With the horrific recent events in Charlottesville and further rallies planned for the San Francisco Bay Area later this month, I have been feeling terrified beyond measure. The fear that I feel is a personal one, due to the fact that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and am a member of a minority group specifically targeted by the white supremacists, but it goes beyond that. Racism, bigotry, and intolerance are now condoned in the highest offices of the United States of America, and I fear that things are going to get worse before they get better.
In this time of immense fear, sorrow, and trauma, I recall the words of the great Fred Rogers, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” In this post, I would like to highlight some of the great classic Hollywood “helpers,” those who spoke out, who didn’t allow themselves to be stepped on–those who saw societal ills and made conscious efforts to fix them. I hope this can encourage us to turn our minds toward helping, whatever that may mean to us as individuals. I would also like to show some instances of resilience in classic movies, to give us a boost in how we, as a country, deal with this national tragedy.
The Bomb Shelter Scene, Mrs. Miniver (1942)
In this scene, the Miniver family hides out in their makeshift bomb shelter during an air raid. To comfort the children as the bombs drop around their shelter, Mrs. Miniver calmly reads Alice in Wonderland aloud.
Each time I recall this scene, I get chills. The intense meaning behind reading a classic English children’s story about retreating into a magical fantasy land, as bombs drop on England, cannot be overstated. If you haven’t seen Mrs. Miniver, do yourself a favor and rent it. It is a masterpiece of wartime cinema.
The one we all know. Rick Blaine, the man who “sticks his neck out for nobody,” ultimately sacrifices his own happiness for the greater good. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Rick sees what’s really important, then sees that Ilsa gets on the plane so that Victor Laszlo can continue his resistance work.
BETTE DAVIS AND JOHN GARFIELD–The Hollywood Canteen
Rejected from the service during World War II due to a heart condition, John Garfield wanted to do something to help the war effort nonetheless. He partnered with Bette Davis to create the Hollywood Canteen, a place that served food, drink, and entertainment to active-duty service members on leave. It was staffed completely by volunteers from the movie industry, and as such was a mutually beneficial enterprise–the service members (it was open to both men and women, and was unsegregated) got top notch entertainment from Hollywood A-listers, and the Hollywood community, many of whom had been told that their services were better used in the movies, got a chance to feel like they were helping out in a meaningful way. Nearly everyone active in movies during World War II worked at the Hollywood Canteen, and while the desegregation that occurred inside the Canteen was usually not a problem, whenever there was a complaint, Bette Davis took to the microphone to defend the policy. “The blacks got the same bullets as the whites did, and should have the same treatment,” she later said.
MARION DAVIES–The Marion Davies Children’s Clinic
My manuscript on Marion Davies, a book to be published in the next few years, deals heavily on the subject of the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic. There is a lot to say, but for the purposes of this post I will stick to the relevant details. Marion believed strongly in quality health care for everyone. When she saw that it was nearly impossible for children in lower income brackets in West Los Angeles to get care, she created a children’s clinic bounded by Olympic, Mississippi, Barry, and Barrington Avenues in the city, treating low-income children completely free of charge. Doctors from elite hospitals around Los Angeles volunteered their time, and every Christmas there would be an elaborate party with toys for the children and groceries for every family. Parents who later wrote in to thank the clinic often expressly credited their children’s lives with the care they received at the Marion Davies Children’s Clinic.
Much more than “the perfect wife” onscreen, Myrna Loy was vocal and passionate about human rights and welfare. One of those on the front lines of the Red Cross during World War II, she served as the assistant to the director of military and naval welfare. Later on in life, she was a member-at-large of UNESCO and the co-chairman of the Advisory Council of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. She spoke out fiercely against discrimination in Hollywood, decrying the practice of casting black actors as only maids or servants, once asking her MGM bosses “How about just a black person walking up the steps of a courthouse with a briefcase?”
ANNA MAY WONG
Hollywood’s anti-miscegenation laws, prohibiting onscreen romances between people of different races, damaged the career of the gifted Anna May Wong who, under these laws, could essentially only play opposite Sessue Hayakawa, the only other Asian lead actor in Hollywood. She was relegated to “exotic” roles, of which she quickly grew tired and bored. Wong decided to try her luck in Europe, as Josephine Baker had done, and like Baker, she was an instant success, starring in films like Piccadilly, Song and Show Life, and Pavement Butterfly. Upon her return to the United States, she was quick to speak out against the injustices done upon her and other Asian and Asian-American actors. “Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain – murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass! We are not like that. How could we be, with a civilization that is so many times older than the West?”
Best known for her role as Peola in Imitation of Life (1934), the beautiful and talented Fredi Washington was in a quandary in Hollywood. As a light-skinned African-American, Washington was bound by the anti-miscegenation laws that governed Hollywood (meaning she was to receive no romantic leads), but was light enough to pass for white, making it difficult for studio higher ups to cast her in maid and servant roles. Intensely proud of being a black woman, Washington was tired of playing parts where she “passed,” and instead left Hollywood to do theatre and join the budding civil rights movement, working with the president of the NAACP and with the Negro Actor’s Guild of America, which she helped to found. She spoke of her Hollywood past in these words:
“I have never tried to pass for white and never had any desire, I am proud of my race. In ‘Imitation of Life’, I was showing how a girl might feel under the circumstances but I am not showing how I felt.”
“I am an American citizen and by God, we all have inalienable rights and wherever those rights are tampered with, there is nothing left to do but fight…and I fight. How many people do you think there are in this country who do not have mixed blood, there’s very few if any, what makes us who we are, are our culture and experience. No matter how white I look, on the inside I feel black. There are many whites who are mixed blood, but still go by white, why such a big deal if I go as Negro, because people can’t believe that I am proud to be a Negro and not white. To prove I don’t buy white superiority I chose to be a Negro.”
May we take the words and actions of classic Hollywood to heart as we face the days, weeks, and months ahead.