Blogs > HNN > Ron Briley: Review of Robert L. McLaughlin's and Sally E. Parry's We'll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema During World War II (University Press of Kentucky, 2006) and Jared Brown's Alan J. Pakula: HIs Films and His Life (Back Stage Books, 2006)

Apr 30, 2008 3:35 pm

Ron Briley: Review of Robert L. McLaughlin's and Sally E. Parry's We'll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema During World War II (University Press of Kentucky, 2006) and Jared Brown's Alan J. Pakula: HIs Films and His Life (Back Stage Books, 2006)

It is, indeed, sometimes difficult to take Hollywood seriously. After all, the lucrative Pirates of the Caribbean is a trilogy based upon a Disney theme-park ride. Robert L. McLaughlin, Sally E. Parry, and Jared Brown, however, insist that Hollywood matters because films provide the narratives or stories though which we attempt to make sense of the world. Today Hollywood’s power to dominate such narratives is challenged by television, music videos, ubiquitous reality shows, and the power of technologically-savvy young people using the inner net to create their own stories. On the other hand, the reaction to films such as Brokeback Mountain indicates there are those in this society who still fear the power of Hollywood to challenge cultural preconceptions.

In We’ll Always Have the Movies, McLaughlin, an assistant professor of English at Illinois State University, and Parry, Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Illinois State University, examine Hollywood during World War II; a period when the dominance of studio executives was often unchallenged both within and outside Hollywood. This volume on the Hollywood films of the Second World War covers some familiar ground for film historians and viewers of Turner Classic Movies. But just like visiting old friends whom one has not seen for awhile, it is always possible to learn something new and be amused by familiar stories. Even the most devout cinemaphile should be able to discover at least one new treasure in the filmography of this volume.

McLaughlin and Parry present a rather exhaustive survey of Hollywood films made between 1939 and 1946. The authors contend that the power of the film industry to shape our perception of the Second World War was not the product of any one film, even one as popular as Casablanca (1942). Rather, Hollywood’s impact during the war years was experienced through repetitive story telling as the studios released from 400 to 500 films each year, and approximately 90 million Americans went to the movies annually.

The essential themes developed by McLaughlin and Parry focus upon how Hollywood filled in the story lines of the headlines and newsreels, explaining to Americans why it was necessary to become involved in the conflict. This effort was somewhat muted until 1941, as many Hollywood executives feared alienating Hitler and losing lucrative European markets. A notable exception to this trend was the Warner Brothers production Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). After Pearl Harbor, Hollywood signed on with the war effort, selling the conflict to a mass audience in a similar fashion to the Why We Fight documentaries Frank Capra made to educate, or indoctrinate, the troops.

The Nazis and Japanese were presented as blood-thirsty barbarians and murderers who wanted to destroy Western civilization. The Italians, however, were portrayed as victims of fascism. In films such as Little Tokyo, U.S.A. (1942), Air Force (1943), and Betrayal from the East (1945), the film industry perpetuated the myth that Japanese Americans were disloyal, paving the way for popular acceptance of the internment camps. In war films such as Bataan (1943) and The Purple Heart (1944), the Japanese were perceived as ruthless and dehumanized, with few if any individual characteristics. Although McLaughlin and Parry essentially ignore the atomic bomb, it is not much of a stretch to argue that this depiction of the Japanese made it easier for Americans to embrace the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While Nazis were always portrayed as evil, the movies did often present stories of “good” Germans resisting the implementation of fascism. American racism as exhibited by the movies did not allow for such subtle treatment of the Japanese.

The allies, especially the British, were extolled as deserving support because they were similar to Americans, although this approach was a little more problematic for Vichy France and the Chinese. Occupied nations, such as Norway, were often the subject of Hollywood films, which McLaughlin and Parry assert encouraged Americans to think of how they would respond in a similar situation (It is probably asking too much of Americans to make a similar parallel today with the occupation of Iraq.).

Perhaps the most interesting argument made by McLaughlin and Parry concerns changes in gender roles brought on by the war. In order to prevail in the conflict traditional male characters are urged to tame their individuality in favor of sacrifice for the greater good. On the other hand, the authors maintain that films focusing upon evolving definitions of women, such as Tender Comrade (1943) and Since You Went Away (1944), imply “that the postwar family and, by extension, U.S. postwar society will be a more complex, informal, inclusive, democratic structure than it had been before the war, and that this is a good thing” (235).

But the unity and community described by these movies was often more imagined than real. McLaughlin and Parry recognize this fact by observing that in Casablanca, when Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid) leads a multinational community in singing the “Marseillaise” in defiance of the Nazis, Rick Blaine’s (Humphrey Bogart) black piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) is nowhere to be seen. The authors acknowledge that the democratic postwar society envisioned by Hollywood seems to exclude black Americans, not to mention Latinos. This is not a point, however, upon which the sometimes nostalgic We’ll Always Have the Movies expands. The historical realities of the 1943 Detroit race riots and the California “Zoot Suit” riots were not part of the Hollywood collective memory regarding the war. Although mentioned in their discussion of Tender Comrade, the political divisions in Hollywood, which exploded in the postwar Red Scare and blacklisting, are largely missing from the narrative constructed by McLaughlin and Parry.

But the myth of wartime unity as perpetuated by the movies is a potentially influential weapon for the present. The lack of an overt attack upon the United States made it difficult for filmmakers to transfer World War II symbolism into the Korean and Vietnamese conflicts. The aftermath of 9/11, however, offers an opportunity for the Hollywood myths of World War II to be employed on behalf of military action in Iraq. The World War II narratives of sacrifice are extolled as essential in a time of war. The enemy is a barbaric threat to Western civilization willing to use any means necessary to destroy us. To win the struggle against what some call “Islamic fascism,” it is justifiable to curtail civil liberties and extend the powers of the government to combat this evil. But it appears that the self-sacrifice this time is placed upon the poor, who, unable to secure a job or an education, seek employment with the military in a backdoor draft.

It will be more difficult for Hollywood alone to perpetuate this type of collective thinking due to the changes in the film industry after the Second World War. Confronted by the threat of television and increased leisure time in the suburbs, along with the 1947 Paramount decision which forced the separation of motion picture production and exhibition, the traditional studio system collapsed in the 1950s. The way was now cleared for more independent filmmaking in which the auteur or director flourished. The late 1960s and early 1970s was a period of creative cinema in the United States, which was virtually destroyed by the success of Steven Spielberg with Jaws (1975), ushering in the era of the Hollywood blockbuster.

One of the most atypical Hollywood auteurs was Alan J. Pakula, whose career extended into the blockbuster era before his untimely death in a 1998 car accident. As is usually the case with more contemporary film figures, Jared Brown, cinema scholar and former chair of Illinois Wesleyan University’s School of Theatre Arts, relies upon interviews with family members, friends, and co-workers to construct his narrative. The result of this approach to Hollywood biography is often an expose of the film capital’s underside of corruption, drugs, and sex scandals. This is certainly not the case with Brown’s study of Pakula, where the focus remains upon the filmmaking.

Perhaps this is, in part, due to the fact that Pakula’s personal life was more bourgeois than bohemian. Born in New York City on 7 April 1928 to parents of Polish ancestry, Pakula was a fine student, who disappointed his father by majoring in drama at Yale and pursuing a career in film rather than taking over the family printing business. After achieving success in Hollywood, Pakula moved his offices to New York City, where he was always more comfortable. He was married to actress Hope Lange in 1963. Lange was frustrated with Pakula’s insistence that she subordinate her career to the marriage and his filmmaking, asking for a divorce in 1969. Four years later Pakula married widower and historian Hannah Boorstin, and the couple remained together until the film director’s death. Although he had no children of his own, Pakula was devoted to the step children from his two marriages.

Family members, friends, and colleagues described the filmmaker as intelligent, deliberate, compassionate, hard working, and careful (making his accidental death all the more ironic). He eschewed the Hollywood social scene in favor of a more conventional life style, enjoying the comforts of his position and status.

Based upon these extensive interviews, Brown makes the argument for Pakula as an auteur, even though the filmmaker practiced his craft in a number of different genres. Brown concludes that Pakula’s films are notable for an interest in psychology and character development. He was known for being an actor’s director, especially eliciting outstanding performances from his female leads such as Liza Minnelli, Jane Fonda, and Meryl Streep. Pakula was also concerned with issues of official power and the courage of individuals to speak truth to corrupt institutions. Although Pakula is usually described as a liberal, any comments from Pakula on the major issues of the 1960s such as the Vietnam War, civil rights movement, or counterculture are strangely missing from this biography.

Pakula’s film career began as a producer rather than director, making a series of films with Robert Mulligan. While many of their productions were less than stellar, in 1962 Pakula and Mulligan made one of America’s most beloved films, To Kill a Mockingbird. Itching to try his hand at directing, Pakula dissolved his partnership with Mulligan, directing The Sterile Cuckoo (1969) with Liza Minnelli, who gained an Oscar nomination for her performance in a coming of age romance. Pakula followed this success with the thriller Klute (1971), featuring Donald Sutherland and Jane Fonda. Although initial reviews of the film were lukewarm, Klute resonated with audiences. Fonda earned an Oscar for her performance, and the film is now considered a classic.

When his tragic romance Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1972) bombed at the box office, Pakula returned to the themes of political power and corruption with The Parallax View (1974) and All the President’s Men (1976). While The Parallax View offers a pessimistic conclusion as to the ability of an individual to triumph in the face of governmental and corporate control, the film adaptation of the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein book champions the labors of honest reporters in exposing the corruption of the Nixon administration. The film concentrates upon the journalists rather than Nixon, for the “liberal” Pakula feared alienating Republican audiences.

All the President’s Men earned Pakula an Academy Award nomination for Best Director, but his next three projects were a mixed bag as he attempted to expand his repertoire beyond the political thriller. Comes a Horseman (1978) was a rather conventional Western story, and Rollover (1981) suffered from a confusing script dealing with an Arab threat to the American economy. Pakula, however, did score with his romantic comedy Starting Over (1979) with Burt Reynolds in the lead.

The film of which Pakula was particularly proud was Sophie’s Choice (1982), an adaptation of William Styron’s novel dealing with the holocaust and themes of guilt and redemption. The ideas raised in this film, which also earned an Academy Award for Meryl Streep, were similar to some of the issues explored by Pakula in Klute, The Parallax View, and All the President’s Men. But always looking for new genres and approaches, Palula departed from this successful formula in the late 1980s. Dream Lover (1985), Orphans (1987), and See You in the Morning (1989) were all box office disasters, and in the early 1990s Pakula looked for more commercial material.

The director made a comeback with films such as Presumed Innocent (1990) and The Pelican Brief (1993), which again examined the relationship between the individual and powerful institutions. Pakula also directed The Devil’s O996), but creative tensions between stars Harrison Ford and Brad Pitt limited the film’s box office earnings. Pakula believed that directing these commercial properties would allow him to secure funding for a film adaptation of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time, dealing with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during the Second World War. Pakula was working on this project at the time of his death.

Brown’s case for Pakula as an auteur is not totally convincing, but there is no doubt that the director made some of the most important and creative films of the 1970s before succumbing to the film industry’s blockbuster mentality in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is a tragedy that the filmmaker never lived to complete his Roosevelt project, for it is interesting to speculate whether Pakula would have used his talents to present us with the complexity of America during the war years rather than the propaganda messages trotted out by the studio films of the era. For in many ways this nostalgia for the Second World War, exemplified by the Hollywood wartime films, can be quite dangerous in today’s political climate. It would behoove us to pay more attention to the themes of Pakula’s so –called paranoid trilogy of Klute, The Parallax View, and All The President’s Men. Auteur or not, these Pakula films merit our attention in these troubled times.

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