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There's a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere Over Hollywood
Today, we are accustomed to every conflict being accompanied by protests and outbursts from the left wing, which includes most Hollywood personalities. This trend began with Vietnam, and has continued through each war and conflict up to and including the current possibility of war with Iraq. But things were different in World War II. While there were dissenters, the vast majority of the populace was firmly behind the war effort, and this included Hollywood—both in a corporate sense (the studios) and in an individual one (the stars). Note that for our purposes, Hollywood does not simply mean the town, but the entire entertainment industry, both movies and music, which was mostly run from Hollywood. Keep in mind, as well, the close relationship between studios and stars. At that time, virtually all stars were under exclusive contract to one specific studio, and most of the things done by stars, even things that they decided to do themselves, were done with the sanction of their studios. So it is not inconsistent to say that a star entertaining a canteen is an expression of Hollywood supporting the war effort.
I would like to look at several ways in which Hollywood supported the war effort, beginning with the government office that made sure it did overtly, but continuing on to look at support that was not necessarily required, but given anyway.
“Do Nothin’ Till You Hear From Me”
Before Pearl Harbor, American movies held little or no patriotic or propaganda overtones, but with the attack on the U.S., overtly political films began appearing. Concerned about the direction the media might take, the government instituted the Office of War Information, which was to oversee the output not only in movies, but in radio and the press as well. Not merely a censorship agency, OWI was part of the total mobilization that covered the entire country. Its job was to keep the public informed of the events and implications of the war both at home and abroad. It was especially important to keep an eye on Hollywood production, because with more money (from a growing economy due to increased production, and many families having two or more pay-earners) and fewer things to spend it on (because of rationing), more and more money was being spent on entertainment. Some 55-60 million Americans were buying movie tickets each week, in conservative estimates. Hollywood itself estimated more like 80 million. [Casdorph, 34]
For Hollywood producers, OWI elaborated many guidelines to be adhered to for every film produced, required a synopsis of each film to be submitted for approval, and banned films that failed to conform. Questions to be considered before producing a film:
The last one is very interesting, since it seems to deny what the OWI appears to be—a propaganda agency. Initially, OWI was very concerned about avoiding “hate pictures,” striving for a balanced view of the war. Unfortunately, this rule was left in the dust before very long, as anti-Japanese films and anti-German films began appearing in legion, and the OWI itself encouraged the manipulation of public opinion by motion pictures. [Soroka, OWI]
Because of the OWI, Hollywood was forced, in a way, to support the war effort, at least in terms of film content. All types of films continued to be produced, in all genres. But there are four general types that we can consider to have supported the war effort: war films, newsreels, home front films, and escapist films.
“Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!”
War films are pretty much self-explanatory, and cover anything that actually takes place in the military, on the front (either European or Pacific). Suffice it to say that there was little interest in pacifist films during the war! All Quiet on the Western Front wouldn’t have made it past OWI’s secretary. Films such as The Flying Tigers, Wake Island, Bataan, Sahara, and even So Proudly We Hail (about nurses on the front), fall into this category. WWII war movies tend to be highly patriotic, with an all-but-faceless enemy that is seen as purely evil. Only after the war did movies begin to appear that painted the Germans and Japanese in a more generous light. It is easy to see why the films during the war were the way they were—WWII needed the support of everyone at home. Everyone had to be fighting, in their own way, on the side of the Allies. Portraying the enemy as faceless prohibits anyone identifying with them, thus forcing the audience to identify with the Allied soldiers even more. Portraying them as evil makes it seem all right to be killing them. So while these films may not have always given a true picture of life on the front, they did shape the consciousness of those left at home, for better or worse.
“The Fleet’s In”
A better source of real information about the war was through the newsreels, which were very popular during the war. Interestingly, before American entered WWII, newsreels about the war were actually discouraged—many theatres actually advertised that they showed no war newsreels. After Pearl Harbor, though, that changed drastically. Suddenly the newsreel was the public’s link to what was happening. In fact, in large cities, many theaters sprang up devoted entirely the showing of newsreels, instead of merely showing one along with each feature [Casdorph, 22]. Several programs competed with each other, the most notable being Fox’s Movietone News and the March of Time. Through these newsreels, every American could not only hear (as on the radio) but actually see the events of the war: soldiers marching toward battle, ships deploying at sea, fighter planes soaring across the sky.
“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”
Home Front films displayed the courage and stalwartness of the ordinary person, doing his or her part at home while husbands, fathers, brothers, sons, and sometimes sisters and daughters were away at the front. This war affected everyone, even in the United States where no actual fighting occurred. Family members were overseas in danger. Materials and food were rationed. Factories were understaffed, and women picked up the slack. Hollywood also made movies about the home front in England, where the physical danger was much greater. Films such as Mrs. Miniver, about a British family during the Blitz, were very popular. In Since You Went Away, a wife and her daughters left at home when the father leaves for the war are forced to make personal sacrifices like taking in boarders to make ends meet. These films served as examples to ordinary citizens of what they were capable of, and how important they were to the war effort, even though they weren’t fighting on the front lines. [Soroka, Morale]
“Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive”
Escapist films were just that—comedies or musicals meant to take the anxious away from reality and allow them to forget about the horrors and hardships of the war for a short while. These were the most popular movies by far during the war. A search done at the Internet Movie Database says that in 1944, there were 273 comedies and 133 musicals made, as opposed to only 82 war films. Even westerns beat out war as a genre, with 102 films. And a keyword search on WWII only pulls up 69 titles. Now, this is not to say that none of those comedies and musicals were war-related. The war had a way of permeating even these genres, and many movies had some type of military overtones (such as Caught in the Draft, Buck Privates, Here Come the Waves). Still, the major purpose was entertainment and escapism, and the war content was treated lightly. One of the most overtly patriotic escapist films was Yankee Doodle Dandy, a musical biography of the Broadway composer George M. Cohan (“Over There,” “Give My Regards to Broadway”)—it is no accident that this flag-waving biopic was released in 1942. Even cartoons often had a war message, however brief. At the end of The Unruly Hare, Bugs Bunny is on a train, about to travel off into the sunset, when he suddenly jumps off, looks at the camera and says that “none of us civilians should be doing any unnecessary traveling these days.” In Super Rabbit, Bugs is a Superman clone, but at the end he emerges from the phone booth changing room in a Marine’s uniform, the “real Superman” who has “some important work to do.” Short moments in cartoons that have nothing whatever to do with the war, but typical of the overall sentiments of the time. Of course, there were also more overtly-themed cartoons, such as Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips and Die Fuhrer’s Face [Beck & Friedwald, 140, 149, 158].
“The Last Time I Saw Paris”
A slight spin on the escapist film is the nostalgic film. These evoke feelings of nostalgia for simpler, pre-war times, and the values for which the war was being fought. Meet Me in St. Louis, for example, takes us back to the turn of the century. Not directly connected to the war or patriotism at all, nostalgic films remain among the best films produced during the war for a couple of reasons. First, even during the war, because they were not specifically concerned with the war, the values and ideas were subconsciously absorbed by the American people, reminding them how important it was for them to win the war by showing them what they would lose if they did not, without being preachy and obvious, which often have the exact opposite effect [Soroka, Morale]. Second, because they don’t depend on the war itself, they have aged better, and are not dated by the time in which they were made.
This nostalgia was also keenly seen in the songs of the time. “The Last Time I Saw Paris” harks back to a pre-war Paris that is warm and happy. Now, the song says, “her streets are where they were, but there’s no sign of her. She has left the Seine.” [Hammerstein, 3] This song was very popular, and its sentiments allowed it to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year, even though it technically should have been disqualified, not having been originally written for the movie in which it appeared (the otherwise unmemorable Lady Be Good). The greatest thing about nostalgia is that people don’t actually have to remember the time or place longed for. Not many Americans had ever seen pre-war Paris, and yet “The Last Time I Saw Paris” made them wistful for a place of which they had no personal knowledge.
Related to this are songs such as “I’ll Be Seeing You,”
“It’s Been a Long Long Time,” “A Nightingale Sang
in Berkeley Square,” “The White Cliffs of Dover” and
“When the Lights Go on Again (All Over the World)”—all
of which reminded soldiers of home and gave them hope that the war would
soon end and allow them to return.
All four of these types of entertainment helped to bolster the public morale (as well as the military morale, for films and records were sent overseas to the troops as well). But there is one more type of film that Hollywood produced during the war that was meant specifically for the war effort and military consumption.
“What Do You Do in the Infantry?”
Hollywood studios devoted entire units, and some of their best directors, to making documentaries and shorts for the military. Many of the draftees, it was discovered, really had no idea what they were fighting for, or why. Frank Capra, a major in the army (having seen active service during WWI) as well as a great director, was assigned to the Morale Branch of the army, and directed a documentary series entitled Why We Fight, intended to acquaint the new draftees of the reasons for the war. This series in seven parts dealt with the rising of Nazi Germany, the attacks on Eastern Europe, the Battles of Britain, Russia, and China, and why America is now in the war [Schoenherr, Why]. Besides such high-minded endeavors, various studios were also involved in producing short training films for the military. Warner Bros. even made up a new cartoon character called Private Snafu (from the military term snafu = situation normal, all fouled up), who did everything wrong. These were comic animated shorts, but with a serious intent.
This covers the actual war effort production output of Hollywood during the war, all of which was under the jurisdiction of the OWI. But Hollywood didn’t just support the war effort with its movies. It went above and beyond the call of duty.
“Any Bonds Today?”
It could be said that we won WWII because we simply out-produced the Germans. We built more airplanes and more tanks and faster than they could, and every time they destroyed one of our planes, we had two more to send in. All this increased production, though, costs money, and the US government began selling war bonds to cover costs. These could be bought by anyone for $18.75, and later redeemed, when they reached maturity, for $25. Hollywood jumped on the war bond train and went all out promoting them. All the theatres sold war bonds in the lobby, many movies ended with a title card reading “Buy your war bonds here” or something similar. Hollywood stars attended war bond rallies, using their celebrity to help sell them. Carole Lombard, wife of Clark Gable, and an excellent actress in her own right, was killed in a plane crash returning from a war bond rally on January 16, 1942—not long after the war began for the US [Casdorph, 34]. But that tragedy did nothing to diminish bond sales or Hollywood’s participation in them. In fact, it may actually have helped. Movie stars were very much looked-up-to then, in the pre-tabloid days, and Lombard was seen to have given her life for the war effort…an example to others.
“I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen”
One of the most memorable organizations to come out of Hollywood’s war effort in WWII was the USO (United Service Organization), dedicated to entertaining servicemen and keeping up morale. The USO was, and is, active on military bases around the world, both at home and near the front. Various celebrities from the Hollywood movie and music industries toured the bases with the USO, entertaining millions of troops. Bob Hope has been perhaps the most active participant in the USO shows, beginning with WWII and continuing through every single war since. At home, the USO set up canteens around the country, notably the Stage Door Canteen in New York City and the Hollywood Canteen in Hollywood, which provided free entertainment and dancing to any serviceman—the ticket to get in was merely a uniform. Movies were made about both of these canteens (called, predictably, Stage Door Canteen and Hollywood Canteen), and each features a cavalcade of star power. These were places for servicemen to come on leave in strange cities where they knew they’d be welcomed and could relax and enjoy themselves for a night, before being shipped overseas to the war.
Irving Berlin’s song “This is the Army, Mr. Jones” debuted at the Stage Door Canteen in 1942 and went on to become the basis for the wildly successful Broadway musical of the same name (which also included such comic military-themed songs as “I’m Getting Tired So I Can Sleep,” “Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning,” and “I Left My Heart at the Stage Door Canteen”). This is the Army ran for 112 sold-out performances, continued on an equally successful national tour, and all of the proceeds went to Army Relief. When Warner Bros. optioned the rights to make the play into a movie, they paid a down payment of $250,000, also to Army Relief [Casdorph, 36]. In total, the show raised $10 million for the war effort. [Jewish Virtual Library]. This is a wonderful example of Broadway and Hollywood studios and stars working not for their own profit, but giving up their time and energy to help out the war effort.
“My Shining Hour”
And yet, some stars went to even further personal sacrifice, and actually volunteered for the armed services, even though they were all exempt from the draft because being involved in the entertainment industry was considered to be supporting the war effort. I already mentioned Frank Capra, who rejoined the army and made films for them. The Army Air Corps seemed to have been the most popular military branch for the stars: Clark Gable flew missions in B-17s over France throughout 1943, gathering combat footage [Soroka, Stars]; director William Wyler was unable to pick up his 1942 Oscar for Mrs. Miniver because he was in Europe on a combat mission; and Jimmy Stewart was absent from Hollywood from 1941 to 1946, flying B-17s and B-24s in Europe. Stewart was awarded several medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Palme de Guerre. He continued to serve in the Reserves after the war, eventually attaining the rank of Brigadier General, the only actor to have done so [Soroka, Stars].
“There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere”….Over Hollywood
While the Office of War Information may have required Hollywood to support the war effort at least on the surface, in the content of films, Hollywood did much more than this in the support of WWII. It contributed funds, entertainers, and fighter pilots. In this war that involved every citizen, soldier and civilian, at home and abroad, Hollywood pulled its part. Was it always fair? No, of course not—racism, especially against the Japanese, ran rampant. But it did what it felt it needed to do. And perhaps, at that time, it was right—the important thing during the war was winning, and stopping Hitler and Hirohito from destroying life as we know it. It was not long after the war that Hollywood looked back and began trying to correct its mistakes, giving the other side credit where credit was due (Bad Day at Black Rock, Sayonara).
Hollywood is not, never has been, and never will be, perfect. But at
that time and place, it was doing what it needed to be doing, and doing
it well. Has patriotism left Hollywood forever? It still crops up in film
after film, but as an industry, perhaps it has. It is less institutionalized,
less controlled, and it may perhaps even be a misnomer to try to group
everything and everyone under the single name “Hollywood”
in today’s world. However, I do hope that should we go to war, there
will be entertainers willing to take up the slack and help keep up the
morale of soldiers and civilians alike, taking the efforts of WWII Hollywood
as a model.
Beck, Jerry & Friedwald, Will. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons. Henry Hold and Company, New York. 1989.
Casdorph, Paul D. Let the Good Times Roll: Life at Home in America During WWII. Paragon House, New York. 1989.
Hammerstein II, Oscar. “The Last Time I Saw Paris” sheet music. PolyGram International, Inc.
Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com Accessed 2/26/03.
Jewish Virtual Library. http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/biography/berlin.html Accessed 2/27/03.
Schoenherr, Steve. University of San Diego. Why We Fight – War Comes to America. Revised 11/20/00. http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/filmnotes/whywefight7.html. Accessed 2/23/03.
Soroka, Kristin. University of San Diego. Office of War Information. http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/st/~ksoroka/hollywood3.html. Accessed 2/23/03.
.________. Morale Films: Courage, Comedy, and American Nostalgia. http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/st/~ksoroka/hollywood5.html Accessed 2/23/03.
________. The Stars Go to War. http://history.sandiego.edu/gen/st/~ksoroka/hollywood7.html Accessed 2/23/03.
Songs used for section titles:
This paper originated as a term paper for U.S. History II, Missouri Baptist University, Spring, 2003.
©2003 by Jandy Stone