“Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!”
The airwaves are full of superficial documentaries about Hollywood — the movie industry, its stars, and the films themselves. Network television is a particularly notorious source for such programs, as so-called “stars” host retrospectives about people and times they have little familiarity with or particular interest in, all in the name of ratings. Even organizations such as the American Film Institute prostitute themselves by mounting meaningless “best-of” programs that only serve to prove how far downhill Hollywood filmmaking has descended since its golden days.
Fortunately, there are some sources of film-related documentary that provide more reliable efforts — specialized channels such as Turner Classic Movies or independent film history endeavors such as Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions. In the 1980s, Castle Hill television was responsible for several documentaries about Hollywood, one dealing with the 1930s and another with the Second World War. The latter is the one under consideration here.
Going Hollywood: The War Years is hosted by a star of that era, Van Johnson, and provides a portrait of the times and Hollywood’s role in them that is more than a glossy hymn of praise. It recognizes the uniqueness of that time and the nature of a whole mass of entertainment that has to be judged by contemporaneous standards, not those of the 1980s when the documentary was made (never mind the standards of the even-farther-removed 21st century). It’s easy to view some of the movies from the war years as hopelessly patriotic and almost quaint in their wholesomeness, but that fails to recognize the ethos of the times and the constraints under which these films were made.
This program provides a mostly chronological presentation of world events and Hollywood’s response to them. There is some actual footage of the war, as well as occurrences on the home front, but most of the 76-minute running time consists of clips from Hollywood films or from events in which Hollywood stars participated (such as war bond drives and USO shows). The film clips used are well chosen in terms of length and variety. Van Johnson’s narration is informative without being intrusive, while occasional brief comments by stars who appeared in wartime films help to provide perspective. Participating in that fashion are Vivian Blaine, Joan Leslie, Sylvia Sidney, Tony Randall, Dane Clark, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Evelyn Keyes, Roddy McDowall, Gloria De Haven, and Jackie Cooper.
One of the program’s unlikely strengths is its subtle questioning of some of the war’s events, including the domestic internment of Japanese-Americans during the war, the morality of using the atomic bomb, and the uncertain future faced by many at war’s end. The film doesn’t dwell on these issues at all, but the approach does gently induce the viewer to reflect on their own reactions to those happenings.
The documentary packs a lot of material in its modest running time and introduces a lot of films that I suspect viewers will want to know more about or perhaps view in full. Unfortunately, virtually none of them are identified by title, although some players are named. Aside from that, the overall impact of the program is quite positive and should appeal particularly to viewers with an interest in, but limited familiarity with, Hollywood’s wartime films.
Unfortunately, Shanachie’s DVD presentation is rather disappointing. The film is correctly framed in full screen, but the source material has seen better days. Many of the clips included in the film are predictably in rough shape, but even the newer framing material suffers. Overall, the program is watchable, but there’s plenty of dirt and debris present and the colors have faded somewhat. The image lacks sharpness throughout, and image detail is marginal. The mono sound has some hiss in the background and is rather muffled at times. There are no supplements.
It’s unfortunate that the disc’s shortcomings prevent me from recommending what is one of the better Hollywood documentaries.