If Hollywood offered escapism during the Depression, WWII saw creatives both in front of and behind the camera find ways to help with the war effort. From the Hollywood Bowl to creating movies that spoke up when the United States was still staying neutral, Hollywood’s influence was palpable and extended far beyond making war movies (which are only one aspect of Christian Blauvelt’s new book). Hollywood Victory is a slam dunk for history buffs and classic movie fans alike, which is why we couldn’t wait to speak to Blauvelt about it over email. If you ever wondered what the Best Years of Our Lives of dog movies is, read on to find out.
Rachel Bellwoar: In the acknowledgements, you talk about writing this book during the pandemic. Was this a project you had in the back of your head to start for a while or did the idea come about because of the pandemic?
Christian Blauvelt: The 1940s have long been my favorite movie decade, and this slice of Hollywood history is a particular favorite. Hollywood Victory was in the works well before the pandemic started. It was over two years ago that the book was pitched and greenlit, and to sell Running Press and TCM on me as the right author for this I would share things like this short film Bette Davis made to encourage the purchasing of war bonds. She plays a mother to two kids, and it’s Christmas morning. They gather by the tree and she shares what their Christmas present is going to be: war bonds! It’s played as arch as you could imagine by Davis. The fact is, this whole time period has lived rent-free in my head for ages: I didn’t even really have to watch any of the movies again once I started writing — they’re part of my DNA.
RB: When did your love of classic movies start, and have you always been drawn to films from the ’40s?
CB: My love of classic movies took hold at a young age, mainly thanks to my mom, who introduced me to so many incredible titles. By the time I was in high school, I was already a TCM obsessive, plotting exactly what I’d watch each month based on what was listed in the channel’s magazine-style print calendar publication, Now Playing. The ’40s for me were always particularly special: never had there been a greater uncertainty — it was by no means a given that the Allies would win the war — but also there had never been a clearer sense of who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. That moral clarity about the fight being waged yet the uncertainty about its outcome is the recipe for great stories.
But you also have so much more than war movies in the ’40s. You have great melodramas, you have the beginning of Hitchcock’s American work, you have the beginning of the Freed Unit at MGM, you have the golden age of film noir, you have the first real explosion of an international art house cinema after the war. There’s something for everybody — more maybe than just about any other decade.
RB: If you include contemporary movies, WWII could be a huge topic. How did you figure out the scope for this book?
CB: I wanted to tell a story, a real narrative, seen through the perspective of many different people who lived these events during that time. So it made sense to confine the scope of Hollywood Victory to the years before the war when refugees from Germany and Austria made their way to Hollywood — and added so very much to the industry — ultimately through to shortly after the war’s end. It was important for me that the personalities of the time drive the narrative.
RB: One thing that I think is easy to forget when watching some of these movies is that they were made while WWII was still going on (or in the case of films like Confessions of a Nazi Spy and The Mortal Storm, before the United States had even entered the war). How important do you think context is to fully appreciating these films?
CB: I think many of the films made during the war years hold up even without understanding the context. Confessions of a Nazi Spy and The Mortal Storm just happen to be exceptionally well-made movies. They’re stories told with real skill and emotion. But when you factor in the environment in which they were created, I do think it leads to an even greater understanding. There’s a real appreciation then for how these films almost function like real-time reporting; they become primary source documents for understanding the era, what people thought, what the national mood was, what messages it was felt needed to be prioritized.
RB: Hollywood Victory also made me aware of how much I had forgotten from high school history, like the Good Neighbor policy, and Japan’s invasion of China. When it comes to WWII, do you think there are certain aspects that don’t get discussed enough?
CB: Definitely a lot of what happened in East Asia during the war. Imperial Japan’s atrocities were no lesser than those carried out by Nazi Germany. Learning more about, say, the Nanjing Massacre is tough — it’s such a horror to behold — but it’s important that such major historical trauma isn’t forgotten. Because those who suffered should be remembered. And that history also has a major effect on the nature of Sino-Japanese relations today. More positively, I think there needs to be a lot more attention on what the Flying Tigers, a group of American pilots who volunteered to essentially become the Chinese Nationalist government’s air force, did during the war and how much they are revered in China today. Chinese-American relations in the present can be fraught, but there’s this incredible historical point of connection and friendship that we can look to as inspiration for the future. The South China province of Guangxi Zhuang actually donated anti-virus medical supplies to the Flying Tigers Historical Organization for distribution in the U.S. last year, such is the memory of that American contribution to China’s fight during the war.
RB: How did you approach doing research for this book, and was the pandemic ever an impediment towards having access to sources?
CB: I read so many books in the leadup to writing Hollywood Victory. But my favorite part was reaching out to people who I’d probably never have been in touch with if it hadn’t been for this book. Someone like Monika Henreid, daughter of Casablanca star Paul Henreid, who provided such color and insight into what it was like for German and Austrian expats living in southern California during the war years. That’s the kind of thing you get a better understanding of by talking with someone who has a real connection to the era. And the pandemic did provide some difficulties. The story that opens the introduction of Hollywood Victory, about Emil Jannings using his Oscar to impress the American troops into treating him better, is something that’s been told so much that it almost feels apocryphal. And indeed much of how that story has been told is wrong. But curators at the Deutsche Kinemathek in Berlin, where Jannings’ Oscar is stored, were immensely helpful even despite all of them working remotely and not being able to access primary source material that hadn’t been digitized and was stored in the museum itself. The pandemic didn’t impose any obstacles that couldn’t be overcome — just some delays.
RB: In many ways, thanks to companies like TCM and physical media, access to classic films has gotten easier but were there any films you had trouble locating for this book?
CB: Most of what I had wanted to include I had already seen, and it’s true that most of these movies are now quite accessible. But some are still not that readily available on streaming. Something like Hold Back the Dawn, which I presented on TCM recently — it received a Blu-ray release a couple years ago after not really being available for home viewing before that, but it’s still not streaming anywhere.
RB: Finally, were there any films you discovered while writing this book that you were especially excited to write about, or old favorites you’re excited to see people seek out?
CB: One film that’s been a recent discovery for me the past couple years is Jules Dassin’s 1942 thriller Nazi Agent, starring Conrad Veidt as twin brothers, one a high-ranking Nazi, the other staunchly opposed to the Nazis who’s now living in America. It’s on TCM every now and then, but it’s criminally unsung. It’s like A Tale of Two Cities but set during World War II. I’d also recommend all of the movies I introduced on TCM during the night of films I programmed on the channel that tied in to my book: Confessions of a Nazi Spy, Hold Back the Dawn, Edge of Darkness, Air Force, and Courage of Lassie. I didn’t want to just introduce movies viewers might be more familiar with — Casablanca, Mrs. Miniver, The Best Years of Our Lives — though I love all of those films too. I wanted this to be a real night of discovery, and I think each of those films has something powerful to offer. Don’t sleep on Courage of Lassie. That’s the Best Years of Our Lives of dog movies!
RB: Thanks for agreeing to this interview, Christian!
Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars, and Stories of World War II is available now from the TCM Library and Running Press.