Thursday, August 7, 2008

Gas Rationing in the Movies

In this summer of our discontent when the price of gasoline dominates our conversation, and perhaps our lives, we might care to look back on the era of World War II gas rationing, at least as it was presented in the movies.

The purchase of war bonds and scrap collection were promoted with cheerful and unrelenting vigor to the public, but the rationing of gasoline, which wasn’t any fun more fun then than the high price of gas is now, received treatment which was, perhaps, a bit less in-your-face than the war bond drives, at least by the movies. No need to antagonize an already grumpy audience about doing the right thing when the government was making them do it anyway.

In “Since You Went Away” (1944), Claudette Colbert and Joseph Cotten take a moonlit drive and she remarks,

“It’s pleasant being in a car again, isn’t it?” To which Mr. Cotten replies,

“Yes. We used to take everything so for granted. Now I feel like a king just because I can rent one for a week.”

Soon a motorcycle cop stops them to chat because, “It gets so lonely along this road since gas rationing.”

The gas rationing in the US during World War II was really more to conserve tires than it was to save gasoline. The Japanese invasion of the Dutch East Indies and their rubber plantations cut off our supply of rubber. Rationing began on voluntary basis, but by spring of 1942 much of the eastern seaboard states adopted mandatory rationing. By December of 1942, it went national and continued until August 15, 1945. (Rationing ended when the Japanese surrendered, and as noted in Life Magazine of August 27, 1945, the end of rationing received as much joyful hysteria across the nation as did the end of the war.) And, for speed demons out there, the speed limit was set at 35 mph for the duration of the war.

Car pools were the order of the day. Motorists were issued ration books and stickers to place on their cars which determined how much gasoline they were allowed to purchase each week. If you were given a sticker with the letter “A” on it, you were allowed three to four gallons per week. As we can see in this Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Falling Hare” (1943), directed by Robert Clampett, in which an airplane runs out of gas because it has only an “A” sticker on its fuselage, the “A” sticker didn’t get you very far. (Special thanks to my cartoon expert twin brother for informing me about this one.)

This MGM cartoon directed by Tex Avery, “Swing Shift Cinderella” (1945) depicts a scooter on which the fairy godmother is riding also has an “A” sticker. You couldn’t get to the ball on an “A” sticker, in fact, the police might even stop you for pleasure driving, which wasn’t allowed. But an “A” sticker could get you to work, at least if you didn’t live 50 miles from your workplace, the way some folks do today.

The “B” sticker got you a little more gas, eight gallons a week. Here in this screen capture from “I’ll Be Seeing You” (1944) we see Joseph Cotten and Ginger Rogers getting into an automobile with a “B” sticker on it. Spring Byington is in the background. Most often the influence of gas rationing on America is shown in films in this kind of almost subliminal way. The movie shows you there is a sticker on the car and these characters in the movie are observing their patriotic duty, but it’s not even mentioned.

However, in another scene where they take a bus to the country, two men stepping down from the bus behind them with golf clubs remark cheerfully, “I told you it was no use wasting any gas.” They have done their duty by leaving the car at home and taking public transportation to the golf course.

“C” stickers were for physicians, clergy, mail carriers, and railroad workers. “T” stickers were for truckers, and they were allowed unlimited amounts of fuel. An “X” sticker went to members of Congress.

In this screen capture from “Christmas in Connecticut” (1945), we see the “B” sticker on the sheriff’s car after he has brought Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan home after a night in jail. One would think a sheriff would get a “C” sticker, but perhaps the use of certain cars and stickers on the back lot was rather spurious. When Mrs. Gerseg arrives in her Tin Lizzie to pick up her baby, we see no sticker at all on her windshield.

In “The Big Sleep” (1946), you can see here the “B” sticker on Humphrey Bogart’s car. The “B” doesn’t stand for Bogie. Or Bacall, who’s there in the passenger seat. The film was completed in early 1945, but wasn’t released until 1946, so there’s lots of gas rationing stickers in this film. Anachronistic the moment it was released.

When Bogie tells the DA he earns $25 per day on the job he’s doing, plus expenses, the DA responds, “That’s $50 and a little gasoline.”

I’m uncertain as to how the film industry at large handled the gas rationing, with all their vehicles, both cars which were used to appear in films and for their off-screen utility vehicles. I’d love to know more about that. In my unfortunate fascination with the mundane, I find myself always looking for the windshield gasoline sticker when watching World War II era films.


Anonymous said...

It's going to be next to impossible for those of us who read this post to watch American movies from the war era w/o looking for those stickers now too. Very interesting, timely post Jacqueline.

The talk of rationing and the movies reminds me of the government short I wrote about for 1942, Mr. Blabbermouth. In that short, fears about the need for rubber are countered in two ways. First, assurance that increased production of synthetic rubber will replace the lost access to supplies of the real thing. Second, and much more amusing, is a shot of a well-dressed couple riding a tandem bike past their tire-less automobile accompanied by a voice over that says something like "and now Mom and Dad have the opportunity to stretch muscles they haven't used in years." I'd love to know the reaction to that shot by the "already grumpy" audience back in the day.

Laura said...

This isn't an unfortunate fascination at all, I think it's wonderful. I love details like this which help make movies and eras come alive just a bit more. I'm going to be watching for the stickers now too. Thanks for explaining their meanings! I love the merging of my interests in American history and movies. :)

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you both so much. As for the couple on the tandem bike, Thom, I would imagine the theater audience might have hooted at that a bit.

Probably most of the strain of rationing hit rural and suburban areas. Most people at that time did not own a car, and lived with a few miles of work. It might be difficult for us, who are conditioned to casually hopping over to the mall, a friend's house, or work, all in another town, to imagine how geographically narrow the lives were of most people back then.

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