The praise a war film receives often stems from how realistic it’s perceived to be. From the D-Day Landings in Saving Private Ryan to the ruined streets of Rome, Open City, it seems we want to get as close as we can to the experience of battle from the comfort of our cinema seats.
But when you look back at the films that were incredibly popular during war years, an entirely different kind of movie experience regularly tops the bill. Some of the strongest pieces of sheer cinematic escapism were made during World War II. Strange, distant lands; the arms of an impossibly beautiful lover; songs and dances and the first bursts of bright, onscreen colour: here’s a look at some of the films that transported people to better places during the war years:
1. Dumbo (1941)
Disney cartoons were an extremely powerful weapon during World War II, and their role in entertaining the masses was not underestimated by either the American or the German governments. Dumbo was released only six weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and its irresistible mix of energy, emotion, and escapism in simple, perfect drawings was a winner. You watch it, and you get lost within it.
At the very end of Dumbo, in the section where we see the newspaper headlines of the flying elephant’s success, there’s a brilliant picture of bomber planes in the shape of Dumbos, flying overhead in formation, so it’s not as if the impending signs of war aren’t present in the film. When you look at it as a product of its time, it seems like the message of overcoming the odds to succeed, no matter how difficult it feels, was really pertinent.
2. Weather-Beaten Melody aka Die Verwitterte Melodie (1942)
Hitler loved Disney, and could see the power of great animation to move people. He wanted his own animation studio to rival it, and so Goebbels’ Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda began to employ animators to make publicly funded cartoons.
Weather-Beaten Melody was made by little-known animator Hans Fischerkoesen. It was the first short film he made for the government, and it’s about a bee who finds an abandoned phonograph in a summery field and uses his sting to play it. Lots of other creatures come along to help and together they form a beautiful, multi-layered picture of cooperation that transcends its funding. Not only did it entertain, but it spoke of a time of happiness, even if it was only for the small insects in a quiet field, somewhere. I don’t know what Goebbels made of it; I can’t think that it pleased his propaganda machine much. But it really moves me now, and maybe it gave people at the time a sense of hope.
3. Arabian Nights (1942)
The first color film made by Universal using the three-strip process, Arabian Nights must have been an absolute treat for the eyes. It’s a bit of light entertainment that was the first of a series of “exotic” tales for Universal, featuring a romantic pairing of Maria Montez and Jon Hall. Montez came from the Dominican Republic, and became known as The Queen of Technicolor, while Jon Hall was Californian-born. Together they had a simmering chemistry that worked in the melodramatic storylines and clinches they performed.
They’re watchably daft together here; Montez comes off the worst with a series of terrible headdresses and a dance routine that looks uncomfortable more than alluring. The plot involves a dancing girl, Scheherazade (Montez), who helps the Kalif Haroun-Al-Raschid (Hall) escape from the clutches of his revolutionary brother while an evil Vizier plots to defeat them both and claim power for himself.
These goings-on were designed to transport you to another time and place without engaging your brain much. It worked. It did really well at the box office, and was nominated for four Academy Awards.
4. I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)
Romantic escapism is so difficult to do well. It needs chemistry, and surprise, and sweetness, and that strange sense of fate. One of the best films to give us all that is Powell and Pressburger’s tale of a headstrong woman (Wendy Hillier) who has plans to get married on a remote island in Scotland – and finds that everything from the locals to the weather are conspiring against her.
I would class this film as escapism, coming as it does as a real break in Powell and Pressburger’s run of great war films such as 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), and A Canterbury Tale (1944). But I think Powell and Pressburger might have hated to hear it described as such. When they set up their production company, The Archers, in 1943, they had a specific manifesto which included the line: “No artist believes in escapism. And we secretly believe that no audience does.”
I Know Where I’m Going! is a deep film about fate and chance and how we try to shape destiny. But it also takes me away to Scotland in a way that no other film has managed. Raymond Chandler said of it, “I’ve never seen a picture which smelled of the wind and rain in quite this way nor one which so beautifully exploited the kind of scenery people actually live with, rather than the kind which is commercialized as a show place.”
5. Girl Crazy (1943)
Judy Garland was a huge star during World War II, in such pictures as Meet Me In St Louis and For Me And My Gal. This is the ninth of her ten screen outings with Mickey Rooney and it was a box office smash. I don’t think she was ever better.
The Rooney/Garland musicals revolve around a youthful, boundless optimism that you just couldn’t keep up for more than five minutes in real life. They have a ‘can do’ approach to problems in which everything will come good just because they keep at it and they like singing and dancing. Putting on an amateur musical using whatever they can find around the place usually sorts whatever the issue is. In Girl Crazy it’s the possible closure of a school because of lack of funds.
And so the musical is staged, and in this case it’s so far from amateurish that you know straight away you’re in serious fantasy territory. Gershwin supplied the tunes, and Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra turned up, and everybody ends up smiling because they believe singing a song can accomplish anything. And maybe, when Garland sings ‘Embraceable You’, it just might.
6. The Black Swan (1942)
The Black Swan is a pirate film that is so much better and nastier and more sadistic than anything in Pirates Of The Caribbean. We start with some drinking and pillaging and move swiftly on into torture in the first ten minutes, and it’s all in the name of historical entertainment. Tyrone Power plays Jamie Waring, a marauder on the high seas who gets involved with the Governor’s daughter, played by Maureen O’Hara. He torments her and she hits him with a rock. Its loads of fun, and George Sanders and Anthony Quinn pop up as pirate captains too.
In 1942, when this was released, Tyrone Power (a huge star) was already attending Officer’s Candidate School, and he became a First Lieutenant in the Marines, flying wounded soldiers out of battles such as Iwo Jima. He resumed his film career in 1946, and was filming a duelling scene in the 1958 film Solomon And Sheba when he died of a heart attack. He was only 44, and had been a hero to many, onscreen and off.
7. The Lady Eve (1941)
From the Amazon jungle to the halls of American society, it turns out that we’re all predatory animals at heart. The Lady Eve is the story of a Jean Harrington, a morality-free card-sharp (Barbra Stanwyck) and her determination to marry and destroy rich herpetologist Charles Pike (Henry Fonda). She starts by dropping an apple on his head, and then causes him to fall for her and fall over his own feet at every single occasion that they meet. It’s a romantic comedy in which only one person is in charge, and she’s definitely not going to wait to be wooed.
At a time when a lot of men waved goodbye and left behind a lot of women, there must have been something so fresh about watching a woman who resolutely wouldn’t get left behind. Stanwyck drives the action, and is so funny, and sexy, and determined. Henry Fonda is just stunned by her. He has no choice in the matter. The Lady Eve regularly appears in lists of the best films ever made, perhaps because it reverses the usual roles of the sexes so well, and in a way that continues, even now, to surprise us.
8. The Undying Monster AKA The Hammond Mystery (1942)
There was a roaring trade in B-Movie horror pictures during World War Two. This one is about a family curse in a remote stately home on the moors with a werewolf, Walter the butler, Helga the Heiress, spooky sets, a creepy crypt, and a really big dog called Alex. The lighting and sound is very atmospheric and at just over an hour it moves along at a cracking pace. Also, it has very entertaining lines like, “I was hoping the cobra venom would straighten out the kink in his brain.”
Yes, it’s obviously a rip-off of much more famous werewolf film, The Wolf Man, made in the previous year. I still like it just the same, for its stylised sets and interesting shots, including a scene played through the rising smoke of a grand fireplace. Director John Brahm made some interesting, moody films through this period, heavily influenced by German Expressionism; his real name was Hans Brahm, and he had fled Germany in 1934 to escape Nazism.
It’s interesting how horror movies are as much as an escape to audiences to romance, or fantasy. Maybe it’s the outpouring of emotion that’s the important part of moviegoing, whether that’s love, happiness, or pure fear?
We all still crave escapism; the Marvel universe alone is proof of that. Today’s cinematic adventures are spectacular, but I don’t think they’re better than, or even very different from, the films mentioned here that got people through difficult times.
Next time you watch Chris Pratt dance along an alien landscape, or Robert Downey Jr verbally spar with Gwyneth Paltrow, remember we’ve been enjoying the same kinds of fantasies since film was invented. These tricks might be getting old in years, but they look as fresh as ever.