The Arsenal of Democracy: The Herman and George R. Brown Salute to the Home Front, the National WWII Museum’s newest permanent exhibit, demonstrates how the war would not have been won without the mobilization of the Home Front. While 16 million men and women served during WWII, American society contributed to the war effort in a variety of ways, for example dramatically increasing war-related production in factories that now employed an unseen number of women.
Clip from Tender Comrade.
The 1943 RKO film Tender Comrade is a rare example of a film that attempts to depict the situation on the home front and the efforts and contributions of women working in defense industries. With a title taken from the Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem My Wife (“Teacher, Tender Comrade, Wife. A fellow farer true through life,”), the film tells the story of Jo Jones (Ginger Rogers) who works in an aircraft factory while her husband Chris Jones (Robert Ryan) fights overseas. Realizing the new financial difficulties she now finds herself in, she suggests to three fellow female workers that they move together until the war is over, in order to share the expenses. The women are also military wives: Barbara (Ruth Hussey) dates men while her husband, with whom she had a difficult marriage, is in the Navy; the young Doris (Kim Hunter) had a quick wedding before her new husband left for war; Helen (Patricia Collinge) has both a husband and a son in the military. A fifth housemate, a German woman named Manya (Mady Christians) soon joins them to take care of the house while the four women work in the factory. Together they want to “run the joint like a democracy!”
Tender Comrade addresses some serious issues and depicts the small and big sacrifices women are making, from taking care of their homes and children with husbands gone to giving up their lipstick. The women lecture each other on rationing and black market (“anyone who hoards is a heel”) and argue about “proper” behavior for married women while their husbands are away. The film harks back to American democratic principles and the freedom the country is fighting to protect. Hearing that the women are attempting to run the household like a democracy, Manya, the German refugee whose husband is fighting in the US army, explains, “Once in Germany, we had a democracy.” Asked if they lost it, she adds: “Nein, we did not lose it. We let it be murdered.” The message is clear: Everyone is responsible for protecting our democracy.
As Barbara complains about the need for stamps to buy everything and the fact that “my guy fights in countries I never heard of,” Jo chastises her: “This talk comes straight from Berlin. . . . Yes, we [Americans] make mistake, but in Japan and Germany, if you say these things, you’ll find a gun in your stomach.” In typical movie fashion, the most reluctant member of the team (Barbara) experiences a change of heart and mind. She recognizes that “we are all in it together” and that everyone needs to make sacrifices to help win the war, even the ultimate one of losing a loved one.
While the women are featured perhaps more prominently than any other war-related movie, and for once are the ones making patriotic speeches, their portrait in Tender Comrade remains ambiguous. Life for the women seems to revolve around men, and there is a clear expectation that when the men come back women will leave the factories and go back home. Unlike similar British films like Millions Like Us, which mixes actual footage of factory work with acting, Tender Comrade never shows the women performing actual work in the factory. The focus is instead on the domestic sphere and the overall tone is one typical of melodramas.
That the dialogue and propaganda sometimes come across a bit heavy-handed is perhaps rooted in the influence of the Office of War Information (OWI). Established in 1942, the OWI worked hard to convince, and at time pressure, Hollywood studio executives to move away from escapist films and to harness instead the power of film to help mobilize the Home Front. To that effect, it issued The Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture, which asked filmmakers to consider this question when working on films: “Will this picture help to win the war?” The manual also asked the studios to include images of “people making small sacrifices for victory—making them voluntarily, cheerfully, and because of the people's own sense of responsibility.” With its speeches on sacrifices and its condemnation of hoarding, Tender Comrade fits right in this agenda. As a result, the film received mixed reviews in 1944, including one in the popular magazine Photoplay: “A poignant, merry, and sometimes heartbreaking story. . . . There are spots that climb the heights of emotional appeal but there are many flat surfaces in between.”
The film remains notable for the impact it had on director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo after the war. Despite the film’s overt patriotic messages, Ginger Rogers's mother, Lela Rogers, testified in 1947 at a HUAC hearing that screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was a Communist and the film itself was an example of Communist propaganda. Both men refused to testify about Communist infiltration in the motion picture industry, becoming two of the “Hollywood 10.” For their refusal to cooperate, they were convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to one year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
Notwithstanding its at times heavy-handed speeches, the film showcases strong performances by a quintet of talented actresses who manage to convey the hardship of women during World War II.
To find more about popular attitude towards working women during the war, check this 1944 poll.