Monday, February 22, 2016

OVP: The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942)

Film: The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942)
Stars: Fay Bainter, Edward Arnold, Richard Ney, Jean Rogers, Sara Allgood, Spring Byington, Van Johnson
Director: Harold S. Bucquet
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

World War II had a profound effect on the films of the 1940's.  During the era, most of the biggest stars, particularly the male stars, were off fighting and as a result, the films made during the era were predominantly about women, and oftentimes didn't even need to revolve around a man.  Such is the case for the bulk of The War Against Mrs. Hadley, yet another one of the OVP films that I haven't heard of that Turner Classic Movies has graciously put in front of me this month.  Here we have Mrs. Stella Hadley (Bainter) a woman who has decided that, despite the fact that everyone around her has gotten into the war spirit following Pearl Harbor, she herself is going to go on with her life as usual, and make a personal stand against everything going against her.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film elicited a few strange reactions in me, quite frankly.  Being as it's from the 1940's I expected sexism to rear its ugly head, but oddly enough it came about in ways I hadn't quite anticipated.  Fay Bainter, an actress I know little of other than her trio of Oscar-nominated performances, is the title protagonist of the story, and she is frequently finding herself at odds with those around her, including her daughter Pat (Rogers), son-in-law-to-be Mike (am I the only person who never found Van Johnson attractive?), friend-who-is-in-love-with-her Elliott (Arnold), and her drunken son Ted (Ney, who is Minka Kelly's grandfather if you want a truly random fact for today).  The others rally quickly to the war effort, but Mrs. Hadley has no intention of seeing her life turned upside-down by the war and doesn't see why everyone else behaves differently as a result of it.

It's actually a pretty interesting conundrum, particularly when seen through the lens of World War II and when this film was made.  After all, in 1942 the war had just started and having someone who wasn't aiding the war effort was bordering on the illegal, certainly stamping into unpatriotic territory.  And yet, Mrs. Hadley, though the screenwriter tries to stop her from being so, is occasionally quite reasonable.  While she's made to be a silly, flitty character, Bainter instills in her enough sense and decorum that she never feels completely inauthentic in her grievances.  After all, her daughter comes to her saying she wants to get married to a man that Stella has only known for a very short while, and wants her blessing instantly, which feels a tad rushed.  The same could be said for Elliott, who lies to her repeatedly in order to stave off a frustrating confrontation, and one has to have sympathy for her trying to keep her son, who has shown himself to be a wastrel for much of the movie, out of a war before he's matured.  Honestly, it feels like for most of the film Mrs. Hadley is being unduly pressured to support a war she didn't agree with politically and befriend herself to people she's never cared for in the past, and seemingly with good reason (she disagrees with them politically and likely is upset with the way her late husband lost his business and job).

It's an interesting conundrum because the script doesn't really allow for us to think of Mrs. Hadley as anything other than hard and proud, and we get that from Sara Allgood as the weirdly-violent Mrs. Fitzpatrick (she threatens both to beat her son and to have her son beat her daughter-in-law in jest, but it still feels quite outlandish in the moment) who is in charge of the "shape up" scene that was inevitably coming.  The ending of the film has her abandon all of her principles and marry Elliott while going off to war, which is unfortunate because in many ways it feels like Mrs. Hadley had an approach that wasn't totally out-of-sync with some pacifists at the time.  I couldn't help but think of Jeanette Rankin, the only member of Congress who voted against World War I and World War II, who was pilloried by the press and her constituents afterward, but she later used her Pacifist leanings to great use in standing against the military involvement in Vietnam.  Mrs. Hadley would read like bad propaganda at the time, quite frankly, but the questions it raises after enduring less popular wars than World War II (like the Vietnam Conflict and the Iraq War) is interesting, particularly with a very non-judgmental Fay Bainter playing Mrs. Hadley as a human being and not a caricature.

Those are my thoughts on this film, which was nominated for an Original Screenplay citation, though really its interest is only sustained through Bainter's fine work in the lead.  How about yours?  Do you ever find films that, thanks to history, have a completely different lens as a result?  What do you think of the films made in the height of the war, when the B-and-C-Grade stars got their moments at the tops of the marquee?  Share your thoughts in the comments!

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