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26 May 2018

Women At War: There Were Heroines, Too

When I was growing up in the New York Metro area, a long, long time ago, the broadcast TV stations seemed to be competing for who was the best provider of classic films. WOR, Channel Nine, had regular afternoon showings; WPIX, Channel 11, had Million Dollar Movie, a unique (to my knowledge) multiple showing of a select film, twice a night for a week! But in the long run, WNEW, Channel Five, had the biggest catalog and the best programming -- including weekday afternoons, and essentially all day Saturday.

Saturday began very early with truly antique cartoons -- cartoons that have probably been forgotten even by most aficionados. I'm talking about Farmer Gray and the original Krazy Kat, which were visually primitive but refreshingly anarchic and crazy. To children they were perfectly natural, violent, hyperactive entertainment, and since they were on at about 6 a.m. on Saturday morning, most parents never saw them!

These opening acts were followed by other imaginative and weird animation, like Crusader Rabbit and Woody Woodpecker. Only then, by about 9 a.m., did the sophistication of Warners' Bugs Bunny and his gang appear.

Then there would be a change in tone. For some mysterious reason, Channel Five would show WW2 movies on Saturday mornings from 10 to noon. Then there were reruns of child-friendly shows like Annie Oakley and Sky King, and then comedies and musicals, until about 5 p.m.

What this is all leading up to is, these stories of WW2 had real resonance for me -- especially those featuring women at war -- because members of my family served in WW2. My aunt and uncle, who were very close to my parents when I was growing up, met while they were both in the army. In fact, they probably wouldn't have met at all otherwise, since she was from Arkansas and he was from Connecticut and the twain very seldom met in those days. I found the photos of them in uniform, and especially her Forties-style rolled hair and cap, very romantic and thrilling.

I think that's why I have always been attracted to movies about women's roles on active duty in WW2, from front-line nurses to WACs and WAFs to the glamorous stars who left hairdressers and make-up artists behind to entertain the troops.

And I don't just mean American movies; one of my favorites is the British film Perfect Strangers (rather foolishly re-titled Vacation From Marriage) from 1945, about a middle class couple stuck in a rut whose lives are completely transformed when they both join the Navy during WW2. The intelligent and very thoughtful script is matched by delightful performances by Robert Donat and Deborah Kerr, with lively support from Glynis Johns and Roland Culver. The scenes of Kerr's timid Cathy discovering that she is in fact perfectly capable of doing what needs to be done, and of donning trousers and steering a solo motor launch to carry messages -- under fire -- are both exciting and meaningful. Indeed, the point of this movie is to gently suggest, without beating us over the head with it,  that all of us were, and are, able to overcome more difficulties of all kinds than we think.

Probably the best known WW2 nurse movies are So Proudly We Hail and Cry Havoc, both of which
feature ensemble casts of hi-powered female stars with a few men scattered around for decoration.
So Proudly We Hail features Claudette Colbert, Paulette Godard, and a memorable Veronica Lake, with great support from Barbara Britton, George Reeves, and Walter Abel. The story, which was essentially ripped from the headlines, follows a group of nurses sent to Bataan (in the Philippines) immediately after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Philippine Islands were Japan's next target, and fierce and brutal fighting took place there throughout the next several months -- in which the allied forces were defeated, and eventually evacuated all the survivors who were left. This surrender was a huge trauma for Americans at the time; it was both shocking and frightening, raising the possibility that this war could be lost. This film had additional emotional resonance for that reason; the war in the Pacific was was not over by any means. The survivors included military medical personnel, including nurses, as well as whatever fighting men could be rescued. The plot of the movie does include a few romantic entanglements, but on the whole tries to stick to the showing the audience the heroism of the dedicated nurses.

Colbert, Goddard, and Lake in So Proudly We Hail

The technical advisors from the Navy complained that the enlisted personnel did not behave strictly according to regulations, with an unacceptable level of fraternization between the ranks, but after all it is a drama, not a training film, and the script took seriously the extraordinary courage and professionalism these women displayed. This is also the film where an American nurse has clearly fallen in love with a "person of color," namely a heroic Filipino doctor, and is seen sacrificing her life by remaining to assist him in the operating room despite deadly bombardment. And you have to hand it to the glamorous stars -- they appear in plain, regulation overalls that don't do much for anybody's figure, and eventually end up dirty and disheveled (you still don't see the right side of Claudette Colbert's face, though!)

Cry Havoc, made a couple of years later, also takes place on Bataan, and concerns both professional military nurses and the female volunteers who were recruited from everywhere in the Pacific to assist the armed forces in the desperate days before the Allied surrender. The wonderful cast includes
Margaret Sullivan, Joan Blondell, Ann Southern, Marsha Hunt, Ella Raines, Fay Bainter, and Connie Gilchrist. It is an ensemble piece, again showing the incredible dedication and heroism of the women who supported the war effort most immediately, right behind the front lines. It shows how they learned to work together despite social, lifestyle, and personal differences. It also shows that they faced more than one kind of danger -- Sullivan's character, called Smitty, is suffering from incurable malaria, and is frankly willing to shorten her life to stay near the field of battle where her husband is fighting. This film is from a successful stage play, but it feels quite natural for most of the action to take place within one or two rooms; it's the relationships between the women, and what they learn about themselves -- again, applicable to everyone during wartime -- that is important.
A tense moment between Margaret Sullavan and Fay Bainter in Cry Havoc

Again, these actresses let go of the beauty and glamour that must have been so important to all of then as their careers unfolded, spending much of the movie in dull regulation clothing and usually helmets. Of course, nothing was going to keep Ann Southern or Ella Raines from being beautiful, but they were quite clearly here to work. It seems like a small thing to most people, but to women whose lifestyles and careers depended on attractiveness, it was a small but real sacrifice for the war effort to exist without allure.

The rather bizarre trailer for Cry Havoc makes it look like a musical!

At least So Proudly We Hail looks like a war movie.

While Vacation From Marriage, which is a romantic comedy, looks like some sort of Mr. Chips sequel!

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