Following World War I, Americans entered into a period of profound isolationism. The US government, despite the escalation of what Americans called the European War, would remain neutral until 1941. But with the founding of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League in 1936, the Hollywood community politicized itself in advance of the government, a stance strengthened by the nearly complete elimination of the German market for its films. Without the worry of losing overseas profits, Hollywood from 1939 to 1941 released a number of anti-Nazi films, such as Warner Bros.' Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) and MGM's The Mortal Storm (1940). As a result, Hollywood drew fire from isolationist groups in the United States. This culminated in a congressional investigation led by an anti-Semitic Republican. senator from North Dakota, Gerald Nye; his accusation of "fifth column" or Communist sympathies in Hollywood would be resurrected after the war, during the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations between 1947 and 1954.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor ended US neutrality—and the Nye investigation. The alliance forged between Washington and Hollywood as a result of World War II was unprecedented, as Hollywood had functioned from the 1930s onward as a voluntarily self-regulated industry under the aegis of the Production Code Administration (PCA), whose standards for morality were designed to allow the Hollywood film industry to avoid costly interventions by state censors. Immediately after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt made film into a war industry with the creation of the Office of the Coordinator of Government Films; additionally, in 1942 he formed the Office of War Information (OWI) to oversee all government press and information services, including motion pictures. Its domestic arm, the Bureau of Motion Pictures, was a liaison between the government and Hollywood. Through an often complex process of negotiation between Hollywood and these government bodies, the ideals meant to be incorporated into the war film—abstract values such as heroism, selflessness, and the need for cooperation, as well as the more specific concerns of the OWI such as the desirability of purchasing war bonds—were added to the values and beliefs already promoted by Hollywood. Endeavoring to follow the guidelines provided in numerous memos and booklets, Hollywood studios still made comedies, musicals, dramas, romances, and action-packed adventure films, but they did so on behalf of the war effort.
Combat films such as Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Air Force , (1943) and Objective Burma (1945) were based on real events insofar as they concerned themselves with actual places and combat initiatives, but their purpose was to engage and inspire their audience as much as to inform. In doing so, they characteristically depicted an ethnically mixed group of US soldiers, metonymic of America's diversity, drawn together despite their differences by their patriotism—and by their hatred of a common enemy. In order to properly direct American hatred of its enemies, US combat films depicted Nazis as cold and efficient killers but tended to imagine the Japanese as bestial, subhuman—worthy of annihilation. Such simple representations of America's role in the war gave way, by its end, to more complex depictions of heroism, such as John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), which withheld victory and emphasized values of tenacity and devotion to duty rather than unreflective assumptions of racial or national superiority.
Betty Grable sang and danced her way through Hollywood movies from the age of fourteen. After signing with RKO in 1932, her most memorable roles were as the perky co-ed in films like Collegiate (1936), Pigskin Parade (1936), Campus Confessions (1938), and College Swing (1938). Her career took off in the 1940s, when she signed with Twentieth Century Fox and starred in the Technicolor musical Down Argentine Way (1940). A series of colorful, light-hearted star vehicles followed, each the definitive escapist entertainment for American civilian and military audiences during World War II: Moon Over Miami (1941); Footlight Serenade , Song of the Islands , and Springtime in the Rockies (all 1942); Sweet Rosie O'Grady and Coney Island (both 1943); Pin Up Girl (1944); and The Dolly Sisters and Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe (both 1945).
The US Treasury Department noted that she was the highest-paid woman in America, having made $300,000 for the year 1946–1947. This was not too surprising, given that she was the star for whose legs Fox purchased an insurance policy for a million dollars with Lloyds of London in 1940. This was most certainly a publicity stunt to launch its newest star, but it forecast what was to be Grable's best-known role during World War II—that of a pin-up girl.
Pinups, which featured idealized photos or illustrations of beautiful young women, revealingly dressed or (occasionally) nude, shown in a full-body pose, were ubiquitous in World War II visual culture. Featured on playing cards, greeting cards, calendars, matchbooks, tacked up to the walls of barracks, even hand-painted on flight jackets and the noses of planes, they formed a persistent visual presence in the lives of American soldiers. A number of Hollywood stars—like Gene Tierney, Ava Gardner, and Veronica Lake—were popular pin-ups, but the most famous and the most reproduced pin-up image was undoubtedly Grable's 1943 bathing suit photo, showing off her legendary legs. Unlike many pinups, such as the well-known photos of Rita Hayworth in a negligee kneeling in bed or that of Jane Russell reclining against a haystack, the Grable pinup did little to signify a narrative or prompt a particular fantasy. Petite in her high heels, with an almost too-large cluster of blond curls on top of her head, Grable appeared inviting and yet wholesome, sexy but not overly glamorous. With good reason, she called herself "the enlisted man's girl." Grable's pin-up image was designed to accommodate the viewer's need to dream and escape. A pocket Venus and all-American every girl, Grable's pinup was an accessible, and portable, piece of Hollywood fantasy.
Collegiate (1936), Pigskin Parade (1936), Campus Confessions (1938), College Swing (1938), Down Argentine Way (1940), Footlight Serenade (1942), Sweet Rosie O'Grady (1943), Pin Up Girl (1944), The Dolly Sisters (1945), Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe (1945)
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Tenacity and devotion to duty were likewise central to homefront dramas. Generally speaking, these films constructed their representations of a cohesive nation—a homeland—around images of family and tended to identify the home front with the "good mother" who loves and protects. Since You Went Away (1944), an award-winning home-front drama, explored the life of a family that experiences the full range of privations and losses
associated with the war; at the hub of the household, the wife and mother dispensed good sense and affection to both her children and others. The film was an epic-length, studio-era film at three hours, and the extended family and its friends, like the combat group, appeared as a microcosm of America, bound by a common cause—and by maternal affection.
Whereas combat films and home-front dramas leavened propaganda with entertainment, other features retooled the pleasures of musical and comic entertainment for the purposes of patriotism. Important to World War II musicals was the way that popular songs linked musical fantasy worlds to everyday life during wartime—an effect heightened in films about "putting on a show," such as This Is the Army (1943). This film is structured around Irving Berlin's compositions, including "God Bless America"—a patriotic song so popular that it became the alternative US national anthem.
Comedies allowed both military and civilian audiences to laugh at the strictures of wartime. When popular entertainers donned uniforms, the resultant fish-out-of-water comedies like Abbott and Costello's Buck Privates (1941) and Bob Hope's Caught in the Draft (1941) poked fun at military discipline—and those incapable of embracing it. Home-front comedies offered the opportunity to make jokes about shared experiences—such as housing shortages, the comic premise for The More the Merrier (1943).
In addition to the role played by studios, some of Hollywood's best directors took their talents to the military, including John Ford, who was the chief of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS); John Huston, who was in the US Army Signal Corps; and William Wyler, who served as an Air Force officer. In their productions, they brought Hollywood storytelling techniques to bear on representations of key battles. One of the most effective was Ford's documentary, The Battle of Midway (1942), which offered an elegiac vision of America designed, like the combat film, to inspire as well as inform. Ford's remarkable technicolor combat footage, including the dramatic image of the US flag being raised in the midst of aerial bombardment, is accompanied by snippets of traditional folk music, intercut with narration meant to reflect the views of ordinary Americans.
Wartime cinema was not only accountable to the OWI's requirement to educate, inform, and inspire; it was also subject to the oversight of the Office of Censorship, whose responsibility was to clear foreign films for import and US films for export. While the OWI concerned itself with whether or not Hollywood's productions would help to win the war, the Office of Censorship was concerned with whether or not a film might benefit the enemy, either through breaches of national security or through impolitic representations of the US or Allied nations. Alert to any curtailment of already reduced overseas markets, Hollywood soon learned to avoid its once-commonplace comic ethnic types—at least of Allied nationals—and likewise to tread a fine line in representations of the US military in its service comedies, lest its films be blocked from foreign distribution for offering representations thought to endanger—or belittle—the war effort.
The work of the Production Code Administration was entirely separate from that of the OWI and Office of Censorship. However, when there was a clash between the goal of the OWI to inform the public regarding the purpose and progress of the war and that of the PCA to protect American audiences from representations it deemed immoral, the PCA moderated its stance, particularly in regard to screen depictions of violence. Prior to the war, the Production Code had required that combat be bloodless; but as other media such as photojournalism and radio delivered more graphic information to Americans than the Code allowed on screen, motion pictures came under pressure from their audiences and from the government to likewise provide more explicit
representations. In 1943 Roosevelt, in response to advice from the OWI, urged the military to cease its policy of withholding the most brutal images of war from newsreel coverage, including images of both enemy and American dead. John Huston tested the limits of documentary reportage in his film The Battle of San Pietro (1945) and made what is perhaps the most moving of the US war-era documentaries, a graphic representation of the battle for a small Italian village in which over one thousand US soldiers were killed. After the war, explicit newsreel footage of Germany's concentration camps was shown nationwide at the request of President Dwight Eisenhower, despite the fact that its horrific images of the Holocaust violated the Code.
In qualifying the moral authority exerted by the PCA, the government tacitly acknowledged the existence of an audience rather different from the one specified by the Code, an audience to be brought into full partnership with the war effort—and the war's losses—rather than one to be protected from images that might inflame or disturb. In the late 1940s and through the 1950s and 1960s, Hollywood's relationship with its audience—newly prosperous and becoming rapidly more educated and suburbanized—would continue to change, one of many challenges the industry encountered in the postwar period.
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