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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

HISTORY LESSON: Hollywood at War

Bob Hope performs for the boys in Sicily, 1943.

For a brief period, film existed solely as a pure artistic venture blended with scientific innovation. Almost immediately, this sanctity was corrupted by business, which both heightened its possibilities and tangled its intentions. Cinema as a propaganda device was always forthcoming, but despite the expected birth of celebrity product endorsements, the most influential collision of stardom and salesmanship didn't occur until the Great War. The different ages of American War have revealed themselves in various ways through our movies, but perhaps the most interesting moments occurred not in the later rallying, reactionary cries of the Vietnam or Korean Wars, but in the earlier calls to arms of WWI and WWII. This equally paranoid and frightful time produced in Hollywood a profound moment of unity, patriotism, and brotherhood. On the screen or behind the cameras, an attitude of "One for all, and all for one" reigned supreme. The movies of the day were used to relay this message, as did its stars, who for once proudly took a back seat to the Stars (and Stripes) of the American Flag. Though contention and doubts did exist, an indestructible, unified front was always presented, which was perhaps simply due to the source of the battles being waged-- particularly the genocidal WWII. In a continuing celebration of Independence Day, here is a look back the impact of war on Hollywood, and the impact of Hollywood on the war.

While the Revolutionary War called upon a young and insecure landscape to defy its tormentors (and sometimes its own inhabitants) in order to proclaim itself a union, and the Civil War pitted brother against brother when incongruous versions of scruples and ethics threatened to tear the country apart, The Great War was entered into willingly by a freshly healed and newly thriving society. Its effect would render America not only unarguably the most powerful nation in the world, but-- as it was the lone combatant to emerge without war torn soil-- it too would rise victoriously as the film capital of the world. During a period of low economic peril that would lead to the euphoria of the roaring twenties, the strength and positivity of the nation was echoed loudly through its silent film players. Most memorably, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin would embark on a tour selling war bonds (left), using their popularity and charisma to maintain and enhance the country's participation in the movement. The films of the time showcased their dedication, such as Mary Pickford's The Little American, which put America's Sweetheart right in the throes of German atrocities. The picture was passionately directed by Cecil B. DeMille-- a strong supporter of both the war movement and the armed forces-- who had in fact established the Home Guard, via Famous Players-Lasky, as its Captain when the war began in April of 1917. Yet, it is Douglas Fairbanks who was perhaps most indicative of American patriotism at the time. Healthy, virile, in incredible shape, and possessing both an optimistic spirit and a zest for life-- which, if canistered, could probably have provided enough energy to power a large city for 100 years-- "Mr. Pep" was the era's masculine ideal. He proudly made several short propaganda films to get his brethren in the spirit of battle, such as Swat the Kaiser and Sick 'em Sam.

Chaplin too did a great deal to express his feelings about the war, but as a more calculating aesthete and a true humanitarian, his efforts most often revealed themselves through his own compelling work. The strongest statement he ever made about war came about prior to WWII in his defiant, tragicomic masterpiece The Great Dictator (right). While many remained blind to or even embraced the shocking new stratagems of Adolf Hitler during his rise to power, Charlie always remained aghast, dismayed, and disgusted by the Fascist's lunacy. When Hitler's administration mutated into abject madness, Chaplin was not surprised, and The Great Dictator became his impassioned wake up call to America. The artistry of the film remains pure poetry, yet at the time its honesty was under-appreciated: Hitler banned it in Germany and all other Nazi-occupied countries. It was the presence of Hitler, recalled quite accurately as one of the most crazed and demonic beings to ever live, that propelled Hollywood more emphatically into its support of the war, making WWII even moreso than WWI an interesting period to look at cinematically. While it was a Japanese attack that pulled America directly into battle, it was Naziism that more accurately identified the threat of the times. Yet, after the tragedies and losses of the Great War, there was a still a hesitant skepticism about entering into another foreign battle. Not surprisingly, most early support was coming from British actors like Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, whose homeland was already suffering graphic actualities that America was only theoretically pondering. Then, the eternal day of infamy arrived at Pearl Harbor and erased all doubts. America went to war with a vigor that has yet to be matched.

A very vocal spokesperson at the beginning of America's entrance into WWII was Carole Lombard (selling bonds, left). Everyone's favorite and most beautiful kook definitely had a serious side when it came to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. She gave her staunch support to the cause and went on a nationwide war bond tour for which she was able to raise over $2 million in one day. Her shocking death while on her way home from this tour had a great impact on the American people in general but most specifically on her Hollywood friends. Jack Benny couldn't even bring himself to perform his radio show when he heard the news. Respectfully, Carole was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by FDR and given the notoriety of being the first woman killed in the line of duty. Carole had been prodding husband Clark Gable to enlist since before the war even began, but he-- fearing that he was not cut out for it-- had demurred. After her death and in honor of it, he did indeed enlist and, as many in his regiment would attest, started volunteering for the most dangerous missions. While fighting, he wore a locket containing the last remnants of his beloved wife: a few sparse pieces of her jewelry collected from the crash site.

Clark was not the only member of the Hollywood community to serve heroically. A large portion of the male actors fought, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr (who enlisted before war was even declared), Henry Fonda, Glenn Ford, Robert Montgomery, Tyrone Power (right), David Niven, Alan Hale, Mickey Rooney, William Holden, etc. Jimmy Stewart, who had to sweet-talk his way into the war (due to the fact that he was underweight), would become the most decorated actor to ever serve his country. Directors like John Huston, George Stevens, and Frank Capra too contributed by going overseas and filming raw footage, which was subsequently compiled for newsreels and war documentaries. This is not to imply that these fellas were blithely fearless. The old paranoia remained, which is perhaps why Jack Warner, fearful that his studio would be misconstrued from the sky as an army base, had "LOCKHEED" painted on the roofs in large, bold letters. However, the war department demanded that he have the label removed. This was an obvious overreaction on the mogul's part, but there was reason to worry. War is a very real thing, after all. Leslie Howard became another Saint of the cause, joining Lombard, when he and sixteen others were shot down by the Germans when flying over the Bay of Biscay.

The women also did what they could in terms of entertaining the troops, participating in war bond rallies, and making public service announcements and war propaganda advertisements. Veronica Lake (right) participated in a memorable campaign that persuaded women to wear their hair up at the factories, where so many females were seeking employment during the war effort. It turns out, too many of their copied, peek-a-boo hairstyles were getting caught in the machines! War was about social fusion not fashion! (However, it could be argued that this was a mere publicity ploy to publicize Paramount's latest, sexy star). Actresses too encouraged their sisters to ration supplies, including their precious silk stockings. Rarely recalled, as well, is the fact that a young Audrey Hepburn was a courier for resistance fighters in Holland at this time. 

However, there were some men who were unable to serve due to various injuries, ailments, or simply their age. If these reasons were explained thoroughly enough by the press, the public forgave the trespasses, but there was occasional, savage hostility directed at the men whose absence from the front identified them as cowardly or emasculate. Errol Flynn irritatingly received a 4F classification from the army-- a crushing blow to such a screen hero-- due to the ravages of past and recurring illnesses. His lung was marred by an unmistakable shadow-- an effect of TB-- and he too suffered recurring bouts of malaria. There also were alleged problems with his heart, though it was only after he was refused entree into the army that it was truly broken. (He does his part for the effort in The Dawn Patrol with David Niven, left). John Wayne was too left out of the loop due to an old knee injury, and Van Johnson's recent car crash and head injury extricated him from combat. Left at home, these boys carried on the tradition of screen heroism, and their careers boomed as Hollywood churned out more and more patriotically themed films.

John Garfield was another macho guy, ironically left behind due to his weak heart. Frustrated by inactivity, he yearned for a way to do something special for the war effort. He decided to team up with friend Bette Davis (left, serving her autograph to a serviceman) to form the Hollywood Canteen, the dream oasis and dance hall for soldiers with a night off. Instead of cruising around to the nearest local bar, fighters lucky enough to have landed in Hollywood now had a chance to go to the infamous Canteen and talk to, be served by, and even dance with, some of the most famous stars of the silver screen. This memorable hot spot is but one of many examples of Hollywood's selflessness during the war. The way these different celebrities turned the spotlight away from themselves and onto the brave men serving their country added a great deal of gravity and character into an industry that had grown increasingly self-absorbed. The bugle sound of battle had awakened more than just a need to defend human rights; it had brought the city of angels down to earth. Movie stars making thousands upon thousands of dollars a picture were reminded of their good fortune. Thus, the immortals, the untouchables, made a conscious effort to repay a great debt to the viewers who basically allowed them their lavish privileges, and what's more, were fighting for them. Barbara Stanwyck, Ann Sheridan, Jennifer Jones, Marlene Dietrich, and Claudette Colbert were some of the many beautiful ladies who dedicated their time to the soldiers, sometimes dancing with them until their feet started to bleed! But, the men came too, and Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and the Marx Brothers offered up jokes and laughs, chumming up to the brave men and doing their part. Before Tony Curtis became one of these elite, he came to the Canteen as a young navy officer to stare awestruck at such personalities. As such, John and Bette's landmark achievement became a Hollywood monument, (though it is rumored that Bette was a little overly patriotic in her attentions to some of the soldiers. Not that they complained).

The most dedicated and selfless offerings came from those stars who devoted their time to entertaining the troops. A majority of stars would make such a contribution, particularly to the local California army bases. Those who are truly noteworthy went overseas and into the heart of danger to bring a bit of home to the men abroad. Bob Hope's efforts are legendary as are Jack Benny's. But the army's number one girl during WWII was none other than Carole Landis (hitching a ride, right). The tom-boy knock-out was dedicated to the cause from the get-go, singing at bases, volunteering, and gamely donating both blood and money. She saw the war coming before it had reached American soil, and had even requested an acting job in England so that she could be closer to those who were already fighting. She earned her own pilot's license, hoping to enlist with the ATS, but she sadly withdrew when she learned that she would have to surrender her American citizenship, which was something the All-American-Girl was not apt to do. Her solution was to devote as much time as she could to "the boys." She remained as active as possible, and actually carried a trunk in her car filled with a variety of uniforms and wardrobe options for whichever random event should happen to claim her attention. She motored back and forth to countless benefits. By 1942, she was already made an honorary Colonel by Hollywood Post 43. She became a favorite of soldiers on leave, whom she honestly befriended. She offered up her beach house to them, and many a lucky gang found themselves taking a breather there and being served breakfast by Carole and her mother. (No funny business. She treated them as her own brothers, and they as their sister). Carole also always volunteered for the foxhole tours, which were considered the most dangerous. To her, the fellows here were the most in need.

Carole was aching to do more, and her most memorable gift to the servicemen came when she enlisted the help of actress Kay Francis, dancer Mitzi Mayfair, and comedienne Martha Raye to join her in a trip to entertain the troops stationed in Britain (all Four Jills in a Jeep, left). With her singing talents, the quadruple threat was a welcome relief to many young men whose first words to them often were, "I haven't seen an American girl in months!" Warm, fresh faces from home-sweet-home, and famous faces at that, were a dream come true in the hellish nightmare of war. Taking Cary Grant's advice to pack as many warm clothes as she possibly could, Carole and her talented retinue took on the dangerous task of spreading cheer with heart and courage. And it was dangerous. After a brief and unexpected stopover with the troops in Bermuda, the ladies traipsed on to England and later Africa. Carole documented her memories in a blue notebook that one friendly soldier gifted her early in her travels, which she would later turn into a book, and Fox would turn into a movie: Four Jills in a Jeep. However, this film, which does much to showcase the ladies' talents, does little to reveal the realities of the ordeals they went through. Carole would recall freezing nights, explosions that shook the girls to the bone and blew through their bedrooms, and life-threatening experiences-- such as a near-crash landing with the plane still ablaze! She and the ladies were once thrown into safety by some of their soldier friends, who protected their bodies from flying shrapnel. Though they donned their fancy duds on stage, where they performed a number of exhausting shows nearly every day, they wore army regulation clothing and boots on their off time, wherein they unglamorously clomped through the mud with the boys.

Carole's memories of the war and of the men she encountered would change her life and leave her with bittersweet feelings (with Mitzi at the Biskra Air Base, right). She committed herself fully, and at a cost (she would have recurring bouts of malaria and painful stomach ailments for the remainder of her short life). The height was meeting so many people, befriending them, and touching their lives; the downside was the pain of learning that they had been injured in battle or had lost their lives. Carole visited the hospitals devotedly, memorizing names, palling around with the nurses, and even refusing a private room when she herself became ill. When her tour was halted from proceeding further, Carole and Kay petitioned to Dwight Eisenhower himself for aid in allowing them to continue their mission to the frontline, come Hell or high water. He found it impossible to say no to them, and their persistence eventually got them to Africa. As tiring as the entire process was, doing eight shows a day over and over for thousands of men, traveling to strange and dangerous destinations, and getting little sleep, there was some time for fun. A few of her favorite soldiers took her and Mitzi especially around, showed them what remained of the wrecked local life, and indulged them in jitterbugging. Carole too found time for love, falling for soldier Thomas Wallace, and fulfilling what she must have believed was a patriotic duty in marrying him. The trials she had to get through merely to get this process done was arduous enough in wartime England, but with her usual persistence, a little luck, and the help of friends-- who offered up their wartime coupons, so she could buy a wedding dress-- she completed this ultimate fantasy on January 5, 1943. Another high point was being able to perform for the Queen of England. It was always Carole's singing finales that brought down the house. After four and a half months, Carole and her gal pals ended their unified journey. Carole would never forget it, nor the soldiers her.

Back at home, Carole motored on with radio work, filmmaking, writing her war memoirs, and continuing in her patriotic efforts-- even performing in the rain for an ecstatic public who came to see her. As the war ended-- and her storybook marriage to Tommy-- she found it hard to re-assimilate to the banal existence of a once again self serving Hollywood. It certainly contributed to the depression that would later claim her life. Perhaps she felt the impact of that brief moment of history a little too deeply. Perhaps her knowledge of it was simply more profound than so many others-- who had remained ignorantly comfortable on American shores-- to understand. Existing on war-torn terrain and returning to a land of glamour and phony prestige no longer seemed bearable. But then, this was not the total reason for her end. She had lived for the boys, and she would have continued to do so had it not been for other factors affecting her emotional life. Certainly, when she took her own life, she broke a million hearts. These hadn't been lads who had merely caught a glimpse of her, but those who shook her hand, knew her by her first name, had confided in her their fears, stories about their families, tragic tales about their battles, and the dreams that they had held for the future. (Carole sings in her favorite dress, in which she would also be buried, left). To say that she touched many lives would be the understatement of the century.

Ann Sheridan at the Hollywood Canteen.

Carole was one of the many who saw to it that, for once, this topsy-turvy world was inverted, and that honor was bestowed in the right place. During WWII especially, soldiers became the celebrities. They were the ones receiving admiration and unadulterated respect. That so many Hollywood personalities would step down from their ivory towers to make this known is still a mind-boggling and moving concept. This was an odd and unrepeatable moment of cohesion and certainty, which in our confused, modern world no longer makes sense. Normally our cinema reflects social turmoil, escapist fantasy, and the product of constant human questioning. Movies, thus, become the products of our disagreements. Rarely, as in these periods of war, it becomes instead of medium of complete agreement, when the living heart and the filmic heart beat in unison. When this moment ends, and our bickering continues-- our political debates and communal banter-- it only renders our artistic and actual freedom more perfect. Our ability to vocally, visually, and even vapidly express ourselves and the things that we always fight over, is the very thing we've always been fighting for. God Bless America and American Film!


  1. Great post Mer. Very patriotic. May I add that Mabel took part in the Bond tour with Doug and Mary when it hit New York. She was at the time working for Goldwyn"s east coast in Fort Lee NJ. Thanks ;)

  2. You always have the mabel info, hahaha! Thx.