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Saturday, November 26, 2016

HOLLYWOOD AND THE WORLD WAR II YEARS

Would you believe that during World War II Hollywood matinee idol Clark Gable flew several B-17 missions to acquire film footage? How about leading man Jimmy Stewart flying B-17s and B-24s in raids over Germany?

It’s true and as a veteran, Stewart was highly decorated for his bravery while rising to the rank of Brigadier General. Gable flew many missions and rose to the rank of Captain. These are just two examples of how Hollywood got immersed in the war effort during those perilous times between 1941 and 1945.

Seventy-five years ago this month on December 7, 1941, “A date which will live in infamy,” the Japanese attacked the American base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii thrusting the United States into World War II. By June of 1942 the Office of War Information was established and one of its duties was to advise Hollywood about what they thought were appropriate films to depict the war. Various themes were used like glorification of the war, attempts at showing a balanced point of view, morale builders, and some “Let’s mow ‘em down" flicks.

Clark Gable in a B-17 during WWII
Some of the efforts in the 1942-1943 era were not only considered good “war” movies  but are remembered as great films in general  as they have withstood the test of time. “Guadacanal Diary” (1943),“Wake Island” (1942), and “Objective, Burma!” (1945) are good examples. They were based on real events insofar as they concerned themselves with actual places and combat initiatives, but another purpose was to pump up the audience as much as to present information. By doing so, they usually depicted an ethnically mixed group of US soldiers drawn together despite their differences by their patriotism, while illustrating their hatred of a common enemy. 

After dismal early failures, the war pendulum began to swing back toward the allies in 1943 and 1944. At that time Hollywood began producing more films aimed at depicting life on the home front. Movies like “Tender Comrades” (1943) and “Since You Went Away” (1944) showed moviegoers how the families of servicemen coped with the war while they were gone.

Many upbeat musicals were made during wartime with some of them slipping in negative remarks about the enemy and praising the American point of view.  Patriotism was “in” and great support was given to activities like scrap metal drives and “victory gardens” to help offset rationing and support the war effort. Films like Jimmy Cagney’s award winning “Yankee Doodle Dandy” (1942) exemplified those feelings.

Other musicals like “Stage Door Canteen” (1943) and Hollywood Canteen” (1944) were star studded favorites that dealt more directly with the current war effort.  In these films various Hollywood stars would perform in a USO Club setting while serving food and drinks and mingling with servicemen, mostly enlisted.

There were also song and dance extravaganzas like “Holiday Inn” (1942) with Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire that made no mention of the war but were produced to serve as enjoyable reminders of American life and what our veteran servicemen were fighting for. “Christmas in Connecticut” with Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan was released after the war in 1945 and dealt with a Navy veteran returning home to post war America.

Besides the many films made about World War II, Hollywood also went on the road as screen stars traveled far and wide on USO tours to entertain the veteran troops. The USO (United Service Organizations) was established in 1941 and by 1944 had 3,000 clubs operating. These clubs went a long way to provide entertainment and a touch of home for troops worldwide.

While many stars were involved with entertaining the troops, none were more famous than Bob Hope.  His first show was at March Field in California in March of 1941. Hope did his show before the United States was even involved with World War II. He then traveled tirelessly throughout the war with his litany of military jokes entertaining thousands of troops at the front. Hope wasn’t alone as songwriter Irving Berlin, character actor Reginald Gardner, harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler, singer Frances Langford, comedian Jack Benny, and actress Marlene Dietrich were among many others who visited the troops.

Other stars like pinup girl Betty Grable, Bette Davis, Greer Garson, and Rita Hayworth stayed on the home front and were instrumental in raising support for war bonds and other war related causes like scrap drives. Hayworth even contributed the bumpers off her personal car.

This activity by the stars showed the American people that if the movie stars could deprive themselves of certain niceties, it certainly would be all right for Mary and John Q. Public to do likewise.

The era of World War II was a time of unity in the United States when our people pitched in together toward the war effort.  It also was a time when Hollywood was there to do its part.