Thursday, May 25, 2017

On the Sunny Side (1942) and You, John Jones! (1943)

On the Sunny Side (1942) and You, John Jones! (1943) give us a look at the wartime experience of children, as the movies viewed it, during World War II, particularly acknowledging how fortunate American children were compared to their counterparts in war zones.  We were encouraged to be both grateful as well as compassionate.  If there was also sometimes a sense of pride thrown into the mix, well, genuine humility is unfortunately not always our strong suit as a nation.  Still, we might imagine that much of the pride in our relative safety was borne of overwhelming relief.

This is our second entry in our series on childhood during World War II.  Roddy McDowall, whom we saw last week in The Pied Piper (1942), stars as well in On the Sunny Side, made in the same year.  Roddy had made a great impression on audiences in How Green Was My Valley (1941), and became one of the most recognizable, certainly one of the youngest, members of Hollywood’s “British Colony.”  He, his mother, and sister left Great Britain in 1940, an era when Dunkirk, the Blitzkrieg, and what appeared to be imminent invasion by the Nazis brought many Brits to the conclusion that London was no longer safe for their children.  Roddy knew something about the role he was going to play next.

In On the Sunny Side, Master Roddy is an English boy sent to live with a family in the United States for the duration of the war.  In the company of a group of other child evacuees, all traveling without their parents, he arrives on a ship to New York, bound for the Midwest home of husband and wife Donald Douglas and Katharine Alexander, and their boy played by Freddie Mercer, who is nearly the same age as Roddy.  Their parents were acquainted from a previous trip to England, good enough friends to be trusted with the care of their child.  His father is an RAF officer, and his mother is played by Jill Esmond, who also played his mum in The Pied Piper.  Jane Darwell is their housekeeper.

Much of the story is a fairly routine plot of a boy in strange surroundings who makes friends and becomes part of the family/community.  Freddie Mercer lets Roddy into his gang, which, with a clubhouse in the woods that is an old abandoned bus, seems a lot like the kids from the Our Gang series, but less scruffy, and not as funny.  Indeed, they are a rather serious and doleful group of youngsters, but the grownups writing and producing this story are perhaps projecting their own seriousness on the nice American squeaky clean world they’ve set up for the kids.  But, like the Our Gang kids, they even have a bully to fear: Stanley Clements, whose tough wise-guy talk made him the leader of the pack in Going My Way (1945) and in future Bowery Boys films.   Ann Todd plays a classmate who, like most of the girls in the class, fancies gallant Roddy.  A guy with an English accent can really clean up in this town.

The climax occurs when Freddie gets fed up with everybody’s fussing over the new kid, so much so that he becomes jealous and wants to run away from home.  Freddie, who came to Hollywood on his singing talents as a noted symphony and choir soloist, also had a bit part in Going My Way.  Here he’s funny as he sputters about the tea-drinking English kid ruining his life, but he draws our sympathy, and Roddy’s.

Though the grownups are firmly in charge, the story is really presented from the viewpoint of the kids, and they have the most screen time.  Though we might wish for a deeper story less focused on report cards, bullies, and gosh-gee-whiz dialogue, it is true that the prosaic troubles faced by the kids in the story really do reflect what’s important to children.  The adults may be reading the war headlines, but the kids—at least in the U.S.—are more driven by the realities of their world of making friends, doing chores, and worrying about what others think of them.  We might note that the boys’ teaming up and eventually conquering the bully is a parallel to the U.S. and Britain teaming up to fight the fascists.

The movie does give us a few quite poignant scenes that hit on the broader crisis: The British kids on board ship, gathering at the rail to watch the Statue of Liberty slide by as they enter New York.  Roddy’s panic and nightmares when he hears a police siren, as it reminds him of the air raid sirens and emergency vehicles of the Blitz back home.  Most especially, the scene where a group of British kids are gathered in a New York radio studio, Roddy among them, to speak to their parents in a London studio via short wave.  The anxiety on the faces of the separate shots of kids and parents, their hesitancy to be too personal on the radio, their brave front of trying to give cheerful messages, and the cruel brevity of the time they are allowed create an image of both tenderness and anguish.  Tears are fought back.  Roddy, who even from a very young age was so good working before a camera, shows a myriad of feelings with the just the slight flickering of expressions on his face, in his lovely dark eyes.  He is nervous, then he warms up and excitedly tells his mother about his new life and friends, comically using American expressions he has learned that he must translate to her.  When his time is up, he realizes he has forgotten to use the notes he made beforehand of all the things he really wanted to say.

The evacuation of children from the London area had them seeking refuge in other parts of the U.K., in many dominion nations, including Canada, and also in the U.S., and involved children of every class.  Vera Brittain, noted British writer whose memoir of World War I, Testament of Youth, perhaps is more well known, at least in this country, than her other works, sent her two children away from their London home to stay with friends in Minnesota during the war.  Her son John was twelve at the time, the age of the boys in On the Sunny Side, and her daughter Shirley (a future member of Parliament), was not quite ten years old.

In excerpts from her diary, published as Wartime Chronicle – Vera Brittain’s Diary1939-1945, Brittain notes that the decision to send her children was a difficult one, “There seemed no right decision to be made, whichever course I took would involve bitter regrets.”

Her children left from Liverpool after Dunkirk, just missing the start of the Blitzkrieg and bombing of London by a matter of weeks.  They remained in the U.S. for three years, coming home, separately, in 1943.  She writes in her diary of the anguish of not receiving letters, then receiving them and learning her son has grown taller than she, and they are changing, experiencing new adventures in summer camp and in school where the curriculum is different.  Missing birthdays and Christmas.  At one point, Vera Brittain notes that her husband urged her to go to the movies to take her mind off their troubles.

“G. persuaded me to go to the new Disney film Dumbo, but it depressed me very much by reminding me of the children.”

Her children became teenagers while they were away.  Their mother drilling in firefighting practice to help after the bombing raids.  “One of the odd incongruities of this war to think that John—who must now be a fairly vigorous boy on the verge of 15—is safely in America while his middle-aged mother scrambles round in trousers fighting fires (or learning to).”

She remarks of her son’s return, “I did not recognize him, but it will take time to get to know him again.”  Her daughter arrived home, after a delay in the Atlantic due to perilous naval battle action, near the end of the year.  (Brittain’s husband, who was a university lecturer, had traveled to the U.S. for a part-year post and on returning, was on a ship that was actually torpedoed.  Twenty died, but he and some others made it to lifeboats and were afterwards picked up by a freighter and returned to England.)

When the family was reunited, a visit to Grandmother brings a comic conclusion to the adventure:

“Children uproarious over tea, Mother blames their manners on America.”

The children who remained in war zones with no avenue of safety were the subject of You, John Jones! (1943) a short subject about ten minutes long, directed by Mervyn LeRoy, starring James Cagney as an All-American dad who works as a supervisor in an airplane factory during the war, and also does his bit at night as a volunteer air raid warden.  Ann Sothern plays his wife, and their daughter is Margaret O’Brien.  When he arrives home from work, little Margaret is practicing her speech for an elocution contest, soberly delivering President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address while perched on the living room window seat.  There are politicians who can’t deliver a speech as well as Margaret.  Perhaps they never “stumped” on a window seat.

Cagney leaves for his night watch, dressed in his trench coat with the Civil Defense armband and his helmet.  He sits on a park bench for a little plane spotting and considers how lucky he is to be living in a land where he is not likely to see an enemy bomber tonight.  The omniscient narrator, presumably his conscience, and ours, addresses Cagney (or John Jones), reminding him that if they were in other lands, his little Margaret, “Your baby, John Jones, your baby!” would be in danger.

Then we have a montage of scenes of Margaret as an English girl in the Blitz; as a Greek girl, her leg amputated, trudging with an amputation along a line of refugees; of a girl from Yugoslavia sobbing over a dead mother; from “Australasia” – quite a stunning image of Margaret looking hollow-eyed and shell shocked, then as the camera pans back, we see she is a prisoner of war behind barbed wire.  Margaret, as a Russian girl, lies dead in the ruins of a bombed out house.

To perhaps remind us not only of our good fortune in being spared these experiences in our own country (with the exception of the Americans of Japanese descent being held behind barbed wire in concentration camps), we are reminded, too, of the debt we owe our allies who are carrying the brunt of the war.  The narrator remarks, “If conquered people collaborated, your side couldn’t win this cruel war—did I say your side?  Our side.”

Then an attack occurs, but Cagney realizes it is only a dream.  (Sleeping on duty!)  He returns home, and Margaret finishes her speech with earnest, one may say almost fanatical delivery.   You can have a look at You, John Jones! here.

Kids here in the U.S. may have largely been spared the scenes little Margaret faced, but they were not without trauma caused by the war.  Come back next Thursday when we discuss the March of Time documentary Youth in Crisis (1943), and the Youth Runs Wild (1944) starring Bonita Granville.
Wartime Chronicle - Vera Brittain's Diary 1939-1945, eds. Alan Bishop & Y. Aleksandra Bennett, Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1989.
The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Pied Piper - 1942

The Pied Piper (1942) strikes a unique balance between a whimsical adventure—and the ghastly horror of being caught in the middle of a war.  In the world of children, however, what can be terrible can also be an adventure, and what can be an adventure can also horrify.  It is sometimes a very fine line, and that is the nature of childhood: that children are both helpless and yet resilient.

This post is part of the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) “Underseen and Underrated Blogathon.” Please wander over and check out the other great participating blogs.

This post is also the first entry in my new series on the depiction of children during World War II.  In the coming weeks, we’ll be discussing On the Sunny Side (1942) with Roddy McDowall, The Search (1948) with Montgomery Clift, Youth Runs Wild (1944) with Bonita Granville, the short subject You, John Jones (1943) with Margaret O’Brien and James Cagney, and two March of Time short documentaries, Youth in Crisis (1943), and Teen-Age Girls (1945). 

Many classic films from that era tend to show children on the periphery of the wartime crisis and not in the middle of it.  For example, Shirley Temple portrays an American home front childhood as only a reflection of the grownups’ world and not even enough to form a subplot in the movies of Since You Went Away (1944) and I’ll Be Seeing You (1944).  With a stable full of glamorous grownup stars like Jennifer Jones, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, and Joseph Cotten, the worries of Shirley Temple brooding over collecting scrap and experimenting with too much lipstick is not enough to carry a film, and most directors and producers of the day evidently felt there was not much of a market to make films for children about the war, let alone films about children.  Not that there weren’t any, but if the horrors of war were toned down in a censored Hollywood—censored not just by the War Department, but by the Production Code—then the horrors experienced by children during the war were obviously not going to be dramatized in great detail.  We didn’t have much of a stomach for that.

Paradoxically, there were quite a few series chapter books written for kids during the war that brought the tension, the anxiety, and to a degree, the horrors of wartime to an American middle-grade readership.  Such titles include Norma Kent of the WACS, Red Randall at Pearl Harbor, Dave Dawson with  the R.A.F., Nancy Dale Army Nurse, and a few of the early more famous Cherry Ames books.  As I wrote in this previous post on this topic:

There are several elements to these stories which are quite striking.  One is the, in some cases, unsparing description of death and cruelty, and the fatalistic manner in which the tone of these stories seems to indicate the young reader should accept these conditions.  Nancy Dale’s troop ship is torpedoed, and she spends several days in a lifeboat with a handful of other nurses and crew members.  One dies and they dump the body overboard. 

At one point in the story she receives word her brother is missing in action and presumed dead.  A family friend, comforting her, tells her not to hold out much hope of his survival.  “Don’t let wishful thinking keep you from facing reality, my dear.  There’re many things worse than death in this war.”  How would a kid, who had relatives in the war, take this message?

Due to several other projects, my intention to write a book about this subject has been on the back burner for some years, but I hope to resurrect it possibly next year.  If any of you have any suggestions to add to the list of children’s books, I’d be very interested to hear them.

The Pied Piper, unlike most World War II era movies dealing directly with the war, shows us what it is like to be a child during this hellish period in history, but does so in a light and skillfully handled way.  We are purposefully not made uncomfortable, but we are reminded that very young, very helpless victims are suffering beyond our reach to help them, and that should be horror enough for any compassionate person.

Monty Woolley stars as an irascible Englishman on holiday in Switzerland.  He is a widower, and his son, an RAF officer, has recently been killed in the war.  His only other child is a married daughter living in the United States, so he is alone.  He went to Switzerland, he admits, to sulk because having offered his services to British government authorities, hoping to do his bit for the war effort, he was continually turned down because of his age and told by his vicar he could perhaps instead knit for the soldiers.  Disgusted, spitting nails, he took his fishing rods and went to Switzerland.

There at the rustic inn, he is harassed by young Roddy McDowall, a bright boy who, though polite in the conventional English manner, is not shy of adults and speaks to them on an equal footing: he and Monty Woolley have an argument over whether Rochester is a city in the United States or a state.  Mr. Woolley insists it’s a state and takes such umbrage at Master McDowall’s disagreeing with him that he develops resentment near hatred for the boy.  It is very funny.  Nobody can sputter or sarcastically fly off the handle like Monty Woolley, and he does it a lot in this movie.

Peggy Ann Garner is Roddy’s younger sister.  She is better behaved.

However, it is June 1940, the war is heating up, Dunkirk has just happened, and they hear from the BBC that France is likely to fall to the Nazis soon, and England may be invaded.  Woolley decides his place is home in England, to knit if need be, and packs to leave.  The parents of Roddy and Peggy Ann, played by Lester Matthews and Jill Esmond, ask Mr. Woolley to take their children with him back to England, to live with her sister until the war is over.  Matthews is with the League of Nations in Switzerland and must remain at his post, and his wife wants to remain with him.  They fear that Switzerland will be invaded next.  (As it happens, it was not invaded and the kids would have been safer there, but this injected opinion demonstrates the chaos of the war and how little we knew what was happening, and absolutely no clue as to predict how the events would play out.  When we watch these sometimes sentimental war films, we need to remind ourselves that the Allies were losing for much of the war and we really did not know how it would end.)

Monty Woolley is hesitant to take the kids, but he agrees after delicate questions about their ability to tend to their personal needs, and they’re off on a train to the north of France.  However, the train is stopped before they reach the new and ever-changing front lines.  Woolley, still the domineering Englishman on vacation bellows at the French railroad official, “But I have two small children!”

The harried civil servant replies, “At your age, Monsieur, that is undoubtedly magnificent, but if this is a contest, I have nine.”

Roddy, still irritating, however manages to be useful because he has learned French and is able to converse with all and sundry, especially now that they are being treated like cattle on an overcrowded bus to Chartes.  Here on the bus they pick up a new follower: a small French girl, played by Fleurette Zima, whose aunt has thrust a paper with instructions into Rose’s hand which direct Woolley to take her to her father who works as a waiter in London.

Woolley at first balks at this, but since the child is alone; he takes responsibility and allows her to come with them.  Hence, the title of the movie, The Pied Piper, as he gathers child-followers through the war zone to take to safety in England.  The story is from the book by English author Nevil Shute, who later more famously gave us A Town Like Alice, (the film version we discussed here) and On the Beach.

The bus, crawling along a road choked with refugees straggling away from the front, breaks down, and the passengers alight.  As Woolley and the three kids cool their feet in a nearby stream and eat sandwiches which have been packed for them, Nazi planes swoop down and strafe the ragged column of refugees.  Woolley gathers their bags to continue the journey on foot, unable to shield the kids from the view of dead bodies in the road.  The camera shows the three heads of the kids popping up from an embankment off the side of the road, looking with disbelief at the corpses in front of them.

Just as our protectiveness and our embarrassment makes us try to gloss over terrible aspects of life to kids, so Monty Woolley’s continual funny indignation keeps the movie moving along, though the tone has become darker, as if to ignore the war as a troublesome inconvenience.  He’s trying to keep everybody’s head above water, and soon he finds himself with another child: Pierre, another boy on the bus whose parents were murdered in front of him.  The boy is almost catatonic with the horror of his experience, and Woolley’s shock at Pierre’s mental state, looking into his eyes, is a demonstration to us that we really have no idea what horror is as we tend our victory garden, and collect nickels and dimes for the Red Cross.

Pierre, played by Maurice Tauzin, apparently is speechless and unresponsive to sounds.  Roddy bonds with Monty Woolley as his second in command, and does much to take care of Pierre and the girls.  Soon they are joined by Willem, a Dutch boy who cannot speak either English or French, but with a wound on his head, is apparently orphaned and homeless as well.  By this time, Woolley does not question or balk, he accepts the boy into his protection. 

He searches out the house of a French family whom he and his son met in the previous year on holiday.  They became good friends, and he will learn that Anne Baxter, the daughter of the family, actually was the sweetheart of his son, and she mourns him as well.  In his son’s memory, Miss Baxter lends a hand and helps to usher Woolley and his kids to the Brittany coast, where she will enlist the help of her uncle to arrange a fishing boat to take them across the Channel to England.

But the uncle, played by J. Carroll Naish, is reluctant to help.  He has been living in Occupied France for months, and in despair, cries out that no one can trust anyone, lending a hand to anyone could get them killed.  His fears are real and valid, and we cannot treat them lightly.

But he helps to hook them up with Marcel Dalio, the fisherman with the boat, but soon they are caught by the Nazis and taken to the chateau headquarters of the local commander, played in his movie debut by Otto Preminger.

Why Preminger, with years of directing under his belt, and two years away from his masterpiece, Laura (1944) decided to play a Nazi in this movie I have no idea, except that it is very important for the American audience not to write off this enemy as a mere caricature, because what follows is the hook, and perhaps, the soul of the movie.

Helmut Dantine, incidentally, has a small role as Preminger’s aide.  He also appeared as the German flyer captured by Greer Garson in Mrs. Miniver in the same year.  Both he and Marcel Dalio also turned up in Casablanca (1943).

The Nazis threaten Woolley, Anne Baxter, and the kids, because a plot to kill Hitler, visiting in the general area, had been foiled.  The hunt for conspirators brought a dragnet of the village, and Preminger is especially skeptical of Woolley’s stated intention of taking these five children, none of whom actually belong to him, to England.  Preminger tries to wear down and intimidate Woolley, believing he is covering for something bigger.

At last, Preminger relents, and the prisoners, including the French boat captain, are given food and treated civilly, and Monty Woolley is called to the commander’s office for a private meeting.  The guards are dismissed.

Okay, spoiler coming.  If you don’t want to know the end, go away.  No?  You want to stay?  Fine, it’s no skin off my nose.

Otto Preminger questions Woolley once again on the ridiculous story of taking the children to England, which, he says, is pointless because the Germans are going to invade in a matter of weeks.  Woolley states that he intends to send the children to the United States to the care of his married daughter.  Preminger counters that this is unbelievable—why would she want to take care of strange children?  Why would her husband permit that?

Woolley, irritated with this man’s utter lack of imagination, let alone compassion, insists that it is so.  They are kids, they need to be safe.  Preminger says, “What about the Jewish child?”  He infers that Pierre, who has dark hair and dark eyes, is Jewish.  Woolley says he is unaware of what religion the child is and couldn’t care less and neither would his daughter or her husband care.  He says that in the U.S., many children war refugees have already been taken in without regard to color, race, or religion.

Monty Woolley apparently has never met Donald Trump.

Otto Preminger, never losing his steely glare, nevertheless seems finally to be convinced of Mr. Woolley’s sincerity.  He lowers his voice and becomes confidential.  He will make a deal with Woolley.  He will allow Woolley to leave with the children and go to England, but Woolley must do him a favor.  Woolley stiffens.  He will not be a spy for the Nazis.

Preminger does not want him to spy.  He wants something else.  He wants Woolley to take another child along:  His little niece.  She is the child of his younger brother, now dead, who married a woman they later discovered to be Jewish.  The mother has been murdered by the state.  The child is not safe in Germany now.

Preminger tells Woolley that he has an older brother in the United States, who became a U.S. citizen long ago.  The child should be sent to her uncle.  He lives in Rochester, New York.

Rochester!  A brilliantly comic moment in a dramatic scene.  Woolley’s longstanding argument with Roddy McDowall over whether Rochester is a city or a state comes back to haunt him.  He must admit defeat.

But there is success and triumph in this nightmare of war.  The little niece joins the other kids, and Woolley and the French captain leave for England.  The kids have been traumatized, and this is clear even though the story is focused more on the adult actors.  Woolley, who had felt sidelined in the war due to his age, has become a hero through his sense of responsibility and duty despite the fact that he dislikes children.  Anne Baxter has paid the highest tribute to her deceased love by saving his father.  Otto Preminger, representing evil in his Nazi uniform, can still make an exception to the rules of war and his foul regime, in his affection for his niece.  He cannot believe that Woolley and Baxter have risked their lives for these ragged children, and that strangers in the United States will care for them, even the Jewish girl, but he must believe, because it is his only hope.

As the fishing boat pulls away from the stone wharf, Anne Baxter and Otto Preminger wave goodbye to them.  It is an unlikely scene, but we must believe, because the millions of souls who will not have a happy ending are beyond our comprehension.  Like Pierre, we will become frozen in horror if we think of it. 

I suspect this movie, directed by Irving Pichel and adapted by Nunnally Johnson from Nevil Shute’s book, since I hear of it little mentioned, may well be underseen and underrated.  For other great blog posts, please check out the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA) “Underseen and Underrated Blogathon.”

Come back next Thursday for a look at On the Sunny Side (1942) and You, John Jones (1943).

The audio book for Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. is now for sale on, and on Amazon and iTunes.

Also in paperback and eBook from Amazon, CreateSpace, and my Etsy shop: LynchTwinsPublishing.

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