here Comes the Bride," "Lullaby and Goodnight," and so on—with each transition precisely cued to the visuals. (Steiner's score was the lone Oscar winner among the half-dozen nominations.)
This efficient narrative exposition establishes both the back story and the tone of Since You Went Away, and Ann's subsequent arrival and voice-over reverie immediately set the dramatic stakes and plot trajectory as well. "This is the moment I've dreaded," says Ann to herself, "coming back to our home—alone." The remainder of the film charts Ann's efforts to confront and eventually to overcome that dread, which intensifies midway through the film when she learns that Tim is missing in action. But in the final moment of the film, a full year after the opening, Ann learns of Tim's imminent safe return—the consummate reward for her sacrifices and efforts in his absence.
While Tim Hilton's departure and return to safety define the film's overarching narrative development, the more immediate dramatic concerns involve the adjustments of the Hilton women—and the household in general—to the war.98 In that sense, Since You Went Away represents a consummate wartime conversion narrative. Not only the Hilton females but virtually every other character in the story, as well as the family home and the community at large, are utterly transformed by the war.
The emphasis is on the home, of course, which is a clear equivalent to the Mary Ann in Air Force—a safe (almost womblike) haven which gives definition and meaning and a sense of unity to its occupants. Significantly enough, when Selznick revised Wilder's story and script, he decided to upscale the Hiltons socially, from a modest middle-class to an upper-middle-class family. This change both amplifies and further idealizes their sacrifices—giving up the master bedroom to the crotchety Colonel Smollett; doing without their devoted housekeeper, Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel), although she does find a way to return part-time; planting a victory garden while giving up meat, eggs, and other staples; and so on.
The conversion of Ann, her daughters, and her household to the war effort dominates the first third of the film, providing what Koppes and Black describe as "a virtual compendium of OWI-approved vignettes of American life as changed by the war."99 This first movement of the story culminates in a dramatic episode which recasts the conversion in a larger social context. Hoping to meet Tim briefly before he ships out, the women embark on a long train ride from Ohio to Washington. Their effort to find Tim proves futile, although it provides an opportunity for the Hiltons (and the viewer) to relate their situation and their sacrifices to those of other Americans—from complaining businessmen and dismembered veterans to relocated workers and other self-reliant wartime women. Aptly enough, the excursion concludes in an intimate and distinctly feminine moment, as a woman lets Brig sleep on her breast and explains to Ann that her own daughter, an army nurse, has been missing since Corregidor.
Shortly after the women return home, Tim Hilton is reported missing, thus initiating the second major movement of the story. As Ann copes with the news, the story shifts focus somewhat to daughter Jane, who takes a job as a nurse's aide (caring for disabled veterans), and who experiences first love with the painfully self-effacing Bill Smollett. The two youngsters mature rapidly in the next few months, and they are considering marriage when Bill is sent overseas—to Salerno in Italy, where he is killed a short time later. Jane's grief gives way to stoic resolve, inspired and reinforced by her mother's example. This section of the story ends with Jane dramatically confronting a longtime family friend and self-centered social matron, Emily Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead). Jane forcefully berates Emilys failure to cooperate with the war effort and her criticism of those who do, clearly articulating the role and responsibilities of the female "recruits" serving on the home front.
The film's final section returns the focus to Ann, who begins training as a welder and begins to accept the prospect of life without Tim, all the while keeping the vaguely amorous Tony Willett (Cotten) at bay. Her devotion is rewarded on Christmas Eve when she opens a gift which Tim had left and then, alone with her thoughts of her missing husband, she receives word that Tim has been found and is safe. The emotional crescendo and dramatic climax here provide an apt finale to the tearstained, three-hour saga, underscoring both its appeal as a wartime anthem to the home-front warriors and also, in retrospect, its quite remarkable sentimental excess.
The film's unabashed celebration of the attitudes and ideals of wartime America, and its total immersion in the experiences and conditions of the era, may account for the failure of Since You Went Away to elicit much critical or popular interest over the years, despite its wartime success. As Koppes and Black suggest, "The symbolism and sentimentality of Since You Went Away help explain why the picture was a topical smash but suffers badly out of context."100 They help explain, too, why the combat films of the era, especially those devoted exclusively to warfare, have sustained greater historical and popular interest. Jeanine Basinger states that Air Force "is a great film, still powerful today. In it, one sees the visual strength a genre must have to endure."101 The enduring appeal of the war film is indeed a function of its distinctive iconography, which has not changed significantly over the past half-century, as well as the timeless rituals of male bonding and the prospect of death in a threatening, alien landscape.
Ultimately, however, the similarities between Air Force and Since You Went Away are as illuminating as the differences. Both films, most fundamentally, are conversion narratives which trace the adjustments and sacrifices American women and men necessarily had to make for the war effort to succeed. Both redefine family and community, positing a new (albeit temporary) kinship system based on mutual need and commitment to the task at hand. Both depict epic journeys, although of a very different sort: the men in a Flying Fortress, traveling through space and externalizing their warinduced anxieties by fighting and killing; the women in an American domestic fortress, traveling through time and internalizing their anxieties by loving and nurturing—and waiting. Both films end in triumph, although these were only momentary triumphs which could not begin to resolve the larger social and military conflicts the characters still faced. Thus, both Air Force and Since You Went Away reinforced the basic idea that only when heroism became routine could the war itself finally be won.