In supporting roles
The most thrilling part of 1943’s Academy Awards ceremony, wrote columnist Louella Parsons, had nothing to do with the Oscars. Rather, it was the sight of two dreamboats -- Tyrone Power and Alan Ladd -- in their private’s uniforms, marching onto the Cocoanut Grove stage after the national anthem. The movie stars presented the flag, along with a list of 27,677 names -- all members of the motion picture industry who also had signed up for the armed forces.
Today, it’s hard to imagine stars such as Ben Affleck or Josh Hartnett signing up for a tour of duty in Iraq. A celebrity who wants to take a political stand is much more likely to speak out in public or flash a surreptitious peace sign -- eliciting as many jeers as cheers. But in World War II, everyone -- Hollywood movie stars and directors included -- was expected to pitch in and support the war effort.
By World War II’s end, some estimate that as many as 40,000 industry members had served the military in jobs ranging from boatswain’s mate (Cesar Romero) to air combat intelligence officer (Henry Fonda). Directors such as John Ford, John Huston and William Wyler flew in combat to make documentaries. Glamorous stars sold war bonds or entertained the troops. And some of the most dashing heartthrobs, such as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, saw action in Europe and the Pacific.
Those who appeared to resist joining up risked damaging their careers. Lew Ayres, a pacifist since he starred in the antiwar film “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), prompted some theaters to ban his films when he declared himself a conscientious objector in 1942.
Times, of course, were drastically different back then. “After Pearl Harbor, everyone rushed to their local military recruitment office to go enlist and fight in the war,” says Robert Thompson, former president of the Popular Culture Assn. “After 9/11, the patriotic thing to do was see a play, buy shoes, get back to business as usual. That sense that everybody become a citizen soldier when the time is needed went away after World War II.”
The fact that stars -- even those at the top rungs of Hollywood’s cultural echelons -- enlisted in the military demonstrated that the notion of citizen soldiers was still intact, he says. “Everyone was in the pool.”
That sort of collective response requires a moral clarity that was pervasive in the 1940s but is lacking today, cultural historians say.
“World War II was the last war when there was a formal declaration of war by Congress,” notes Paul Levinson, communications professor at Fordham University in New York. There was a draft, and nearly everyone had a loved one in uniform. Fighting for an ideal was a banner already flown by artists and others who joined the anti-fascists in Spain. And filmmakers extolled the value of collective action in such classics such as “It Happened One Night” (1934) and “Casablanca” (1942).
“This was the last clean war, the good guys versus the evil guys,” says Peter Bardazzi, a specialist in war movies at New York University. And suddenly, some actors who had played war heroes in films found themselves in a theater of war -- where anything could happen.
How best to serve?
The war years were golden years for Hollywood, with film production and movie attendance at all-time highs. As military authorities analyzed every profession to see how best people in all walks of life could serve, Levinson says, “The conclusion was people love their movie stars.... The U.S. military actually had a policy in which they did not want movie stars to enlist and fight. They thought it was far more valuable to the military to have stars act in movies or entertain the troops.”
Hollywood didn’t hesitate to turn movie marquees into recruiting tools. When perhaps the nation’s most popular actor, Jimmy Stewart, was inducted into the Army Air Force as a private in 1941, he had starred in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and won an Oscar for “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). With his boy-next-door personality, he drew tens if not hundreds of thousands of new recruits through recruiting films such as “Winning Your Wings.” (“You’ll find out the effect those shiny little wings have on a gal. It’s phenomenal.”)
But Stewart, descended from a long line of soldiers and a trained pilot, also became a B-17 bomber pilot who flew 20 combat missions and commanded his own squadron. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for a raid on a German aircraft factory, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars. And after the war, he remained in the Air Force Reserves, retiring in 1968 as a brigadier general, the highest-ranking actor in military history.
Clark Gable ventured into the line of fire as well. In 1942, as vice chairman of the Hollywood Victory Committee, he had arranged for his wife, actress Carole Lombard, to go on a bond tour. When her plane crashed and she was killed, Gable, 41, was devastated. He enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where he flew five missions to help produce an aerial gunner recruitment film. Each of Gable’s planes was hit; Gable was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.
Many of Hollywood’s best directors also jumped into the action to film what have become legendary documentaries.
As a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, Hollywood’s most honored director, John Ford (1940’s “The Grapes of Wrath”) filmed several, including one that traced the key naval battle of the Pacific, 1942’s “The Battle of Midway.” John Huston ( 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon”) flew in combat in the northern Pacific, and his documentary “San Pietro” showed a battle in which more than 1,100 Allied soldiers were killed. He was awarded the Legion of Merit.
William Wyler (1959’s “Ben Hur”), a major in the U.S. Army Air Corps, directed “The Memphis Belle,” about the 25th and last bombing mission of a B-17. And Frank Capra, a Sicilian immigrant, produced the seven-part “Why We Fight” propaganda series (1943) that was used as an Army training film before its theatrical release. Capra (1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”) received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award given for non-military action.
Many prominent stars who continued to act in war-era movies took exemptions from active military duty because of age, heart ailments or poor eyesight. John Wayne, renowned as a star of gung-ho war movies such as 1944’s “The Fighting Seabees,” was exempted for having an impaired shoulder and four children. Humphrey Bogart, born in 1899, was too old; he already had served in World War I.
Did they blend in?
Inevitably, the more famous movie star soldiers received special treatment. Gable replaced his ill-fitting uniforms with snappier ones made by the MGM costume department. Many were asked for autographs by their superior officers or assigned far out of harm’s way.
But some entertainers, such as Marlene Dietrich, sought neither comfort nor publicity. Nazi agents had tried to persuade her in 1937 to return to her native Germany to appear in German films. Instead, the soldier’s daughter became a U.S. citizen and signed up for two tours of duty to entertain Allied troops from Anzio to the Aleutians. She wormed her way to the front by donning a soldier’s uniform, living in the camps with the soldiers, stricken by frostbite. Though never publicized, her efforts were rewarded with the Medal of Freedom, the first time it had been given to a civilian woman. Later, she called her three years of wartime work the only important thing she had ever done.
Some soldiers resented the movie stars among them, according to Jim Wise, coauthor of four books on movie stars in the military. He cites the story of how Mickey Rooney once got into a fistfight with a soldier who had complained that the scrappy 5-foot-3 actor got his position of squad leader only because he was a star.
But the truth was that no amount of preferential treatment could shield entertainers from the real consequences of war. Rooney, the former star of the Andy Hardy films, served in France bringing “jeep shows” to soldiers at the front. After one show, the soldiers left to fight a battle, and Rooney saw many of them return on stretchers, some dead.
He also visited MASH units to console the wounded. He once comforted a soldier who was about to lose his leg by telling him the story of Herbert Marshall, an English actor who lost his leg in World War I. The urbane Marshall (who appeared with Power in 1946’s “The Razor’s Edge”) secretly wore a wooden leg from then on. Filmmakers edited around him so he never had to walk much in his scenes.
Years later, Rooney and the soldier met by chance in a San Francisco bar. The man had returned home, married his girlfriend, had three children and become an airline executive. Rooney told author Wise that the two toasted each other: “You’re a helluva guy.” Rooney received a Bronze Star.
Changed by the experience
After the war, Hollywood stars came home changed to a changed world.
Stewart returned in 1945 and continued acting, but with a more somber persona. Even his best-loved role in “It’s a Wonderful Life” added darker shadings to his pre-war screen image. Gable returned to Hollywood a very old-looking 44. He produced his recruitment film, although the military told him it no longer was needed. Depressed, he began drinking and taking long motorcycle rides. He made films until his death in 1960 but never regained the box-office standing he had before the war.
Director George Stevens, who had photographed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, turned from pre-war comedies (“The More the Merrier”) to more serious films such as “Giant” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Power, who had flown in supplies and carried out casualties for the Marines in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, remained in the reserves the rest of his life and reached the rank of major in 1957. He began taking more serious roles, starring in “The Razor’s Edge” in 1946 to mixed reviews, and “Nightmare Alley” in 1947 to good reviews but a dismal box office. He worked hard, Wise says, smoking and drinking too much, and died of a heart attack at 44, at the end of a sword-fight sequence while filming “Solomon and Sheba” (1959). He was buried with full military honors.
War movies gradually became less sanitized and more realistic, starting with films about the war’s real heroes, such as Audie Murphy, the nation’s most decorated soldier. , (Murphy subsequently took up acting and appeared in 40 movies himself.)
Despite fading enthusiasm for war itself, public fascination with WWII movies has persisted to the present. One reason, says Bardazzi, is that in those movies, the United States is always undefeatable. In those movies, he says, “You could think of a war that was all good, the good guys did a good job with their backs to the wall, and the actors were all in it together.”
Regardless of their sincerity, it’s difficult for celebrities now to approach the commitment of the WWII stars using words alone, he says. “James Stewart did something meaningful. That’s a powerful thing. When he got into a fighter plane, he didn’t have to say anything.”
Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.