Thursday, December 13, 2012

Never Wave at a WAC - 1953

“Never Wave at a WAC” (1953) is an improbable confection, more slapstick than sentiment, but in its way shows a military haven for women that is more promising and more egalitarian than the civilian world.  This message is a happy by-product, for most of the film is really just a fun comedy with no pretensions, except those espoused by a delightfully over-the-top Rosalind Russell.
This is our fourth and final film in our series on women in the military.  Have a look here for “KeepYour Powder Dry” (1945), “Cry Havoc” (1943), and “Skirts Ahoy” (1952) which we covered Monday.
Miss Russell plays a glittering Washington society hostess, hobnobbing with the hoi polloi and dropping more names per second than there are in the phone book.  Charles Dingle, who I always associate with his splendid role in “The Little Foxes” (1941), plays her father, who is a Senator. 
We begin at a party in their home.  Roz descends the staircase like Auntie Mame, and the movie could be subtitled “Auntie Mame Gets Drafted”.  She’s fluttery and fabulous, impervious to any standards but her own.  She’s stunning in her gown, with her tall, willowy figure, one of the few grand ladies of Hollywood’s heyday to be equally comfortable in messy physical comedy, which comes later in the movie.
The funniest parts of the film come at the beginning, when we see her in a brisk montage of scenes where she is called upon to fulfill her typical Washington hostess duties, donating an ambulance to the Red Cross, dedicating a water fountain on the Mall.  She glances up at the White House, and sees President Harry Truman in the window, waving at her.  She tilts her head becomingly and blows him a kiss.  She knows everybody.
By the way, the shots of D.C. in 1953 are pretty neat.  Look at the White House without a fence.  The filmmakers must have gotten permission to shoot at the national monuments, denied the crew of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) which we discussed here.
Everybody is “Darling” and everybody is air-kissed, and she is breezy, effective, able to juggle a million things at once, including pausing mid-conversation to pose for a photo, which she does with comic regularity.  Her world is shallow, and she is perfectly at home here.
But our Roz is not without her discontent. Her new beau, an Army officer played by William Ching, is being sent to Paris, along with her rival for his affections played by Hillary Brooke.  Miss Brooke arrives at the party in a WAC uniform, crowing that she, too, has been assigned to Paris.
The party becomes a bust when Roz’s ex-husband, the affable, but too down to earth to be worthy of her chic, Paul Douglas, arrives to retrieve some of his belongings.  Somewhere amid the shouting and the breaking of glass, we learn that they had an impetuous honeymoon camping on an island.  The Robinson Crusoe setting, and their love, made her think he was dashing, instead of just a sloppy scientist, and made him think she was a spirited, can-do girl and not a phony, shallow social climber.
They were both right and both wrong, and it takes a battle over basic training to make them see that.
Papa Charles Dingle thinks Roz should be brought down a peg, and tricks his daughter into joining the WAC, saying he will arrange a commission for her so she can be with her fiancé in Paris.  The idea of captain’s bars from Tiffany’s and a Hattie Carnegie-designed tailored uniform is what appeals to her.  She joins, unwittingly, as a private and finds herself among women who have no idea how important she is, nor do they seem to care.
Except for one, a very sweet ex-model and stripper from New York, played by Marie Wilson.  I inevitably see her as Irma in the radio show “My Friend Irma”, with that distinctive cute voice.  She has escaped from her seedy world, as she really is a nice girl, and wearing not much but fruit in strategic places on her body was upsetting to her.  She seeks the safety of the WAC, where unfortunately she continues to be pursued by a most persistent wolf, a happy-go-lucky sergeant played by Leif Erikson.
I really like Norma Busse in a small role as the sergeant interviewing Marie Wilson.  She is patient, and diligent, soft-spoken, and awkwardly ferrets out Marie’s talents and interests to find a spot for her in the WAC that will match her abilities.  Marie wants to be a spy.  Sgt. Busse is quite comically delicate, both in her surprise, and in her doggedly trying to find a job for this square peg.
Louise Beavers has a very small role as part of Rosalind Russell’s household staff, Regis Toomey shows up briefly as a guest, and Bess Flowers is at the party somewhere, probably dumping hors d'oeuvres into her purse.  You can’t take her anywhere, even if she’s everywhere.
The most auspicious cameo goes to General of the Army Omar Bradley.  I don’t know how he was persuaded into appearing in this film.  The movie was produced by Rosalind Russell’s husband, Frederick Brisson.  Maybe he had the General on speed dial.
Paul Douglas, the ever-reliable everyman of the 1950s, is also actually in the Army, as a scientist working on perfecting protective clothing.  Jealous over Roz’s plans with her new beau, he arranges for her to be one of his “volunteers” for his special arctic gear tests. 

We find Roz in a deep freeze chamber marching halfway across an imaginary Alaska, and enduring the rigors of obstacle courses until the very funny, blithe and whimsical, la-de-dah demeanor she entered the Army with becomes sullen, sour, and suspicious.  The transformation is understandable, but it’s as if we’re watching two people and we’ve lost track of who they are.
Though this film is really along the lines of screwball comedy, it actually shows Rosalind Russell engaging in physical challenges, even weapons firing — activities which were absent from the other films we’ve seen in this series.
We follow Roz as she begins with a physical examination, including a funny bit where she sits on the exam table, smoking, while the doctor tells her to inhale and exhale.
However, reminiscent of “Keep Your Power Dry”, we follow Roz as she silently drives by panties drying on a wash line outside the ladies’ barracks.  Apparently eight years later, there is still some curiosity about WAC unmentionables.
The ladies undergo swimming classes, like in “Skirts Ahoy”.  Like Esther Williams, Roz denounces the suits in preference to her own, saying, “I’m allergic to Army wool.”  It’s cute that she shows up at the pool with an armful of magazines, thinking she is going to lounge.
We also have a dance party scene, where Marie Wilson gets engaged to her favorite wolf, and Roz serves refreshments.
Unlike the physical training for the ladies in the other movies, which was challenging but ultimately character-building, Roz’s extreme training under the sadistic eye of her jealous ex-husband is only demoralizing.  It is not until the end of the film she realizes she had made good here, and that Paul Douglas is the man for her.  We also, as in “Keep Your Powder Dry” and “Skirts Ahoy”, have a board of inquiry scene, but Roz, despite a gallant defense by a contrite Paul Douglas is booted out of the WAC. 
Improbably, but with a charming nod to screwball comedy, she escapes from her beau’s car and leaps into a passing truck with new WAC recruits in it.  She wants to join again, and hopes that, since Paul Douglas is going to be sent to Korea to work on his experiments, that she might be sent there, too.
Unlike “Skirts Ahoy” we acknowledge the existence of a conflict in Korea and that it might pose some danger to Paul Douglas.  Also unlike “Skirts Ahoy”, we see a parade of female military personnel marching in desegregated units.
In this series we’ve seen what amounts to “message films”, even the comedies, because women in the military were new and a conservative public usually eschews the new.  The message of military experience, even a career, being beneficial both to women and society is filtered through some stereotypes of women’s abilities that serving in the military was supposed to smash.  It’s a vicious circle, but one that women, for the most part, have been able to climb out of through decades of service to our country.
I think one of the most inspiring screen messages promoting society’s acceptance of women in the military comes not through these movies, but from a different, perhaps unlikely, source.  This is the movie “Since You Went Away” (1944), covered here, which dramatizes the American home front.
Claudette Colbert is flattered when Joseph Cotten paints a picture of her dressed in a WAVES uniform for a Navy Department recruiting poster.  Well, she’s flattered until she realizes it’s a cheesecake pose.
Her teenage daughter, played by Jennifer Jones, strolls with her boyfriend, played by Robert Walker, and puts his overseas cap on her head.  She says thoughtfully, “If I were three or four years older I could be a WAVE.”
Walker displays no sense of shock or disapproval, bemusement or condescension, only nods, “Yeah, or a WAC.”
These are supposed to be nice, Middle Class Americans, church-going and righteously avoiding the black market, and do not hoard SPAM.  If they act as though women in the military are no big deal, then it must be a swell thing.
But my favorite moment is when, in the crowded train station, we observe a little girl making friendly conversation with an Army MP.
“My mommy’s a sergeant!”
That, as they say, makes it official.
Thanks for joining me on this quick-march through women in the military in World War II and the Korean War-era films. 

At ease.
Come back next week when we get ready for A Very Gumshoe Christmas.



Caftan Woman said...

I have a large soft spot for this movie being a major fan of Roz Russell plus I think Marie Wilson never put a foot wrong. It's the sort of movie that relies on the good will of the audience and the hard work of those involved.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Well put, CW. I also agree with your estimation of Marie Wilson. And Roz was swell.

grandoldmovies said...

I remember Marie Wilson as being adorable in this movie; she had such a touching, ingenuous quality. Roz is always just wonderful Roz; your comparison of her character in this film to Auntie Mame is so apt. And as Auntie Mame, Roz also got to do a lot of physical comedy, such as the hilarious hunting sequence; she really had a knack for it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Right on both counts, GOM. Marie Wilson never seemed like a sterotyped "dumb blonde" to me, just a terribly, heartbrakingly innocent one. I love the scene where she is assigned to drill Roz in marching, and Roz sits with her back against a tree, smoking, while Marie continues the exercise thinking Roz is right on her heels. Marie takes it very seriously, giving commands and marching by herself over the parade grounds.

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