Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Deprivation And Chickenshit

Popular music remained, of course, the standard material of radio broadcast during the Second World War. The crucial difference, however, was that the kind of song selected for broadcast was supposed to contribute to “morale,” that is to say, serve a propagandistic function. Outside of those that were explicitly jingoistic, such as “Remember Pearl Harbor March,” the typical song was about the need for personal sacrifice (sexual denial, the need for repression). The point-of-view of some were explicitly female,

They’re Either Too Young Or Too Old
He Wears A Pair of Silver Wings

but in most, not surprisingly, the POV was male:

I’ve Got a Girl in Kalamazoo
Don’t Get Around Much Anymore
You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To

Pleas for fidelity included songs such as

Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree (With Anyone Else But Me)
Paper Doll
Somebody Else Is Taking My Place

Desires for the unattainable (things that must be sacrificed) were expressed in dream (and wish) songs:

Thanks for the Dream
I Had the Craziest Dream
A Soldier Dreams of You Tonight
I Dream Of You
I’ll Buy That Dream
My Dreams Are Gettin’ Better All the Time
(I’m Dreaming Of A) White Christmas
Don’t Believe Everything You Dream (from Around the World, 1943)

Paul Fussell claims (in the chapter, “With One Voice,” in Wartime), “personal deprivation and hope for improvement were the themes that the troops, menaced by chickenshit and fear, responded to” (186). He says the soldiers often wept when they heard “We’ll Meet Again,” recorded in 1942 by Vera Lynn (nicknamed “The Forces’ Sweetheart”):

We’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when
But I know we’ll meet again some sunny day;
Keep smiling through, just like you always do,
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds away

Fussell devotes an entire chapter to the wartime semantics of chickenshit (“Chickenshit, An Anatomy”):

Chickenshit refers to behavior that makes military life worse than it need be: petty harassment of the weak by the strong; open scrimmage for power and authority and prestige . . . insistence on the letter rather than the spirit of ordinances. Chickenshit is so called—instead of horse- or bull- or elephant shit—because it is small-minded and ignoble and takes the trivial seriously. Chickenshit can be recognized instantly because it never has anything to do with winning the war.

One wonders whether the wartime films made for purposes of “morale” were considered a form of chickenshit by the common soldier. Trivial and unimaginative, they scrupulously avoided the actual conditions of the war—a “white-wash”—and had all the faux sincerity of the everyday social banality, “Have A Nice Day.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Death Without Publicity

During the Second World War, the war publicity machine widely trumpeted the names of Allied military commanders. In its putative morale-building effort, the contemporary equivalent of ad-men glorified, for instance, British General Montgomery and, of course, American General Eisenhower. Even lesser-unit commanders could be celebrated, such as U. S. Army General Anthony McAuliffe, who was commander of the defending 101st Airborne during the Battle of the Bulge. His reply to a German proposal to surrender, “Nuts!,” became one of the legendary moments of American courage and recalcitrance—“guts”—during the war. Among generals, an eagerness for publicity, as Paul Fussell notes in Wartime, led to the development of “publicity hounds,” the most egregious of which were probably Generals Mark Clark, in Italy, and MacArthur (pictured), in the Pacific, the latter having a huge publicity organization. “Of Clark, David Hunt has said that 'his reading of Clausewitz’s famous dictum was that war was the pursuit of publicity by other means'” (161).

At the level of the common soldier (as opposed to that of the war’s “upper tier,” its commanders), credit “became a crucial concept” (Paul Fussell, Wartime 155). “That all-important home-town audience the troops never forgot,” argues Fussell, because for the soldiers, “ultimate value is assigned by the distant, credulous” hometown crowd—what people were saying back home (155). Curious, then, that in the Kay Kyser wartime film, Around the World (released November 1943), the name of the Marcy McGuire character’s father, killed on a transport ship before he ever actually was able to step onto the battlefield, is never given. Obviously, his proper name, unlike a General’s (the General’s name more significant by virtue of his having to shoulder the heavy demands and responsibilities of power), is not important. The proverbial “unknown soldier,” her dead father becomes an emblem of sacrifice, the sacrifice necessary for all Americans during wartime. Informed of her father’s death (perpetrated by cowards, as the ship was torpedoed), she is asked to put on a stiff upper lip, to buck up, in effect, to sublimate the loss. She is told that her father did, in fact, fight in the war, he just wasn’t able to fight for very long. His death was as valuable to the war effort as any other, since war by its very definition demands a sacrifice by everyone. Names are not important.

These are not idle ruminations, without application to our own time, for as Paul Fussell observes, “The postwar power of 'the media' to determine what shall be embraced as reality is in large part due to the success of the morale culture in wartime. It represents, indeed, its continuation. Today, nothing—neither church, university, library, gallery, philanthropy, foundation, or corporation—no matter how actually worthy and blameless, can thrive unless bolstered by a persuasive professional public-relations operation, supervised by the later avatars of the PR colonels and captains so indispensable to the maintenance of high morale and thus to the conduct of the Second World War” (164).

Sunday, February 28, 2010

St. Louis Blues March

Although a fragile form of interracial dialogue had been established within the pre-war swing subculture, after the end of the Second World War—and with it, the end of the swing era—the color line was firmly re-established. There were a couple of post-war Hollywood films featuring an integrated cast exploring the history of jazz music (New Orleans, 1947, and A Song Is Born, 1948), but perhaps the most revealing evidence of the post-war period’s resumption of the color line is in the rise of the white jazz biopic. A biopic about George Gershwin with Robert Alda playing the role of the famed composer, titled Rhapsody in Blue, was released in 1945, featuring Al Jolson as himself. The following year, it was Jolson who became the subject of what was a highly successful biopic (more so than Rhapsody in Blue had been), The Jolson Story (1946), the success of which inspired a sequel, Jolson Sings Again (1949). A biopic about Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, The Fabulous Dorseys, was released in 1947, while a film starring Kirk Douglas that was loosely modeled on the life of white jazzman Bix Beiderbecke, Young Man With a Horn, was released in 1950. By the time The Glenn Miller Story was released, early in 1954, the World War II era had become strongly associated with the famed trombonist and his orchestra, and with songs such as “In the Mood.”

Predictably, the biopic of Miller concludes with the bandleader’s death, his disappearance over the English Channel in December 1944. His band seems to be America in microcosm, the proverbial melting-pot, with, for instance, Germans, Russians, and Jews, but black musicians, who’d played such a crucial role in the development of swing, are conspicuously absent among its members. Gary Giddins observes about the film,

It was James Stewart who created a suitable posthumous personality for Miller, in “The Glenn Miller Story,” the 1954 film that inaugurated a genre of musicals about white bandleaders. These pictures, though basted in conformity, flattered the taste of the nineteen-fifties audience by recasting them as young radicals braving ridicule. Miller was depicted as an innovator hunting for an elusive sound, and Stewart had to recite breathtaking inanities like “To me, music is more than just one instrument. It’s a whole orchestra playing together.”

The film shows an integrated military during a sequence in which a general is reviewing the troops, but this was historically untrue, as there was still a Jim Crow military during the war. Miller’s hutzpah is dramatized in this same sequence, in which he instructs his band to play “St. Louis Blues” at march tempo, a bit of deliberate recalcitrance for which he is later upbraided by his commanding officer (see a video clip of this important sequence here). But perhaps the more revealing sequence of the film, illustrating the segregated lives of black and white jazz musicians, occurs in a studio while Miller and his band are recording “Tuxedo Junction.” As the song is being played, two black dancers appear merely as images being projected onto a screen. Black and white, in other words, exist in different spaces.