Your RDA of Irony

Veterans’ Day at the Movies

November 11, 1918:  Western Civilization gave itself a slight respite from self-destruction.

The Armistice lasted 20 years, allowing sufficient time for the toddlers of 1918 to grow into their boots and helmets. (And during that respite, corporals and sergeants promoted themselves to Fuhrers and Duces.)

We Americans did actually win the First World War simply because we still had a breathing generation of draft age men and we showed up in France at the right moment. Had the Chinese sent one million men to France in 1918, they could have won the war, too. Timing is everything.

America was barely involved in World War I. We entered the War in 1917, missing all the excitement of Gallipoli, the Somme and Verdun. More doughboys died from influenza than Krupp munitions. Our chief casualties may have been Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, who were constantly escaping “a fate worse than death” from the Hunnish clutches (or whatever the pertinent organ) of Erich von Stroiheim in Hollywood’s depictions of the War. (It should be noted that in her long film career Miss Gish was also nearly raped during the French Revolution and the American Civil War.) Given our limited participation in the Great War, we commemorate November 11 as a catch-all day for all of our Veterans.

However if you really want to honor the veterans of the most futile war in history, you can do so any day on Turner Classic Movies. Just turn on a film from the Golden Age of Hollywood and look at the British actors. To a man, they served in a far more harrowing theater than all the terrors of working with Bette Davis. Many of them were left scarred. Herbert Marshall had the unique distinction of being a leading man with a wooden leg. Claude Raines was blind in one eye. When you see Ronald Colman’s fencing in “The Prisoner of Zenda” you wouldn’t know that he had a kneecap shot off. Lieutenant Nigel Bruce was machine-gunned in the buttocks; that is not the kind of wound that gets the Victoria Cross. If Leslie Howard seemed introspective and other-worldly, shellshock can do that. In fact, to save time, let me recite the British actors who somehow avoided being maimed in France. Well, Leo G. Carroll was wounded in the Middle East; at least, he had that originality. And Captain Basil Rathbone, decorated for courage, really should have been awarded for remarkable luck: not a scratch!

The most veteran of the British veterans was Donald Crisp, the kindly father figure in so many films of the Thirties and Forties. (He did have an incestuous interest in Lillian Gish in “Broken Blossoms”; but you know, I am starting to have my suspicions about Miss Gish. Did the woman gargle pheromones?) Crisp fought in the Boer War and then served again in the Great War.

If you want to see a microcosm of British history, watch the 1940 production of “Pride and Prejudice.” The middle-aged actors–Edmund Gwenn and Melville Cooper– had served in the Great War. The younger members of the cast–Laurence Olivier and Bruce Lester–were to have their turn. The Armistice was about to end.

And Erich von Stroiheim would threaten a new generation of actresses.

  1. Hal Gordon says:

    Britain’s actor veterans of World War I did propaganda service in Hollywood during World War II. See Sheridan Morley’s entertaining memoir, “Tales of the Hollywood Raj.” Another case study of British imperialism. For example, at a party for British expats held at the home of Gladys Cooper, Robert Coote happened to look out the living room window. He turned to his hostess and remarked, “I say, Gladys, there’s an American on your lawn.”

  2. Peggles says:

    I remember Edmund Gwenn as the intrepid myrmicologist, Dr. Medford, in Them! – arguably the finest movie about giant ants ever made.

  3. Mary Ann Jung says:

    No wonder Liilian Gish didn’t mind risking her neck to do her own stunt on an ice floe-it was less scary than her co-stars!

  4. Rick Marianetti says:

    Say Peggles, “Them!” might’ve been the greatest giant-ant film ever made, but “Turning Point” (1977, starring Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft) was the greatest film ever made about aunts with giants egos.

    BTW, “Turning Point” still holds the distinction of being nominated for the most Academy Awards (11) and winning none.

    Oops. . .did you say “ants”?

    Never mind. My dislecksia’s acting up agen. I sufer frum a rare form in wich leters r ofen addded oar omited somwher n the transmishin b’twene the padge an my bran.

    Do ants even have aunts?

  5. Looking at that cuddly, endearing Edmund Gwenn, could you imagine him a decorated soldier? In 1915, he was a private. By 1918, he was a captain. That is quite a testament to his courage, ability and the fate of his predecessors.

  6. Fritz Holznagel says:

    The line about China, true though it may be, cracked me up.

    It’s a little known fact that Mr. Rogers was secretly British and a deadly sniper in both World War I and World War II. That’s why he wore those cardigans, to cover up his telltale tattoos of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey.

  7. k lawler says:

    eugene, can i put the link on my face-book- i had no ideas these actors were war injured,k

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Of course, Kathy, and those are only a few of the veterans among the distinguished and beloved actors from the Golden Age of Hollywood. Edmund Gwenn, everyone’s idea of Santa Claus, rose from private to captain and was decorated for heroism. Leslie Banks–whom you should remember from the original “The Man Who Knew Too Much” and Olivier’s Henry V–could expand his career because of his war wounds. One side of his face was scarred and paralyzed. If the camera focused on that side, he played villains. On the other side, he was a leading man.

  8. Hal Gordon says:

    Basil Rathbone had two narrow escapes, which he recounts in his memoirs. The first was when he and another Tommy were scouting the German lines when a German machine gunner spotted them. Immediately, they separated and ran back to their own lines in different directions, correctly assuming that the German machine gunner wouldn’t be able to make up his mind which one of them to fire at. The second escape was less heroic but more romantic. Also rather funny. Rathbone was courting the pretty daughter of a French farmer and one night made bold to climb a tree to what he thought was her bedroom window. He tapped on the shutter. “Qui est la?” came a voice in response. Oooops! It was the girl’s mother. Wrong bedroom. Mama screamed and woke Papa, who always kept a shotgun by the bed. At that moment the branch on which Rathbone was sitting broke, sending him tumbling into the yard. He took to his heels just in time to avoid being peppered with buckshot..

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