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Classic World War II Movies

Classic World War II Movies From Danny Kaye, Jimmy Cagney Rouse Patriotism

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The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films & Stars

Ann Miller

Hollywood star Ann Miller dances in patriotic movie. Photo via Vintage Precious.

What a world of difference between today’s movies about war — “The Hurt Locker” or “Zero Dark Thirty,” for example — and the straight-up propaganda movies made after Pearl Harbor was attacked. In fact, President Roosevelt made Hollywood a War Industry, and content was federally regulated by the Office of War Information. Can you imagine anyone  proposing such a thing today?

According to this fascinating article, Hollywood scenic designers even pitched in to provide cover for military installations.

While we can thank the propaganda movement for one of the greatest movies of all time, “Casablanca,” and several serious looks at war like ”The Best Years of Our Lives,” many of the more than 300 “message” movies produced in Hollywood during wartime simply entertained.

Not only did the pre-feature cartoons spout propaganda about evil “japs” and feature cartoon animals in fighter planes, but musicals tended to plug in rousing numbers with soldiers and sailors marching and flags waving.

In a musical called “Shanghai Lil,” Jimmy Cagney is limited to demonstrating a few dance steps until he does this tap dance on the bar with adorable Ruby Keeler, followed by the sailors marching en masse outside on the street. The marchers first unveil a U.S. flag, and then a portrait of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. You can hear the music for the lead-in to the patriotic number at the end of this clip of the famous tap number.

James Cagney, of course, made the über-patriotic ”Yankee Doodle Dandy“ (1942). (Trivia: Did you know that Michael Curtiz of “Casablanca” also directed this rousing musical?) In this musical, Cagney dances down the stairs of the White House, and performs in perhaps the most flag-waving finale of all times.

Danny Kaye (who just happens to be one of my all-time favorite screen comedian) had his movie debut in ”Up In Arms” (1944). His Broadway credits were enough to list his name above the title and above co-star Dinah Shore. In this movie, he’s a reluctant soldier who becomes a hero. This clip shows the physical comedy combined with scat/patter-song singing that Kaye was known for. He could make you believe he was saying something with his nonsense syllables and expressive face and gestures.

Ann Miller did a whole series of cheaply-produced black and white patriotic musicals for Columbia. This one is “V for Victory” (1943).

Uncle Sam Wants YouSome other war-time movies to check out:

Irving Berlin‘s music , including “You’re In the Army Now” and “God Bless America” in ”This is the Army.”

Eddie Cantor in “Thank Your Lucky Stars.”

Benny Goodman‘s orchestra in ”Stage Door Canteen” (1943) and “The Gang’s All Here” (1943). Seemingly every star of stage and screen had a bit part in the former movie, and you don’t want to miss Carmen Miranda in “The Gang’s All Here.” The movie was banned in some places because of the risqué way she handles a banana.

For a list of the internationally-made 50 Greatest World War II Movies, from during and long after the war, with comments by Quentin Tarantino, click through the link for the “London Post” article.

You can learn more about Hollywood Musicals in a book titled, “The Hollywood Musical,” by Clive Hirschhorn or in any number of other books dedicated to the subject.

Vera Marie Badertscher

Vera Marie Badertscher first went to the movies at the Duncan Theater in Killbuck, Ohio, when her grandmother was selling tickets. Now she watches Netflix and TV movie channels more often than movies in theaters, but she loves to rediscover old favorites. When she’s not at the movies, she’s reading and traveling and writing at A Traveler’s Library and Ancestors In Aprons. Follow her on Twitter at @pen4hire.

Vera Marie Badertscher has written posts on Reel Life With Jane.


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8 comments

  1. Melanie

    Great post! I had lunch with Ann Miller when I was in college, along with a group of other people. It was pretty funny, actually. She was quite a character.

  2. Envy. Envy. From intereviews I have seen with her she seems to be the kind of person who would be the life of the party. A “desert island” companion, for sure.

    Glad you like the post.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted…Magical Memories of Key WestMy Profile

  3. I loved Myrna Loy in the Thin Man movies, but her role in “The Best Years of Our Lives” was even more memorable.
    Melanie recently posted…The Golden SnitchMy Profile

  4. Bro

    in this genre, check out Busby Berkeley’s “For Me and My Gal” with Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and George Murphy. Can’t miss with songs like the title piece, “After You’ve Gone” and “Oh, You Beautiful Doll.” It was controversial because Gene’s character injures himself to avoid the draft. Of course, he redeems himself and there’s a great victory production number to end it all. Classic. Bro

  5. Bro

    BTW, In response to Melanie, I agree. “The Best Years of Our Lives” has got to be one of the best (most moving and honest) W W II movies ever, and it all takes place after the war. The scenes with Myrna Loy and Fredric March are film-textbook perfect.

  6. Melanie and Bro, I love Myrna Loy, too. And that movie is unforgettable.
    Thanks for the reminder about “For Me and My Gal”. I’ve been kind of avoiding better known stars like Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, but one of these days will have to get around to them. Of course with the big patriotic number at the end, “For Me and My Gal” belongs in the company of the ones I wrote about here.
    Vera Marie Badertscher recently posted…Magical Memories of Key WestMy Profile

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