4 WWII Home Front Movies

World War II gave rise to a whole cottage industry of war films during the conflict and for generations to come. There are, of course, so many facets of the war to explore whether it’s Europe, The Pacific, North Africa, and any number of elements.

However, something that always fascinated me was life on the Home Front. Now wars feel like proxies. They rarely affect us first-hand. During the 1940s the war was a concerted effort on all fronts. It affected not only soldiers but civilians living miles away.

Mrs. Miniver (1942) chronicles the exploits of a fearless mother who holds her family together during The Blitz and the threat of German invasion. More The Merrier (1943) takes a comical look at the housing crisis that plagued Washington D.C. and other metropolis areas. Even the likes of Stage Door Canteen (1943) and Thank Our Lucky Stars (1943) give a picture into the USO and entertainment efforts put on for soldiers.

Here is a list of four other films from the World War II years that function as time capsules giving us some element of what life was like during those impactful years in history.

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Hail The Conquering Hero (1944)

Certainly, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is another uproarious wartime comedy from Preston Sturges. But this other offering is equally memorable in how it takes on small-town jingoism and hero worship to outrageous proportions. Whereas most old war pictures look moth-bitten with age and overly saccharine, somehow this effort strikes a phenomenal balance between absurd satire and lucid sentimentality.

It’s not making fun of our war heroes as much as it lampoons how we try to exalt them in our own well-meaning blundering. There’s no doubt some of this was certainly acknowledged during the war although I’m not sure how the general public would have felt about the movie in that context. Now it looks prescient. Eddie Bracken, William Demarest, and company are absolutely hilarious

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Hollywood Canteen (1944)

Actors Bette Davis and John Garfield of Warner Bros. famously set up the Hollywood Canteen as a haven for soldiers on leave. The perks were free and included dances with the most beautiful starlets and entertainment provided by the brightest comedic and musical personalities of the day. You could even win a raffle to kiss Hedy Lamarr.

Although the film is slight, sentimental propaganda, it does give at least a hint of what this group endeavor was all about. For old movie aficionados, it also provides a convenient opportunity to see just about every person Warner Bros. had on the lot in 1944. They all come out to the party to pitch in on the morale-boosting effort.

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The Clock (1945)

Whirlwind romances feel almost commonplace in the war years. Imagine the scenario. You’re longtime beau or the eligible man or woman you just met is going off to war. Miles will separate you. All you have are letters. There’s an uncertainty of whether or not you will ever see them again. The only thing that does seem permanent (even if it’s not) is love.

The theme would crop up in any number of pictures from The Very Thought of You to I’ll Be Seeing You as the situation undoubtedly resonated with a contemporary audience. However, another favorite is The Clock, starring Judy Garland and Robert Walker. It encapsulates the moment in time so well with heightened emotions, an unceremonious courthouse wedding, and the open-ending. We don’t know what the future holds.

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The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

If Since You Went Away was David Selznick’s WWII epic, this was certainly Samuel Goldwyn’s entry. Its title plays with this ironic ambiguity. The best years of our lives would seem to be ahead of us. The war is over. The Allies have won. The soldiers return home victorious. And yet even in their victory, there is so much to navigate in the civilian world.

Wyler’s effort is such a perceptive picture in how it makes us feel the growing pains and relational tribulations of an entire community. It might be the fact you barely know your wife because you’ve been away for the majority of your marriage. Maybe your kids have grown up in a different world and there’s a corporate job waiting for you to reacclimate to. It might be PTSD or tangible physical injuries totally changing your day-to-day existence. As such the movie is indicative of a certain time and place and a tipping point in American society.

What is your favorite WWII film, whether it depicts the war or some aspect of the home front?

The Clock (1945)

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May 25th, 1945. That’s when The Clock was originally released. To save you doing all the mental calculations V-E Day was on Tuesday, May 8th and the folks at home were ready for the war to be over. So in such an environment, this is hardly a war film and it can’t even claim to be a post-war picture like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). It’s floating in limbo.

This is the story of a fresh-faced soldier boy in the big city (Robert Walker) constantly craning his neck in awe of skyscrapers and cowering a little bit under the weight of them all. As such he’s constantly being bumped into, like a tourist perpetually lost. From such a moment springs an almost unforgivable meet-cute we can spy from a mile away. She trips over him and loses a heel.

But our stars are winsome and their persons genuine in nature in the days when that was unequivocally so. Corporal Joe Allen (Walker) proves to be to New York City what Mr. Smith was to Washington D.C. He even rides the very same sightseeing bus. He’s also a bit of an idealistic builder not unlike George Bailey.

The soldier and the gal he asks to follow a piece, end up taking a Central Park stroll together followed by a tour of the local art museum, taking a load off, butt up against an Egyptian sphinx. There’s something inherently refreshing about its meandering wanderings through New York City. It gives this illusion of circumstance where there is no clear-cut agenda. In a moment of decision, he goes pell-mell chasing after her bus because he knows something special is onboard and he sets up a date just like that.

Vincente Minnelli is looking out for his heroine as Judy Garland was his own new romantic interest but his camera setups also reflect a stewardship over the contents of the film with his usual array of fluid shots. Far from just taking care of Garland you always get a sense Minnelli is watching out for all his actors with his camera often walking alongside them. She proves to be a fine performer sans singing and although long remembered for Strangers on a Train (1951) and his tumultuous personal life, Robert Walker undoubtedly exudes a naive candor of his own.

It’s always striking how Hollywood was able to cast a certain vision of the every day while reality was oftentimes so different. One aspect of that was the wartime shortages which made shooting on location highly impractical so everything from train stations to exteriors were created on the MGM lot to closely mirror their real-life counterparts and it, for the most part, takes very well. We feel like we are traveling through the big city with a soldier and a gal. At any rate, the city crowds feel realistically suffocating.

But beyond the simple (or not so simple) realm of sound stages and set design it also extends to the actors themselves. Robert Walker who played opposite his wife in the epic home front drama Since You Went Away (1944), had a horrid time getting through the picture as their marriage was on the rocks.

By the time he got to The Clock he had been overtaken by alcohol addiction and Jennifer Jones was all but on the way to marrying executive David O. Selznick. Judy Garland on her part, that shining beacon of traditional Americana was struggling with an addiction of her own and after some creative differences with Fred Zinnemann, she had her soon-to-be husband Vincente Minnelli brought on to revitalize the production.

In these ways, it becomes obvious how there’s almost a conflicting double life going on in front of and behind the camera and yet there’s no doubting that this picture is brimming with sincerity whether partially made up or perfectly simulated. It still works.

You can undoubtedly see the same fascination with the very conversations and interactions that make up a relationship in everyday environments. The walking and talking we do when we share time together. The silly things we get caught up on or pop into our heads on a whim. And yes, there is a bit of Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004) in Minnelli’s picture for those who wish to draw the parallels but the beauty of it is The Clock is obviously not trying to be anything else. It takes simple joy in its story and the characters it holds in its stead.

It’s a film that dares have a scene where our two leads sit in a park, silent for a solitary moment as they listen to the street noise emanating from the city center and breaking into their tranquility. Take another extended sequence where the two lovebirds catch a ride on a midnight milk wagon driven by that perennial favorite James Gleason.

He’s the local milkman waiting impatiently for his request on the late night radio station and intent on some company along the route. But a flat tire puts him out of commission only to bring about another inspired piece of casting. Keenan Wynn as a drunk appears for mere minutes and earns high billing in the picture. It’s worth it. When our stars are allowed to sink into the periphery, the accents of the real world come into focus.

It’s equally true that those are the exact moments where you see the extent of another person’s character. Because it’s not simply the two of you but you get the opportunity to see them in a context with other people and that’s often very telling about who they are. Depending on the perceptions it can make you fall even more in love with someone and seeing as these two individuals help their new friend with his milk run, you can just imagine what it does for their relationship.

As for James Gleason and Lucille Gleason, they make the quintessential cute old couple and that’s because they truly are spinning their wisdom and bickering like only the most steadfast wedded folks do. The last leg of the film is when it goes for drama turning into a literal race against the clock bookended by one of the most distinct courthouse weddings ever captured. But even this picture doesn’t end there. Further still, it sinks back into this odd shadowland between the drama and the happy ending.

We could venture a guess it settles in on a realistic denouement where life isn’t always as we would like it but we can still love people deeply and do not regret the decisions we have made. As we walk off into the crowd with Judy Garland there is little to no regret only a faint hope for a future and assurance in the institution of marriage as something worth pursuing.

They are traditional values and yet somehow, in this context, there’s something comforting about them. Minnelli has spun his magic on us even as the cinematic in its so-called reality slowly drifts away from the Hollywood marital standards of its stars. It’s both an idealized vision and a genuine one.

4/5 Stars

Review: Strangers on the Train (1951)

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Strangers on the Train is conceived in its first few minutes of dialogue when the charismatic bon vivant Bruno (Robert Walker) ingratiates himself on tennis player Guy Haines (Farley Granger). Bruno is a big idea-man, constantly talking and thinking and wheedling his way into other people’s lives because he does have a way about him. He makes it easy for others to like him and then they let their guard down after a row of trivial jokes and he’s got them. That is until they begin to see something else entirely in him.

In this particular instance, he schmoozes Guy’s ego. He’s a big tennis star. Bruno has read up on him and knows all about him. At first, it’s mere flattery but as the conversation continues it gets more and more unnerving. Bruno seems to know a little too much almost to the point of obsession.

Still, he manages to keep the other man’s attention just long enough to share his greatest idea — imagine for a second that two men who meet quite by chance (on a train for instance) were to trade murders — leaving no motives or connections for the authorities to trace back to the culprit. Of course, the whole idea soon falls apart if not everyone is equally invested. It doesn’t work if only one individual takes such a ludicrous idea seriously.  That’s where uneasiness begins to set in.

Robert Walker’s performance might rightly be one of the greatest performances in a Hitchcock film in terms of the sheer chill factor. He’s a psychopath, somehow misguided and tortured by issues that never truly get resolved. A great talent with so much promise was lost far too young when he died tragically the same year this film was released.

But equally important is Farley Granger’s more subdued performance, that quiet sensibility that makes him an easy target for someone as magnetic as Bruno. With another actor such as William Holden (initially considered for the part), the dynamic falls apart for sheer implausibility and as a result, the film would not function so effectively. We soon believe that a relationship such as Guy’s and Bruno’s could actually exist and that shred of reality makes the tension all the more unnerving.

Due to its foreboding cinematography courtesy of longtime Hitchcock collaborator Robert Burks and Bruno hanging over Guy constantly like an expectant specter, it`s easy to trace the line of film noir sensibilities here as the darkness seeps into Guy’s picture-perfect life.

But what’s fascinating is that Bruno initially aids his newfound friend — he assists him in getting the life that he’s wanted for a long time, an existence that is respectable, complete with a beautiful woman. Anne Morton (Ruth Roman) is the daughter of a respected Senator (Leo G. Carroll) and her upbringing and general concern reflects a stark improvement in Guy’s social standing.

Is it safe to say that it’s fairly easy to harbor a crush for Roman who exudes a refined decency, even if she’s not quite Hitchcock’s icy blonde? Place her up against Guy’s opportunistic and cavorting wife and Bruno’s action could almost be considered a service. Almost… Still, Bruno spins his charisma into a deadly threat, ultimately evolving into Guy’s worst nightmare.

Meanwhile, Patricia Hitchcock sometimes feels like she is used as a plot device but nevertheless even in that aspect alone she is crucial to this story. She also doesn’t quite fit into the Morton family but her very characterization reinforces many of the themes her father is playing with often using visual language.

The most acclaimed shot for its sheer stylized perspective is the scene of Bruno’s act of murder. It’s done in only a moment, silently, and without much fanfare. The woman’s glasses fall to the ground cracked and we see the reflection of the events at hand. It’s pure Hitchcock but the entire sequence is a masterstroke in buildup.

Bruno is tracking his unsuspecting prey. He follows her into a carnival. Past the booths and the rides, by popcorn vendors, into the tunnel love and finally to a darkly lit meadow where the deed is done. But without the buildup, this continuous cutting between the man and the woman, the scene has little impact. Hitchcock gave it increased stakes bolstered by true suspense.

But what he does equally well is cross-cutting not only his two main characters but their very actions. The opening introduction showcases this contrast of personalities with Bruno and Guy. It never ceases. They’re constantly placed opposite each other intersecting and crossing each other. Yet Hitch emphasizes these conflicts visually on multiple occasions which completely justifies why his main hero was written as a tennis player.

The fact that Guy is in the thick of a match during one of the tensest segments is magnified in how the camera cuts between Guy and his opponent back and forth with the audience, line judges, and everyone else spliced in for good measure. It mirrors the very same conflict he’s still tied up in with Bruno just as the gradation of black and white reflects the good and evil that separates and at the same time connects the two men.

You can always count on Hitch to bring the goods and yet again Strangers on the Train ends with a whirling, whizzing, shrieking bit of pandemonium — a real slam-bang finish courtesy of the Master of Suspense. Over 65 years later it hasn’t lost much of its impact blending a sense of real-life spectacle with genuine thrills. And like Hitchcock’s greatest films this one works on multiple planes visually, psychologically, metaphorically, narratively, and that frees us up to enjoy it in whatever way we please. That’s the sign of a quality movie from the foremost of creators.

5/5 Stars

Strangers on a Train (1951) – Alfred Hitchcock

a7d8f-strangers_on_a_train_28film29In one of Hitchcock’s most intriguing thrillers, we watch events unfold as two distinctly different men meet each other. One is an unassuming tennis player and the other a wild-living rich kid. They both have the same desire though, to have someone out of their lives. With this in mind, Bruno proposes swapping murders. He will kill the tennis player’s unfaithful wife and Guy in turn will murder Bruno’s domineering father. Bruno goes ahead with the plan while Guy brushes it off and soon forgets it. Only too late does Guy find out what has happened and he is suddenly faced with a great dilemma . He does not want to commit murder but Bruno relentlessly shadows him expecting it to be done. In the final showdown the two men face off and Bruno is still adamant that he and Guy were always in it together. This film is great for many reasons, including the often unconventional cinematography, the intriguing characters who blur the line between good and evil, and of course the carousel scene at the end is always memorable. Farley Granger and Robert Walker both deliver very good performances that are probably the best of their careers.

5/5 Stars