HOLLYWOOD VICTORY: THE MOVIES, STARS, AND STORIES OF WORLD WAR II

Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars, and Stories of World War II
by Christian Blauvelt
Running Press/Turner Classic Movies, 240 pp., Hardcover, $30.00 ($38.00 Canada), also available as an e-book
Published Nov. 2, 2021

When America went to war in 1941, Hollywood followed suit. By the end of the 1930s, the dream machine had hit its stride with a roster of homegrown talent and a steady stream of artistic-minded European refugees. Then, when the war got going, the U.S. government discovered that nothing caught the public’s attention quite like the seventh art. And the studios learned nothing engendered goodwill toward their stable of actors than them either in uniform over there or working with the boys back here. The country had come together with a shared goal. “The United States was never as, well, united as it was during World War II.”

Those words come courtesy of the introduction of Christian Blauvelt’s Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars, and Stories of World War II, the latest addition to the Running Press/TCM catalog of books. Hollywood during WWII is well-mined territory, but as the years pass, the myths and legends fade, and the facts remain. James Stewart commanded 20 bombing missions in his career, but the then-recently promoted lieutenant colonel did not command one on D-Day. Nor did John Ford set foot on the beach that day. But George Stevens did, along with Talk of the Town screenwriter Irwin Shaw and The Human Comedy writer William Saroyan.

Blauvelt’s well-researched book aims for the historical rather than the mythic, but what would Hollywood be without a bit of story? Blauvelt opens Hollywood Victory with Billy Wilder’s arrival at Columbia. Born in Austria, Wilder worked in Berlin before fleeing the Nazis and relocating to Paris, then Mexico, finally Los Angeles. Legend had it that when Wilder was crossing the southern border, a U.S. agent asked his occupation. “I write movies,” Wilder responded. “Well,” the agent said, passing him along, “write good ones then.”

Nicknamed after Buffalo Bill, Wilder would go on to make some of the most quintessential American movies with Double Indemnity (1944) and Sunset Boulevard (1950), though his wartime efforts, The Major and the Minor (1942) and Five Graves to Cairo (1943), often go overlooked. But, as Blauvelt points out, “The humane call for peace [Wilder] had helped issue in the screenplay he cowrote for Ninotchka (1939) was now well in the past. This was no time for pacifists; if it seemed like everyone was on board, that’s only because everyone was needed.”

Many of the movies featured in Hollywood Victory fall on a similar fate as Five Graves to Cairo: Competently made with compelling performances, but so clearly made for the then-contemporary audience that they don’t hold much interest for casual moviegoers today. The Disney short, Der Fuehrer’s Face (1943) is comic enough, but Education for Death, “a grave-as-a-heart-attack dissection of how a young boy can be taught to hate in the Hitler Youth until he’s ready to die,” probably doesn’t have too many Disney+ subscribers clamoring for it to be uploaded to the service.

As Blauvelt says, Education for Death is “a chilling thing to watch.” So, too, are many of the movies featured in Hollywood Victory, but what Blauvelt provides is detailed research and context to these works. Some are entertaining—Casablanca (1942) might be the most entertaining movie ever made about the need to fight for a cause. Some, like Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, are dry as dust but fascinating artifacts of an era that feels both long gone and eternally prescient.

Well written with plenty of photographs and movie stills, Hollywood Victory is a handsomely published piece of American history that will benefit movie lovers and war buffs. It’s hard to overstate the impact of World War II on the American government and public, and Hollywood was no exception. And for that, there is plenty of space on the shelf for Hollywood Victory.

Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars, and Stories of World War II is available now in hardcover and ebook from Running Press/TCM. Header photo: Harold Russell and Dana Andrews in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946, RKO Radio Pictures).