Thursday, May 21, 2020

Classic movies for comfort...

When I think of movies that are most comforting to me in times of turmoil, I think of World War II-era “home front” films. They are not rollicking comedies or fantasy-inspired musicals that serve to take one’s mind off troubles in a way that completely removes the viewer from the present real-life world; however, to me they are deeply comforting.

This is our entry in the Classic Movie Blog Association blogathon: Classics for Comfort.  For more on the posts of other great movie blogs, have a look here at the roster.  The task is to pick five films to soothe and comfort in these challenging days of the COVID-19 quarantine.

The five films I’ve chosen are:

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

What appeals to me in terms of messages of comfort is that each of these films deals with problems that are realistic, the audiences could identify with the problems even if they did not experience each one, and the solutions to the problems did not require luck or a deus ex machina device. The “happy ending” was one usually not of triumph or gleeful surprise, but of humble hope. The heroes were everyday people who displayed moral courage, were tested, and came through by the strength of their character.

Such attributes, and stories, are needed now.

Every movie needs a villain. In Meet John Doe, which I covered here in this post, the villain was American fascism, in the persona of Edward Arnold, a media mogul who sought political power.

In Mrs. Miniver, covered in this post, the enemy was foreign fascism and the Nazi threat during the Battle of Britain. Keeping Calm and Carrying On was only one aspect of bravery displayed in this movie. There are so many charming touches that are like love letters to the world they were leaving behind but hoped to preserve.

I’ll Be Seeing You covered in two posts here and also here; and Since You Went Away, also covered in two posts here and also here, show the American home front and its deprivations, anxieties, and the willingness it took for a comparatively safer society in wartime to shoulder burdens for the common good.

The Best Years of Our Lives, covered here in this post, shows what happened to the weary conquerors of fascism when they straggled back home to a now unfamiliar homeland and the anxious and equally weary people who were waiting for them.

Though I imagine many film fans prefer those rollicking comedies and fantasy musicals as a way to relieve tension, I find those movies more appealing when I am in a lighter mood to begin with and not thinking of troubles.  It takes a certain toughness for Buster Keaton to avoid those oncoming trains and falling houses, and for Laurel and Hardy to execute even the simplest of tasks.  I need to be in a tough frame of mind just to endure their failures.  It takes a sharp wit to appreciate the mental agility of the screwball comedies with their verbal fireworks: the Marx Brothers, Hildy Johnson, and Carole Lombard and her butler all require one to be on the top of her game to keep up with them.

The musicals are pretty, frothy, and certainly escapist, but when I am pondering the troubles of the world, I find it unsatisfying for the girl to discover the bus boy she loves is really a millionaire.  I enjoy musicals, but more so when my troubles can be solved easily.

It is the home front dramas that appeal for their down-to-earth messages of decency, courage, and hope that bring me through the worst of times.  But for those who crave pure escapism, these films are also, according to today’s gritty standards, escapist.  All of these movies show a society that though is in some respects, fractured, nevertheless the decent people who survive their struggles in the end represent the best of our society as it was.  The bad people were the fascists, the Nazis, and the people who admired them.  The bad people were the hoarders, the selfish, the crass, the foolish, the ones who were willing to sell out American democratic ideals for personal gain. The bad people were depicted as repugnant, and the message of country and fellow citizen over self was accepted by audiences.  Is this not escapist?  Obviously, the times in which we live now in the United States would not have ever been tolerated by the World War II-era audiences.  The times in which we live now, where childish fools refuse to wear a mask to protect others; where childish fascist thugs threaten the public with military assault rifles and parade through someone’s hometown streets, and government buildings, without being arrested; and a fascist in the White House backed by his controlled Senate would have been the greatest fear of The Greatest Generation.

So I watch the home front movies, and I am soothed and comforted in a fantasy world of wholesome, homespun courage and grace, and remember a time when patriotism meant sacrifice – like the sacrifice of medical personnel and essential workers today – and hope for a better day.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

From the Mailbag...or email inbox...

Just a few odds and ends today...first, Happy Mother's Day to all moms!

Second, I was recently contacted by actress Beverly Washburn, whom we've mentioned several times over the years on this blog for her wonderful work as a child in several major films and her work on the second Loretta Young television series, but also for her interesting memoir on her acting career Reel Tears, here in this post.  It was very kind of her to reach out, and I enjoyed our email exchanges very much. Her warm and friendly personality is every bit as evident as it is in her book.

Last, I want to share with you a request from a reader who emailed me regarding a very dim memory from childhood he has of a film and asked if I could name what it was.  Unfortunately, I couldn't; so I'm passing it on to you with his permission to see if any of you can name the movie for him.  Here's what he has to say:
I just came upon your blog segment about Sinclair Lewis' "It Can't Happen Here". (See this post here.)

For years I've been puzzling over a bit of a 'wayback memory, that I'm placing at 1947 +/- . I was born in 1942, and in the memory I'm just a little kid.

My parents had taken me to a movie. It must have been a double feature, but I don't recall what we had gone to see. The film ended, another started and, suddenly, my parents were very hurriedly dragging me out of the auditorium. That dragging is what locked in the memory.

What I'm remembering is two guys have been out in the woods and are finishing up a fishing trip, hiking back out. The come into a small
town, are puzzled that there doesn't seem to be anyone around, notice that there are banners hanging from all the light poles. They hear an amplified voice coming from somewhere, follow the sound, and find an
auditorium with all the townspeople inside being harangued by a speaker, again with the hall festooned with banners. That's all because then the auditorium  doors closed behind us as mom and dad dragged me away. I don't know if those banners bore swastikas or if my mind has painted them in later. Just a bit of the film's overture; very little to paint the real plot. Could it have been "It Can't Happen Here"? But you say no production ever came to fruition. Any ideas?

Please let us know if you remember what movie this is.  Thanks!

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Rationing - 1944

Rationing (1944) pokes fun at a wartime home front nuisance while at the same time staunchly upholding support for this act of civilian sacrifice.  It is one example of many from that era where decency was expected, sometimes enforced, and lauded as noble in a way that was genuinely and charmingly American. 

Wallace Beery, whose career was an example of that rare character actor-as-star, runs a general store in a small town. Wartime rationing is his nightmare and having to deal with irate customers is the sacrifice he makes to his country during wartime. 

Marjorie Main, in a role unlike her usual crusty maids and aunties, plays the humorless administrator of the local Office of Price Administration, which regulated the ration system and issued books of ration stamps and tokens. They are adversaries and constantly spar, but there is more to their fractious relationship—they were once headed for the altar, but when her mother did not approve, Wallace married someone in France when he was in the Army in World War I, and she married someone else because he was reported missing.

Beery, who makes deliveries to his customers in his car, drives by road signs that illustrate how pervasive rationing has become to society: mile markers are replaced by signs that tell us how many gallons is it to the next town.  Poor Wallace runs out, and has to push his auto.  
Here are some gasoline ration stamps from that era.  Each state issued its own.  Here we have a set from California, and another from Connecticut. The owner of the vehicle wrote the license plate number on the stamps, and they could not be used by anybody else.  See this previous post on gasoline rationing stickers on cars in the movies.

Back at the store, customers clamor for meat, which, of course, could be purchased only if one had the required number of red meat tokens.  Blue tokens were for milk and cheese.

Marjorie Main’s office is next door at the post office.  Wallace petitions her for more gas coupon books.  She won’t give them to him. She lives behind the post office.  Not her usual frumpy role, Miss Marjorie looks quite stylish in her upsweep hairdo and business suit.

She is a model of efficiency, gives him forms to fill out in triplicate and cautions him that he must not sell any merchandise in his store that require tokens, or “points’ without the customer turning in those points with the payment.  The audience at that time surely could relate and smile.

Marjorie Main, a widow, has a daughter played by Dorothy Morris, who is in love with Wallace Beery’s adopted son, played by Tommy Batten. He is preparing to go into the Army.  They want to marry right away, and though Uncle Wallace doesn’t object, they are all afraid Marjorie Main will not give her consent. Marjorie actually does approve of the marriage, but want to make sure practical matters are addressed: What if Tommy is killed in the war and Dorothy is left with nothing, what if she has a child alone.   He must have savings put by before they can marry. Tommy agrees they should wait; it is Dorothy who wants to marry immediately, and they fight. There is a touching moment when Wallace gives him the medal he won in World War I as a good-luck piece before he goes off to war.

Young Richard Hall plays Teddy, a boy whose mother is away looking for work in a war plant, so Wallace his minding him and entertaining him with the rationing book version of Little Red Riding Hood.   His tangled tale gives us an idea of the complexity of the rationing book system.

The movie has villains far worse than the wolf, two of them.

Donald Meek is the equivalent of a home front villain: he is a hoarder.  Wallace admonishes him, and all the crabby ladies who come in for meat and such that the country must save its resources for the fighting troops.

A subplot involves a lady barber with whom Wallace is comically infatuated.  She’d like to wheedle a rationed rubber girdle from Wallace, who must sneak one under the watchful eye of Marjorie Main (and will later have to sneak it back). Marjorie comes to him for a preparation for a toothache, and he sarcastically teases her.  The two old pros play well off each other.

Fed up with the OPA rules, and Marjorie, Wallace takes a train to Washington, D.C., to visit with his senator, who is also his old Army pal, to loosen up the rationing rules for his store. 

The senator reminds him of the vital patriotic nature of rationing, and appoints Wallace to work alongside Marjorie on his local board.  Now the shoe is on the other foot and his added responsibility turns him from a guy who wants to bend rules to a guy who has to make sure the rules are upheld.

And he runs smack into a black market plot right under his nose.  In an effort to raise money for his son to marry, he sells half interest in his store to Howard Freeman, who as it turns out, runs a local black market ring. He is the second villain. In a two-fisted he-man confrontation at the local ice house, Wallace proves himself to be a hero as he uncovers the black market ring and he pummels Mr. Freeman with blocks of ice.  His ex-partner’s share in the store is now bought by Marjorie Main – Wallace’s once and future partner in life.  To avoid a 72-page form to dissolve the partnership in the store, Wallace takes the lesser of two evils: he signs a marriage license instead.

The movie is a lighthearted look at what was really a pain for Americans on the home front, but in reminding them through films, ads, and cajoling by their favorite stars on radio, the civilian population was also painted as heroic and patriotic for cooperating.  It was an effective program for giving the populace a sense of mission.  This is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of irritation felt by people, or that they had a Pollyanna-ish attitude toward rationing.  
Woody Woodpecker in Ration Bored (1943) is, as usual, unrepentant in his exaggerated antics to get enough gas for his car, and a prolonged fight with a cop in a junkyard after he is caught siphoning gas from the cop car, results in the two of them being blasted to kingdom come. We have to assume moviegoers took the hint even if they cheered for Woody.

Masters of the obvious will refer to this movie as dated.  Indeed, for in today’s world where we will die and kill others by not cooperating with simple social distancing restrictions, we have to marvel at how many people in this country put self over country.  And how the more despicable of them do it waving a Nazi flag.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.

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