Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Buy Your Christmas War Bonds from Bette Davis!

I’m borderline-obsessed with the way Hollywood threw itself body and soul into the cause during World War II. I can’t get enough of stories of the Hollywood Canteen, the bond drives, the USO shows… not to mention those who actually fought on the front lines. Here’s a little war-bond short that Bette Davis (who would go on to co-found the Canteen with John Garfield) filmed at Christmastime 1943.

I love how, when we cut to Bette in her dressing room, her hair looks all fabulous and wild and Bette-ish, after being bound and gagged within an inch of its life when she was playing the mother. And how the kids come around… but not completely.  You get the feeling they still think Mom could have finagled the war bonds and the dolls and bicycles. It was thoughtful of the screenwriter not to get moviegoers’ hopes up about how this little chat, however essential it was, would go over with their own kids…

I once watched this short on TCM with my extremely dramatic Aunt Ruth, whom you may remember from her heart-stopping encounter with Van Johnson. There’s Bette on the TV screen, talking about how the bonds would help the soldiers who were wounded on the battlefield, and Ruth gets all ashen and says, “That happened to your mother and me.” Really? She and my Mom fought in WWII? Because that seemed like something I really would have heard about. And I could have sworn they were both wearing Catholic school uniforms, not khakis, back then. “No,” she recalled, reliving the trauma like it was an hour ago. “We got war bonds… instead of gifts.” Knowing how my grandmother doted on them, this seemed even harder to believe than that they were grizzled combat veterans. “Yes but it was for a good cause, so you really didn’t mind not getting anything, right?” I asked her. “Oh we got things,” she conceded. “But some things, we didn’t get. Because of the war bonds.” This was roughly fifty years later, and she could barely fight off the tears. Somewhere back there, in a store in the 1940s, there’s a thing that Ruth should have gotten for Christmas except for those damned Axis dirtbags! Oh, the horror, the horror…

3 Comments

  1. My father served in Europe during World War II, and one day many years ago (maybe “Hollywood Canteen” was on the TV at the time), he mentioned that he was at the Hollywood Canteen once and Eddie Cantor (maybe playing Santa?) gave him (and a lot of others, I’m sure) a Christmas present. Can’t remember what the present was, but then I was a kid and stupid and didn’t have the brains to press him for details. These days, of course, I would have tied him to a chair and hired a stenographer.

    Which reminds me: Coincidentally, I’ve been reading one of Stuart Kaminsky’s books about private eye Toby Peters, who handles cases involving celebs in the ’30s and ’40s. They’re lighthearted and fun, and the one I’m reading now stars Bette Davis and features the Canteen.

    • That sounds fun — I’ll have to check that out!! My Aunt Ruth, of Van Johnson fame, and her best friend also once followed Frank Sinatra down the street and when he went into the barbershop, she stood outside and stared. And as she proudly put it, “He never knew we were there!” Uh-huh…

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