We'll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema during World War II

Article excerpt

Robert L. McLaughlin and Sally E. Parry. We'll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema During World War IL University Press of Kentucky, 2006. 357 pages; $40.00.

Propaganda Films

On August 15, 1945 an ecstatic Harry S. Truman announced what most Americans could feel in the air: the Second World War-an unprecedented event that altered the life of every person-was officially over. Today, the chief executive proclaimed, was V-J Day, and immediately the cities bounced with joy as strangers danced in the streets, motorists honked their horns, church bells rang out, confetti fell from open windows, and, in Times Square, a jubilant sailor, wearing winter blues with his hat tilted at a rakish angle, smooched an unsuspecting nurse while, a few feet away, Alfred Eisenstaedt snapped their photo.

For the motion picture industry this unconditional surrender meant, among other things, a return to normalcy. Almost overnight the studios could shelve those wartime propaganda films they had turned out for the past four years and concentrate on new material. Now it was time for some romance with fancy clothing and stylish prancing or maybe a musical comedy with plenty of laughs. Finally there were no more two-dimensional Japanese villains wearing those coke-bottle eyeglasses, waving samurai swords, running up hills shouting "banzai," or some suede-gloved, monoclewearing, heel-clicking Nazi extending his right arm forward exclaiming "Heil Hitler." Clearly with this global victory American audiences did not need any more screenplays extolling their nation's virtues while vilifying the Axis Pact. On that August afternoon, so long ago and faraway, Hollywood reached the end of an era. For everyone-politicians, servicemen, civilians, even directors and movie stars-the World War II propaganda photodramas, an important victory component, was over.

For Home Front families the past four years contained its share of joys and sorrows, but a trip to the movies always provided an uplifting experience. Here, they watched John Wayne blast Japanese zeroes out of the China sky or saw Randolph Scott and his Marine raiders attack a strategic Pacific island. They cheered when Tyrone Power and his submarine crew blew-up some Nazi oil depots or applauded when Spencer Tracy and his B-25 squadron lifted off a carrier's deck, heading due west to bomb Tokyo. And who could forget Errol Flynn? Didn't his flying crew hoodwink their Nazi pursuers in an elaborate escape from the Fatherland?

But what about these flag-waving motion pictures? Did they shape public opinion, create a national consensus, or solidify prejudices? How important were these propaganda titles in coalescing a strong Home Front? Who created the themes and storylines? What were the guidelines and regulations? These are some of the thorny questions that two well-known film scholars, Robert L. …