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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

It's Everybody's War
War really was hell for a lot of the stars, both in and out of uniform. Men were expected to suit up and join the fight. Women were obliged to entertain the G.I’s, either by way of camp shows, or at the Hollywood Canteen . Some of the guys had it particularly rough. Tony Martin got in hot water over a training camp mix-up that gave off the pungent odor of a movie-star fix for privileges denied others. He remained a pariah for years afterward. The press was merciless with perceived slackers. Their respective studios kept getting deferments for Alan Ladd and Mickey Rooney. After finally getting into uniform, Laddie fell sick and had to be mustered out, while Mickey was late enough getting in the game to miss the action (but he sure dazzled interviewers with some whoppers decades later --- you’d have thought the Mick took Iwo single-handed!). Jackie Cooper had a go at fisticuffs with any number of drunken sergeants who reminded him of his Skippy days. Needless to say, he pulled some hours in the brig. Ronald Reagan lost the momentum of what might have been a major star career when he was assigned to Hal Roach’s now commandeered studio to make training films. Some of these have turned up on TCM, and they’re pretty good. The younger fellows that came into the studios to fill the breach may have seemed unlikely star material (think Van Johnson), but with all the big guns now manning big guns (think Gable, Power, Taylor), these boys had to do in a pinch.

There was plenty of glamour and glory to go around for the leading men who played their cards right. James Stewart joined early as a pilot, and flew some dicey missions over
Germany. So did Clark Gable, who assumed so much risk as to alarm superior officers. Henry Fonda went Navy, and had a distinguished record there, as did Robert Montgomery, whose smooth way with the brass got him stationed briefly in the White House (here he is night-clubbing it on leave with Tallulah Bankhead). Even old timers got in on the action. The California Evacuation Corps was set up to provide emergency services in the event of a Japanese invasion on the west coast. Station wagons were standard equipment. If you had one of those, you were in. They drilled two nights a week at Warner Bros., and the ranks included Rudy Vallee, Cesar Romero, Buster Keaton
, and Lewis Stone. Here’s Judge Hardy with Captain Donald Crisp and Lieut. Rudy Vallee as they conduct close inspection of a 16mm projector. Stone had been a veteran of both WW1 and the Spanish-American War. I’m betting he rode with Stonewall Jackson as well, if appearance is any indication.

There were some guys who couldn’t get in. John Garfield had a heart condition and it was serious --- his attack on the set of Hollywood Canteen wasn’t publicized, but enlistment was out of the question. Despite all this, Garfield’s service with the Canteen and other areas of morale boosting was stellar. Eddie Robinson was too old, so he took his Little Caesar act on the USO circuit. Eddie hated doing the gangster bit, but that was his image, and he was stuck with it. So was Humphrey Bogart
, whose own tommy-gun routine was comparatively staid beside the donnybrooks he and firebrand wife Mayo Methot staged in various European hotels during their tour, including an incident in which Bogart told a senior officer to piss off.

The roughest duty of the war may well have been reserved for Lew Ayres. He declared himself a conscientious objector, and was pilloried for it. The studios distanced themselves, and even other stars attacked him in the press. Ayres wound up in the medical corps and did great, according to commanding officers, eventually picking up the pieces of a tattered career upon discharge. This September 1942 profile represents the tentative, though generally favorable shift in public opinion after Lew got into the Army’s medical unit.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know that Buster Keaton served in WW1 in France and he developed a infection in his(right-I think) ear that caused him to be slighty deaf throughout his life. Does anyone know of any other "stars" that served in WW1?

8:45 PM  
Anonymous ayres orchids said...

Herbert Marshall lost his leg in World War I; and Leslie Howard suffered from "shell shock" (that's how they used to refer to PTSD!).

Here's a list of famous vets:

9:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brian Donleavy was a pusuit plane pilot and Walter Brennan was an infantryman in WWI.

In WWII, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. has a distinguished combat record in the US Navy and Wayne Morris was an ace Navy fighter pilot. Victor Mature was in the Coast Guard and saw combat.

6:22 PM  

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