What I love and why I love it -- mainly classic stars and movies of the golden age. Backstories, links, sidelights -- details like these increase your enjoyment of classic films. What do they say to us now? Who were we then, and how did we solve our problems? What did we believe -- and what have we forgotten?
25 May 2015
To End All Wars: the Great War Still Affects Us
very successful modern portrayals, the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson of Basil
Rathbone and Nigel Bruce are still popular and well-loved today. I think this
is partly because of the friendship and ease between the two characters, who had complete trust in each other whatever danger they faced.
Rathbone and Bruce were friends, but there was another reason for the
camaraderie between them -- they were both combat veterans of what was then
called The Great War. It was a hugely traumatic experience, and they didn't
discuss it; but they knew.
Basil Rathbone 1916
was something they shared with other very familiar faces. The British
contingent in Hollywood suffered most; Great Britain entered the war three
years before the United States. Ronald Colman was severely injured in combat,
as were Claude Rains and Herbert Marshall. Leslie Howard suffered from Post
Traumatic Stress Disorder, then called shell-shock. Charles Laughton was
exposed to poison gas, that war's most horrific weapon. Eric Blore, Reginald Denny, and Cedric Hardwicke served
on the Western Front. Director James Whale was a combat officer and a prisoner
of war for more than two years. American filmmakers who saw action include
director William Wellman and producer Merian C. Cooper; Randolph Scott, despite
being underage, Walt Disney, and Adolph Menjou served in the Ambulance Corps.
Others who served in the armed forces but were not sent overseas include Pat
O'Brien, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Richard Arlen,and GeorgeO'Brien.
Spencer Tracy 1918
we talk about "Hollywood stars" of the classic years as if they
weren't really people. We don't want to think about how hard they worked to
entertain us -- indeed, they didn't want us to think of it. It's supposed to
look easy and natural. It amuses us to think of them as super-people, happy and rich, beautiful and talented. The
sailed onto the silver screen and show us exciting adventures and yearning
the 1920s and 1930s, to those who lived then, were a struggle to return to
normalcy after what was the greatest social upheaval to strike western
civilization -- The Great War. The War to End All Wars. And a surprising number
of the artists who shaped the films of the classic era, as writers, directors,
and actors, had taken part. The reason we don't know this is simple -- they
didn't want to talk about it.
Charles Laughton 1917
was called The Great War because hundreds of thousands of people -- maybe
millions -- had their world-view shattered by what eventually was seen as the
recklessness and futility of that conflict. Idealistic young men who enlisted
in their country's armed forces eager to serve returned home infused with
bitter and deep-seated anger at the sheer waste of lives, given, it seemed to
them, for nothing.
almost impossible to imagine what life was like before the terrible scars of
that war, because the change in people's expectations was permanent. The "war of attrition" that WW1 became, particularly trench
warfare, led to almost unendurable conditions for men taking part. The death
toll was appalling. The Battle of the Somme, from July to December 1916, resulted in one million casualties. (That's right. One Million.) Worse than that was the realization that the respected leaders who had plunged the world into war had no idea how to end
it. The trust most people assumed was due to governments would be gone forever.
Walt Disney 1917
it finally did end, and veterans returned home, for the most part they didn't
want to talk about it. Fame and success didn't change that. No one who hadn't
been there could possibly understand the horror, and anyone who had been there
didn't want to remember.
no way to tell how these experiences affected the direction of popular film in
the 20s and 30s; but it is surprising how few films were actually made about
the war. There are some, and some great ones, but not very many. Unlike World
War Two, which was usually remembered with pride (in part because of the
lessons learned in the first war), World War One veterans often kept their
scars, both physical and emotional, hidden.
But they deserve respect. Look at those young faces! They did something unimaginably hard, and returned to construct new lives for themselves, and to create new beauty for all of us.