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We'll Always Have The Movies
Tom Miller | March 07, 2006
We'll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema during World War II, by Robert L. McLaughlin and Sally E. Parry.  The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.  $40, 357pp, ISBN 0-8131-2386-0

McLaughlin, an English professor at Illinois State University, and Parry, an administrator at the school, combine on a scholarly but entertaining look at the nexus between Hollywood and World War II.  In an age before television—when 90 million Americans visited the local cinema weekly—movies played a crucial role in shaping how  Americans understood the war.  And, despite the unprecedented cooperation between Hollywood and the government, these weren't simply propaganda films.  "[T]he best of these films," as the authors demonstrate, "are amazing artistic accomplishments."  When the films include such titles as "Casablanca," chosen by the American Film Institute as the second-greatest movie of all time, it's hard to argue with them. 

Over the course of their research, the authors watched over 600 movies made between 1937 and 1946, and use them to demonstrate how Hollywood presented a narrative account of the war that Americans couldn't get elsewhere.  If they also promulgated myths, so be it. 

The films range from the famous—"Casablanca," Alfred Hitchcock's "Lifeboat,," Charlie Chaplin's "The Great Dictator," and "The Best Years of Our Lives"—to the forgotten—"Tender Comrade," "Song of Russia," and "A Guy Named Joe."  The authors also include a "Filmography" that lists the movies they viewed during their research.  Readers who spend time thumbing through it will find some gems—Hitchcock's "Notorious," Preston Sturgis' "Hail the Conquering Hero," William Wyler's "Mrs. Miniver," and so many more.   

Even before Pearl Harbor, the movies were preparing Americans to see the Nazis and Japanese as aggressive bullies.  After American entry into the war, the movies helped redefine the roles of men and women in the coming struggle.  The lesson of "Casablanca," for example, is that Rick has to abandon his individuality—as well as the sidelines—and join the team if the Nazi bullies are going to be beaten.  Although the presence of the Soviet Union among the Allies—proving that war like politics makes for strange bedfellows—presented a problem, Hollywood depicted our allies, especially the British, as stoic and heroic.  The French, who were variously an enemy (the Vichy collaborators), an occupied country, and an ally, represented another ambiguous situation that Hollywood successfully finessed.    

As the war was ending, Hollywood focused on the transition from war to peace.  Frank Capra's celebrated "It's a Wonderful Life" belongs here, but the best of the "homecoming" movies is "The Best Years of Our Lives" which grapples with the difficulties and possibilities of the returning GI rejoining society. 

"We'll Always Have the Movies" is a helpful antidote to those critics who complain that Hollywood sold out during World War II and dismiss much of its output as propaganda.  As noted, the authors amply demonstrate the quality of much of Hollywood's wartime production.  They also note that Hollywood was far ahead of the rest of America in the days before Pearl Harbor in being anti-Nazi and pro-intervention.  Moreover, they show that Hollywood didn't just parrot the party line.  Many producers and directors made films that took note of the "contention and anxiety in wartime America." "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek," a subversive look at the quickie marriages between departing servicemen and local women is an excellent example of such fare.  Even Hitchcock got into the act.  His best-known war film, "Lifeboat," frankly questions the war's effects on American society.    

This is a fascinating read for any movie lover, especially one interested in the nexus between popular culture and war.

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Copyright 2013 Tom Miller. All opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect those of Military.com.

About Tom Miller

A former history professor, Tom Miller is a novelist and essayist. His most recent novel, Freshman Sensation (2007), is available from the publisher at http://www.ccjournal.com/. His reviews and essays have appeared in numerous books, journals, and newspapers, including The Encyclopedia of Southern History, American History Illustrated, the Chicago Tribune, and the Des Moines Register. He also is a former Army officer and Vietnam veteran.