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25 January 2017

Woman At War: Not the Ones You Might Expect

There were serious plays and films about women's service during World War 2, like Cry Havoc, So Proudly We Hail, or even Since You Went Away, where Claudette Colbert ended up working in a defense plant. I was particularly interested in the subject, I think, because not only was my aunt a WAC, but that's how she met my uncle, who was also in the Army. It was an occasion of great excitement when she showed me her army drab, padded-shouldered uniform, which had been packed away in a trunk for 20 years

When I was a child, I have to say that my favorites of the Women at War movies were not the A-movies; I didn't really care about production values when I was nine. Or acting, particularly.

But I loved the Loretta Young starrer Ladies Courageous (also known, rather ridiculously, as When Ladies Fly -- as if Ladies Courageous wasn't bad enough!) This film followed the story of the development of the Women's Air Force Service Pilots, or WASPs, a corps of female pilots who ferried planes from wherever they were to wherever they were needed.
June Vincent, Loretta Young, Anne Gwynne

The plot has the women pilots proving themselves worthy (despite a lot of silly romantic entanglements and pretty childish behavior), but frankly I never cared about that; I just loved their businesslike rolled hair and snazzy khaki-trousered uniforms.

The cast is very interesting, featuring Loretta Young, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Evelyn Ankers, June Vincent, and Diana Barrymore (who gives a perfectly acceptable performance), but the story has some pretty hackneyed Hollywood moments. But who cares? It's about women stepping up to the plate -- and hitting a homer.
Loretta Young with real WASP pilot Barbara Erickson

The WASPs also appear tangentially in A Guy Named Joe, a strange supernatural wartime romance that somehow works, probably due to the wonderful performances by Irene Dunne, as one of the women pilots, Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, and Ward Bond (who never gave a bad performance or even an indifferent one, as far as I know). Director Victor Fleming, too, was always good at an adventure-romance. In this story a couple of pilots, male (Tracy) and female (Dunne) dedicate themselves to the war effort, putting their love for each other second, and then he is killed. So far, so normal. But the next thing you see is Tracy's character, Pete, arriving at a military institution set in the clouds -- literally -- and headed by The General, who is known by no other name, and who is played with calm authority by Lionel Barrymore.

Irene Dunne and Spencer Tracy -- Pilots in Love
In the war against evil, Heaven is apparently mobilizing on our side -- very reasonable. Tracy has been assigned to the flyer's wing (so to speak), and it's explained to him that he will be assigned to invisibly support a fledgling pilot. Unfortunately for him, the pilot he is assigned to is an attractive young man, played with charm and sincerity by Van Johnson, whom his bereaved sweetheart is beginning to fall in  love with.

My other favorite was Four Jills in a Jeep, a musical comedy-ization of the very real tour taken by Kay Francis, Martha Raye, Carole Landis, and Mitzi Mayfair to England and North Africa to entertain the Allied troops. These formerly pampered glamor girls left all that behind to travel close
enough to the front lines that they were required to wear helmets by their military hosts, something that was not done just for show.

The Four Jills in a foxhole, plus Phil Silvers
Basically, these four women were willing to do whatever it took to reach the guys and let them know that people back home were thinking of them. Since the story, based on a memoir Carole Landis wrote about it, was basically turned into a musical, there are performances by the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Alice Faye, Dick Haymes, George Jessel, and Carmen Miranda. None of these were on the actual tour, but that's showbiz. One of my favorite scenes, however, did really happen, when Kay Francis, having just arrived at a busy hospital which is preparing to receive casualties, is mistaken for a nurse by one of the doctors and asked to scrub the floor. So she does.

Then there's The Doughgirls, a light-hearted -- and pretty light-headed -- comedy about the famous housing shortage that afflicted Washington, D.C., throughout the war years, which was the springboard for several movie plots, including the delightfully sexy The More the Merrier, with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea making a pretty steamy pair under the appreciative eye of Charles Coburn. The Doughgirls involves three honeymoon couples all claiming the same bridal suite in a fancy Washington hotel, with accompanying hi-jinks. The charming and enthusiastic cast includes Jane Wyman, Alexis Smith, Ann Sheridan, Jack Carson, and Charles Ruggles, but even in this company Eve Arden steals the show as an alarmingly chipper Russian female soldier, always joyously ready to fire her rifle out the window in honor of anything from a birthday to a victory, or to teach the hotel staff a jolly folk dance. (In a lot of ways this film, flighty as it is, shows clearly the way American audiences were encouraged to view the suddenly friendly Soviets, which increased the shock of our former ally's seizure of post-war Berlin tremendously a few years later.)
Eve Arden didn't need a rifle to steal this movie

None of these are what you would call great art, I suppose, but I think we're too hard on movies sometimes. Despite the glamorized and unrealistic portrayals and the downright wacky plots, these films (plus others like Buck Privates and Caught in the Draft) spurred my interest in the real history of World War 2, just as other exotic Hollywood productions like The Time of Their Lives, a bizarre but very enjoyable Abbott and Costello starrer whose main characters were ghosts from the American Revolution, and Down to Earth, which showcased a radiant Rita Hayworth as the Greek goddess Terpsichore, led to my interest in those particular historical eras.

A movie is not a dissertation, after all, and when you're nine years old you don't care whether or not Ancient Greeks really wore togas of magenta chiffon or girls in the 1780s permed their hair. These films were made to amuse, to enthrall, to charm, to thrill -- in short, to entertain, and the fact that they still do so after 50, 70. 100 years is a real tribute to the skills of the hundreds people who labored to create them.

Here's a cute newsreel about the 4 Jills tour:

Ladies Courageous is actually on youtube:

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