After Britain and Germany declared war in 1939, there were roughly two years in which America, for all intents and purposes, laid low. Sort of. Not really.
The first Neutrality Act was signed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt on August 31, 1935, and it would be renewed several times over the next few years. The Act didn’t just state that the United States was staying out of foreign wars for the time being. Americans were not allowed to travel on what were called “belligerent vessels” and any travel in war zones was done at an American’s own risk. There was very strong public support for these measures, as Americans were more interested in recovering from the Great Depression than in putting themselves in harm’s way.
Charles Lindbergh was the face of the isolationist movement, but unfortunately his motives weren’t always sound: For a short period of time he was in favor of the Nazis and the changes they made in Germany, and was even awarded a Service Cross by Hermann Goering in 1938. However, Lindbergh’s opinion on the Nazis quickly soured when he saw Hitler continuing his quest to conquer Europe. Despite his change of heart, Lindbergh’s public image took a major hit.
As the nineteen-thirties wound down, the state of the world became more and more troubling for Americans and the energy around the isolationist cause waned. We couldn’t just cocoon ourselves in our comfortable lives; it was only a matter of time before the fight came to us, and we had better be ready.
In Washington, the Neutrality Act was tweaked several times to allow America to sell arms to its allies. At first this was couched under the phrase, “cash and carry” in the existing Neutrality Acts, but the war began to escalate and the Lend-Lease Act was passed on March 1, 1941. Public sentiment may have been against war, but it was also widely recognized that our allies had limited resources with which to produce weapons and needed our help.
Americans sprang into action in other ways. Jeanette MacDonald helped found the American Women’s Voluntary Service, which became a service clearinghouse, sending members to volunteer wherever they were needed and selling war bonds after America entered the war. Groups such as Bundles For Britain and the American Red Cross sent food, clothes and other scarce items to civilians and servicepeople.
Meanwhile in Hollywood, changes were being made. The European market was largely closed to every major or somewhat major studio after 1940 because of certain well-timed hits to the Nazi jugular, so many movies were set close to home. In fact, the vast majority of movies made in 1941 were westerns, although they did occasionally venture into countries of the Good Neighbor variety in both 1940 and 1941, such as in That Night In Rio or Week-End In Havana. More on that later.
One of the main themes of 1940 and 1941 seemed to be highlighting the lives of great Americans and the steady nobility of American life. Tyrone Power played Brigham Young. Raymond Massey played Abraham Lincoln. Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy played Thomas Edison. Greer Garson played Edna Gladney. Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy went wildcat through the American oil industry in Boom Town. Three Dr. Kildare films were released in 1940 alone and two more in 1941. The infamous Citizen Kane ruffled feathers in 1941 and The Maltese Falcon intrigued and astonished.
There were a lot of gems in a less serious vein in those two years as well, providing much-needed respite from the ever-worsening news from overseas. We had The Philadelphia Story, Strike Up the Band, Ball of Fire, The Shop Around the Corner, Ziegfeld Girls, His Girl Friday, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, Moon Over Miami, and The Great American Broadcast, just to name a few.
Still, movies of 1940 and 1941 had a way of reminding Americans what was at stake. In the 1940 movie, Escape, based on an Ethel Vance novel of the same title, Mark Preysing, played by Robert Taylor, smuggles his mother out of Germany with the help of a countess, played by Norma Shearer. Mark has to be constantly reminded by everyone around him that Germany isn’t America and his mother’s rights aren’t recognized by the government or pretty much anyone else in authority. Just the fact that she’s selling her house makes her suspicious in the eyes of the Reich. It’s a sobering and suspenseful film that’s all the more sobering when one considers how many people who worked on the film had relatives in occupied Europe.
Another film that summed up the colossal importance of that time was Men Of Boys Town, in which Spencer Tracy as Father Flanagan gives a stirring graduation speech to Whitey Marsh (Mickey Rooney) and his fellow seniors:
“The coddled, the weak, and the doubting will fall…the tasks of youth today are tasks for giants. But the time that awaits you is the time when giants will walk again in the land. Be staunch. Keep the faith. And you will walk among the giants.”
One of the most memorable roles from that time was that of Gary Cooper as Sergeant Alvin C. York in 1941’s Sergeant York. York was a devout Christian and a pacifist who chose to fight in the First World War because he came to realize how important it was for him as an American to help protect America’s heritage of liberty. In October of 1918 York took control of an entire German batallion and marched them back to the American lines with the help of the few men left in his company. Considered mostly accurate by historians, the film is an inspiring and rousing one that holds up beautifully today.
Sergeant York couldn’t have come out at a better time, because Congress imposed the draft in 1940 and many Americans had to be sold on the idea of going off to fight a war they still weren’t sure we should be in. However, it wasn’t the only film reminding Americans that they would have to get out of their comfort zones in the near future.
A couple of months before Sergeant York hit theaters, the Abbott and Costello romp, Buck Privates pratfell into view. While not long on plot, it showcased such perennial Andrew Sisters standards as, “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” and “In Apple Blossom Time,” interspersing its various musical numbers with classic Abbott and Costello comedy.
Most importantly, especially for that period, the movie reminded Americans of their proud heritage and how glad they should be to fight for freedom:
We also didn’t fail to let our friends overseas know how much we were pulling for them, and one of the most successful films to do that was Babes On Broadway, released right before 1941 flipped into 1942. The movie stars Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, Virginia Weidler, Ray McDonald, and Richard Quine and is a tour-de-force of great performances and wonderful music, with the exception of a lengthy blackface number during the finale.
For a lot of people in Europe, especially in Britain, Burton Lane’s “Chin Up! Cheerio! Carry On” was likely a highlight:
However, the film didn’t go over so well with the French when they finally got to see it in 1947, probably because some of the songs lost a bit in translation: “Hoe Down” became “Danse la Foo Foo.”
Babes On Broadway was no doubt a bracer for Americans as well, because its 1941 release almost coincided with Pearl Harbor, but we’ll get to that.
A little reminder is on the way tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…
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Fricke, John. Judy Garland: A Portrait In Art and Anecdote. Boston, New York, London: Bulfinch Press, 2003