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Reeling Backward: So Proudly We Hail! (1943)
An impressively produced bit of WWII propaganda filmmaking with Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake playing nurses who learn war is hell, but romance eases the pain.
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Let’s not mince words: “So Proudly We Hail!” is wartime propaganda filmmaking, made in partnership with the U.S. War Department, intended to bolster morale of Americans back home and make them understand “why we fight.” It might as well have included a pitch to buy war bonds.
But it’s well-acted and impressively produced fare, and even a little daring for its day in terms of sex and violence.
It stars Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake as some of the “Angels of Bataan,” members of the United States Army Nurse Corps who served in the Philippines, specifically in the losing actions in Bataan and Corregidor, humiliating defeats that led to widespread capture of American personnel.
They go through quite a bit of hell, and I was impressed that the picture directed by Mark Sandrich with a screenplay by Allan Scott doesn’t relent in showing how the nurses suffered, toiling nonstop in terrible conditions right next to the soldiers. They get wounded, burned, catch malaria, lose a third of their body weight and pass out from overwork.
It’s based on a best-selling memoir by Lieutenant Colonel Juanita Hipps, one of the real Angels.
Of course, there’s also a whole lot of romance in between the bombings, as the movie was aimed straight at female audiences, encouraging all those Rosie the Riveters to give it their all on the homefront, with the prospect of a swell fella as their promised post-war recompense (who would also take their job upon his return).
The main object of affection is George Reeves — yep, good ol’ Superman himself, in his younger, svelter days — as Lt. John Summers. We first meet him as a wounded patient who refuses to let a nurse give him a bed bath, though he soon relents and bares his torso.
Less shy is Kansas, aka the Weeping Walachek, a college football star turned dogface who doffs his shirt on the boat road across the Pacific to let the nurses admire his tan, who hoot and whistle on cue. Played by Sonny Tufts in his very first screen roll, Kansas is a tall drink of aw-shucks, bobbing his head bashfully and doling out cornpone charm left and right with the ladies.
Colbert is the lead as Lt. Janet Davidson, the head of the nursing team, known as “Davy” and known for her calm, steadfast demeanor. Colbert, who was 40 at the time of the movie’s release, did not transition from silent film but was recruited from the theater for the new talking pictures, celebrated for her mellifluous, almost musical speaking voice.
Goddard is Joan O'Doul, the catty, spirited one in the group. As they’re leaving the docks at the start of the picture, Joan has to make sure her two fiances don’t run into each other. She has a favorite black nightgown — quite scanty for 1943 — she likes to wear whenever she can to “boost my morale.” (And the men in the audience, too, no doubt.) She and Kansas eventually train amorous sights on each other.
I did not initially recognize Lake as Olivia D'Arcy, though this role was very much a departure from her star persona of the sultry, slightly dangerous femme fatale. (She also doesn’t wear her signature peek-a-boo hairstyle.) Olivia starts out as an unsympathetic figure, a sullen and surly presence who refuses to socialize with the other “girls,” as the nurses refer to themselves.
She and Joan actually get into a slap-fight early on, which leads to a cathartic moment where she confesses to Davy the source of her sourness: her fiance was killed by the Japanese. Olivia has vowed to murder any enemy soldier she can get her hands on, though when the moment comes and she is unwittingly assigned to the POW ward, she relents and does her sworn duty as a nurse.
The film is probably most remembered for Olivia’s death scene, where she sacrifices herself by hiding a grenade in her shirt while surrendering to the Japanese who have overrun their medical camp, blowing them all up. Surprisingly, the movie actually shows the moment of the explosion, instead of the usual thing of cutting away and hearing the bang out of frame. It’s quite a shocking moment and I’m surprised the 1943 censors let it pass.
In general, the movie contains a lot of harsh and well-staged violence, especially aerial bombings of wherever the nurses are currently stationed. One scene seems to actually portray an ambulance being blown up as the actresses (or their stunt doubles) leap out of the way.
The sequence where the U.S. forces flee from Bataan is especially impressive, including some overhead shots where hundreds of extras, vehicles and various paraphernalia scamper about. This is followed by a waterborne sequence where they desperately paddle out to into the ocean in dinghies, some of which are blown apart as soldiers sink into the unrelenting sea.
The film also is not squeamish about showing blood — not just a blooming spot on someone’s shirt when they’re shot, but big, soaking puddles. In of the more arresting scenes, a surgeon is furiously working to save a soldier when a gunshot rings out, killing the patient on the operating table — and then the doctor looks over and sees the nursing assistant got it, too, a big red spot growing on her gown.
“So Proudly We Hail!” was a quite popular film, and received four Oscar nominations: Goddard for supporting actress, Scott’s screenplay, cinematography by Charles Lang and special effects.
So this was not just a quickie women’s picture, but a well-produced war movie with aspirations bordering on the epic. It also runs 125 minutes, unusual in an era when it was rare to see movies go longer than an hour-forty-five.
I have to say I was much more impressed with this film than I thought I would be. Certainly it has some mushy, sentimental moments — but also a very sobering tone and a stark portrait of what some women did during the war. They stood side-by-side with the boys in terms of bravery and sacrifice.
“So Proudly We Hail!” is now out in a very handsome Blu-ray issue from Kino Lorber that’s well worth a look.