Home Sweet Home Front Women:
Adapting Women for Hollywood's World War II
Home-Front Films

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2016, Volume 15, Issue 2


Philippa Gates
Wilfrid Laurier University

As J. David Slocum argues, "War cinema...involved much more than combat films. Productions with the war as theme or background but set on the home front...proliferated before and especially after the official U.S. entry into the conflict in 1941" (145). Not long after Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared motion pictures as "one of our most effective media in informing and entertaining our citizens" and that it could make "a very useful contribution" to the war effort (qtd. in Winkler 57). Although Roosevelt stated the importance of the industry to remain free to continue operating without government control, in 1942 the government formalized an advisory process over film production through the creation of the Office of War Information (Schatz 145-149). Hollywood, with advisement from the OWI, produced films during World War II tailored to America's home-front audience, especially the women left behind by the men who went off to fight for their homeland.1 For example, the shortages in the labor force by 1941 saw the OWI and Office of War Manpower encourage Hollywood, through its films, to make "a concerted effort to recruit and inspire women" to take up wartime work (Doherty 145). Hollywood was happy to assist.

Films such as Mrs. Miniver (Wyler 1942), Since You Went Away (Cromwell 1944), and The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler 1946) offered models of wartime women and messages about appropriate home-front living. From sacrificing personal comforts to sacrificing their husbands and sons, the female protagonists of Hollywood films between 1942 and 1946 kept the home fires burning for those who returned from the war. As the opening intertitle for Since You Went Away proclaims: "This is a story of that Unconquerable Fortress: The American Home…1943." The American Home was inextricably linked to the female body: literally, the woman kept the home running in the absence of a male head of the household financially as well as domestically and, metaphorically, as her body was also a fortress to be defended against unsanctioned (i.e., extramarital) entry. These films offered both positive and negative female role models -- demonstrating the consequences of too much independence and related immoral and unpatriotic behavior. In promotion of the directives of the OWI, wartime home-front films encouraged women to take up war work in the defense plant or the Red Cross; however, in the aftermath, postwar films endorsed the message that women should return to their "proper" workplace -- the home.

The film version of Mrs. Miniver is an adaptation of the 1940 novel (originally a series of short essays published in the London Times between 1937 and 1939) by Jan Struther (a pseudonym for Joyce Maxtone Graham). Since You Went Away was adapted from Margaret Buell Wilder's epistolary novel of the same name, but subtitled Letters to a Soldier from His Wife (also originally published as part of a newspaper column). And The Best Years of Our Lives is based on MacKinlay Kantor's Glory for Me (1945), a novel written in blank verse as an extended poem. Each of the three film adaptations differs dramatically from its source material in order to offer more patriotic and wartime appropriate messages for wartime audiences. The original criticism on film adaptations focused mainly on fidelity -- in other words, scholars argued that the best adaptations were those that were closest, or most faithful, to the original story. Theorists such as Dudley Andrew, Linda Hutcheon, and Robert Stam have argued against the fidelity model because of the privileging of the source text that it implies without consideration of medium specificity or the shift in authorship. Fidelity suggests that deviations from the source text are moral transgressions against the original artist, meaning, and reading. Instead, scholars today offer different lenses through which to examine adaptations: Andrew explores the "transformation" of the story into a different medium (262) and Stam, the "intertexuality" between the two texts and "the endless permutation of textual traces rather than the 'fidelity' of a later text to an earlier one" (4). As Hutcheon suggests, "to be second is not to be secondary or inferior; likewise, to be first is not to be originary or authoritative" (xiii).

Hollywood adapted these home-front stories, but added new themes aimed at the home-front audience -- themes that negotiated the tensions surrounding the independence of women, in terms of work and sexuality, that American society simultaneously encouraged yet feared during the wartime and immediate postwar years. The film versions of Mrs. Miniver, Since You Went Away, and The Best Years of Our Lives have more in common with other Hollywood home-front films than they necessarily do with their source texts. The themes of these three films are similar: they preach the dangers of deviating too far from one's socially prescribed gender role and praise women's selfless support of America's men. This paper focuses on these three adaptations because each delivers a snapshot of a different moment of America's involvement in the war -- Mrs. Miniver before, Since You Went Away during, and The Best Years of Our Lives after. In addition, a comparison of these films also offers insight into the influence that the OWI exerted over Hollywood producers: Mrs. Miniver was made before the days of the OWI, Since You Went Away during, and The Best Years of Our Lives after. In this paper, I demonstrate that Hollywood inserted similar patriotic themes into home-front films on its own accord and not necessarily under pressure from, or the influence of, the OWI or the film's sources.


The OWI and Hollywood

The OWI was created in June of 1942 to handle the public dissemination of "information" -- what some would call "propaganda." The OWI's director, Elmer Davis said that "the easiest way to propagandize people is to let a propaganda theme go in through an entertainment picture when people do not realize that they are being propagandized" (qtd. in Koppes 25). James M. Myers suggests that the studios could see the good of the OWI's Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP), especially as they needed the film industry to be recognized and designated by the government as "an essential war industry" in order to have important resources (from celluloid to film stars fit for duty) diverted to them (63-64). The OWI was not pleased with the kinds of films that Hollywood was making during the first years of the war: Director Davis claimed that Hollywood was "letting its imagination carry it away" and Assistant Director Archibald MacLeish called Hollywood's films "escapist and delusive" and felt that the studios were not living up to "a primary and inescapable responsibility" to give a sense of what the war was being fought for (Winkler 58).

Initially, there was some confusion as to what the BMP's role was and Nelson Poynter, the BMP's Hollywood liaison, compiled a Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry to assist the studios in understanding the organization's policy regarding Hollywood films. The manual advocated for "a casual insertion of a constructive 'war message' into a movie whenever appropriate," and suggested how the harsh realities of the war might be presented to audiences (Myers 68). The main theme pushed by the OWI not only in film but also through advertising and other popular media was that of unity. As Kenneth Paul O’Brien and Lynn Hudson Parsons note, the government's propagandists (and Hollywood by association) offered an America in which there were no race, gender, or class conflicts (4). The United States had gone to war in 1941 under the banner of "the people’s war," and the Roosevelt administration's "rhetoric and imagery invoked a democratic inclusiveness in contrast to the Axis' exclusivity and domination" (Koppes 25). As the Government Information Manual explains, "That means there is war work for every American. Motion Pictures can render a valuable service in helping the civilian understand the what and the why of his contribution to the war effort" (qtd. in Intza 27). On the point of how home-front civilians could help the war effort, the manual suggested several points: civilians could cooperate with defense authorities (from being a first-aid assistant to observing blackouts), prevent inflation (from buying bonds to limiting luxury expenses), accept the rationing program (by practicing restraint when buying home goods), collect waste materials for making weapons (from kitchen grease to scrap metal), contribute to service organizations (from the Red Cross to the Army Relief Fund), maintain their own health and that of their children, and watch what they said to others or what others said, after all "Words are ammunition." These themes are addressed in the films I discuss, but only Since You Went Away incorporates all of them.

Officially, the BMP had no direct control over Hollywood films: its job was not to censor scripts but to suggest, through their staff of reviewers, how pro-war messages might be included in films. Yet, as Clayton Koppes argues, the OWI did have more power than that, whether it was the ideological pressure exerted on studios to produce patriotic fare or the more concrete one of threatening studio profits by denying export licenses for films through the OWI's Office of Censorship (26). Although the BMP never had direct control or censorship over Hollywood productions, film scholars have argued that the OWI did exert a strong influence over the kinds of stories and themes promoted in film. And, as Elmer Davis had hoped, films with patriotic messages were being sold to audiences as entertainment. According to Susan Ohmer, Hollywood films were being advertised in women's magazines like Good Housekeeping as a utopia: "a place where the restrictions and discomforts of daily life during the war fell away or were transformed into romance and spectacle" (58). The films Mrs. Miniver, Since You Went Away, and even The Best Years of Our Lives, which has been argued to be geared to more of a male audience, offered the female wartime and post-war audience models of femininity to aspire to -- women who were willing to make the necessary sacrifices to see their men returned home safe to them -- and promised men, especially those fighting overseas, that their women were keeping the home fires burning for their safe return.


The Pre-OWI Home Front: Mrs. Miniver's England

The film adaptation of Mrs. Miniver was based on the 1940 novel by British author Jan Struther, but its story deviated from the source, making it more relevant to wartime, and specifically, American audiences. Hollywood's pre-war depictions of England had been mainly as a classed society -- with a privileging of the upper class and its snobbery towards the lower. While the humanness of Struther's well-drawn characters transfers from the novel to the screen, the main actions and the resultant thematic concerns of the film were the invention of the screenwriters (Arthur Wimperis, George Froeschel, James Hilton, and Claudine West) and the film's director (William Wyler). Struther's book is a collection of essays about a wealthy English family told from the wife's point of view, set mainly before the war, and its only significant commentary on the war comes in the last chapter. In a letter to her sister-in-law, Mrs. Miniver argues that the war has "brought us to our senses" by drawing the country together in a "crusading spirit" (285-86). In contrast, the film version begins with the outbreak of the war and focuses on how the family engaged in the war effort, from the son's becoming an RAF pilot to the father's involvement in a rescue operation to Mrs. Miniver's apprehension of an enemy pilot. Certainly, Wyler has admitted that he made the film for propagandist reasons. Born Jewish in Alsace (then a part of the German empire), Wyler strongly believed that the U.S. should join the war against the Nazis: "I was a warmonger. I was concerned about Americans being isolationists. Mrs. Miniver was obviously a propaganda film" (qtd. in Herman 234).

The most important shift for "Americanizing" the story was to present a more democratic social universe and the erosion of class divisions with the country's entry into war. As the prologue that begins the film states, the Minivers are middle class, and the film moves the story from a London suburb to an idyllic small country town: "This story of an average English middle-class family begins with the summer of 1939; when the sun shone down on a happy, careless people, who worked and played, reared their children and tended their gardens in that happy, easy-going England that was so soon to be fighting desperately for her way of life and for life itself." While in the novel the Minivers are upper-middle class and invited for weekend shooting trips at the estates of the local aristocrats, the Minivers in the film are firmly below Lady Beldon's notice. Lady Beldon (Dame May Whitty) complains about those who attempt "to better their betters" and criticizes the erosion of class boundaries when the station master, Mr. Ballard (Henry Travers), names his prize-winning rose after Mrs. Miniver (Greer Garson) instead of a royal or aristocrat. Lady Beldon also objects to the unequal marriage proposed between her granddaughter Carol (Teresa Wright) and the Minivers' son, Vin (Richard Ney). Mrs. Miniver reminds Lady Beldon of her own young and short marriage to a man who died in war. Lady Beldon is then persuaded by Mrs. Miniver's arguments and concedes to the match. We are informed that her acceptance of social equality is not a one-off event, for, when the air raid sirens announce an enemy attack, Lady Beldon invites all of the townspeople to the manor house for shelter. This moment reflects an advance from an earlier scene when she could not bear the thought of sharing the cellar with her own servants. The film suggests a shift in England's social system from a firmly entrenched class hierarchy to a democracy, based on worth rather than birth. Here the OWI's desired theme of unity appears triumphant: the need to band together in times of war sees internal divisions dissolved, suddenly trivial in contrast to the differences between England and her enemies. The film also suggests to American audiences that the differences between the U.S. and England pale in comparison to those between them and their common enemy: fascism. Indeed, Mrs. Miniver was praised by Poynter at the OWI as a model piece of propaganda (Koppes and Black 230).

Interestingly, the film does not focus on the men's performance in combat -- her husband's rescuing of British soldiers from Dunkirk or her son's shooting down of enemy planes (indeed these events occur off-screen) -- but on Mrs. Miniver's attempts to preserve the family home. As Ohmer argues, embodied by Greer Garson, Kay Miniver "emerges as the exemplar of women's role in World War II” and was cited frequently in Good Housekeeping magazine as a role model for female participation in the war (60). Indeed, when Clem (Walter Pidgeon) returns from five days at sea, he says to his wife: "Oh darling, I'm almost sorry for you having such a nice, quiet, peaceful time when things were really happening. But that's what men are for, isn't it? To go out and do things while you womenfolk look after the house." His patronizing speech is interrupted by their cook who reminds Kay that they are out of ham because she fed it to the German pilot that morning. While Clem was putting his life on the line to help the war effort, so too was his wife. A German pilot who had crashed in the English countryside forces Kay at gunpoint into her home to feed and clothe him. The pilot was injured and eventually fainted -- at which point, Kay took away his gun then called for the police and a doctor. Her apprehension of the enemy required a cool head and courage; however, her primary concern was not her own safety, but for that of her children asleep upstairs. It is in this way that Kay was fulfilling her duty, as Clem says, to "look after the house" and suggests that women can also do their part to fight the war on the home front.

By Hollywood convention, characters who behave in accordance with moral law are rewarded just as those who transgress it are punished, and, in the home-front film, that reward is often the safe return of a husband or son from the war. Indeed, in Mrs. Miniver, it is not Vin -- the brave yet young and sensitive son of the family who dies in action -- but Carol, his new bride. She and Kay are in the car on the way home from the flower show when enemy planes attack overhead; stray bullets fired by a crashing plane penetrate the car’s soft-top and strike her. Her death is unexpected and thus powerful in terms of making Wyler's point that isolationism only works until the enemy comes to your front door -- then it is the lives of innocent wives and children, and a country’s entire way of life, that are at risk.

The importance of this film, despite its English setting, for American audiences is perhaps best summed up in the final speech of the film made by the Vicar as part of his Sunday sermon:

There is scarcely a household that hasn't been struck to the heart. And why? Surely you must have asked yourself this question. Why in all conscience should these be the ones to suffer? Children, old people, a young girl at the height of her loveliness. Why these? Are these our soldiers? Are these our fighters? Why should they be sacrificed? I shall tell you why. Because this is not only a war of soldiers in uniform. It is a war of the people, of all the people, and it must be fought not only on the battlefield, but in the cities and in the villages, in the factories and on the farms, in the home, and in the heart of every man, woman, and child who loves freedom! Well, we have buried our dead, but we shall not forget them. Instead they will inspire us with an unbreakable determination to free ourselves and those who come after us from the tyranny and terror that threaten to strike us down. This is the people's war! It is our war! We are the fighters! Fight it then! Fight it with all that is in us, and may God defend the right.

This speech became known as "The Wilcoxon Speech" (after the actor, Henry Wilcoxon, who delivered it) and was circulated beyond the film. It was reproduced in Time and Look magazines, copies of it were dropped over Europe as propagandist pamphlets, and President Roosevelt ordered that it be broadcast on the radio show, Voice of America. Notably, the speech is not in the original Struther story.2 That this was the people's war that had to fought by all -- including the U.S. -- was a key theme in films produced in the first year of America's involvement in the war. The film Mrs. Miniver can be argued as purely a Hollywood product as it deviates almost completely away from the themes and stories of its source and was produced before the creation of the OWI; however, its themes would be repeated in Hollywood's wartime films.


Wartime Sacrifices: Since You Went Away

The film Since You Went Away is based on the novel by Margaret Buell Wilder. The origins of the novel lie with a column that Wilder began for her local paper called (as is the subtitle of the novel) "Letters to a Soldier from His Wife" in order to earn money to support the family during the war. Wilder's novel is far less dramatic and didactic than the film and, instead, consists of letters from Anne to her husband about the family's daily struggles without him. Most of the family's problems revolve around money: Anne returns to a local paper as a cub reporter to earn an income, the housekeeper takes a second job, she takes in a lodger to help pay the bills, and her daughters make their own contributions. Other than these struggles with making ends meet, the novel -- like Struther's Mrs. Miniver -- focuses on the amusing or distressing incidents of quotidian life. In contrast, Hollywood took this simple, sentimental tale of home life and transformed it into a dissertation about fighting the war on the home front. Although there is a debate over producer David O. Selznick's sole authorship of the screenplay, Wilder's original story is altered dramatically to make it more relevant to 1943's audiences, including making the family less upscale than Wilder's (as was done with Mrs. Miniver).3

Since You Went Away insists that the war involves sacrifice on the part of all Americans, including women on the home front -- specifically, the sacrifice of luxuries, one's femininity, and loved ones. In Wilder's novel, the Hiltons sacrifice little; the novel suggests that it is only financial necessity, rather than moral duty, that cause the family to cut back on luxuries. For example, as Anne explains to Tim in a letter, "It does seem a little crazy to work most of two weeks so I can feed a horse a month. But I can't give her up yet" (19). The film, conversely, centers on sacrifice -- most likely because audiences were experiencing the pains of rationing and scarcity. As Selznick wrote about the film, "We are including episodes dealing with food rationing and other typical, timely problems" (qtd. in Norden 758). What many Americans would have considered basics rather than luxuries -- like sugar, coffee, some canned foods, fuel oil for home heating, and shoes -- came to be rationed and there were shortages of others like milk during 1942 and 1943. As Jack Nachbar explains, "Public reaction to these limits...was frustration and anger. People were trapped in their uncomfortable surroundings, and there was nothing they could do to escape them" (10). In the film version, Brig (Shirley Temple) does scrap metal drives for the war effort while Anne (Claudette Colbert) puts one less scoop of coffee in the percolator and defends her dress, now two years out of fashion, to the snobbish Emily Hawkins. Emily (Agnes Moorehead) is presented as the epitome of what not to do during wartime: her many unpatriotic crimes include hoarding food and buying from the blackmarket. In a poignant scene, the sacrifices of some are compared to the selfishness of others. As a passenger train is delayed for the passing of a war supply train, a well-to-do woman eats a chicken leg while complaining about the reduction in train service; in contrast, a young girl explains how food supplies were cut off to her village by the Germans. Similarly, a businessman complains that he may miss the biggest business deal of his life, while a young seaman explains that he has all the time in the world and we see that he has lost an arm in the war.

A key wartime problem Selznick wished to address was that of working with injured veterans upon their return from the front, and this issue was addressed by altering the novel's high school student Jan to the film's Jane (Jennifer Jones), who becomes a nurse's aide for wounded servicemen rather than going to college. As part of the "education" of the home-front's female audience, the film, like other home-front films, preaches the virtues of finding war-related work. World War II required the employment of millions of female workers, but social convention had previously discouraged women from entering the workforce. As Bilge Yesil explains, wartime propaganda agencies like the War Manpower Commission and the OWI had to advertise war work to women as laudatory, glamorous, and -- above all -- patriotic in order to attract them (103). Government documents and advertisements placed in women's magazines espoused common themes in the struggle to redefine and negotiate the meanings of femininity in relation to the definitions of masculine work. While the war meant that women could pursue opportunities beyond the traditional and socially sanctioned roles of wife and mother, Susan Hartmann notes that popular discourse set limits on the possibility of social change with three key themes conveyed: 1) that women were replacing men in the workforce only for the duration; 2) that women would retain their femininity even as they performed masculine labor; and 3) that there were feminine motivations behind women's willingness to move outside of their social roles -- in other words, they did so in support of their men (23). The recruitment campaigns between 1941 and 1945 were run by the Bureau of Campaigns, the WMC, the OWI's Magazine Bureau, and the War Advertising Council, and they required the close cooperation of media, particularly women's magazines (Yesil 107).

Hollywood, to help the war effort and working in conjunction with the OWI, produced films that would attract women to specific kinds of work that, before the war, would have seem unthinkable for respectable women, but, during the war, these jobs were recast and sold as necessary, patriotic, and appealing. Indeed, Anne, in Wilder's novel, is fearful of Tim's disapproval of pursuing "men's" work and voices these fears to him in her letters. She tells him of how she has been struggling to write short stories for money: "I'll stick it out a little longer because you think it's a nice ladylike occupation" (Wilder 10). When she writes him about her job at the newspaper, she apologizes to him for spending so much of her letter on her struggles at work: "But I won't talk about it any longer now -- I promise. In fact, I'll try never to sound like a lady executive or be anything but helpless in white organdy” (Wilder 17-18; emphasis in the original). In the novel, Anne is aware of a perceived need to be feminine -- to feel like a woman and to allow her husband his place to be the man (breadwinner and master) of the house. Ironically, Anne in the film manages all of these roles -- breadwinner, war worker, mother, and woman -- without every losing her femininity and, thus, is as mythic as she is perfect. Initially, Colbert's Anne only performs "woman's work" as housekeeper and proves deficient; however, a turning point for Anne comes when Emily barges in on a family celebration, spouting her typical and unpatriotic rhetoric in relation to Jane's work with wounded veterans:

Emily: A nurse's aide? Oh! What a revolting idea for an unmarried girl of your age. Well, our whole code of living seems to be completely ignored these days.[…] I simply feel that well-brought up young girls shouldn't be permitted to have such intimate contact with all sorts of…

Jane: All sorts of boys who've lost their arms and legs? They're young too, lots of them. But they weren't too young for that, Mrs. Hawkins, and I don't think breeding entered into it either. […]

Emily: Anne Hilton! What on earth has happened that you would permit a child of yours to talk that way without so much as…

Anne: Without so much as what? Thank heaven my child has the courage to say to you what should have been said long ago. And let me add that I'm ashamed…ashamed that I've put up with you, that I've even known you.

Emily: […] And may I ask just what other noble sacrifices you've made to give you the privilege of being so self-righteous?

Anne: I'm afraid that's just it, Emily. I haven't really made any sacrifices. Oh, I haven't hoarded and cheated and done all the other selfish, unpatriotic things that you've done. But as far as making sacrifices, I'm afraid we're two of a kind. And the realization of it doesn't make me very proud or happy.

Anne takes this opportunity to change and fulfill her duty as a home-front woman by pursuing "war work": she trains to be a lady welder to work in the shipyards.

The OWI felt that one of Hollywood's key functions was to help prepare audiences for the death of loved ones (Koppes and Black 162). The theme of coming to terms with a loved one's death appropriately -- in other words, with grace and pride -- becomes a common theme in the home-front film. In Since You Went Away, when Anne receives news that her husband, Tim, is missing in action, she is prepared to carry on without pausing for grief. When Jane receives the news that her fiancée has died in action, she wants to believe that it is a mistake: "I've heard that sometimes -- sometimes they get the names mixed up." Her mother, however, does not sugarcoat the truth: "Oh, no, honey, you mustn't fool yourself! That would be the worst thing of all. You've got to face it, as hard and cruel as it is." Anne is spared the "ultimate sacrifice": in the final sequence on Christmas Eve, the good news arrives that night that Tim will be coming home, and with his arrival Anne will also return to her "proper" place as wife and mother at the heart of the home.
As Caroline Webber suggests about the transformation of Wilder's book of letters to the screen, "Just as a letter does not necessarily travel reliably from author to addressee, the text does not dissolve away when filmed, but persists to disrupt, complicate, and even perhaps contradict the film. It is in those moments that we see these texts invaded by the war which they so studiously avoid acknowledging" (16). The film version deviates significantly from its source with the injection of Hollywood wartime themes that were shared by other home-front films. Tender Comrade also follows the trials and tribulations of an all-female household and suggests to audiences that rationing was good for the cause and should be endured with a smile, while hoarding and shopping on the black market should be regarded as evil and outright support of Hitler. The women run their house as a "democracy" -- voting every time a problem arises, including when questions of hoarding come up -- and their motto is “share and share alike.”4 Their housekeeper is a German émigrée with a husband in the American Army. She explains that once in Germany they had a democracy, but "we let it be murdered -- like a little child." The film's message -- that America is fighting the war to preserve democracy -- is clear and in keeping with the tenets of the OWI's manual. Other films, including Tender Comrade, shared Since You Went Away's attempts to help audience deal with loss as do Happy Land5 (Pichel 1943), This Is the Army (Curtiz 1943), The Human Comedy (Brown 1943), and Tomorrow Is Forever (Pichel 1946).

Tied to the theme of accepting the death of loved ones was then the question of whether or not to marry on the eve of war, raised as early as Mrs. Miniver, and it is here that the contentious subject of female sexuality is acknowledged but usually simultaneously denied. In This Is the Army, Johnny Jones (Ronald Reagan) refuses to marry his sweetheart, Eileen (Joan Leslie), out of the fear of leaving her with the burden of a child if he were to die. Eileen, however, convinces him that getting married is his patriotic duty: "We're all in this fight together -- women as well as men! Let's share our responsibilities." Neither couple in This Is the Army nor Tender Comrade is given the opportunity to consummate the marriages before the men are shipped out; these women marry for the selfless reason of giving their men something to come home to rather than to enjoy their sexuality.

By September 1945, the OWI was disbanded and no longer had any influence over Hollywood's production. Nevertheless, The Best Years of Our Lives repeated many of the same themes of the home-front film in the aftermath of the war, including that "good" women were those who kept the home fires (including her sexuality) burning for her husband alone. In addition, the film focussed on the kind of healing that women could provide their wounded men -- a combination of maternal nurturing and sexual healing.


Postwar Readjustment: The Best Years

According to a lead story in Variety in September 1945, audience polls indicated that Americans desired more realistic films than the sentimental Since You Went Away in the aftermath of the war (Williams 168). In a 1943 review for Commonweal, Philip Hartung describes the film as "the definitive home front movie...until a realist comes along to show us what life is really like in America during World War II" (374). The Best Years of Our Lives was praised by audiences, critics, and the Academy for being that film. Producer Samuel Goldwyn was interested in making films about the problems that those returning from war would face and completed audience research to test the amount of interest: the audience surveyed reacted well to the idea and Goldwyn began working on would eventually become The Best Years (Jackson 151).

The story of The Best Years was inspired by a pictorial article, entitled "The Way Home," which appeared in Time magazine on 7 August 1944. Goldwyn’s wife, Frances, had been moved by the piece and suggested to her husband that it would be a good basis for a film. Goldwyn commissioned historical novelist MacKinlay Kantor (author of "Happy Land") to write a treatment of the story, which Kantor eventually published as the blank-verse novel Glory for Me in 1945. Goldwyn was not pleased with the results -- a text that Martin Jackson suggests is "one of the more unusual treatments in Hollywood history: a novel in blank verse that ran 434 pages" (149) or what Philip Beidler describes as "a middlebrow verse epic" (592). Goldwyn, prepared to write off the endeavour as an idea gone bad, shelved the project. Ironically, after the film was a success, Goldwyn and Kantor would have a public dispute over the authorship of the film's story (Jackson 149). Whether or not Goldwyn liked the form that the story appeared in, he must have liked the story itself because Glory for Me outlined all of the key characters and the majority of the key events that appear in the final film version of The Best Years. Despite the fact that Kantor had turned two of his earlier works into successful film versions, it was Robert Sherwood who was chosen to write the screenplay in conjunction with the film's director, William Wyler, who had taken an interest in the project after making combat-zone documentaries. "The war had been an escape into reality," Wyler said (qtd. in Marx 307), and his interest in the film's story no doubt lay in its focus on the realities faced by veterans this time on the home front.

Wyler downplayed the role of any author and suggested that the screenplay nearly created itself: "The picture was the result of social forces at work when the war ended. In a sense, it was written by events and imposed a responsibility on us to be true to these events and refrain from distorting them to our own ends" (qtd. in Beidler 595). It is apparent that Wyler and Sherwood altered many of the events, characterizations, and themes of Kantor's novel, suggesting that the original narrative did have to be somewhat "distorted" in order to meet with Hollywood's postwar needs -- but notably not those of the OWI since it had been disbanded by this point.6 Alterations included suppressing Derry's (Dana Andrews) extra-marital affairs while overseas and delaying his discovery of his wife's own home-front dalliances, and these changes, in turn, facilitated a love triangle among Marie (Virginia Mayo), Derry, and Peggy (Teresa Wright); Homer (Harold Russell) is made an amputee rather than someone suffering from spasticity in order to make the character more 'sympathetic"; the problem with alcohol becomes Al's (Fredric March) and not Homer's in the film, allowing Homer to seem more noble than troubled; and lastly, Derry finds work in the airfield of junked planes instead of going off to college in a more accurate reflection of the reality of his access to meaningful employment considering his background. These, however, are differences in the characterization and stories of each of the male characters; in this study, what is more important is the increase in screen time, importance, and focus for the four key female characters -- Milly (Myrna Loy), Peggy, Wilma (Cathy O'Donnell), and Marie -- and, in doing so, the film is as much a tale of women’s readjustment to postwar life as it is about male rehabilitation. While the novel suggests that women are steadfast nurturers that will mend these broken men, the film suggests that everyone needs to adapt in the fallout of the war.

Kantor’s free-verse novel begins, like the film, with the three men meeting on the plane ride home to Boone City. What the film only hints at, however, the novel voices explicitly: namely, the men's excitement and fears about returning:

            What waited them they did not know,
            But they could guess.
            Their guesses could be wrong.
            They knew it well,
            And so did many million other men.
            They were afraid. They were resentful,
            But they wanted Home.
            They didn't trust the people they had left;
            They'd have to learn to trust them.
            They'd have to learn the U.S.A.
            Like any immigrant who tires to speak
            His bits of history aloud before a flag. (10)

And so the novel establishes postwar America as a new land to be populated not by returning men, but by strangers or immigrants coming to a foreign land to build a new life. They come home with new identities: Homer "went In as a child" and "came out a monster" (13), and Fred left a soda-jerk and comes back "Fred Derry, twenty-one, and killer of a hundred men" (3). In both the film and novel, military and social hierarchies are compared and sometimes inverted: Al represents the upper-middle class and the Army, Homer the lower-middle class and the Navy, and Fred working class and the Air Force; however, during the war, Fred was the most senior as a captain and outranks Al who is only a sergeant. Both Fred and Al are surprised to discover each other's "real life" identities -- soda-jerk and banker, respectively -- and, in the novel, Fred asks if Al was a janitor when Al tells him that he worked at a bank. Both novel and film recall the themes of the wartime films with the suggestion that social mobility is possible as class hierarchies are dismantled during wartime. But these wartime identities will do them little good in postwar Boone City: Fred is considered unskilled, unemployable, and ends up at his old job at the drugstore soda fountain. As he says to himself repeatedly throughout the novel, "And how much bombing/Will they want in Boone?" The answer is none and that includes the explosions that the men will metaphorically set off as they grate against their social readjustment: Al erupts into a rage at the bank when a woman tries to use her social status to stop her nephew from receiving a G.I. loan because she did not approve of his marriage; this action in turn prevents Fred from holding up the bank armed with his service revolver, which in turn allows Homer access to Fred’s revolver as he attempts to commit suicide.

Whatever the problem for these three men, Kantor's novel has one resounding answer: nurturing women, which is thematized through the idealization of nature as healing and women as associated with the natural and domestic. In the novel, Al packs up the family and moves from the urban apartment to a country house; on its grounds, Wilma is able to convince Homer to marry her and stop drinking; and, on its porch, Peggy convinces Fred to marry her. The novel is very explicit, often in rather misogynistic tones, in terms of what is seen as the "cure" for these damaged men: lovers who act as mothers to these men who have regressed to childhood and must be reborn into this new world. After attempting robbery, Fred wishes he had a woman’s lap to rest upon:

O soft, O warm and comforting,
A mother lap, a tender lap, a sweetheart place,
A cleanly cloth to spread his tears upon! (245)

Later, Peggy offers her lap to Fred as a source of comfort (259), and Wilma offers hers to Homer after his attempted suicide (253). Wilma is described in this scene in terms that liken her both to nature and the maternal:

            Pool…this ice-blue water of her hardihood,
            A strength of mountains, pine, and rocky shore.
            For she was speaking now, not as a child to child,
            But with a nursing passion in her heart.
            In whitest purity she offered up her breast to him,
            And let him drink his nourishment.
            He put his shaking lips
            Around the nipple of her life,
            And deeply took the milk she gave. (252)

Wilma's breastfeeding of Homer may be only symbolic, but it is somewhat disturbing to the contemporary reader to see women's value in the novel only as mothers to their lovers in order to heal them. In the film, on the other hand, the women may be nurturing, but they are also the ones with agency and pursue their men in the attempt to fulfil their own desires and needs.

Like film noir, The Best Years offers two models of womanhood: the irresponsible and unfaithful independent woman who takes advantage of her husband's absence "to live it up" -- and the nurturing woman who has become stronger and more independent but also waited patiently for the return of her man. The second is the ideal postwar woman who, as Michael Renov describes, "can be a sexy mother figure, for the twin attributes of the rehabilitating female are seduction and nurture -- the former to revitalize the sexual identity, the latter to soothe the traumas to mind and body" (132). The "bad" woman in the film is Marie whom Fred married after knowing her only a few weeks, out of lust rather than love: she wanted a man in uniform, and he wanted a pin-up girl. His punishment for this imprudent marriage is the possibility of being tied to it while falling in love with Al's daughter, Peggy. As the femme fatale, Marie has only a sexual side with no ability or desire to nurture whereas, as the ideal postwar woman, Peggy can be both. This dual identity of the ideal woman as lover and nurturer is apparent in the film's "putting to bed" scenes in which each woman (Milly, Peggy, and Wilma) helps put her respective man to bed (Al, Fred, and Homer). Each man is haunted back at home by his experience of war: Fred has nightmares, Al drinks, Homer is disabled; however, each woman proves to her man that she will stand by him and supply comfort as needed.

The "best years of our lives" of the title have been interpreted by critics as those that the men spent in war -- surrounded by a band of brothers who supported and understood them; however, the only character to utter the phrase in the film is Fred's wife, Marie. She complains to him that she gave up the best of years of her life during the war for him. She resented being tied to an absent husband when she was still young and pretty enough to enjoy life and attract other men. The fact that the film attributes this line to Marie and not to any of the male protagonists suggests an awareness on Goldwyn, Wyler, and Sherwood's part that women on the home front had sacrificed a lot for the war too. After all, rather than being overly delighted at the return of her long absent husband, Milly exclaims, "It isn't fair of you to bust in on us like this!" Only once the war was over, it would seem, did Hollywood begin to interrogate the myths it had constructed during wartime. Now that unity was no longer the theme of the day, filmmakers began to explore America's home-front discord.


Propaganda, Hollywood Style

Since You Went Away has been described as propaganda, encouraging the women on the home front to make sacrifices (Schindler 48) -- and also as “containing some of the most alarmingly expert schmaltz ever served up by Hollywood” (Higham and Greenberg 100). I would, however, point out that the source for the film -- Wilder's novel -- was propaganda too. As Webber suggests, "the epistolary form allows Wilder's novel to serve as a model of the kind of up-beat, encouraging letters the Ladies Home Journal and other publications exhorted its readers to send to the front during the war” (155). The Best Years may have been the most critically respected of these films but that did not save it from being labelled propagandist. In his review for the Nation in December 1946, James Agee described the film as "a long pious piece of deceit and self-deceit embarrassed by hot flashes of talent, conscience, truthfulness and dignity"; Andrew Sarris, in an article for the Village Voice in July 1965, called it "humanitarian blackmail" (qtd. in Jackson 154-55); and Manny Farber dismissed the film in a 1957 Commentary article as "a horse-drawn truckload of liberal schmaltz" (qtd. in Davis, "Storming" 126). The Best Years may have tried to portray realistically the multitude of problems facing returning servicemen, but it is still "a carefully balanced and subtly manipulated tribute to the American way of life" (Quart and Auster 18-9). While the film was intended to be a realist antidote to the home-front film's sentimentalism during wartime, it still offers the same kind of patriotic and socially conservative messages that the OWI had encouraged. Despite the opportunity that World War II had afforded women to explore new roles in society, postwar films like The Best Years encouraged women to return to pre-war positions of wife, mother, and homemaker.

The homogeneity of the messages from Mrs. Miniver made before the OWI's creation, to Since You made during the years of the OWI’s influence in Hollywood, to The Best Years produced after the OWI was dissolved suggests that Hollywood itself -- above and beyond the OWI and the film's sources -- wished to offer America's home-front audiences patriotic fare. The fact that both Mrs. Miniver and The Best Years were the product of director William Wyler may account for some of the similarities between those two films; also, the fact that the co-author of Best Year’s screenplay, Robert Sherwood, had been the director of the OWI's Overseas Branch may have meant that OWI values were very much his own. The pervasiveness of these themes throughout so many Hollywood films from 1942 to 1946, however, suggests that Hollywood was happily complicit in producing wartime propaganda. The home-front film struggled to raise awareness of America's problems and inspire social change while simultaneously attempting to offer reassurance and hope in troubled times. In the end, the films Mrs. Miniver, Since You Went Away, and The Best Years of Our Lives -- despite being based on novels from different countries, written at different times, executed in different narrative forms -- offered the same message as all of Hollywood's other home-front films, namely that women on the home front should sacrifice their needs in favor of those of America's men who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for America -- their Home Sweet Home.



1. According to Hartmann, women comprised approximately two-thirds of the home-front audience (191). See Doherty, however, for a full discussion about the debates and realties of the gender demographic of wartime audiences (150-53).

2. The novel, however, does end with Mrs. Miniver musing about the sermons of vicars. She states, "It's a pity preachers never seem to take their texts from anything but the Bible: otherwise they could base a perfectly terrific sermon for the present day on verse 16 of [Donne's] Litany -- the one which begins 'From needing danger…'" (288).

3) In her sequel to Since You Went Away, entitled Hurry Up and Wait, Wilder details her family's move to Hollywood to write the screenplay, but she was not credited for the screenplay officially; instead, Selznick, himself, took that credit (Webber ff 77, 176). On the Internet Movie Database today, however, Wilder is given credit for the book and "adaptation" while Selznick gets the credit for the screenplay. See http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0037280/.

4) Famously, the film's pro-democracy message was interpreted as pro-communist and used as evidence against writer Dalton Trumbo during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.

5) Happy Land is based on a short novel by MacKinlay Kantor, the author of Glory for Me on which The Best Years of Our Lives was based.

6) Hoagwood's article explores, as the title suggests, the "Multiple Makers" of the film, from Wyler as an auteur, Sherwood as the screenwriter, Kantor as author of the original source, Gregg Toland as the cinematographer, and the Production Code Administration as Hollywood's censorship body. Hoagwood is the first scholar I have come across who offers direct comparisons between Kantor’s novel and Wyler’s film; however, his discussion does not include the representation of the female characters.


Works Cited

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The Best Years of Our Lives. Directed by William Wyler, performances by Myrna Loy, Fredric March, and Dana Andrews, The Samuel Goldwyn Company, 1946.

Davis, Elmer and Byron Price. War Information and Censorship. American Council on Public Affairs, 1943.

Davis, Francis. "Storming the Home Front." The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 291, no. 2, 2003, pp. 125-132.

Doherty, Thomas. Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II. Columbia UP, 1993.

Norden, Martin F. The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies. Rutgers UP, 1994.

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Hartung, Philip. "Rev. of Since You Went Away (1943)." Commonweal, vol. 40, 1944, pp. 374-375.

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Hoagwood, Terrence. "Multiple Makers: The Best Years of Our Lives." Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance, vol. 7, no. 1, 2014, pp. 9-25.

The Human Comedy. Directed by Clarence Brown, performances by Mickey Rooney, Frank Morgan, and James Craig, MGM, 1943.

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