Note: This post will contain some spoilers. Read with caution if you’ve never seen For Me and My Gal. Additionally, this post was written for The Classic Movie History Project blogathon. For more information on this blogathon, see the end of the post!
With World War II looming heavily over every aspect of American life during the late 1930s and early 1940s, a small trend emerged in Hollywood. While plenty of films were released with plots involving the then-current conflict, the studios also explored the issues of and provided comfort from the second World War by taking a look back in history… to World War I.
Perhaps the goal was to reflect on the major issues of the day by looking at a conflict of similar scale. Perhaps the goal was to put the minds of moviegoers at ease, reminding them that just as World War I eventually ended, World War II must as well. The loss and destruction of war could never be erased, but moviegoers could look forward, with hope, to the war’s end.
Waterloo Bridge, a flashback-heavy film framed through a soldier’s recollection of the first World War at the start of the second, told an emotional tale of two sweethearts who met underground during an air raid. The Fighting 69th told the story of an arrogant, careless soldier who transforms himself in the midst of tragedy and sacrifice. Sergeant York brought to the screen the story of a real-life World War I hero, Alvin York. La Grande Illusion, now regarded as a masterpiece of French cinema, is a strongly critical exploration of war, politics, and prejudice — the clearest use of the first World War to make a statement about the second.
Sometimes a World War I setting was combined with a somewhat lighter story, which brings us to today’s film: For Me and My Gal, released in 1942. Romance plays out with plenty of musical accompaniment in this tale of vaudeville performers, struggling to break out in showbiz while also dealing with the unique challenges that come with living in wartime.
The war’s importance to the story isn’t explicitly spelled out throughout much of the run-time. The film opens with a dedication not to soldiers, but to vaudeville hoofers and clowns, for example. In another early scene, Harry ignores a major front-page “GERMANS NEARING PARIS!” newspaper story in favor of the entertainment pages. At the start of the film, the United States has not yet entered the war, and no one seems to be taking it very seriously. And, of course, with such delightful songs being performed by such talented people, the viewer’s attention isn’t focused on the war either.
But as the film progresses, so does the war, and its presence in the lives of Jo and Harry grows accordingly. Once the United States officially joins the war, it’s an unavoidable element of the story. About half an hour in, newspaper headlines announcing major events such as the Lusitania’s sinking and the United States’ official war declaration are shown in a montage, along with footage of “Wake up, America!” protests.
Later, Jo’s brother heads off to war, and not long after, she receives word that he’s been killed in action. Some of Jo and Harry’s vaudeville pals join the army. On the home front, military-themed musical performances become popular with audiences, and singers travel the country promoting liberty bonds. Jo herself goes overseas to entertain the troops in France. And in one final act of patriotism, counteracting that opening dedication to vaudevillians, the film closes with a title encouraging the audience to buy war bonds.
Harry’s method of dealing with the war was controversial at the time of the film’s release. His character is perhaps the most fascinating element of the film, in terms of its significance as a piece of wartime cinema. He puts his stage success above what’s best for his country. When he gets drafted just as he and Jo’s act is gaining traction, he goes to great lengths to avoid military service, first making calls to have friends pull strings for him, and later crushing his own hand with the door of his trunk so he’ll fail the physical exam.
TCM’s article on the film mentions that with the United States embroiled in another world war at the time of For Me and My Gal‘s release, “it seemed almost deluded” for the romantic hero to be a World War I draft-dodger, a man who injures himself in order to avoid being sent into combat. His injury is revealed to Jo just after she’s received word about her brother (who is a soldier), and with tears in her eyes she tells him that she never wants to see him again, condemning his cowardice.
TCM also notes that preview audiences greatly disapproved of Gene Kelly’s character due what they saw as a very cowardly attempt to avoid the war. Re-shoots were ordered to make Harry more likable and give him “more of a conscience.” When Jo leaves him, he tries to convince every branch of the military to let him join, and when he can only join the Army as a performer, he laments the fact that he’s not in a “real” uniform. (I was unable to find record of exactly which scenes were added in from re-shoots, but TCM mentions that the finale was re-shot without George Murphy, whose Jo-loving character of Jimmy was seen as much more suitable for her than Harry by test audiences.) With these changes, which better-reflected the patriotism craved by audiences in the ’40s, the film became a hit.
This controversy adds an element of historical interest to the film, increasing its significance both as an example of wartime cinema and as an example of the small “World War I in World War II” subgenre. But it’s worth spending time on simply as a film as well. Lovely songs, great performances, strong chemistry between the two leads, and a heartstring-tugging romance make for a wonderful watch.