The world was at war 80 years ago. The United States was grieving over the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 by the Japanese military and the defeat of our forces that month at Wake Island. And then the beloved Carole Lombard, her mother, servicemen and the crew perished in a plane crash west of Las Vegas on January 16, 1942. She was returning to Hollywood after raising $2 million in a war bond drive in Indianapolis.
How would Hollywood and audiences respond to World War II? They certainly didn’t shy away from the war. If you look at the top 10 films of the year, there are some escapist films but also movies dealing with the global conflict.
In fact, the No. 1 film of the year William Wyler’s “Mrs. Miniver” broke records at Radio City Music Hall in New York playing 10 weeks. Production began on the stirring, sentimental drama about a British family trying to survive during the early days of the war in Europe. Not only was it the top film with audiences, “Mrs. Miniver” was warmly embraced at the Oscars winning six Academy Awards including picture, director, actress for Greer Garson, supporting actress for Teresa Wright and screenplay (James Hilton was one of the scribes). And there was a bit of a scandal revolving around the film when the married Garson fell in love with handsome Richard Ney, a dozen years her junior, who played her son in the classic. A month after her divorce in 1943, she married Ney. But the marriage lasted all of five years. And during the rather acrimonious divorce proceedings, it was revealed that Ney called the superstar too old. Garson’s legion of fans said nay to Ney.
Garson also starred in the No. 2 film, the uber romance “Random Harvest,’ based on the novel by Hilton. The movie also had a war theme, but this time around it was set during, and post-World War I. “Random Harvest” earned seven Oscar nominations including picture, actor for Ronald Colman and supporting actress for Susan Peters.
“Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the classic bio-musical about the legendary Broadway star/composer/writer George M. Cohan went into production just three days before Pearl Harbor. And this rousing Americana musical starring James Cagney, who sang and danced his way to a best actor Oscar, struck a chord with audiences coming in as the No. 3 film of 1942. It was nominated for a total eight Oscars including picture, director for Michael Curtiz and supporting actor for Walter Huston. It won a total of three.
The next three box office champs were escapist fare. Fourth place went to Cecil B. DeMille’s lush Technicolor action adventure “Reap the Wild Wind,” starring John Wayne and Ray Milland, which earned an Oscar for best effects/special effects. “Road to Morocco,” the funniest of the Bob Hope/Bing Crosby/Dorothy Lamour “Road” comedies, took fifth place. The hit received two Oscar nominations best writing. And sixth place went to the enjoyable Bing Crosby/Fred Astaire musical comedy “Holiday Inn,” which earned three Oscar nominations winning for Irving Berlin’s best-selling yuletide standard “White Christmas.” Ironically, the Christmas film opened in September
The No.7 film of the year went to “Wake Island.” When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, they also struck Wake island in the Pacific. And the battle continued until the American forces surrendered to Japan in Dec. 23, 1941. The Japanese military then occupied the area during the war. Paramount began work on the film before the battle even ended. “Wake Island,” written by W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler from Marine records, the movie went into production four months after the battle and opened in August. Directed by John Farrow, the film starred Brian Donlevy, MacDonald Carey, Robert Preston and William Bendix. Reviews were strong with the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther stating it was a film “for which its makers deserve a sincere salute.” And it was nominated for four Academy Awards best picture, director for Farrow, screenplay and supporting actor for Bendix.
One of the most loved baseball films, “Pride of the Yankees,” starring Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig, Teresa Wright as his wife Eleanor and even Babe Ruth as, you guessed it, Babe Ruth was the eighth most popular film of the year. The four-hankie weepie was nominated for 11 Oscars including picture, actor and actress, and won for editing.
The musical-drama “For Me and My Gal,” Judy Garland and Gene Kelly’s first teaming (and Kelly’s first film) took 9th place. It was Oscar-nominated nominated for best music.
And the tenth most popular film of the year went to “Somewhere I’ll Find Out,” which was the film Clark Gable was making when he learned his wife Carole Lombard had died in a plane crash. Production halted for a month after her death. “Somewhere” was Gable’s second pairing with Lana Turner after the two had made a splash with 1941’s “Honky Tonk.” The romantic drama set before and after Pearl Harbor revolves around two competitive war correspondent brothers (Gable and Robert Sterling) and the beautiful young reporter (Turner) they both are interested in. After the film was completed, Gable, then 41, enlisted and remained in military service until 1945.
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