< Reel Myths


Friday, July 22, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Crafting images for wartime viewers isn't new. During World War II, American audiences poured into movie theaters week after week to be consoled, Film critic Richard Schickel was among them, and he revisited the reels that shaped his boyhood for a memoir called Good Morning Mr. Zip Zip Zip. But now his mature and critical eye sometimes finds those old films contrived and misleading.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: Almost every Hollywood movie, to this very day, buttresses the basic values of the country. I mean, the whole idea of, certainly movies of the forties, and even of the thirties, were always bringing everybody into camp, and then out of camp into a heroic endeavor. Most movies were supposed to, in some way or other, either directly or metaphorically, support the war effort.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let's talk about some of the movies that came out during the war, but that were set on the home front.

RICHARD SCHICKEL: The main thing about home front movies, and they were often not necessarily even set contemporaneously--you know, a movie like "Meet Me in St. Louis" is set at the turn of the century--but what they emphasized was that duty might call, in that case the father, to go elsewhere--take a job in New York, in this particular case--and the family hated that idea; they hated the notion that they would have to uproot themselves, as so many Americans had to do during the war.

MARGARET O'BRIEN (TOOTIE): No, you can't. You can't do anything like you do in St. Louis. [CRYING]

MARY ASTOR (MRS. SMITH): Oh no, darling, you're wrong. [CHILD CRYING] No, no, New York is a wonderful town. [CHILD CONTINUES CRYING]

RICHARD SCHIEKEL: And eventually they don't have to in this movie. But before it happens, there's that song "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," which is about somebody having, or trying to have, a merry little Christmas far, far, far from home, and far, far from the people and the places that they love and would shape them. And that's a big theme in domestic American movies.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What themes did Hollywood avoid during the war years, for the most part?

RICHARD SCHIEKEL: The Holocaust was never once mentioned in the movies. The government had surveys which indicated that America was endemically anti-Semitic. So as a war aim, the notion of rescuing Jews in Europe was thought to be, by the American government, not a good idea to put before the American people. And so, we fought the war in Europe on the screen as a war of downtrodden idealists doing their best to oppose the Nazi juggernaut.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You note in your book that Hollywood seemed to be a lot tougher on the Japanese than they were on the Germans.

RICHARD SCHIEKEL: The Japanese were, in wartime movies, the "great other." They took the place of, let's say, the American Indian. They were people who were shown to be animalistic, to be beyond the purview of civilized conduct. The Germans, according to the American government, were always to be shown to have some measure of redemptive possibility. They were shown to be people who had been misled. It was shown to be sort of a temporary aberration on the part of the Germans.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: One of the prevailing themes you note in your book is that the movies always stressed the value of every individual. There's no sense of cannon fodder in the wartime movies that you saw.

RICHARD SCHIEKEL: The cannon fodder was always in the back of the frame, but you know, those people who were in the starring roles, if they were forced to confront death, always did so heroically. I mean, yes they're going to become physically dead, but that death will be redeemed. He will be remembered. They made a movie of Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," with Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper. And he has broken his leg and he has blown the bridge. But even so, on come the phalanges and this little guerilla band that he is hooked up with, which includes his lover, and has to retreat. But his leg is busted, so he can't retreat, although, it seems to me, he might have given it a try and--



MAN: No, let me stay with you [CRYING]

GARY COOPER: No. Each of us must do this thing alone--[INGRID CRYING] and do it for each of us. But if you go, then I go with you. That way I go too.

RICHARD SCHIEKEL: There was this notion that if you were heroic and if you were American, and if you were fighting for the right cause, that you would not die fully. I mean, there were a lot of, incidentally, wartime movies in which people like Spencer Tracy would die. But they would go on. You know, they would be ghosts, they would be whispering advice to Van Johnson in the next reel. Remember "Tender Comrade," you know, Robert Ryan dies far away and Ginger Rogers picks up a picture of him and she has this little baby in her arm, and she says, you know, "I'm going to introduce you to your father. And he died for the best world you can imagine, you know, it's a world not with hate in it, and we're all going forward into prosperity and pacification" and all of that. I mean, all of these tropes are just preposterous. You know, I mean [LAUGHS]--I mean, I don't say that it wasn't a good war or a war we shouldn't have fought. But, you know, the fact of the matter is, we were consistently lied to. And I suppose that there's a theme to Good Morning Mr. Zip Zip Zip, it's that, that this is cinema that essentially, and with malice of forethought, lied to us, and lied to us about important matters, not least of which is the Holocaust.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, Richard Schickel, thank you very much.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Richard Schickel's book is called Good Morning, Mr. Zip Zip Zip: Movies, Memory and World War II. We spoke to him in April of 2003. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, tangled webs in the White House briefing room, and the media's top oracle, the man with the plan, Alan Greenspan.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media, from NPR. [MUSIC]