How Hollywood came to Britain during the Second World War
To British people familiar with Hollywood movies, the American servicemen who arrived in Britain during the Second World War were glamorous and exciting, often seeming like film stars. Of course, some of them actually were film stars, as among the millions of Americans who volunteered for service, were some of the biggest names in Hollywood.
William Wyler was one of Hollywood’s most celebrated directors and saw a role for himself in making pictures to support the war effort. His Mrs Miniver (1942), made prior to America’s entry into the Second World War, expressed strong sympathy with the fight against Nazism, and was described by Prime Minister Winston Churchill as ‘propaganda worth a hundred battleships’.
In 1943, Wyler joined the US Army Air Forces to make a film about the air war. The result was The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), which described the campaign through the story of one bomber aircraft.
William Wyler’s Cigarette Case, signed by the crew of the Memphis Belle and members of 8th Air Force High Command. His six combat missions are listed inside.
Filming of Memphis Belle took 6 months, and saw the crew take great personal risks to fly on combat missions over Germany with the 91st Bomb Group, based at Bassingbourn in Cambridgeshire. Though overweight and lacking the required number of teeth to qualify for air combat duties, Wyler witnessed first-hand the dangers of flak and fighter aircraft on 6 missions, and even lost consciousness due to lack of oxygen on one occasion. He recalled: ‘things happen so fast… Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs coming at you, and you would try to get all this on film. You forget that they’re shooting at you at the same time!’
Memphis Belle was released in the US in 1944. When President Roosevelt saw the finished film, he said to Wyler: ‘This has to be shown, right away. Everywhere.’ The enormous success of the picture saw Wyler sent to the Mediterranean Theatre of Operations in 1944 to make another documentary about the air war. He lost hearing in one ear in an accident while filming Thunderbolt! (1947) and returned to the US as a disabled veteran. The experience inspired Wyler’s next war film, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) which won 7 Oscars and explored the challenges of adjusting to civilian life after service.
Marlene Dietrich was born in Germany but moved to Hollywood in 1930 after her success in the film The Blue Angel (1930). A firm supporter of the Allies, she abandoned her film career to first sell war bonds, and then entertain troops as a member of the USO.
Outfit worn by Marlene Deitrich during her work with the USO. Marlene had this privately tailored, but it is clearly influenced by US Army service dress uniforms. (UNI 12057)
Her work took her to Algeria, Italy, France, and the UK, where performed songs from her films, practiced the musical saw and played risqué mind games. She was frequently in the thick of the action, arriving at Deenethorpe aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress in 1944 and regularly performing on the front lines. By 1945, Dietrich had accumulated over eighteen-month’s overseas service, more than any other big-name actor. In 1947, she was awarded the Congressional Medal of Freedom (the highest award for an American civilian) for her work entertaining troops during the Second World War.
Clark Gable, star of Gone with the Wind (1939), traded Hollywood glamour for military service in 1942. The USAAF enlisted journalists and filmmakers to publicise what its crews were doing, and Gable was tasked with a special mission to produce and direct a recruitment film for aerial gunners.
At 41, Gable was significantly older than the other recruits, but he still trained as a gunner. He arrived in the UK with the 351st Bomb Group, based at Polebrook, Northamptonshire in 1943 and from May to September, he flew on 5 missions over occupied Europe to make the film. Gable returned to the US to edit Combat America, for which he also provided narration. The film was released in 1945, the same year Gable resumed his contract at MGM Studios to once again become ‘King of Hollywood.’
The United Services Organisation was formed in 1941 to provide live entertainment to US troops serving overseas. British born actor and comedian Bob Hope became its most prolific entertainer. Hope’s first USO Tour was in 1943, where he and his troupe toured American air bases in the UK. One of the stops was Duxford, home to the 78th Fighter Group. Hope faced a tough crowd when he performed there on 3 July 1943 as the 78th had suffered the loss of their Commanding Officer Colonel Arman Peterson two days earlier. While many of Hope’s jokes fell flat, he redoubled his efforts to put on a show to help the boys forget.
Bob Hope and Frances Langford with a P-47 Thunderbolt at Duxford, July 1943 (HU 57979)
By the end of his 50-year career with the USO, it was said that there was ‘nowhere Bob Hope wouldn’t go’ to entertain America’s troops, though he never returned to Duxford. Hope was honoured for his work by Congress in 1997 as the ‘first and only honorary veteran of the US armed forces.’
By the time of the Second World War, Jimmy Stewart, best known for Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), was one of Hollywood’s most famous and successful actors. He could easily have served in safety in the US, but Stewart, a keen pilot, instead volunteered for service in the USAAF. Concerned his celebrity status would confine him to supporting duties, Stewart eventually secured an overseas posting in 1943 when he was appointed commanding officer of the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bomb Group at Tibenham, Norfolk. He completed 20 combat missions aboard B-24 Liberators, gaining the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal before being transferred as Group Operations Officer to the 453rd Bomb Group at Old Buckenham in early 1944.
Stewart resumed his film career after the Second World War, starring in films like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Rear Window (1954). He retained his links to the US Air Force by serving in the reserves, taking part in combat missions over North Vietnam and becoming the highest-ranking actor in military history when he was promoted to Brigadier General in 1959.
Brigadier General’s Service Dress Jacket worn by Jimmy Stewart during his service in the US Air Force Reserves. (UNI 10885)
British actress Vivien Leigh was in California when Britain declared war against Nazi Germany in September 1939, having signed a 7-year studio contract in exchange for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Though desperate to help the war effort in Britain, Leigh, and her fiancé Laurence Olivier, were advised to remain in Hollywood to stoke pro-British sentiment among American audiences.
When she returned to the UK in 1941 Leigh undertook charitable work in support of the war- serving tea to soldiers, performing a revue show in North Africa, and christening a B-17 Flying Fortress ‘Stage Door Canteen’ in honour of the famous New York club for Allied servicemen.
Leigh’s studio contract meant she could not appear in morale-building British films, like her husband Laurence Olivier did, but the roaring success of Gone with the Wind meant her presence was no less rousing to troops. Scarlett O’Hara’s tale of resistance and liberation was shown in British theatres throughout the war, meaning the presence of its heroine in person often brought much needed entertainment and escapism.
Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) (MISC 50753)