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In supporting roles

When top stars and directors enlisted in the war effort in the 1940s, it was a different Hollywood -- and America.

March 30, 2003|Lynn Smith | Time Staff Writer

The most thrilling part of 1943's Academy Awards ceremony, wrote columnist Louella Parsons, had nothing to do with the Oscars. Rather, it was the sight of two dreamboats -- Tyrone Power and Alan Ladd -- in their private's uniforms, marching onto the Cocoanut Grove stage after the national anthem. The movie stars presented the flag, along with a list of 27,677 names -- all members of the motion picture industry who also had signed up for the armed forces.

Today, it's hard to imagine stars such as Ben Affleck or Josh Hartnett signing up for a tour of duty in Iraq. A celebrity who wants to take a political stand is much more likely to speak out in public or flash a surreptitious peace sign -- eliciting as many jeers as cheers. But in World War II, everyone -- Hollywood movie stars and directors included -- was expected to pitch in and support the war effort.

By World War II's end, some estimate that as many as 40,000 industry members had served the military in jobs ranging from boatswain's mate (Cesar Romero) to air combat intelligence officer (Henry Fonda). Directors such as John Ford, John Huston and William Wyler flew in combat to make documentaries. Glamorous stars sold war bonds or entertained the troops. And some of the most dashing heartthrobs, such as Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable, saw action in Europe and the Pacific.

Those who appeared to resist joining up risked damaging their careers. Lew Ayres, a pacifist since he starred in the antiwar film "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930), prompted some theaters to ban his films when he declared himself a conscientious objector in 1942.

Times, of course, were drastically different back then. "After Pearl Harbor, everyone rushed to their local military recruitment office to go enlist and fight in the war," says Robert Thompson, former president of the Popular Culture Assn. "After 9/11, the patriotic thing to do was see a play, buy shoes, get back to business as usual. That sense that everybody become a citizen soldier when the time is needed went away after World War II."

The fact that stars -- even those at the top rungs of Hollywood's cultural echelons -- enlisted in the military demonstrated that the notion of citizen soldiers was still intact, he says. "Everyone was in the pool."

That sort of collective response requires a moral clarity that was pervasive in the 1940s but is lacking today, cultural historians say.

"World War II was the last war when there was a formal declaration of war by Congress," notes Paul Levinson, communications professor at Fordham University in New York. There was a draft, and nearly everyone had a loved one in uniform. Fighting for an ideal was a banner already flown by artists and others who joined the anti-fascists in Spain. And filmmakers extolled the value of collective action in such classics such as "It Happened One Night" (1934) and "Casablanca" (1942).

"This was the last clean war, the good guys versus the evil guys," says Peter Bardazzi, a specialist in war movies at New York University. And suddenly, some actors who had played war heroes in films found themselves in a theater of war -- where anything could happen.

How best to serve?

The war years were golden years for Hollywood, with film production and movie attendance at all-time highs. As military authorities analyzed every profession to see how best people in all walks of life could serve, Levinson says, "The conclusion was people love their movie stars.... The U.S. military actually had a policy in which they did not want movie stars to enlist and fight. They thought it was far more valuable to the military to have stars act in movies or entertain the troops."

Hollywood didn't hesitate to turn movie marquees into recruiting tools. When perhaps the nation's most popular actor, Jimmy Stewart, was inducted into the Army Air Force as a private in 1941, he had starred in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) and won an Oscar for "The Philadelphia Story" (1940). With his boy-next-door personality, he drew tens if not hundreds of thousands of new recruits through recruiting films such as "Winning Your Wings." ("You'll find out the effect those shiny little wings have on a gal. It's phenomenal.")

But Stewart, descended from a long line of soldiers and a trained pilot, also became a B-17 bomber pilot who flew 20 combat missions and commanded his own squadron. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for a raid on a German aircraft factory, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars. And after the war, he remained in the Air Force Reserves, retiring in 1968 as a brigadier general, the highest-ranking actor in military history.

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