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27 May 2018

More Women at War: ...This is My War Too

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:

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!

18 April 2018

Fred Astaire, Radical

Radical fashion iconoclast, that is.

Teenage Fred in suit, with straw hat, gloves, and stick

It's hard to write about Fred Astaire, just because he was so great that superlatives don't seem adequate. How can you describe the originality, the grace, the precision, the line? You really can't. You can only say the world is a much better place for our being able to see those things, that a life working hard to create loveliness only he could create was a boon to us all. He kept his public persona low-key, but he never let anyone talk him into doing anything vulgar, cheap, or ugly. He makes us proud to be human beings. 

But on a lighter note, besides being probably the greatest dancer who ever lived, a choreographer of stunning originality, a subtle, intelligent, and influential singer, entrepreneur (Fred Astaire Dance Studios), and champion racehorse owner, Fred Astaire was a men's fashion icon.

From his earliest days as a musical comedy star, partnering his sister Adele, Fred was an elegant dresser. His slight figure -- I don't think he ever weighed more than 135 pounds in his life -- was perfect to carry off men's high fashion of the times. As young adults, the Astaires were extremely popular in London, and took their hit shows to West End theaters, residing in Britain for several months out of the year. During this time Fred became a devotee of the best British tailoring, usually found in the shopping district known as Burlington Arcade. There he could stock up on fine wool suits, tweed jackets, silk ties and ascots, and (of course) custom made shirts. But that was just step one; once he had the materials, it was how he combined the basic elements that made him a fashion leader.

At the studio:

Astaire wears a 3-piece suit, suede shoes, with a gold collar pin and watchchain

Casual at home:

Off screen, tweed jacket, gray flannel slacks, yellow sweater vest, and brown suede shoes

In those days -- and indeed up until the 1960's -- men's high fashion was subtler than women's. In fact, subtlety was an important value; brashness and sharp changes of silhouette were frowned on. Unlike the swings from narrow long skirts to exaggerated padded shoulders to full, multi-petticoat skirts that marked women's fashion from 1933 to 1960, the changes in the basic shape of menswear were less obvious. Since the long ago days of Beau Brummell, elegance for men had to be unobtrusive, only seen by those who looked for it. Today this seems odd -- in fact it seems downright weird -- but keep in mind that a prominent mystery writer in the 1930's had her detective determine that a character was insane because he wore a very loud waistcoat.*

In the 1940's, a chalk striped double breasted suit, coordinated tie and handkerchief, fedora hat

The hallmark of Fred Astaire's creativity as a fashion icon, like his choreography and his singing, was refinement, a combination of extreme attention to detail, flair, and excellence in performance. Astaire never really enjoyed his signature top hat, white tie, and tails, and I think at least part of the reason was that the requirements for formal evening dress were so rigid that little self-expression was possible. Except in one respect; if you look closely, you'll see a set of beautiful diamond and ruby studs on his pristine white shirtfront when he wears formal dress. He had these studs custom made in London in the 1920's, by a jeweler recommended to him by the Prince of Wales.

At the racetrack -- notice the striped suit, striped shirt, and striped tie -- very daring!

When he arrived in Hollywood he was already established (for those who noticed such things) as exceptionally stylish. It's a little known fact that, unless a film had a historic or fantastic setting, male stars usually provided their own wardrobe, coordinated with the overall design scheme by consultation with the costume designer. So most of the incredibly snazzy clothes you see Astaire wearing are his. In publicity photos and scenes from his films, you can see the careful combinations of suit, shirt, tie, pocket handkerchief, hat, shoes, and even socks. Some of his innovations were knit vests and two-tone or suede shoes. Again, these seem trivial today, but they were positive statements of free-spiritedness. His more striking touches can be seen in casual and rehearsal clothes, such as his wearing a silk tie or ascot as a belt -- a truly radical move!

Rehearsal clothes -- notice the silk scarf instead of a belt

One of my favorite examples of Astaire's attention to detail is this scene from The Band Wagon, 1953, where he sings "I'll Go My Way by Myself" on the railroad platform, wearing a light grey double breasted suit, light blue shirt, and light blue tie, with his dark red and navy pocket handkerchief coordinated with his hatband! (All of his clothes in The Band Wagon are sheer poetry.) Thirty years later, in the celebration of Hollywood musicals called That's Entertainment, Astaire appeared on the same railroad platform set -- wearing a coordinated outfit.

The Band Wagon, 1953

On the set of The Band Wagon, 30 years later

Of course, it's difficult to tear your attention away from the dancing, but if you do you see yet another demonstration of Fred Astaire's superlative attention to detail, grace, and style, in almost any film of his you watch.

Astaire kept his interest in style all his life and our last memories of him are of an extremely natty gentleman, always. I'm sure that's how he wanted it.

Still looking good in his later years

* This happens in Death of a Ghost, by Margery Allingham, published in 1934.