26 January 2010

Humor: Wartime Laughs

By Carrie Lofty

WWII was a military, cultural, and humanitarian watershed, where just under 200,000 people died every week around the world. To say that citizens and soldiers everywhere needed a good laugh just to make it through the day is a big understatement.

New forms of popular culture had already started to flourish in the years leading up to the war. You'd think that the Great Depression would curtail spending on entertainment, but the exact opposite happened. Those who could afford it consumed music, films, plays, books, and periodicals in greater numbers than ever before. Even dirt poor families, like my dad's Okie farmer parents who migrated to California, found a way to keep smiling. His mother, my late grandmother, was considered the best storyteller in her family, so everyone would save money to send her--alone!--to the movie theater. She would then come home and retell the movie to her siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins after supper.

Can you imagine? I get chills just thinking about it.

One of the best known venues for humor during the war were USO shows. The USO was established in 1941 with the motto "Until Everyone Comes Home," and served as a home away from home for Allied soldiers. The best entertainers of the day performed pro bono--probably grateful to do so because they weren't actually on the front lines! This is from Wikipedia:

At its high point in 1944, the USO had more than 3,000 clubs, and curtains were rising on USO shows 700 times a day. From 1941 to 1947, the USO presented more than 400,000 performances, featuring entertainers such as Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Frank Sinatra, Marlene Dietrich, Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Danny Kaye, The Rockettes, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, The Andrews Sisters, Lucille Ball, Glenn Miller, Mickey Rooney, Dinah Shore, and most famously, Bob Hope.
I love the following clip from Danny Kaye performing about an aircraft. His song is "Melody in 4F," which I saw in the National Museum of American History in DC this past July.

Radio was essential to those on the home front. One of the most famous radio programs of the war was The Kraft Music Hall, which Bing Crosby hosted from 1936-1946--straight through the key war years, when war bond drives were imperative. The program was most popular among people in their twenties, which was a key demographic for securing war support. Bing signed off one such performance with this:

In the meantime, if in any way any of us here this evening has given you a moment of relaxation, a laugh, or perhaps even an idea, how about paying us off for the half hour in war bonds? The invasion's on. Every $75 you invest now to join the attack will give you $100 of comfort, contentment, and peace when the job is done.
But don't think the radio programs were all serious appeals! Far from it! Comedian Alan Reed, as his persona Falstaff Openshaw, offered lines of "poetry" such as: "Gertrude looks three times as cute since the moths got into her bathing suit," and "Said the black widow spider to the little red ant, let's play tag in Hitler's pants."

And then, of course, movies were also key to keeping up wartime morale. I love this song, written by Irving Berlin, which shows how humorously the trials of Army life could be portrayed. It was probably a helluva lot more fun to laugh than to become morose about conditions. I think entertainers and even the War Department were in tune with morale issues to realize that blowing off a little steam was useful for the troops.

Because so many of the radio recordings, and certainly most of the USO shows, are lost to us now, movies are perhaps the most accessible form of comedy
from the era. But they were just a part of the massive effort to keep spirits afloat.

**Both radio show quotes are from the fabulous second disc of Bing Crosby's Those Great World War II Songs, which features two complete Kraft Music Hall programs.