This is a deviation from my usual adherence to lists of movies rated as great by one source or another, as it is unlikely this will appear on any such lists. I was intrigued however by the things James Agee wrote about it at the time it came out, of course I like Judy Garland as a movie star, and I am emotionally partial to many of the sentiments that informed all the arts in this time period, so I made an exception to my usual patterns to see it. It tends to get written about very enthusiastically on the internet--it is the 4th highest rated movie of 1945 by the reviewers at Amazon.com for example--but this is because it is the kind of movie that only people who will be inclined to like it in the first place are going to bother seeing it. It's a saccharine wartime romance about a soldier and an office girl he meets while on two days leave in New York City. The combination of Judy Garland in New York in 1945 is enough to draw me in however.
Like It's a Wonderful Life, this film was not a big hit at the time it came out. It was released as the war was winding down in May of 1945 and the critical consensus seems to be that people were starting to transition out of the mood for this kind of overly reassuring picture, perhaps looking forward towards a more materialistic postwar mindset, I am not sure. The settings where this movie takes place--offices, restaurants, train stations, apartments, hotel lobbies--tend to be cramped and crowded and well-worn and shabby, though enlivened by the energy and purpose which the war has unleashed, especially in the young people. This is one of the things I like about it, though in reality getting away from this urban shabbiness and bustle, which looks somewhat attractive after sixty years of suburban living, was one of the first things people were determined to do once the war ended. I have read that the whole movie was filmed on Hollywood sets, but the recreation of New York is very believable. There was even a facsimile made of the Grand Concourse in the interior of the old Penn Station for $66,000. Why, one may ask, would I be attracted to shabbiness? I wonder sometimes if it is not my natural element, since I am always uncomfortable in any kind of any kind of overly efficient and sanitized environment. Any depiction of shabbiness populated by moderately intelligent, or attractive, or even upstanding people--narratives of the bohemian Paris sort being the epitome of this genre--is almost like an affirmation for my existence, though I actually have nothing to do with such scenes in my own life.
Judy Garland is really very good in this. I don't know how intelligent she was--certainly she was not educated, and seems like somebody who even today would be an indifferent student in school--but she was truly gifted as a performer. It is common on the internet to suggest that if Judy Garland were to go on American Idol she would not win for whatever reason, but in fact the great unconscious dream of this contest is that somebody like Judy Garland is going to turn up on it, which, however, appears unlikely to happen, because, leaving aside the question of singing talent, the instinct for stagemanship and having to relate to an audience that is obvious in these old stars is not something that people seem to have anymore. Frances Gumm does not sing in this movie however, which was the first time she had ever had such a role, and she is great. She is wholly convincing as an average working woman that an average soldier would have met and fallen in love with in the mood of 1945. This is in part no doubt because aside from her unusual singing and acting talent, she was that kind of person. She is attractive enough to fall in love with on a good day, but is not anyone who was ever going to be mistaken for Ingrid Bergman. She pulls off the clothes, makeup, hair, conversation, etc, of the class of person she is supposed to be portraying to a very fine point of detail. When you watch some of the clips from her TV show in the 60s, when her speaking voice had become rather grating, and she cackles jarringly at bad jokes, and her eyes had an odd harsh/sad but at the same time not unkind expression, it is just like so many of the women of that wartime generation that I knew growing up. It is not a stretch to imagine that the appearance and temperament of Judy Garland in this movie is not far from what they were like themselves in 1945.
My grandparents were all born in the 1921-24 window, making them ground zero Generation GIs, and my parents were born in 1948 and 1950, which made them ground zero Baby Boomers, so I was exposed early to the conflict between those generations. As you have probably guessed, my sympathies have tended to lie with the World War II crowd from pretty early on. This is probably more a circumstance of chronological juxtaposition than anything else. If I'd been born in 1948, I probably would have had a lot of issues with them too. I know that my father had a very difficult upbringing, his own father, a WWII vet who left the scene for good around the time I was a baby and of whom I have no memory, being by all accounts a very wicked man, and the Catholic church and schools in that era, which accounted for most of the portion of his life outside of the house, appear to have been largely run by sadists who considered it their duty to be brutal and cruel children to a degree that it is unfathomable today. On the other hand, he also spoke critically and hardly about other older people I knew, relatives and family friends, in a way that seemed completely out of proportion to what they deserved. It is true, these people were politically and socially hidebound, many of them were alcoholics and had very troubled familial relations of their own--for example one of my mother's uncles, a foaming at the mouth Republican type who refused to cash his social security checks on principal, had a son in 1969, the story goes, who refused to get his hair cut, a situation which nowadays would probably blow over before dinner, but then my uncle threw him out of the house and they never spoke to each other again, though the father lived another thirty years. When I was a little boy however, these kinds of things didn't carry a lot of meaning for me, and I mostly related to how people made me feel; and my parents and their friends their own age always made me nervous, while the WWII-aged people for reasons that I have never quite figured out, did not. For one thing while the GI crowd would often be critical of children and young people in general, the baby boomers I knew tended more towards sarcasm, which I now realize has no effect on children, who don't understand it, except to confuse them. My perception was that my grandparents and their friends and the teachers I had who were that age were more accepting of me and had more faith in my competence and value to society, and also did more of the kinds of things that would be helpful to a young person. So now that they are largely gone I find I miss them.
A lot of the time I write as if I wished I lived at some past time and place which actually I would find miserable to endure if I were suddenly transported there. But New York in the 40s I really think I might like. Most of the technology I would least want to give up was already in place--electricity, refrigeration, central heat, radio, trains, cars, Coca-Cola. Music, for me at least, was at least as good as it is now, and nightclubs certainly better. I'm sure I could handle the food. Though I see it claimed otherwise (usually by women themselves), it wouldn't surprise me if there were as many attractive women in New York in 1945 as there are now, certainly who would be datable to anyone who wasn't a non grade-A alpha male. I'm guessing investment bankers weren't quite making 300-400X the income of the average worker. More like 10-20 maybe? Of course speculating on living in the past with a mind formed for a world 50 or 2,000 years in the future is not a proper use of said mind, and one ought not to indulge in it.
The scene with the aggressive drunk at the diner was good. I've heard that same tirade many times. Perhaps I have even given it once or twice.
This movie has in some regards nothing and in others seemingly a great deal in connection with the atom bomb, which was in production at the same time. The film has a very subtly, perhaps even largely unconsciously modernist undertone that I did not pick up on myself until several days afterwards. It is kind of taken for granted that the world is a big machine which has to be kept running on schedule, and that everybody in it had better conform to that schedule or they'll caught in the shredder. Throughout the movie the characters are constantly under the constraints of clocks and schedules, curfews, trains, buses, delivery routes, closing hours of museums and offices. The Clock of the title refers to the place they agree to meet for their date, for which Alice is actually a half hour late. Joe's persistence in waiting almost against hope as the clock moves well past the appointed time and life continues to rush on all around him becomes almost poignant. The atom bomb, probably the most awful of all man's inventions, certainly of his stupendous ones, seems to be in some ways the logical conclusion of this kind of society, a society though for which I yet feel a strong affection.
A confluence of circumstances culminating in the chaos into which so much of the populated world had descended by 1944-45 made the building of the atom bomb in the United States probably inevitable and by extension necessary. Using it was perhaps neither, but when wars reach the stage that had been reached at the beginning of August, 1945, a state that thankfully the western world has not experienced since that time, when there is no prospect of ending the hositilies without killing a whole lot of people one way or another, it is highly unlikely that a weapon possessing that much power is not going to be used. For this reason I have little doubt that they will be used again. I also think that the power most likely to use them again is still the United States. The risk of doing so will still be seen by it among all the potential users as the least. No one has really inflicted catastrophic, generation-destroying type destruction or casualties on this nation ever, and we don't seem to have a sense that that really could happen.
All right, I have to end this. I could ruminate more on the bomb, but I suspect it will come up again, and maybe I will think more about it before that time. I am trying to figure out the source of my strong attraction to and good feeling about the time period of the 1940s especially while accounting for all the awful stuff that was going on at that same time.