Looking Back 75 Years: The War on Film

This article is part 2 of 4 in a series. 

Read Part 1 Here: Looking Back 100 Years: The Birth of Classic Hollywood

It was 1942 and the world was involved in yet another massive war. Nazi Germany was in control of continental Europe, and they were pushing into the Soviet Union. In one of the darkest events in human history, the Nazis’ Holocaust efforts were ramped up with the opening of the concentration camps. On the other side of the world, Japan was invading the island nations of the Pacific as they expanded their domain eastward towards the United States. The US had just entered the war and its first troops arrived in Europe. 

The war affected many aspects of everyday life, including movies. As the United States ramped up their war efforts, material restrictions reduced some of the extravagance that Hollywood films could incorporate into their productions. New sets that were built would be limited to a $5000 budget, which meant that re-using or redressing existing sets would be something that new productions would have to consider. The war effected film not just in the physical production, but also in terms of content. Movies in the 1930’s during the Great Depression had been escapist. 1940’s films tended to be more realistic and darker. War became an important topic in film, not just the fighting but the implications of living in a time of war. Thus, the 1940’s saw some of the first films where war was a contemporary topic, rather than one used for entertainment or historic purposes. 

The Office of War Information was established in 1942 to coordinate the war propaganda and documentation efforts of the United States. Part of the job of the Office of War Information was making sure that no films produced in the US would harm war efforts. Films after 1942 tended to have more patriotic messages as a result. Similarly, the OWI helped to focus the efforts of filmmakers and actors to assist in the creation of war documentaries (including news reels) and fund raisers for war bonds and relief funds. 1942 also saw many workers and stars of the film industry enlist into the army. In addition to serving as combatants, these people provided morale-boosting entertainment activities for troops, helped with education efforts, and created propaganda. 

 The Stars

cary grant

Hollywood of the early 1940’s had many famous faces. The most popular stars of the time were the ones that helped to define the golden era of Hollywood. They were well known not just because they starred in a one smash hit, but because they had consistent success (and often Oscar nominations) over many years in multiple genres. Cary Grant was one of the most famous actors of 1942 and is a definitive example of the traditional Hollywood leading man. Grant exhibited many of the qualities that this era of Hollywood coveted. He had a broad appeal that made his characters engaging, and also a light-hearted attitude that made his films enjoyable to watch. He was equally adept at drama as well as comedy. For example, the films that audiences of the 40’s would have known him best for were a string of screwball comedies from the late 1930’s, yet in 1941 he was nominated for a best Actor Oscar for his performance in Penny Serenade. 1941 also saw Grant work with Alfred Hitchcock for the first time in Suspicion, a working relationship that would continue for 3 more films. Later he would work with Hitchcock on his most lasting role in North by Northwest.


Bette Davis was among the most iconic actresses of the time. Like Cary Grant, she was featured in both comedies and dramas, although she would be most well known for her dramatic performances. Unlike Cary Grant, Davis’ performances tended to be intense and callous. She played strong women characters who weren’t afraid to speak their mind and be offensive. These on-screen personas matched her real life personality, which was forceful and driven. Her perfectionist approach to filmmaking often caused issues with studios, but was also something that people appreciated about her. In 1942 she helped to open the Hollywood Canteen, an establishment where Hollywood stars would volunteer their time to entertain service members. One of her most famous films was also released in 1942, Now, Voyager,which was in the midst of Davis being nominated for an Oscar 5 years in a row.  


One of the most successful filmmakers of this time period was William Wyler. Wyler had been a director since the 1920’s and during that time had become very experienced. He was known as a perfectionist, always making sure every little detail was correct. His productions were famous for requiring many takes and reshoots in order to get everything perfect. However, despite his demanding work habits, many actors appreciated Wyler’s talents. He was the kind of film director who could identify an actor with star potential and make them that star. He did this with Audrey Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, and Laurence Olivier. Bette Davis was received three Oscar nominations while working on Wyler films, and Wyler himself is the only director in history to have directed 5 films that were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. In 1942, Wyler directed Mrs. Miniver, which won six Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director. 



The Successes


The film that made the most money in 1942 was Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver. This film was a period romantic drama, with a plot centered around WW2. It was one of many films released in 1942 that was heavily influenced by the war. While film had told war stories in the past, this years’ were different. Instead of retelling a story of a past glory, or championing the efforts of the armed forces to promote patriotism, 1942’s films began to promote a cause. War had become a current event, and its impact on the domestic realm could no longer be ignored. For the first time, Hollywood took a stand against the Nazis. Its films began to denounce the enemy more than just promote friendly forces, and that was a big change. The business of making movies became more than just a business. It became a tool which could sway opinions and push a political cause. Churchill himself credited Mrs. Miniver in helping consolidate American popular support for the war. And based on the film’s profitability, it was a message that had widespread appeal. 

Casablanca 1

While Mrs. Miniver was the highest grossing picture of 1942, there is another film that was released in 1942 which would become an even bigger hit. That film was Warner Brothers’ Casablanca. While this film found a lot of success at the time of its release, it became an even more popular movie after WW2. The 1940’s were a time when many well-respected films failed to maintain their popularity over time, but somehow Casablanca has resonated with people of different generations. In this way, Casablanca is a bit of an oddity. One reason that Casablanca remains so endearing could be because it is a perfect representation of Hollywood’s golden era of film. It simply has the perfect representation of film elements from that era that today we look back fondly upon. Like Mrs. Miniver, Casablanca used WW2 as the backdrop, but it transcends that setting. The script is endlessly quotable, which has helped it stay relevant and entertaining. It solidified both Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart as stars, and went on to win three Oscars. Many people consider Casablanca to be the greatest film ever made because of its widespread appeal, and it is surely the best film that Hollywood has ever produced.  

New Developments


An important film of 1942 was Walt Disney’s Bambi. Bambi was in many ways a huge departure for Walt Disney. Instead of being a cartoon taking place in a fantasy world, Bambi took place in real life, and real life was depicted as being very frightening. In this film, “Man” was the antagonist, something that did not sit well with many viewers. When the film was released in 1942, it was not an immediate success, although it did get nominated for 3 Oscars. Audiences did not appreciate the more realistic approach to animation, and felt that the film was unpleasant, rather than enjoyable. One could argue that the harshness of Bambi in comparison with previous Disney films was indicative of the world affairs at the time. The darker tone echoed the more realistic films that Hollywood was producing, but, unlike some of those films, brought to screen an important topic. Even with the darker, more grittier tone of Hollywood at the time, its films still tended to be designed for entertainment and comforting purposes above all else. Bambi was different, marking a change in what animation could be used for, as well as indicating the more confrontational approach that film would begin to take over the next two decades. 

jungle book

The first film adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book was released in 1942. While that film had a lot of success upon release, it is notable for a different reason. This version of The Jungle Book was the first non-musical film to have its score released commercially as a soundtrack. The score of The Jungle Book was released on a 78 RPM record and included a narration by the film’s star, Sabu, who played Mowgli. The record was a commercial success and would influence future films to do the same, starting a business segment for film that continues to this day. 

Cat People 1942

Another important film of 1942 was Cat People. This film was a low-budget horror movie that told the story of a woman who was a descendant of a race that could turn into a panther when sexually aroused. Cat People was a box office success, but it showcased several new techniques that had not been seen in horror before, yet are commonplace today. First, this film was one of the first films to include a psychological and sexuality element to its horror. The filmmakers played off of the audience’s imagination in order to create a picture that really got into its audience’s mind. While Alfred Hitchcock would further explore psychological horror in his films, the sexuality aspect was something that hadn’t really been seen in film before, although it would become more common in the genre a few decades later. Cat People is also famous for introducing the technique known as the “Lewton Bus”. There is a scene when the main character is following a potential victim, and the music swells to suggest that she will become the panther and attack. Yet the hiss that occurs is not from a cat attacking, but a bus that happens to stop at the exact moment. The main character does not change, and nothing happens. It’s an effective jump scare with a bit of creativity that horror filmmakers would come to appreciate and use more often in their films as time progressed. 

Connection to 1917: In Now, Voyager, Paul Henreid puts two cigarettes in his mouth, lights them both, and then hands one to Bette Davis. In a time when sensors prevented sexual acts from being seen in film, this “two-cigarette trick” was meant as a representation of two characters engaging in an act of intimacy. This was perhaps the most famous occurrence of this act on screen, but it was not the first or last time it was used. It is rumored that this action was first seen on film in a D.W. Griffith picture from 1917, but that film did not survive, so the claim cannot be verified.

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