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1941, Hollywood and WWII: The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon

January 13, 2014

This post is part of the “Classic Movie History Project” Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies, Silently, Ruth at Silver Screenings and Aurora at Once Upon A Screen. Enjoy!

In Since You Went Away, Joseph Cotten plays Tony, a navy lieutenant on leave who decides to take Claudette Colbert (whom he has a crush on, but whose husband is overseas in the army) out to dinner. He chooses a restaurant where he can get a steak dinner. Unfortunately:

Waiter: The white fish, signor, is simply delicious. Grilled. You’ll like it.

Tony: Two steaks, thick.

Waiter: Lobster creole. Speciality of the house.

Tony: Two steaks, thick.

Waiter: I must tell the truth, Commodore. We are fresh out of steaks since last Tuesday.

Tony: This is a steak house. Look, it says right here; “thick Kansas City steak”.

Waiter: I can’t help it, signor-

Waiter, Tony (in unison): There is a war on, you know.

By 1944, when David O. Selznick’s epic homefront drama was released, Hollywood certainly knew there was a war on, devoting, if not a majority of films to the war effort, then at least a great many of them. From combat dramas (Air Force, Wake Island) to action dramas (Five Graves to Cairo), romantic dramas (Casablanca), and even comedies (Hail the Conquering Hero), the studios turned out movies dedicated not just to entertaining people, but to help fan support at home for the war in both Europe and the Pacific. Hollywood and Washington D.C. were also working together on non-features about the war, from documentaries – such as Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, William Wyler’s acclaimed film Memphis Belle (later fictionalized in a 1990 movie of the same name), and John Huston’s documentary shorts such as Report from the Aleutians and Let There Be Light – to newsreel footage that showed (a somewhat sanitized version, to be sure) the progress of the war.

Yet it wasn’t always so. For a variety of reasons, the studios in general cast a blind eye in the 1930’s to the events leading up to WWII, at least as far as what was on screen was concerned. Whatever you think of Hollywood’s dependence on foreign markets for movies today, that aspect was present in the 30’s as well, and the majority of studios (with the notable exception of Warner Brothers) didn’t want to produce anything antagonistic to the German government or to potential audiences. Then there was the fact America had become increasingly isolationist from the rest of Europe after WWI (a major factor in why Woodrow Wilson’s idea for a League of Nations met such resistance in the U.S.), and they didn’t want to get involved in what they saw as a European problem. Part of that also had to do with the anti-Semitism in the U.S.; while of course it was nowhere near as pronounced as it was in Germany under Hitler, it was present, and the studio moguls, who were mostly Jewish, didn’t want to do anything to encourage anti-Semitism in their adopted country. Finally, even if the U.S. hadn’t been isolationist, and the studios felt secure both economically and politically in speaking out against Hitler, the Production Code, led by Joseph Breen, tried to keep specifically political movies off the screen for the most part to avoid giving offense (Ben Unwand’s recent controversial book The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact with Hitler alleges Hollywood actively collaborated with the Nazis in this regard; I haven’t read the book, but several critics have attacked both Unwand’s research and conclusions, calling Thomas Doherty’s Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939 a more nuanced look at the same subject). As I mentioned, Warner Brothers, with the more political-minded Harry Warner being one of the heads, was a notable exception, turning out Confessions of a Nazi Spy in 1939, the first explicitly anti-Nazi feature film (there had been anti-Nazi documentaries).

By 1941, however, with Hitler having conquered most of Europe (except for Britain), and having invaded the Soviet Union just two years after signing a non-aggression pact with them, the tide of opinion in the U.S. had turned in favor of intervening, and Hollywood had even come around on the studio level (there was always a sizable part of the creative community that wanted the U.S. to help stop Hitler), with films such as Foreign Correspondent and The Mortal Storm coming out from studios other than Warners. 1941 wasn’t dominated by war movies – if you remember that year, it’s likely because of such movies as The Lady EveThe Maltese Falcon, and, of course, Citizen Kane – but it did have movies dealing with the war mood, and they tended towards two categories. One type was the film that tried to show people just how bad the Nazis were, with such films as Vincent Sherman’s All Through the Night and Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt. The other type took heroic figures from wars past, and used them as a call to arms, with such films as Alexander Korda’s That Hamilton Woman and Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York.


When Gloves (Humphrey Bogart) asks for cheesecake, he wants cheesecake, not mucilage.

In The Rocketeer, Timothy Dalton plays Neville Sinclair, a 1930’s Hollywood action-adventure star (modeled on Errol Flynn) who in actuality is a Nazi spy. When Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), a gangster whom Neville hires to steal an invention, finds out, he gets angry, saying, “I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.” As far-fetched as this may sound, this actually represented the views of gangsters in the U.S. at the time. According to Little Man, Robert Lacey’s excellent biography of notorious gangster Meyer Lansky, he recounts how Lansky and other gangsters helped law enforcement in the U.S. to find Nazi saboteurs, and how they saw it as patriotism.* Hollywood, of course, could never show a movie with gangsters fighting against Nazis during this time even if this was information that the government wanted publicized in the first place, thanks to the code restrictions. The movie that went closest to this idea was All Through the Night, an enjoyable comedy with from (no surprise) Warner Brothers.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Gloves Donahue, a Broadway gambler who’s first seen interrupting other members of his “gang”, including Sunshine (William Demarest) and Starchy (Jackie Gleason), as they argue with a coffee shop waiter (Phil Silvers) on how the British can best deal with the Nazis. Even though Sunshine thinks this is serious business (telling Gloves he should get his head out of the sports section and onto the sports page), Gloves, in what would become classic Bogart fashion, dismisses it by saying, “That’s Washington’s racket; let them handle it.” Of course, Gloves gets pulled into it when Mr. Miller (Ludwig Stossel), Gloves’ favorite baker (Gloves will only eat Mr. Miller’s cheesecake, and insists every eatery he goes to carries it and no other cheesecake), is found murdered. At the bakery, where Miller’s body was found, Gloves and his mother (Jane Darwell) are approached by Leda Hamilton (Kaaren Verne), a woman who claimed to know Miller, but she disappears before they can talk anymore. On her own initiative, Gloves’ mother follows Leda, and it turns out she’s a singer at a nightclub owned by Marty Callahan (Barton MacLane), Gloves’ bitter rival, and her accompanist is Pepi (Peter Lorre), who, as it happens, murdered Miller. As Gloves gets reluctantly drawn into the whole thing (Pepi murders Callahan’s partner Joe Denning (Edward Brophy), and because one of Gloves’ gloves was found at the scene – he found Joe before he died – Gloves is the prime suspect), he discovers Pepi is part of a group of fifth columnists operating in Manhattan, and led by Ebbing (Conrad Veidt), a ruthless Nazi posing as the head of an auction house.

Gloves and Leda (Verne) try in vain to convince the police of the Nazi threat.

Of course, this is primarily a comedy, and if you like this sort of Runyon-esque humor – as I do when it’s done right – there’s plenty to savor here. There’s a running gag about Gloves’ mother always being suspicious and Gloves being at her beck and call because of that (when she says, “I’ve got a feeling”, Gloves and his gang’s weary response is, “And when you’ve got a feeling, you’ve got a feeling”). There’s also a running gag about Barney (Frank McHugh), Gloves’ driver, trying desperately to get some time with his brand-new bride Annabelle (Jean Ames), to no avail (when Spats (Wallace Ford), Gloves’ lawyer, tells Barney he should just get a divorce and the experience will be good for him, Barney complains, “But I haven’t got any experience!”). It should also be no surprise there’s plenty of banter (when Gloves compliments Sunshine for knocking out a bad guy with an ax handle, Sunshine admits, “I used to bat .320 at reform school”), as well as double-talk (as when Starchy tries to confuse Sunshine at the beginning, and when Gloves and Sunshine, posing as munitions experts, try to bluff their way through a meeting of the fifth columnists). And Sherman and writers Edwin Gilbert and Leonard Spigelgass (from a story by Spigelgass and Leo Rosten) keep the comedy going at a rapid pace, getting plenty of help from great comic actors like Demarest, Gleason and Silvers, and Bogart has fun with his gangster persona as well.

But, of course, the main purpose of the movie was to highlight the Nazi menace. Lending weight to this, of course, was the fact several of the actors in real life had fled Europe due to the Nazis (Veidt and Lorre being the most well known, but also Verne, Stossel and Irene Seidner, who played Miller’s wife), and therefore, they knew firsthand what the fight was really about. Naturally, this came about mostly in speeches, as with this exchange midway through the movie between Ebbing and Gloves:

Ebbing: It’s a great pity, Mr. Donahue, that you and I should oppose each other. We have so much in common.

Gloves: Yeah? How’s that?

Ebbing: You are a man of action. You take what you want, and so do we. You have no respect for democracy – neither do we. It’s clear we should be allies.

Gloves: It’s clear you’re screwy. I’ve been a registered Democrat ever since I could vote (Bogart was one in real life). I may not be Model Citizen Number 1, but I pay my taxes, wait for traffic lights, and buy 24 tickets to the Policeman’s Ball. Brother, don’t get me mixed up in no league that rubs out innocent bakers and…

Ebbing (Veidt) gets the drop on Gloves and Leda.

Later in the movie, when Callahan finally corners Gloves, and Gloves finally convinces him he had nothing to do with Joe’s death, he has this to say:

Gloves:  Now listen, Marty, I know you’re no mental giant, but try to juggle this…all of you. I got a firsthand report tonight on what it’s like on the other side, from that Hamilton babe. And brother, I’m telling you, we gotta watch our steps. Those babies are strictly no good from way down deep. They’re no bunch of petty racketeers trying to muscle in on some small territory – they want to move in wholesale, take over the whole country.

Callahan: So what? It don’t make no difference to me who runs the country, as long as they stay out of my way.

Gloves: That’s just it; they’re not going to stay out of your way.

Callahan: Oh, yes they will.

Gloves: Oh, now listen, big shot, they’ll tell you what time you get up in the morning and what time you go to bed at night. They’ll tell you what you eat, what kind of clothes you can wear, what you drink. They’ll even tell you the morning paper you can read.

Today, of course, that might come across as over-the-top message filmmaking, but at the time it was deeply felt (and the off-hand way Bogart delivers those speeches mitigates whatever heavy-handedness may be in the writing). And again, the fact you had actual European refugees in the cast lent the movie plenty of weight. If Veidt’s turn here isn’t as nuanced as, say, his work as Major Strasser in Casablanca, he does at least go beyond the cartoonish (there’s the idea he’s somewhat attracted to Leda even as he’s using her for his own ends), and he’s still effectively chilling. And likewise, while Lorre isn’t breaking new ground in his work here, he’s at least effective and doesn’t give the impression he’s going through the motions. Verne doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with English, but she does manage to hold her own with Bogart (even though there isn’t much chemistry between them), she sings well, and she does keep you guessing at her character’s motives. All of this helps make All Through the Night not just an enjoyable movie, but also an interesting capsule of American attitudes towards the Nazis both on and off screen.

*-Also in the book, Lacey recounts how Lansky’s friend and fellow gangster, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel, claimed to have a line on how to assassinate Goebbels; in Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, about the last few years of Siegel’s life, this is changed to Mussolini for some reason.


The provocative opening of “Man Hunt”.

A more serious call to arms against the Nazis that came out that year was Fritz Lang’s superb thriller Man Hunt. It also opens with a provocative image; Alan Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon), a famed big game hunter, has in his gun sights none other than Adolf Hitler. Turns out Thorndike has followed Hitler to a retreat, and while it seems at first as if he just wanted the challenge of getting Hitler in his sights, soon, he seems to change his mind, and loads a bullet into the chamber. However, a leaf falls in his sight, and when Thorndike brushes it away, a Nazi guard spots him and eventually captures him. Though he’s of course beaten by other German guards, Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders), the head Nazi at the camp, offers him a way out; if Thorndike will admit he tried to kill Hitler on orders from the British government, they’ll let him live, and no more harm will come to him (Quive-Smith is a fan of Thorndike’s). Thorndike tries to protest he was merely doing a “sporting stalk” just to see if he could get close enough, but the major doesn’t believe him, and orders Thorndike killed. Thorndike, however, manages to escape, and, with the help of a young boy (Roddy McDowell) on a ship, manages to make it to England. There, however, he’s pursued by an agent of the major’s named Mr. Jones (John Carradine), and Thorndike is forced to hide out with Jerry (Joan Bennett), a prostitute (though of course Lang wasn’t allowed to call her that, so there’s a sewing machine in her apartment to make her a seamstress) who ends up falling in love with him.

If All Through the Night took on the Nazi menace through speeches, Lang’s movie (adapted by Dudley Nichols and an uncredited Lamar Trotti from the novel Rogue Male by Geoffrey Household) does it through imagery; not just the swastikas and insignia, say, that are in evidence when Thorndike is being interrogated, but the menace hanging in the air. Though shot on sets instead of on location, Lang, cinematographer Arthur C. Miller (like Nichols and Trotti, a frequent collaborator with John Ford; he shot How Green Was My Valley that year, which also starred Pidgeon), set director Thomas Little and art directors Richard Day and Wiard Ihnen make the fog of London seem forbidding and menacing, making it believable the Nazi menace would be creeping in. There are also some memorable set pieces, such as a chase scene in the London Underground. Finally, there’s the performance by Sanders (and, to a lesser extent, of Carradine). In many movies of the time (and afterwards), film portraits of Nazis (and Japanese) were often cartoonish, bordering on campy, and when Sanders seemed bored with the material, he could certainly fall into camp, but there’s none of that here. There’s honest danger in the major, especially since he tries to convince Thorndike not just by his methods, but by what he thinks is reason; the major seems honestly baffled by Thorndike’s inability to do what he should, and not just for the usual “evil can’t comprehend good” reasons seen in so many movies. When promoting Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino cited Lang’s film as a major influence, calling it a film that actually seemed to know the Nazi menace, and not just in the abstract, and Lang’s direction and Sanders’ performance are a big part of that.

Jerry (Bennett) and Thorndike (Pidgeon) ponder their next move.

I confess Pidgeon is an actor who’s never made much of an impression on me one way or the other, even though I’ve seen a few of his major films (How Green was my ValleyForbidden PlanetAdvise & ConsentFunny Girl). And he certainly wouldn’t have been my first choice for this time up role, which might seem better suited to someone like Joel McCrea (who had done his own anti-Nazi film the year before; Hitchcock’s excellent Foreign Correspondent, which, ironically, co-starred Sanders as a good guy). Yet, in a way, he’s perfect for the part, because Thorndike, for the most part, is someone who has to survive off his wits or through the kindness of strangers, not by force, and we might have been more impatient with someone like McCrea than we are with Pidgeon. And Pidgeon brings both a callousness to his scenes with Jerry (he takes her for granted, even though she clearly has a crush on him) and a touching vulnerability (when he’s on the run). As for Bennett, this was the first of her four films with Lang, and while you might not see the femme fatale in her brought out so memorably in his mid-40’s films The Woman in the Window and Scarlet Street, you do see why she was such a good actress. Admittedly, she does do what today is called “cry-face” a little too often, but we also see her resourcefulness, and also some impish humor, as when Thorndike goes to visit his brother to try and get help, and though Jerry feels out of place, she nevertheless is able to charm her way through. Bennett also does an entirely credible-sounding cockney accent.

Man Hunt wouldn’t be the last time Lang took on WWII, or the Nazis; Hangmen Also Die, which he made two years later, about an assassin (Brian Donlevy) on the run from the Nazis in Europe, is similarly charged. But there’s something about the vulnerability of Thorndike that draws me into this film more. Even the rousing finale, which, as the narration tells us, is about one man going to Europe to take another shot at Hitler, doesn’t distract us from the fact this is about a man who has to survive by his wits rather than necessarily brute strength, and that this could be used to combat the Nazi threat.


Alvin York (Gary Cooper) after he becomes a born again Christian.

As I mentioned at the beginning, one other way movies tried to rouse the nation to action in WWII was to call on past glories. In Britain, Alexander Korda (The Private Life of Henry VIII) made That Hamilton Woman, ostensibly about the forbidden love affair between Emma Hart (Vivien Leigh), a courtesan married to Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), and Lord Horatio Nelson (Laurence Olivier). However, it also concentrated on Nelson’s exploits against the French navy; Nelson even exhorts the government not to trust Napoleon, saying, “You cannot make peace with dictators. You have to destroy them, wipe them out!” Winston Churchill, who once called this his favorite film and reportedly watched it 83 times, wrote this speech for the film to inspire the country against Hitler and the Nazis (towards the end of the war, Olivier directed – and starred in – Shakespeare’s Henry V for the same purpose). In Hollywood, Sergeant York served the same purpose. Ironically, while the film was criticized during filming as being pro-war by the isolationist forces in the U.S., when it was finally released in late September of 1941, Hitler’s activities in Europe had not only changed attitudes in the country towards the war, but the film became a huge hit (as well as getting nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actor for star Gary Cooper – which he won – and Hawks’ only Best Director  nomination) and reportedly helped recruit several men of age into the army.

Producer Jesse L. Lasky had long though the story of Alvin York (Cooper), the Tennessee farmer and pacifist turned soldier turned WWI hero, was made for the movies, but York had long resisted, partly because Lasky had wanted York to play himself, and because he insisted “Uncle Sam’s uniform” wasn’t for sale (even though he did need the money). York eventually relented when Lasky brought up Hitler in 1940, but only did so on three conditions; York’s share of the profits would go to a Bible school York was trying to build, no “Oomph Girl”, as York put it, would play his wife on-screen, and Cooper would play him. Cooper as first resisted – he was too old for the part – but was eventually won over by York’s personal plea, and would later see the movie as his contribution to the war effort. And several directors turned down the movie (including Michael Curtiz, Victor Fleming, Henry Hathaway and William Wyler; William Keighley was set to direct at one point, but had to bow out due to production delays) until Hawks, who had just been let go from the Howard Hughes-produced The Outlaw (opinions vary as to whether he jumped or was pushed), was available, and since Cooper wanted him as director, that sealed the deal.

York in the trenches during WWI.

At the time, it seemed like Hawks was a strange choice for such a tale. For starters, his previous war films – The Dawn PatrolToday we Live and The Road to Glory (all of which, like Sergeant York, were set during WWI) – all emphasized the futility of war (John Huston, who along with Abern Finkel, Harry Chandlee and Howard Koch, contributed to the screenplay, was also anti-war in general). Also, while there were some memorable supporting characters in the film – including Walter Brennan as Pastor Pyle, George Tobias as “Pusher”, a soldier York serves with, and Ward Bond as Ike, one of York’s drinking buddies before he became a born-again Christian – and Hawks did place York in connection with many of them, it is of course about his solitary exports (though how solitary they were during his actions in WWI came under dispute at the time), which was atypical of Hawks’ films. Finally, while Hawks preferred to either build up his own stories or re-work them into his own (as he had the previous year with His Girl Friday, his re-working of The Front Page), this was a movie where he had to stick as closely as possible to the facts (York and the other townspeople refused to sign releases otherwise). Consequently, Hawks fans don’t generally consider it among his best films, but I do.

For starters, Hawks and the writers neither demonize nor sentimentalize York before or after he becomes a born-again Christian. As his mother (Margaret Wycherly) tells the pastor, York isn’t a bad person, and he definitely works hard when he’s on the family farm. And when he sets out to get a piece of bottom land (that will farm better, but also costs more), you can see the effort he makes for it. It’s just his idea of letting off steam is getting drunk and making a lot of ruckus around the prayer meetings the pastor tries to run Also, there’s an impishness to him that can turn sour, as when he fights off a rival suitor competing for the affections of Gracie (Joan Leslie), the girl he becomes attracted to. Similarly, when he becomes a born-again Christian, though he, like many converts, embraces what he’s converted to fanatically, Cooper  never makes him off-puttingly pious. And when, against his wishes (he wanted to get out of having to serve on account of being a conscientious objector), he ended up serving in the Army, York still goes through the work without complaining, and uses the same tricks shooting army targets as he did in trying to shoot a turkey for a contest earlier in the film.

York tries to court Gracie (Leslie).

Another aspect of the film that tends to get overlooked is the relationship between York and Gracie, and the work Cooper and Leslie do together. As much as Hawks is often dubbed a director of films about the friendships between men, the romantic relationships in his films are just as important. And while sometimes the man would be the one who would (figuratively) throw the woman off balance, more often, it was the other way around, as in Bringing Up BabyBall of FireRio Bravo, and here. For example, when the born-again York goes to that suitor (who, as it happens, also bought the piece of bottom land York was craving), tells him there’s no hard feelings, and even says he’ll step aside if Gracie prefers him over York, Gracie comes up to him the next day, angrily tells York she’ll be the one to decide whom she’s in love with, and then kisses York, leaving him confused. I wasn’t always a fan of Leslie – her “girlish” quality was okay when she was paired with someone like Cooper or James Cagney (Yankee Doodle Dandy), or in the right type of role (High SierraThe Hard Way), but could be insufferable otherwise – but Hawks uses her right here, and she even does a good Southern accent, and is able to keep Cooper off balance.

Of course, the main attraction of the film at the time was the sequence where York earned his Congressional Medal of Honor by, with only a dozen other soldiers, capturing 132 Germans and killing 25. This wasn’t the only game-changing event in York’s life shown in the film – we also see the bolt of lightning that eventually causes him to change his ways and be born again, as well as the scene where a Bible passage convinces him to fight in the war after all – but this was the big one, and again, what distinguishes Hawks’ work here is how he and cinematographer Sol Polito (who also shot Confessions of a Nazi Spy, among other films) shoot it cleanly and avoid sentimentalizing it. There’s even humor as we hear it going around the grapevine about what York did, and everyone gets it wrong (in real life, some of the soldiers griped York got too much credit at the expense of others). And again, we see York using the same techniques he did with a turkey shoot earlier in the film to shoot the Germans. It was partly due to this entire sequence many men of age enlisted in the army, but it never feels like just a recruitment film because of Hawks. However constrained he may have been or felt, Hawks (and, of course, Cooper) gives us York the man as well as the icon, and that’s what makes Sergeant York. in my book, a great film.

From → Movies

  1. Very interesting look at three films of the year that, for me, hold up extremely well and bear constant re-evaluation. The times were certainly changing and challenging.

  2. nicely written, packed with detail and singles out perfect films to highlight trends and attitudes. very much enjoyed reading this.

  3. An excellent selection of films! They really capture what I imagine to be to spirit of the year, and it’s interesting to see how quickly Hollywood embraced the subject of ‘war’ (and from so many angles) despite the isolationist arguments/pro-war accusations from Wheeler et al. The most popular films reflect or offer an escape from the everyday and the films from 1941 certainly have a way of doing that more than a lot of the years that have been covered.

  4. What a nice selection of 1941 movies. All Through the NIght and Man Hunt were a lot of fun. I was shocked when I took a film class and I was the only person who knew who Alvin C York was. I referred them to the scene in “Shoulder Arms” where an officer asks Charlie Chaplin how he captured a huge crowd of Germans. “I surrounded them.”

  5. Wonderful post and review of 1941! Excellent choice of three films – and I realize it’s been waaay too long since I’ve seen “Man Hunt”.

  6. Thanks for the epic description of a fascinating year. I am a pretty big fan of All Through the Night (where else can you see Conrad Veidt menacing the populace while holding a dachshund?) and was glad to see it featured.

    I have a review of Man Hunt knocking around my to-publish queue. I should really release it one of these days…

    In any case, fantastic job and now I have even more films to rewatch!

  7. What a great post! I’m so happy you not only mentioned, but analyzed Man Hunt, an overlooked masterpiece!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂

    • Thanks, Le! Yes, MAN HUNT should be better known, though I think critics did talk it up when it got released on DVD.

  8. Bob permalink

    All Through the Night (1941), Bogart was ‘Gloves’ Donahue instead of ‘Gloves’ Valentine as you wrote.

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