A couple weeks ago, my husband and I settled in to watch The Glenn Miller Story, a film about the famous bandleader’s rise to fame, enlistment in the Army, and subsequent death in a plane crash over the English Channel.
Glenn Miller was not the only musician or actor who felt the need to do something for his country after war broke out in 1941. In fact, several people contributed their talents to the war effort, including the man who played him, Jimmy Stewart.
- Jimmy Stewart flew 20 combat missions in Europe and retired as a Brigadier General.
- Gene Autry, cowboy star, flew with the US Air Corps.
- Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. joined the Navy at age 33 and worked with British Commandos.
- Henry Fonda also joined the Navy at age 37 and worked in the Pacific.
- Clark Gable, already a big time star, joined the Air Corps at 41. In fact, Mr. Gable finagled his way into the Armed Forces. Although not a pilot, he flew on many combat missions.
- Gene Kelly ad Ronald Reagan both worked in producing documentaries and training films.
- Mickey Rooney worked with Special Services, doing shows in the United States and Europe.
- Joe Louis worked before he enlisted investigating harassment claims by black soldiers and afterwards in Special Services doing boxing exhibitions.
As you can see, celebrities of the time did their part during World War II. Many future celebrities did, too! In fact, GI asserts that there were 6,931 working actors according to the US census, and by mid-1942, 3,503 were in the Army. Actors got drafted at a much higher rate than any other profession. In fact, some you might recognize:
- Walter Matthau joined the US Air Corps.
- Ed McMahon joined the Mare Corps.
- Paul Newman joined the Navy at 17.
- Sidney Poitier dropped out of school to join the Navy.
- George C. Scott, later to play General Patton, joined the Marine Corps.
In fact, Hollywood may have played an even bigger role in the war than sending its actors into combat. In September 1941, a Senate subcommittee investigated whether Hollywood was trying to drive the United States to war using hawkish messages in their films. In fact, isolationist Senator Gerald Nye claimed that Hollywood was “a raging volcano of war fever.”
Despite Nye’s worries, it appears that this was not the case. According to a University of Houston site, Hollywood was trying to appeal to its European audiences. Sometimes this meant making films that criticized Hitler, but sometimes this meant firing non-whites in German offices. In fact, at least until America entered the war, it seems all Hollywood was after was profits.
Afterwards, who knows if their intentions changed? Clearly, many actors were moved to fight for their country, and directors such as Frank Capra, John Ford, and John Huston made documentaries that explained “why we fight.” And hundreds of other films about the war were made then and afterward, including greats like Casablanca, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and The Glenn Miller Story, just to name a few. You should check a couple out.
St. Louis Blues March