Monday, June 16, 2014

On the Homefront : MGM and the War Effort

Sunlight streams through the shattered roof of a country church. There are empty places in the pews where, only a few weeks earlier, parishioners had sat - the local stationmaster, a choirboy, the young daughter-in-law of a much loved family. They are gone now, dead from the bullets or the bombs of an enemy they didn't know, in a war they hardly understood. 

Framed by the wreckage of his church, the vicar delivers a ringing sermon : "Why, in all conscience, should these be the ones to suffer? I shall tell you why! Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is a war of the people - of all people - and it must be fought not only on the battlefield but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom...This is a people's war! It is our war! We are the fighters! " 

The camera pans upward, through the sundered roof of the church.  "Onward Christian Soldiers" rises on the soundtrack as British fighter places - like a gathering flock of graceful birds - wing overhead, toward the enemy. 

So ends Mrs. Miniver, MGM's most popular and award-winning film of World War II. Moviegoers around the world thrilled to it, and with good cause. MGM was at its best during the war years, making movies to build the morale of fighting men and women, and the families awaiting their return. 


It was a time of pure patriotism, the fan club, the screen magazine, and the star system. MGM's male stars traded costumes for khaki and marched off to war. Clark Gable, James Stewart, Robert Taylor, Gene Kelly, Jackie Cooper, Stewart Granger, Van Heflin, Robert Montogomery, and Robert Sterling all served in the armed services. 

Other stars of both sexes went overseas to perform in USO shows; some washed dishes, served food, or danced with lonely GIs in the Hollywood Canteen. And still others traveled around the United States,  selling war by the thousands, sometimes quite creatively. MGM, for instance, conducted a "Tanks for Yanks" campaign that featured Johnny Sheffield, the "Boy" in the Tarzan series, touring the country and speaking, from the turret of a tank, about "A Boy's Place in America". 

In another promotion, MGM conducted a contest in several cities to pick seven girls who were "...doing the most to promote the war effort on the homefront". Their prizes were corsages and dinner with seven sailors, all paid for by MGM. 

Meanwhile, back at the studio, the sound stages busily produced war-related short subjects, such as National Defense, a documentary honoring all of the Rosie the Riveters and Max the Mechanics in the country. One of Pete Smith's lighthearted short subjects, Victory Vittles, advised home-front housewives to make do with leftovers, while an intriguing series on the medieval prophet Nostradamus revealed his provocative predictions for the advent and end of the war. Don't Talk and Mr. Blabbermouth warned home-front warriors about the consequences of rumor-mongering and spilling war secrets to unsuspected spies. 

For the young and the young-of-heart, the studio's cartoon department penned, among others, The Blitz Wolf, in which Adolf the cartoon wolf, who bore a "striking resemblance to Adolph the Phewrer" was ultimately defeated by the three little pigs of Pigmania - once they abandoned isolationism and fought together for the common good. 


Still, MGM's most effective weapons were its stirring home-front feature films. "Motion pictures are of the utmost importance to....build up mroale", said General Dwight Eisenhower in 1942, "...feature productions bring home their country vividly to the memories of soldiers. Let's have more motion pictures!" An MGM obliged, with multi-star musical extravaganzas such as Thousands Cheer ( 1943 ), Family musicals such as Meet Me in St. Louis ( 1944 ), comedies such as Swing Shift Maisie ( 1943 ), and, most movingly, tributes to the family values the Allied forces were fighting to defend. 

MGM's Mrs. Miniver gently dissolved class distinctions in England and celebrated the enduring power of the family - itself a miniature world at peace. Its American counterpart was The Human Comedy ( 1943 ), William Saroyan's semi-autobiographical story about the Macauley family of Ithaca, California. In his own, spun-glass way, Saroyan created a town and a family with whom practically every American could identify and sympathize. 

The Macauleys are poor in terms of money but affluent in the abundant, boundless love they have for each other. Since his father is dead and brother Marcus ( Van Johnson ) is in the army, young Homer Macauley ( Mickey Rooney ) works at a postal telegraph office to support the family. At the beginning of the film, Homer is a boy; by its end, the war has made him a man, as it has the American soldiers overseas. The telegraph office where he works receives and delivers wires from the War Department announcing the deaths of sons on the battlefield. Inevitably, it receives the news of the death of Homer's brother Marcus. As Homer tries desperately to cope with his terrible loss, the voices of Marcus and his father - like the vicar's words in Mrs. Miniver - comfort him, and the theater audience, too : "You are what we're fighting the war for. You are what we have left behind - to live the hopes we only dreamed ". 

This post is an excerpt from Peter Hay's excellent book on the history of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios, "MGM: When the Lion Roars" published by Turner Publishing in 1991. For those who have not yet read it, it is the authoritative book on the studio and a truly delightful read, packed with over 700 photographs from the MGM's golden era. 

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