11 November 2016

Famous Faces Gaze Back At Us From The Great War: Bogart, Rathbone, Rains, Lugosi


Despite 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.

This is a true story. It's an incident that happened to Basil Rathbone when he was serving at the front, as recounted in his autobiography, In and Out of Character. He had returned from a nighttime reconnoiter into the battle zone -- No Man's Land. When he reported back to HQ someone remarked on a horrible smell:  

"And now at last I could smell it myself— it was on my left boot. In one of the shell holes on my way back I had stepped into a decomposing body. For a moment I thought I was going to faint. Right there I removed the boot, and someone stuck a bayonet through it and heaved it back into no-man’s-land. Up to that moment, I had felt no fear, sustained and driven by the bravura of the mission and with the image of Richthofen’s bright circus dancing in my brain. With one shoe off and one shoe on, the reality and horror of war came rushing in on me."
The battlefield conditions were such that things like this happened every day. It was something no one would ever forget.
Claude Rains 1916

This was something many performers who became very familiar to us shared. 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. 
 
Bela Lugosi 1916

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. Buster Keaton was not sent into battle but while stationed in Europe suffered an illness that left him partially deaf. Others
Edward G. Robinson 1918
who served in the armed forces but were not sent overseas include Pat O'Brien, Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Jack Benny, Richard Arlen,
  and George O'Brien. And let's not forget Irving Berlin -- his song "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up In the Morning" was based on his experience as a volunteer at Canp Yaphank. Of course, other countries were involved too; Bela Lugosi was wounded three times. Maurice Chevalier was a prisoner of war.

Spencer Tracy 1918
Sometimes 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 romances.
Humphrey Bogart 1918

But 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
It 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.

It's 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
Buster Keaton 1918
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 had always assumed was due to governments would be gone forever.

When 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.
Maurice Chevalier 1916

There's 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.

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And here's one photo I couldn't resist, even though it's not really film-related:
A.A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh

Some interesting links: Doughboys