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