100 American Films to Save: Confrontations (1939-1946)

You can find the introduction and index for this series here.

Nancy Drew…Trouble ShooterWilliam Clemens1939Narrative feature
Life Begins for Andy HardyGeorge B. Seitz1941Narrative feature
The Devil and Daniel WebsterWilliam Dieterle1941Narrative feature
In This Our LifeJohn Huston1942Narrative feature
The Leopard ManJacques Tourneur1943Narrative feature
With the Marines at TarawaLouis Heyward1944Short
Tomorrow, the World!Leslie Fenton1944Narrative feature
DivorceWilliam Nigh1945Narrative feature
State FairWalter Lang1945Narrative feature
The Harvey GirlsGeorge Sidney1946Narrative feature

Let’s play pretend for a moment and imagine that you, personally, are Hideki Tojo. It’s October of 1941 and, as the new prime minister, you’re trying to decide if you’re going to make the war in Europe part of the war you’ve been waging in East Asia for most of the last decade. Attacking American territory and the American military is a terrifically risky decision (and indirectly, it would lead to Tojo’s execution in 1948). Yet you, Alternate Hideki Tojo, have a surprising interest in the pop culture of the American people, particularly that of serialized Hollywood cinema. From watching the recent releases, Nancy Drew…Trouble Shooter and Life Begins for Andy Hardy, you’ve come to a curious conclusion: Americans are bumbling children with an unsteady relationship with authority. Bonita Granville and Mickey Rooney, respectively aged 16 and 19 in 1939, would continue playing kids well into the 1940s, and their films in these years straddling the new decade are the stories of young people fundamentally unprepared to face the world.

Trouble Shooter, the third film in a series of four, does not stray much from the typical Nancy Drew formula. In two previous pictures, Bonita Granville, presumably serving as the inspiration for the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes, had spun with cyclonic energy and spoken very quickly and put her friend Ted into mortal danger any number of times in order to solve cases of dubious import. In the bloating spirit of sequels, Nancy and Ted end up in an airplane (?) and don’t die (?!) despite crashing it (!!). It’s quite a finale, and it’s almost difficult to explain what it has to do with a tense scene in a greenhouse. The reason this film stands out among the Nancy Drews is not for its quality or even for the exotic suite of ways that Nancy tries to get Ted killed. It’s because Nancy, who has jealously asserted her place as the woman in her father’s life, gets downright huffy and defensive about her father showing interest in an a lady his own age. The connection between Nancy and lawyer Drew is largely extinct in our time, or at least it’s extinct in as far as public displays go. There is a flirtiness between the two of them even beyond her use of “darling” or “dear” for him, which, based on my degree in watching stuff on TCM, is basically par for the course for basically polite teens at the time. There’s a scene where he picks her up and drops her off in bed which is a little sweaty for my tastes; Nancy’s attempt to make dinner, proving that she is her father’s ideal wife, ends in disaster because there’s no way to put Ted in front of a firing squad and make mashed potatoes. While Nancy struggles to be the perfect wife, Andy Hardy struggles to prove that he can make it in the big city.

Life Begins for Andy Hardy is, for my money, the best of the series, a surprisingly hard-nosed movie which manages to preserve Andy’s hijinks and embarrassments while making it abundantly clear that he’s not that special. It’s not quite as simple as country mouse can’t cut it in the city; there are prudes in New York and Los Angeles too! Andy, as hinted in previous iterations in Catalina and Detroit and Arizona, simply doesn’t have the wherewithal to do more than stroll the sidewalks so amicably paved for him. Life Begins is a film which sends Andy to New York and sends him back to Carvel with his tail between his legs. Death has brushed a long index finger against his jaw, he’s given up on the possibility of romance with Betsy Booth, and all those dreams about becoming some kind of tycoon in Manhattan wash up as flotsam when he takes a job at a local garage. Nancy and Andy, the hope of white America, are found wanting. Nancy can’t make dinner? How will she shift to a job in construction? Andy can’t make the most of home soil? How will he take enemy territory?

Their forbears are, in fairness, not so much better. Perhaps the New Hampshirite Jabez Stone did not really sire the ancestors of Illinoisan Nancy Drew or Idahoan Andy Hardy, but in other ways the scuffling farmer of The Devil and Daniel Webster (or, if you prefer, All That Money Can Buy) is a father to us all in this country. The American Dream is premised so much on the idea of “get rich” that it doesn’t leave a lot of room for qualifiers, even the one-word ones like “honestly” or “diligently.” Jabez Stone, like the Wall Street wheeler-dealers of the ’20s, winds up with a windfall of filthy lucre by falling in with a power that dominates him. The invisible hand of the market seems a lot less threatening when you can’t see it forming into an entirely tangible fist; the Devil seems like a great hang when he’s just Walter Huston offering Hessian gold. There’s a carelessness in Jabez which falls to Nancy and Andy in their time a century later, and mercifully for the two of them, Franklin Roosevelt is the president who can preserve a nation rather than Daniel Webster, the senator playacting as country lawyer who loses his chance at the Oval Office after successfully protecting Jabez. America doesn’t have a Tolstoy, and maybe that’s why we keep believing in great men of history like Webster who, historically, never are quite great enough.

Northern Nancy, Western Andy, Eastern Jabez, and Southern Stanley. In This Our Life, the latest of these four movies about an America unprepared for its place on the world stage, moves us to a Virginia which seems untouched by little snafus like the Civil War. Still in her first decade of stardom yet completely in control of her ability to play proud, difficult, amoral, aristocratic types, Bette Davis rules this film about the seething injustice of the Jim Crow South. Guilty of committing a hit-and-run killing, Stanley quickly accuses a Black man of the crime, certain that he’ll pay the price for her debt. It takes some serious unraveling to bring Stanley to justice instead, and it’s a justice of cruel irony rather than shameful prosecution. As she committed a crime in her car, she dies in her car while running from the police. It’s a rough ending for Stanley, but as much as it ends happily for Parry (and like, thank goodness), the film understands that it’s easier to imagine this kind of cosmic coincidence in segregated America than it is to imagine a white woman actually taking the stand for a crime like this. In This Our Life places the blame for Stanley as much on her doting uncle William, who, while we’re still near the topic of incest, carries a torch for her that this mid-Code movie manages to make perfectly clear.

This is the first movie of this group which straddles World War II. John Huston got the credit for this film, which he directed most of, but Raoul Walsh finished the film after Huston got his orders for the Army Signal Corps. These films which began production or before the onset of war have a deep suspicion over the dearth of starch in the American character, even when they’re actively meant to be light or comedic. The Leopard Man, part of that loose trilogy of horror films that Jacques Tourneur made with Val Lewton in the early ’40s (preceded by Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie), has permission to get far darker than either one of its predecessors, perhaps because the primary villain of this film is a man.

In Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie, the women are the monsters. It’s not Irena’s fault that she carries a family curse, nor is it Jessica’s fault that voodoo magic is done to her; they are monsters without the benefit of wickedness. The tragedy of the monsters of the previous decade, like Frankenstein’s Monster or the Wolf Man or the Invisible Man, are the tragedies of men. Women are at the fore in these stories, the monsters and the victims in a way that not even the Monster truly qualifies as a victim. In The Leopard Man, Tourneur takes the next step. Women are the victims, and a man is the monster, one who is impelled to kill women in the manner that an escaped leopard kills a woman early in the picture. (The scene I’ve linked to above is almost certainly the most frightening and upsetting of the Lewton horror films.) The idea of the serial killer is, to me, something not uniquely American but especially American. The Leopard Man, one of the early examples of the serial killer genre in our film history, is essential to our understanding of the type of person. The horror of the serial killer is not in his deeds, but in his proximity. It’s that he is close to us, could walk among us and pose as “normal,” that thrills and titillates. In The Leopard Man, he does just that until he is finally unmasked, hiding his unnatural desires behind the pretense of a natural-born killer.

The war comes to a theater near you in “With the Marines at Tarawa.”

The greatest of the short World War II docs made by Hollywood filmmakers is Memphis Belle, by William Wyler, but the National Film Registry beat me there long ago. There are shots of a doomed bomber careening out of the sky in that film which come closer to disproving Damien Hirst than any other footage I’ve seen. One of the runners-up to Memphis Belle is this doc, which does something unprecedented in showing American corpses without the benefit of flags or dress-up. The year before, John Ford’s The Battle of Midway took time to show the watery graves of casualties, with coffins adorned with flags dropped into the distant ocean. In “With the Marines at Tarawa,” there’s nothing to hide the bloated bodies of the marines filled with seawater and bursting with sun, picked at by scavengers and already decaying. The film pulls back! It does not leave us with the grotesque corpses, but brings us to that same imagery of flags and coffins and splashes. “With the Marines at Tarawa” is a propaganda film, not some kind of truth-seeking expedition, but it has about twenty or thirty seconds’ worth of images that make the meaning of war clearer than any fiction film I have ever come across.

Maybe it’s just the Casablanca talking, but the American World War II movies from 1941 to 1945 that grab me most are typically the ones that take places away from the battlefield. I don’t pretend that Tomorrow, the World! is any better than a Bataan, a Days of Glory, or a Destination Tokyo, none of which I would rate all that highly. What’s fascinating about this movie is its willingness to confront a weakness which like, twenty Democrats in today’s America are willing to admit. We may have a fairly decent history of fighting named fascism in this country, but that doesn’t mean that normal Americans, who would consider themselves patriots and good citizens, are immune to its charms. “Skippy” Homeier, who aged into “Skip” a few years after this, plays a forced refugee from Hitler’s Germany who wears his Hitler Youth outfit everywhere and proselytizes about the superiority of Nazism to everyone he meets. It bounces off a number of people and earns the pity of Ms. Richards, the Jewish teacher at school who is thrust into the unenviable American tradition of oppressed groups being asked to show their magnanimity to people who’d like to see them wiped off the face of the earth. Aunt Jessie, played by Agnes Moorehead in a role that’s angular even by her edgy standards, starts to accept this impassioned young man’s arguments, won over not because she has a personal love for fascism but because she is eager to see fault in the brother that Emil dislikes so much. The film is repetitive, and I imagine this must have been more interesting as a play than it was as a film, but its heart, for all its murmurs, is fundamentally likable. Fascism does not creep into the American home because of the superiority of its arguments but because of the inferiority of susceptible, hateful minds.

Given the threat of the Nazis against the threat of attractive middle-aged women with some culture, I think I’d rather take on an army of the latter rather than a single one from the former group. For what it’s worth, the wives of returning servicemen didn’t get a choice. After World War I, the prevailing sentiment was “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?” After World War II, which kept a larger number of boys (and men!) away from home longer than the Great War had, the anxiety about marriages failing in the wake of the war was palpable. The Best Years of Our Lives makes the difficulty in renegotiating love affairs with childhood sweethearts, recent spouses, and long-suffering wives the paramount piece of returning to civilian life. Homecoming is about a doctor-soldier coming home to his faithful wife after having a torrid affair with a nurse. And Divorce, a Poverty Row film with Kay Francis from 1945, gets right at this concern. Helen Mack is practically helpless to defend herself or her marriage against a woman more beautiful than herself and matching the experience that her husband, Bruce Cabot seems to want a woman to have. The film doesn’t end with the good wife defeated, although not for lack of trying. Divorce stands out, and to be honest I prefer it and its griminess to the genteel Homeric allusions of Homecoming, because of Diane’s connection to Bob. Bob met Martha and married her later; Bob had been one of Diane’s many beaux in their shared youth together. Divorce has this really sharp insight about what’s fueling the spate of infidelity among servicemen (even if it is very polite about the kinds of horns those men might be wearing overseas): nostalgia. After the ruination of a hellacious war, it is overwhelmingly tempting for a Bob Phillips to abandon home and two children for a woman who reminds him of a time before the Kingdom came in the form of aircraft carriers and the atomic bomb. The reason Bob forsakes Martha for a hot second is not because Diane is so much more beautiful, really. It’s because only one of them can remind Bob of a time when he hadn’t seen combat.

Two musicals in spectacular Technicolor, both alluding to a time well before World War II, close out this section. The first is State Fair, the Rodgers and Hammerstein joint abutting Oklahoma! and Carousel and possessing absolutely none of the darkness present in either of those shows.

State Fair, a movie without Rodgers or Hammerstein in 1933, is one of those movies which is so sweet that you sort of have to smack your lips and rub your teeth to get feeling back in your mouth. One’s patience for Rodgers and Hammerstein at their least ironic tells the story of how much one enjoys this film; speaking as the guy who’s seen all the Bonita Granville Nancy Drews and all the Andy Hardys, I like it a lot no matter what kind of terrible things that says about me. I like it for the underused Jeanne Crain, whose face was made for Technicolor and who “performs” the undeniable “It Might As Well Be Spring” with the closest thing this film gets to sadness. I like it for Donald Meek, who brings his adorable doofus persona to a whole new level as one of the judges at the fair. I even like Dana Andrews in a role that is just not at all like what we’re used to seeing him do. The reason why I’m including this movie, which probably slides into “aspirational white people behavior” right after ugly sweater parties, is not that far away from the rationale of this tweet:

State Fair is not how Agnes Moorehead would have been converted to fascism in America; it’s much too cheerful. But the fantasy of a white ethnostate in America is a profound one, even if the people who want it are even more ludicrous than this film. Maybe I’m protesting a bit too much about State Fair, which is not a mean film by any stretch of the imagination and which doesn’t call for any kind of untoward action. Neither does the music of ABBA! But if Charles Lindbergh had become president and allied us with Hitler, they could have made State Fair in 1945 without changing a blessed thing.

I love this advertisement for The Harvey Girls, which refers to it as “gay and lusty.” That’s what the movie is, more or less, although I’m not entirely sure which one the arson would fit into. On one level, this is one of those marvelously fun movies made when color in a movie was something people weren’t ashamed of, where you can just pass the picture over to Ray Bolger and tell him to spitball for a minute, where you get Johnny Mercer lyrics again and again. On another, this is a movie about labor which doesn’t have to resort to life-or-death stakes or crusader parlance to get its point across; all it needs is a rivalry between Judy Garland and Angela Lansbury. Both are working girls, unmarried women in a place where it is not particularly reputable nor entirely safe to be that way. There’s a symbolic gesture at the end of the film when Lansbury’s cabaret girl, realizing that John Hodiak (what was the appeal of that guy, I wonder) loves Garland’s waitress, graciously yields to her competition. Symbolic might be a strong word for a moment that literal, where the good lay gives up the man for the woman who will be a good wife, but as much as this movie buys into some pretty vanilla sexual ideas, the story of the female relationship is still primary. This is one of those movies where the guy is so meh that the tug of war allows us to focus on the contestants and not on the movement of the rope. Em is not bad, not any worse than Susan. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where Em comes to Arizona and becomes a waitress at the Harvey House if she had arrived on the same train that Susan arrived on rather than being in Sandrock a much longer time. The Harvey Girls really doesn’t hate the player at all; it hates the game she’s forced to play.

2 thoughts on “100 American Films to Save: Confrontations (1939-1946)

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