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  • Writer's pictureCat T. Gardiner

At the Movies During the War

Hi-di-ho, friends! A recent conversation with my dad sparked the idea for this article on movies during the '40s. He'll probably kill me when he finds out that I'm sharing a boyhood story of his, but hey, he has to figure out by now that I'm an author - everything he tells me is bound to end up in a book or blog!

So, let's talk movies. I love them! Cinema was a different experience than it is today and although television was "technically" ready by the 1940s, war production put a halt to its wide distribution. Apart from the radio at home for their news and serial shows, movies were the go-to entertainment for wartime Americans. Given that everyone was back to work following the Great Depression, engaged in the war effort and building an arsenal for democracy, they had the money to enjoy what we refer to today as the Golden Age of Hollywood. Over 100 million people went to the movies weekly during WWII.

In some theatres, in promotion for special releases, and only on certain nights, housewives were treated to a complimentary dish. Known as "Dish Night," it was an effective marketing tool to entice attendance in the hopes of completing a 52-piece dinner set.

Parents were only too delighted to send their kids off to the pictures on a Saturday. My father was just a boy then, yet his and my mom's memories are still vivid and always echoing each other. Of course they would, they were next door neighbors and went to the movies together for as long as they could remember. Sweet memories of how Saturdays were an all-day affair at the local theater on Pelham Parkway in the Bronx NYC. For just twenty-five cents, they watched a newsreel of war happenings, a movie short -either animated or something like The Three Stooges, a cliffhanger serial to be continued the following week, and maybe even a racing game played on screen for all the kids to take part. Every movie experience was routinely followed up with the ubiquitous appeal to purchase War Bonds on their way out. Movie-goers entered for an early matinee and exited in time for dinner.

During the war, films presented an "idealized war" of victory and sacrifice. Tinseltown's biggest leading men joined up to fight and those who didn't toured with Hollywood's starlets promoting and selling War Bonds or making propoganda eductional films. The major film studios - at the encouragement of the Office of War Information (OWI) - answered the call, inciting in viewers of all ages a feeling of patriotism. Did you know that the studios were even given manuals on what type of movies to film and what to include in them? When in doubt, the OWI even read scripts and consulted!

But I digress ... back to Dad. There was one memory - that he didn't share with mom, and that was most likely by design: The siren, Dorothy Lamour's sarong. LOL In fact, I am sure he had seen the 1941 movie "Aloma of the South Seas" with some of his pals. Today, he insistently remembers the film under an entirely different title, and maybe it was. Although I couldn't find any reference. Just as Betty Grable's million dollar pin-up legs were popular, Miss Lamour's South Seas apparel (or lackthereof) became her equal tradmark - much to the Legion of Decency's chagrin. And therein lies Dad's memory.

Now remember, his memory is post Hays Code (est. 1934) when films had to be reviewed for moral content. Prior to that and following Howard Hughes's attempt to release Jane Russell and her ample bosom in "The Outlaw," (both in '41 & '43) film studios pushed the envelope in spite of attempts at censorship (even their own) "on moral grounds." Formed by the American Catholic Bishops as well as Jewish and Protostent leaders, the Legion was established with the introduction of sound. By and large, they called for boycotts of movies and sought "good vs. evil" as it pertained to violence, family, marriage, sex, sin, and body exposure.

Sensationalism in the film industry had gone from kissing in the Nickelodeons, Mary Pickford and Glorias Swanson's sensuality in silent film to the social progressivism of the Post-WWI "off with the corset" Jazz age. Movies and freedom from social strictures became increasingly a target of censorship, especially following a series of Hollywood scandals.

Before I knew anything about "Pre-Code," I remember watching 1934 "Tarzan and His Mate" with my DH and that famous nude, river swim scene by Maureen O'Sullivan's body double (not to mention her barely concealing jungle outfit.) I was surprised because I only knew films to have ratings. Turns out, the League was outraged, and in the next Tarzan film released, Miss O'Sullivan (good Catholic that she was) was wearing more clothing!

So back to 1941 and Aloma in her barely there sarong. This nine year-old boy (Dad) is sitting in St. Dominic's Church on a school day and from the pulpit the priest is forbidding everyone from going to see "Aloma" in the "Pagan-love" film. Some excited boy cries out "Jackie went to see it!" which is, of course, tantamount to "he's our hero!" in a boy's mind, given that his friend had committed a mortal sin.

Dad now explains that it was the nuns who ran over ... eager to hear all about Miss Lamour and her famous sarong. One can wonder if they, too, visited the theater to look at the dreamboat Bing Crosby in those "Road to ..." movies. But I have no doubt that they covered their ears at all the sexual innuendo. They were there for the song and dance :) I am positive of it!

Anyway, I love old movies, and it's stories like these that bring to life the changes to film from the 20s to the 50s. I adore the WWII era and have compiled a list below should you want to binge. From dramatic movies like Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca, and Now, Voyager to the comedic The Major and the Minor, and the musical Pin-Up Girl.

Speaking of Casablanca, my bff and her husband visted a theater down in Soho thirty years ago for a showing of the quintessential WWII-era romance movie. Imagine their surprise when the version shown was one that very few, I am sure, know to exist. In that version, there is a scene where Captain Renault propositions the young Bulgarian bride in need of exit visas. Why was it deleted?

The film ran into some trouble with Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration (the Hollywood self-censorship body), who opposed the suggestions that Captain Renault extorted sexual favors from his supplicants, and that Rick and Ilsa had slept together in Paris. Extensive changes were made, with several lines of dialogue removed or altered. All direct references to sex were deleted; Renault's selling of visas for sex, and Rick and Ilsa's previous sexual relationship were implied elliptically rather than referenced explicitly.[Gardner, Gerald (1988). The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934 to 1968.]

Here's a good beginning list of some favorite movies from the late 30s through WWII-era.

Suspense and /or Drama

  • The Grapes of Wrath

  • The Stranger

  • All This and Heaven Too

  • The Petrified Forest

  • The Magnificent Ambersons

  • The Best Years of Our Lives

  • Now Voyager

  • Drama

  • Laura

  • Gaslight

  • Keys of the Kingdom


  • Stagedoor

  • The Crystal Ball

  • The Awful Truth

  • The Philadelphia Story

  • Woman of the Year

  • My Favorite Wife

  • The Major and the Minor

  • We’re No Angels

  • His Girl Friday

  • Bringing Up Baby

  • Pin-Up Girl

  • Anchors Aweigh

Pre-Code (Pre-1934 Censorship)

  • Night Nurse

  • Baby Face


  • Jezebel

  • This Above All

  • The Enchanted Cottage

  • Jane Eyre

  • Pride and Prejudice

  • Rebecca

  • Holiday

  • The Heiress

  • A Yank in the RAF

  • To Have or Have Not

  • Dark Victory

  • Days of Glory


  • Mrs. Minniver

  • Stairway to Heaven

  • Random Harvest

  • Casablanca

  • Mr. Skeffington

  • Night Train to Munich

And lastly for your enjoyment a 1943 United Newsreel. "First U.S. Army Women Arrive in England."

Thanks for stopping by! And don't forget to Keep 'Em Flying! Drop me a comment or two if you have any movies from the era that you would like to share.

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