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Film Friday: "So Proudly We Hail!" (1943)

In honor of Claudette Colbert's 112th birthday, which is on Sunday, this week on "Film Friday" I thought I would tell you a little bit about one of my personal favorite films of hers.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Mark Sandrich, So Proudly We Hail! (1943) tells the story of a group of eight Army nurses who are evacuated to Australia in May 1942, after surviving the battles of Bataan and Corregidor. Their superior officer, Lt. Janet "Davy" Davidson (Claudette Colbert), is in a severe state of mental and phsysical collapse which has left her in complete silence. During the sea voyage back home, Major Harrison (John Litel), an Army doctor, asks the women to recount their war experiences so that he might discover the cause the Davy's detachment and help her overcome it. Lt. Sadie Schwartz (Mary Treen) then begins narrating their story, starting with the day they shipped out from San Francisco just before December 7, 1941.

While the nurses are at sea, they witness an Army convoy being torpedoed and their ship eventually picks up a number of survivors, including Lt. Olivia D'Arcy (Veronica Lake), a young nurse who carries an abiding hatred for the Japanese ever since watching her fiancé die at Pearl Harbor. During the trip, Davy falls in love with Lt. John Sumners (George Reeves), a medic who also survived the torpedo attack, while Lt. Joan O'Doul (Paulette Goddard) falls for an affable Marine named Kansas (Sonny Tufts). Shortly after Christmas, the nurses are assigned to an Army hospital in Bataan and are nearly captured during the retreat down the peninsula, before Olivia's ultimate sacrifice saves them. When Bataan is mercilessly bombed by the Japanese, the nurses manage escape to Corregidor, where Davy breaks military rules by marrying John. Several days after John leaves for Mindanao to obtain much-needed quinine, the nurses are secretly ordered off to Australia, though Davy refuses to go since she promised she would wait for his return. The news that John is missing in action and the concussion of a nearby shell burst, however, force her departure and puts her in a comatose state. The story finished, Major Harrison reads to Davy a last letter from John, who reports that he is safe and incloses the deed to his farm, where he promises to meet her after the war ends. The knowledge that John is alive and well finally awakens Davy and restores her faith in the fight for freedom.

Lieutenant Janet "Davy" Davidson: It's our own fault. We believed we were the world, that the United States of America was the whole world. Those outlandish places Bataan, Corregidor, Mindanao those aren't American names. No, they're just American graveyards.

When the United States entered World War II following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Hollywood "rallied around the flag" and produced hundreds of war-related films to incite patriotism and boost the morale. The great majority of the combat pictures released between 1942 and 1945 focused on the war in the Pacific and corresponded closely to the paradigm of the "good war": that the conflict was started unfairly by the other side and that the American forces were "innocent, fighting the enemy with old-fashioned know-how, commonsense ingenuity, and undaunted courage." In contrast, the Japanese enemy was almost invariably portrayed as "unscrupulous, brutal and inhuman." Among seminal works like Wake Island (1942), Air Force (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), So Proudly We Hail! occupies a distinguished place, as it was one of the first films to resist "the temptation to demonize the enemy by placing human drama in the foreground."

Producer-director Mark Sandrich, known primarily for his Astaire/Rogers musicals of the 1930s, had read a news report about a small group of Army nurses who were evacuated off Corregidor just a week before the island fell in May 1942 and arranged to meet with them to record their experiences. Sandrich and screenwriter Allan Scott initially conceived So Proudly We Hail! as a simple romance story, but the Bureau of Motion Pictures, a division of the Office of War Information responsible for monitoring all films about the war, immediately rejected this idea. They demanded that the filmmakers aimed instead for some verisimilitude by producing a realistic depiction of the war in the Pacific, but obviously toned down to not frighten or demoralize the American audiences.

George Reeves and Claudette Colbert
During the writing and planning phase of So Proudly We Hail!, Paramount Pictures enlisted the help of Lieutenant Eunice Hatchitt, one of the lucky few who had escaped from Corregidor. Tall and athletic with a soft Texas accent, Hatchitt had joined the service in 1936 and her experiences in the jungles of Bataan had left her one of the most skilled nurses in the Army. Upon her return from the Philippines, Hatchitt was named chief nurse of 53rd Army field hospital in the European Theater of War, landing with her unit in Normandy shortly after D-Day to assist General George S. Patton's Third Army.

Hatchitt's first task as a technical consultant on the film was to work with Sandrich, who was in the process of creating dialogue from the diaries of the some of the nurses. Initially, Hatchitt was very enthusiastic about what she saw, as the fictional characters created by Sandrich and Scott bore some resemblance to the women she had known during her two-year tour of duty in the Philippines. She was also impressed by the realism of the costumes and sets, constucted with the aid of several photographs of the nurses and their surrounding taken by a LIFE magazine correspondent who, like Hatchitt, had escaped from Corregidor in the last days before the Japanese took over the island. However, as pre-production on So Proudly We Hail! went forward, Hatchitt began to notice certain inconsistencies in the script and called attention to the aspects of the film that she felt trivialized or misrepresented the nurses' work. She was particularly appalled by the character of Olivia D'Arcy and the implication that the Bataan nurses did not treat Japanese patients with the same care and compassion they gave to other patients. Horrified by Olivia's "erotic suicide," Hatchitt asked to be taken off the project, but Paramount denied her request.

When time came for casting, Paramount made sure to guarantee box-office success by hiring three of the most popular leading ladies of the time: Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake. Having made her film debut in Frank Capra's For the Love of Mike (1927), Colbert was by far the most experienced actress of the trio. Although known as an expert screwball commedienne, as demonstrated by such films as It Happened One Night (1934), Colbert's dramatic range enabled her to easily encompass melodrama and to play characters ranging from femme fatales, such as in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross (1932), to housewives, like in John Cromwell's Since You Went Away (1944). So Proudly We Hail! was one of the last pictures she made for Paramount before ending her long association with the studio in 1945.

Goddard, Lake and Colbert between takes
A former Ziegfeld girl, Paulette Goddard had entered the film industry in 1929 and endured five years of doing extra work in a series of second-rate pictures before achieving widespread recognition as the female lead in the iconic silent comedy Modern Times (1936), starring, written and directed by Charlie Chaplin, whom she married shortly afterwards. During the filming of So Proudly We Hail!, Goddard cause some controversy by telling a magazine reporter that she preferred working with Veronica Lake because they were closer in age (at 33, she was actually 12 years older than Lake and only 7 years younger than Colbert). Goddard's comment propelled a feud between her and Colbert, who was otherwise known for maintaining high standards of professionalism in her work environment. There were also arguments over how they were to be photographed, as Colbert was notorious for being obsessed with not showing the right side of her face to the camera due to a small bump on her nose resulting from a childhood injury. This often necessitated redesigning movie sets to accommodate her aversion to her "bad side," resulting in film technicians describing her right profile as "the dark side of the moon."

Veronica Lake as Lt. Olivia D'Arcy
After her breakthrough role in the war drama I Wanted Wings (1941), Lake had become one of the most reliable box-office draws of the early 1940s, appearing in popular films such as Sullivan's Travels (1941) and I Married a Witch (1942). So Proudly We Hail! marked the first time since Sullivan's Travels that her signature and widely imitated "peek-a-boo" hairstyle was confined under a cap in conform with her role as an Army nurse. Reportedly, Lake's shapely coiffure was considered bad influence on women war workers of the time since long, flowing hair was likely to get caught in factory machinery.
As the self-sacrificing Olivia D'Arcy, Lake protagonized the most memorable scene in So Proudly We Hail! The sequence happens during the last thirty minutes of the film, when an abortive evacuation attempt leaves the nurses stranded in a storage facility in Bataan, with only hand grenades for protection. Hoping to gain time so she can start up a nearby jeep, Davy hurls a grenade into the darkness and gunfire quickly follows, indicating that the enemy is approaching. As if inspired, Olivia lets down her hair, snugs a grenade in her bosom and walks out into the open, arms raised in a gesture of surrender. Just as the reaches the crowd of awaiting Japanese soldiers, she pulls the pin on the grenade, killing them and herself so that the others can reach into the jeep and escape. Despite being highly controversial at the time, this was a scene that convincingly portrayed the kind of heroism that often made headlines in America during the Battle of Bataan.

Paulette Goddard and Sonny Tufts
Also appearing in So Proudly We Hail! was "a big blonde lug of a gent" named Sonny Tufts, in his feature film debut as the "abashed hero" Kansas, Goddard's love interest. Tufts and Goddard had such great chemistry that Mark Sandrich asked Allan Scott to write a film specially for the two of them, I Love a Soldier (1944), which is likely the first time in Hollywood history that a newcomer has had a starring story begun for him even before he finished his first picture. After the release of So Proudly We Hail!, Tufts received an astounding 1700 fan letters a week and was named "The Find of 1943" by a movie magazine. Within a year, the 32-year-old Tufts had risen "from a state of utter and complete non-entity to one of the hottest personalities on the screen." Sadly, his career began to decline in the early 1950s, which aggravated his alcoholism and off-screen antics. Colbert was also given a romantic angle in the form of George Reeves, who later achieved success in television playing Clark Kent/Superman in ABC's Adventures of Superman (1952-1958).

While romantic relationships were "illicit and inappropriate to combat," they were required by Hollywood's gender forms and narrative conventions. Among the harrowing scenes of the chaotic departure from Bataan and the brutal last days on Corregidor, So Proudly We Hail! still maintains a sense a familiarity by presenting the image of  a "honeymoon in a foxhole" and asserting, as written in the film's posters, that its women "Love as Hard as They Fight." The romance narratives that Scott constructed around these nurses were central to the selling of So Proudly We Hail! to domestic audiences, giving a personal dimension to the impersonal historical events in which the characters are involved.

John and Davy's "honeymoon in a foxhole"
Advertised as "the first great love story of our girls at the fighting front," So Proudly We Hail! opened in June 1943 at the Radio City Music Hall in New York to great critical and commercial acclaim, eventually becoming one of the biggest moneymakers of the year. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praised the film for its "unremitting realism," though he described the story as being "empty of real dramatic quality [...] it sets up the illusion of place but fails to maintain it with the illusion of genuine people there." In addition, LIFE magazine commended So Proudly We Hail! for its "authenticity and grim realism," adding that it was "the next best thing to an actual pictorial record of the last bloody days of Bataan and Corregidor." The real Bataan nurses, however, considered that the film "trivialized their experience, their sacrifice, their ordeal" and blamed Hatchitt for its misrepresentations of their experiences. At the 16th Academy Awards held in March 1944, So Proudly We Hail! received nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Goddard), Best Original Screenplay, Best Special Effects and Best Cinematography, Black and White.

Along with Richard Thorpe's Cry 'Havoc' (1943), So Proudly We Hail! provided an oportunity for the extraordinary and courageous work of nurses to be put before the general public. Both pictures helped quench the tremendous thirst for information about the state of affairs in Bataan and Corregidor during World War II and improved morale on the homefront by depicting the embattled nurses in action. Although the film does, to some extent, reiterate the incompatibility of woman and soldier, So Proudly We Hail! remains notable for being the only wartime hit to focus in a significant way on women in combat.

By cinematic standards [...] So Proudly We Hail! was in many ways a landmark in its representation of military women at work. After all, it seeks to present the committment of the nurses as heroic and celebrate their achievements. It attempts to maintain a precarious balance between military and love stories, as well as fulfilling contradictory expectations of both action and glamour. Yet it is clear that the celebration of military nurses' service ultimately conflicts with Hollywood's rigorously enforced gender forms, a conflict which produces the contradictory mix of patronage and patriotism which is so marked a feature of So Proudly We Hail!
(Yvonne Tasker)

Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty by Bernard K. Dick (2008) | Hollywood Goes to War: Patriotism, Movies and the Second World War From 'Ninotchka' to 'Mrs. Miniver' by Clayton E. Koppes and Gregory D. Black (2000) | Peekaboo: The Story of Veronica Lake by Jeff Lenburg (2001) | Soldiers' Story: Military Women in Cinema and Television Since World War II by Yvonne Tasker (2011) | The American Experience in World War II: The American People at War: Minorities and Women in the Second World War by Walter J. Hixson (2003) | We Band of Angels: The Untold Story of the American Women Trapped on Bataan by the Japanese by Elizabeth Norman (1999) | We'll Always Have the Movies: American Cinema During World War II by Robert L. McLaughlin and Sally E. Parry (2006) | World War II in the Pacific: An Encyclopedia edited by Stanley Sandler (2001) | Lewiston Evening Journal Dezember 1944 article | TCMDb (Articles) | The New York Times review


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