5. Dramas, Comedies, and Film Noir Made During World War II
● The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
Director: John Ford
This is a black and white film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s (*1) classic 1939 novel. When the Dust Bowl renders their farmland useless and the Great Depression (*2) robs them of their home, the Joad family leaves Oklahoma and heads West to California, where they’ve heard work is available. However, they arrive in California only to find that the arrival of many other tenant farmers has already oversaturated the workforce. At the time, Steinbeck was accused of being a socialist because of the book's sympathetic depiction of migrant workers and the poor. With the specter of World War II looming, Ford decided to tone down the political themes and rearrange the second half of the story in order to turn it from a tale depicting the emptiness of the American Dream to one showing an American family coming out of the Great Depression and attempting to get back on its feet. The message was that the American spirit was resilient and that it would fight to the end. Ford won the Academy Award for Best Director.
*1 John Steinbeck (1902-1968) was an American author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962.
*2 The Great Depression was a worldwide economic depression that started in the U.S. in 1929 and spread around the world in the 30s.
● The Philadelphia Story (1940)
Director: George Cukor
This is a “comedy of remarriage” starring Katharine Hepburn (*3), Cary Grant (*4), and James Stewart (*5). Due to the Hays Code (*6), Hollywood studios were unable to depict explicit references to adultery. To get around the Code, they had the protagonists divorce, then flirt with strangers, and ultimately decide to get back together. James Stewart plays essentially a supporting role, but he ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance. Just a year later, in February 1941, Stewart became the first major Hollywood star to enlist in the army. Meanwhile, Cary Grant donated his entire 137,000 dollar salary to the British War Relief Society—a U.S.-based humanitarian organization supplying the people of Great Britain with non-military aid during the early years of World War II.
*3 Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) was an American actress who received a record four Academy Awards for Lead Acting Performances.
*4 Cary Grant (1904-1986) was an English-born American actor known for his transatlantic accent.
*5 James Stewart (1908-1997) was an American actor known for his drawl and everyman screen persona, best exemplified in It’s a Wonderful Life.
*6 The Hays Code, or the Motion Picture Production Code, was a set of moral guidelines that Hollywood self-imposed on its movies between 1934 and 1968.
●The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Director/Screenwriter: John Huston
Screenwriter John Huston’s directorial debut is the best-known adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 detective novel of the same name. It is a seminal film noir—a term used to describe stylish Hollywood crime dramas that are characterized by a cynical worldview, start light/dark contrasts (chiaroscuro), and camera angles that emphasize a feeling of anxiety and fear—low angles (*8), wide angles (*9), and oblique (Dutch) angles. The term was first applied to Hollywood films by French critic Nino Frank after World War II; after the end of the war, France received years worth of new Hollywood films all at once, and viewers were struck by how the tone had shifted from optimism to dark paranoia.
*7 Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961) was an American author of hard-boiled detective novels.
*8 A low-angle shot is where the camera is positioned low, close to the ground, and is looking up at the subject.
*9 A wide angle shot captures both a subject and their relation to what surrounds them.
●Citizen Kane (1941)
Director/Producer/Screenwriter/Starring: Orson Welles
Considered one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane is Orson Welles (*10) first feature film. It portrays the life of an American newspaper magnate entirely in flashbacks as a reporter attempts to discover the meaning of his mysterious last word: “Rosebud”. The character is partly based upon the real-life newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (*11), who was enraged upon hearing about the film and attempted to suppress it, prohibiting the mention of the film in any of his newspapers. As a result, it would not be until the late 1950s that the film was widely viewed by American audiences. Hearst had another reason for being antagonistic toward Welles: Hearst was a staunch isolationist (*12), whereas Welles’ strong pro-Europe and anti-Fascist views made him for intervention. It’s significant that the wealthy Kane dies alone in his vast palatial estate surrounded by European antiquities.
*10 Orson Welles (1915-1985) was an American actor, director, writer, and producer.
*11 William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) was an American businessman, newspaper publisher, and politician.
*12 Isolationism is the foreign policy that asserts that a nations’ interests are best served by not getting unnecessarily involved in the affairs of other countries.
This film is a satire about Hollywood’s shift toward semi-serious themes in the wake of the Great Depression. It tells the story of a young Hollywood director who has earned fame and fortune for making popular but frivolous comedies; dissillusioned with his own movies, he becomes determined for his next project to be a serious exploration of society’s ills. To that end, he decides to travel around as a Charlie Chaplin-like tramp so that he can experience poverty up close. Ultimately, he arrives at the conclusion that he can do more good for the poor by making them laugh. Some film critics at the time responded negatively to Sturges attempt to infuse comedy with socially relevant themes.
*13 Charlie Chaplin (1889-1977) was an English comic actor and filmmaker known for his iconic screen persona, “The Tramp.”
Director: Michael Curtis
This romantic drama film starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman is one of Hollywood’s greatest classics. Set in the Vichy (vishee)-controlled city of Casablanca in Morocco, the story is centered on American expat Rick Blaine, who runs an upscale nightclub that attracts both French and German clientele—and refugees desperate to get to the then-neutral United States. When his former lover Ilsa Lund suddenly enters his establishment accompanied by her husband, a renowned fugitive Czech resistance leader, he must choose between being reconciling with his ex or aiding the couple in their escape. The fact that Rick ultimately chooses the greater good over his own personal desires can be interpreted as a message for American audiences; then again, the Hays Code meant that Rick and Ilsa could have never really ended up together.
This biopic tells the story of Alvin York, one of the most decorated U.S. army soldiers of World War I. York is a young farmer in rural Tennessee, living in poverty and isolation with his family. An unexpected incident awakens him to his Christian faith; when the U.S. enters World War I, he finds himself torn between following the Bible’s prohibition against killing others and his obligation to fight for his country. Ultimately he is sent to the front lines in France, where he witnesses many of his fellow soldiers being killed. During a particular offensive, he comes to the realization that the only way to prevent more of his friends from dying is to fight. He kills and captures many German soldiers, is promoted to sergeant, and is awarded the Medal of Honor. York returns to America a national hero. Gary Cooper won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of York.
●Buck Privates (1941)
Director: Arthur Lubin
Regarded as the film that turned legendary comedy duo Abbott and Costello into movie stars, Buck Privates was their first service comedy based on the peacetime draft of 1940. It depicts two sidewalk peddlers who duck into a movie theater to escape from a cop, only to find that it has been turned into an Army enlistment center. The pair, believing that they are signing up for theater prizes, accidentally end up enlisting. At boot camp, they discover that life in the army is not so bad. It is said that the Japanese used the film as propaganda to demonstrate to its troops how incompetent the U.S. Army was.
●Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Director: William Wyler
William Wyler (*14) was born to a Jewish family in Mulhouse, a city in France that was then part of the German Empire. His family ran a thriving local haberdasher, but when his mother saw that Wyler had no intention of taking over the family business, she contact her distant cousin Carl Laemmle, the founder of Universal Pictures. Laemmle hired Wyler to work at Universal Studios in New York. Wyler eventually made his debut as a director in 1925, and by the 1930s had become one of Universal’s top filmmakers. As the 30s wore on, he became concerned about the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party across the pond, and desired to make a film that addressed the situation in Europe. Mrs. Miniver shows the life of a regular British family in rural England during the early years of World War II. In the famous last scene, a vicar delivers a powerful sermon in a badly damaged church, telling the villagers that the war was not just about soldiers and involved each and every person who valued freedom. It was Wyler’s message to the American people.
*14 William Wyler (1902-1981) was a German-Swiss film director, producer, and screenwriter.
●The Battle of Midway (1942)
Director: John Ford
After releasing The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford (*15) came to feel that addressing the war raging across the pond through his Hollywood films was no longer enough. He enlisted in the Navy and and petitioned them to start an official photographic naval unit, which came to be called Field Photo. In early June 1942 he was sent to Midway, where he captured one of the most significant naval battles in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The Imperial Japanese Navy under Admiral Yamamoto Isoroku arrived to find the fleet carriers that had earlier escaped Pearl Harbor; American forces dealt the Japanese fleet a stunning and decisive defeat and thus turned the tide of the war. Ford’s short documentary capturing the battle was the first color footage of the war that Americans saw; more significantly, in terms of morale, it was the first time they witnessed an American victory.
*15 John Ford (1894-1973) was an American film director renowned for Westerns.
●Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)
Director: Jack Kinney
Originally titled Donald Duck in Nutzi Land, this animated anti-Nazi propaganda short was produced by Walt Disney Productions. It depicts Donald Duck in a nightmare setting: living under the iron fist of the Nazi regime, heiling portraits of the Fuehrer (*16), the Emperor (*17), and Il Duce (*18), and forced to work in a factory manufacturing artillery shells. The short won an Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
*16 Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was a German politician and leader of the Nazi Party, who initiated World War II and was central to the perpetration of the Holocaust.
*17 Hirohito (1901-1989) was the 124th emperor of Japan who reigned as the emperor of the Empire of Japan between December 25th, 1926, and May 2nd, 1947, and then the state of Japan until his death on January 7th, 1989.
*18 Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) was an Italian politician who was the leader of the National Fascist Party.
●The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944)
Director: William Wyler
This documentary film provides an account of the final mission of the crew of the Memphis Belle, a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress (the plane and its crew returned to the United States after completing its 25th bombing mission over Europe). Wyler had been determined to film on the plane to capture dramatic color footage at the center of the action; one of the three cinematographers on his team, First Lieutenant Harold Tannenbaum, was killed in action when the bomber he was in was shot down over France. During the war, Wyler had the opportunity to return to his hometown of Mulhouse. There he found his family’s haberdasher still standing—but his family, along with all of the other Jews in the area, had been taken away by German forces. Wyler likely boarded the Memphis Belle knowing that if the plane was shot down and he was captured by German forces, he would meet the same fate.
●The Negro Soldier (1944)
Director: Stuart Heisler
Frank Capra was determined to prove his immigrant worth by dedicating himself to the war effort. Shaken by the overwhelming power of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will (*19), he began work on a series entitled Why We Fight to stir up morale among U.S. troops. Alongside the project, he also produced The Negro Soldier, a propaganda film used to convince Black Americans to enlist in the army. The film is notable in that it purposely avoided stereotypical cinematic depictions of African Americans and ultimately encouraged racial harmony.
*19 Triumph of the Will is a 1935 Nazi propaganda film made by Leni Riefenstahl.
●They Were Expendable (1945)
Director: John Ford
Ford’s first film after World War II had ended is the tale of a squadron of U.S. Navy PT boats based in the Philippines. As the title suggests, the film is notable for shining a light on the cost of war through its depiction of the tragedy of the American withdrawal in the Philippines. One of the films stars is John Wayne, who did not serve in the armed forces (when the U.S. entered the war, Wayne was already in his late thirties, and he purportedly did not want to enlist as a private). Ford, who was famous for being a difficult taskmaster, is said to have been especially hard on Wayne.
*20 John Wayne (1907-1979) was an American actor, director, and producer known for his roles in Western films.
●The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Director: William Wyler
After completing Memphis Belle, Wyler got to work on his next documentary, Thunderbolt! However, the shoot exposed Wyler to such loud noise that he became completely deaf in one ear. He left the front lines of the war a disabled veteran. He eventually returned to work with this film, which captures the mood of a nation shifting to peace after the end of the war. It is a dramatization of the problems returning veterans faced in their adjustment back to civilian life. MGM head Samuel Goldwyn was inspired to produce the film after reading an article about returning veterans in Time magazine.
●Five Came Back (2017)
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
This three-part documentary is based on a 2014 book by American journalist Mark Harris. It focuses on five directors who worked on the frontlines during World War II, and features interviews with five modern directors who analyze and discuss their legacies. Steven Spielberg talks about William Wyler, Francis Ford Coppola talks about John Huston, Guillermo Del Toro talks about Frank Capra, Lawrence Kasdan talks about George Stevens, and Paul Greengrass talks about John Ford.
●『コレヒドール戦記』They Were Expendable (1945年)
フォードの第二次世界大戦後の復帰の第一作となった本作は、フィリピン周辺をパトロールするPTボート(高速魚雷艇)の部隊の苦戦を描いた作品です。この作品を通して、第二次世界大戦によってアメリカが犠牲にしたものにスポットライトを当てています。本作の原題“They Were Expendable”とは「兵士は消耗品でしかない」という意味です。主役の一人は“男の中の男”のジョン・ウェイン(※20)ですが、フォードは兵役に服しなかったウェインに対して、特に厳しい姿勢を示したといわれています。(戦争が勃発した時にはウェインは30代後半で、二等兵として参戦したくなかったからだといわれています。)
Although people tend to think of Hollywood films as escapes and spectacles, they nevertheless reflect the public mood and social atmosphere of their era by the very nature of the way they choose to address—or not address—the times. Often times they are intended to manipulate public opinion or promote a political cause. Since Hollywood became the center of the film industry in the U.S., it has produced films about war and films intended to convey a larger message and comment on socially significant themes. That larger message is often patriotic and intended to rally the public behind the flag.
Speaking of patriotic American movies, no genre better represents everything that America stands for—or imagines itself to be—than blockbuster movies. Blockbusters tend to be action films, war films, and films about natural disasters, and their plots usually involve a cookie-cutter American hero defeating a foreign adversary, or America saving the world in some way. Patriotism is also depicted on the micro level, such as with the many American flags waving in the wind that appear in the films of Michael Bay. This obsession with American stories is partly to compensate for how short America’s history is. Hollywood depicting America as the hero is a way for the country to fabricate and perpetuate its own legend.
Even today, military recruitment ads are often shown alongside trailers before movies in American theaters. Seeing America’s military in action on such a large screen and with Hollywood-inspired effects can be a very moving, inspiring experience—doubly so for immigrants who long to attain the American Dream. It’s also important to note that movies allow for advertisers to target specific segments for society. Airing military recruitment ads before an action flick is a great way to get the message of patriotism across the demographic most likely to react to it.
This is all partly the reason why President Donald Trump is so eager to call himself “a wartime president”. The sleeping giant that is America is only jolted awake in the face of an enemy, in the face of war. The country needs a military cause in order for its people to come together and work as a team. That’s why Frank Capra thought it was so important that a film like The Negro Soldier was made to encourage racial reconciliation. But this time, amid the threat of COVID-19, Trump has decided instead to alienate, foster ill-will, and divide the nation for his own personal gain.
As of July 2020, Americans are attempting to stay indoors (in many regions, very unsuccessfully), and movie theaters remain closed across the country. Save for some original films being released by video streaming services like Netflix, Hollywood has largely shut down, with no clear end in sight. Movies, which have boosted and maintained American morale for so long, have been unable to do what they do best in these testing times. Instead, they have truly become pure escapist entertainment. In more ways than one, the U.S. is woefully unprepared to do battle with COVID-19. It’s clear it doesn’t stand a chance in this “war”.