“Keep Your Powder Dry” (1945) shows a sorority-like atmosphere in the Women’s Army Corps of World War II, but poignantly tells a back story greater than the lightweight scenario on the surface. This movie, like the WAC when it began, walks a tightrope between what the public would accept, and what enlightened possibilities could be explored for women. The Army brass was more supportive of the program than the doubtful congressmen who argued the legislation to permit it, and more than the flippant journalists who treated it as a carnival act, and more than the ladies’ fellow male GIs, who were suspicious of the virtue, and femininity, of WACs.
The Army brass, such as Generals Eisenhower and Marshall, knew how desperately they were needed in a two-front war.
This week and next we’ll be discussing women in the armed services through a range of drama, comedy, and musical. Today it’s “Keep Your Powder Dry”, which hovers between comedy and drama, and “Cry Havoc” (1943), a drama in the manner of “So Proudly We Hail” (1943), which we covered in this previous post.
Next week, it’s a lighter tone in the post-World War II world of “Never Wave at a WAC” (1953) with Rosalind Russell, and “Skirts Ahoy” (1952) with Esther Williams.
“Keep Your Powder Dry” stars Lana Turner, Laraine Day, and Susan Peters as three WAC recruits. We start the show with an operetta lyric over the opening credits that reminds us, “…for the WAC is a soldier, too.”
It sounds like a college cheer and we might meet Andy Hardy somewhere. The title card looks like a Nancy Drew book.
How desperately needed more “manpower” was in the service is illustrated in a strikingly more matter-of-fact manner by Bing Crosby on his Kraft Music Hall radio program on October 7, 1943 when he made this pitch:
“If you’re a woman between 20 and 50, if you’re not now in a war job, if you have no children under 14 and if you’ve had two years of high or business school the Army’s got work for you, work that’s vital for victory…that means more soldiers for combat while members of the WAC take over technical jobs in communications, transport and air force, and x-ray photography, and medical and dental labs, in 155 different branches of Army service that the WAC is trained to handle. The Women’s Army Corps trains you, the career is yours forever. The pay is that of a soldier of equal rank. It’s a really important job waiting in the WAC for every gal who is anxious to serve her country at home or overseas. The WAC has a recruiting office not far from you. So do your part in hastening the ultimate victory of our forces. So, speed them back, join the WAC.”
The movie is less direct.
Lana Turner is a spoiled rich girl who parties and wakes up with hangovers (we get an intro shot of the teasing trail of her clothes on the floor) while her best friend, the parasitic Natalie Schafer (yes, yes, I know, Mrs. Thurston Howell III), wakes her up and begs her once again to get her lawyer to release the REST of her inheritance so they can party even more.
Miss Turner’s lawyer reminds her that the trustees of her inheritance will not release her money until she proves to be more responsible. So, she joins the WAC, thinking it’ll look good and she can always duck out later.
Susan Peters is a young wife who, in an unusual goodbye scene, helps her husband pack for Army duty while he tenderly wishes her luck on her upcoming basic training. She, too, it appears is bound for the WAC, as something productive to do while her husband is away. She believes she will help the war effort and bring him home sooner. This was a common reason for lots of WAC enlistees to join.
The third member of the trio is Laraine Day, who is an Army brat, chomping at the bit to join the WAC and be a soldier like her officer papa. He is pleased, and not a bit worried about her virtue or femininity.
A reassurance to a skittish American public, perhaps, who truly wondered if they were tearing the fabric of American womanhood apart by allowing this audacious thing of women into the Army, even in gender-segregated units.
I don’t suppose this film was shown overseas to the boys on the battlefields, but it might have done them good to see an earnest film about earnest young women in uniform not unlike the girls they left behind.
Certainly no threats to their manhood here, though I smile at the scene late in the movie where Miss Turner looks like one of the GIs with her shirt open and her tie draped loosely around her neck as if she were about to open a deck of cards for poker.
It’s easy to dismiss much of the film as schmaltz unless you get that society at the time was uneasy about a woman wearing pants, let alone learning mechanical and technical skills.
We see the women briefly wrestling in hand-to-hand combat training (in work dresses), but most of their time is spent marching and…archery? The marching cadence in soprano voices.
The initiation into the WAC world of military discipline, and helpfulness in the war effort, is filtered through a fine sieve as most of the movie centers on the personality conflicts of the girls and how they overcome challenges. Lana Turner, who tops her class in identifying aircraft not because she studied the material but because she dated so many pilots, has discovered a new sense of purpose in the Army. Never taken seriously before, she rises to the occasion and becomes a good soldier, with only two problems: her old martini-soaked friends won’t leave her alone, and Laraine Day is a thorn in her side.
Laraine Day, in her capacity as having grown up on Army posts, becomes the camp know-it-all on how to do things. She might get as irritating to the audience as she is to Miss Turner, except that Miss Day is so very good in her role. She’s almost pathologically bossy and interfering, and we see — and by the end of the movie she will confess — that she feels threatened by the glamour girl Turner. Her authoritarian attitude over the other girls is due to her insecurity at being bested by outsiders who know nothing of her cherished world of Army life. Her self-revelation at the end where, crestfallen, she faces the truth about her overbearing behavior is a strong, heart-tugging scene as we watch her crumble inside.
Both Miss Day and Miss Turner would have killed each other long before the movie ended were it not for their mutual love of Susan Peters, the peacemaker of the trio. Susan Peters displays here again that quiet sensitivity and luminous screen presence that was launching her into a promising film career. Unfortunately, it is difficult to recall Peters without also recalling her tragic end, which began shortly after this film was completed and a few months before it was released.
As many film buffs are aware, Susan Peters was accidently shot during a hunting trip with her husband, Richard Quine, and some friends. She was permanently paralyzed from the waist down, and though attempted with astounding courage to make an acting comeback in a wheelchair, died in 1952 from a combination of ailments and crushing depression that completely destroyed her will to live. She was only 31.
Miss Peters’ character is the least confident of the trio, and her lesson by the end of the film is to achieve through hard work and diligence, and find self-confidence at last. All of these women go through a pre-feminist era experience of empowerment (catch the scene where the girls fix the general’s broken down car for him), and Hollywood does not begrudge them or belittle them. Not this time. Not when the country was looking for women recruits. What a safe incubator Hollywood could be from the real world.
Except, of course, for the burning question of the day as to what a WAC’s panties look like. We are told they are olive drab, but we do not get a long look at the unmentionables. If we think this scene is frivolous to the point of eye-rolling, then remember that for the smart-ass journalists covering the first WAC recruitment (which started as the WAAC, Women’s Auxiliary Army Corp before they achieved regular Army status), their most common questions were what color was the girls' underwear, and whom could they date?
The dating question is considered in the film, too.
The title of the film comes from the famous quote from the 1834 poem by William Blacker who, writing about Oliver Cromwell “quotes” Cromwell: “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry!”
Of course, in the cheeky manner of studio writers, not unlike smart-ass journalists, the title in this case also refers to a woman’s cosmetics.
Things to note: Agnes Moorehead as company commander is a woman of quiet, ladylike authority. Her scene where she gives sad news to Susan Peters is both dignified and gently understated. She is clearly helpless to do anything more than offer kindness from a respectful distance.
I like the camera shot of Peters alone in Moorehead’s office, shot from above. It’s an instant image of despair and loneliness.
The girls ride off in a truck on which is painted the words “Wolf Trap”. Apparently the men in the Army Air Corps weren’t the only ones who could paint sexy slogans on their machines.
Many scenes were filmed in Des Moines, Iowa and Camp Oglethorpe, Georgia, which were actual training places for the WAC.
The girls do a lot of walking and marching in front of rear screen projection of other troops. This is why the Allies won the war. We scared the enemy with our rear-screen projection of thousands and thousands of soldiers following right behind us.
Lee Patrick as the ex-vaudevillian who becomes an Army cook.
June Lockhart as the resident Southern Gal.
They drink a lot of Coke.
A scene of swimming at a pond, like water nymphs basking in the sun, drinking their Coke. Evidently the WAC has time for picnics, too.
For more on the realities of WAC service, their importance to the war effort during World War II (some 150,000 women served) have a look at this article by Judith A. Bellafaire. It will fill you in on some remarkable circumstances and achievements of the women who served, and will profoundly increase your respect for the ladies who were pioneers among women in the military. The WAC was discontinued in 1978, and women serving in the Army from that point served along with men.
On Thursday we’ll have a look at “Cry Havoc” which, though much more serious and troubling in nature due to the extreme danger faced by the women on Bataan during World War II, nevertheless caused less public controversy because these women were Army Nurses. That a female nurse dying in a jungle was more socially acceptable than a female truck mechanic working in the motor pool is just one of those things we need to discover if we are to lump these two disparate films together as equally important artifacts from World War II. They are, as you’ll see, quite different.
In the meantime, let us not forget that Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, while she was still Princess Elizabeth, served in Britain’s counterpart Auxiliary Territorial Service as a truck mechanic and driver. Have a look at the Pathé newsreel clip below: