When people talk about the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s hard to extricate that era from the war years that ran through them. During the years of World War II in particular, Hollywood played a significant role in shaping the public’s perception of the conflict, using its magic to galvanize support for an eventual Allied victory. Movies from the war years reflect some of what we should remember about the zeitgeist of those times — the fears; the bravery; the national morale; the wartime ethic of everybody pulling together in a common cause.
Many actors portrayed soldiers during and after the war, but a good number of Hollywood’s reigning stars of the day put on the uniform in service of their country, some seeing intensely bloody combat and distinguishing themselves. This month, in addition to a weekend-long Memorial Day tribute featuring movies that remember those who served and died, TCM will host numerous films starring those who served in the armed forces in wartime:
Military Service: Even as a member of a traveling circus, Albert collected intelligence on Nazi activities in Mexico. Later, in the Navy, Albert saw action in the Pacific, rescuing dozens of wounded Marines in the bloody Battle of Tarawa and earning a Bronze Star.
This Month: Albert stars in the postwar comedy The Teahouse of the August Moon (May 1), costarring Marlon Brando and Glenn Ford, that has the U.S. attempting to teach democracy to the defeated Japanese, first building a schoolhouse — when it’s a teahouse the citizens really want.
Military Service: After being expelled from prep school, Bogie made good by joining the Navy in the last year of World War I, serving aboard the Leviathan, a troop-transport vessel that ferried American soldiers to the war in France. He was deemed too old to join up again in World War II, but never tired of supporting Red Cross drives for the troops.
This Month: TCM starts the month off with the Bogart classic Key Largo (May 1) costarring Edward G. Robinson, and follows up later in May with Black Legion (May 25), which finds Bogart on the ugly side of organized labor.
Military Service: Fonda served with the U.S. Navy as a quartermaster third class on the USS Satterlee before being commissioned as a lieutenant and assigned air combat intelligence duty in the central Pacific. Fonda eventually earned a Bronze Star and was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for his service.
This Month: As part of a birthday tribute to Fonda (May 16), TCM will feature the Oscar winner in his memorable turn as Young Mr. Lincoln, as well as an early role opposite Barbara Stanwyck in The Mad Miss Manton.
Military Service: After the death of his wife, Carole Lombard, in a plane crash, Gable joined the U.S. Army Air Force and for the next three years flew combat missions over Europe. Hitler allegedly was taken with his screen work and offered a handsome reward for his safe capture and delivery into the German leader’s presence.
This Month: Along with fellow veteran Don Rickles, Gable stars in the 1958 update on the Moby Dick story, Run Silent, Run Deep (May 27), as a sub commander obsessed with sinking a Japanese warship.
Military Service: Stationed on Saipan as a Marine scout sniper, Marvin was awarded a Purple Heart after taking a bullet that severed a nerve.
This Month: Marvin stars alongside fellow veteran Jack Palance in 1970’s dying-days-of-the-West Western, Monte Walsh (May 14).
Military Service: Joining the U.S. Army Air Force in 1942, Matthau distinguished himself as a radio operator and gunner, winning six battle stars over his tour of duty that brought him to England, France, Holland, Belgium and Germany.
This Month: See him as the wise and observant show writer Mel Miller in Elia Kazan’s 1957 classic, A Face in the Crowd (May 22), then as Doc aboard a Navy ship on its way to mutiny in 1964’s Ensign Pulver (May 28).
Military Service: In World War II, Meredith achieved the rank of captain in the U.S. Army Air Force.
This Month: See him in the role of famed war correspondent Ernie Pyle in 1945’s The Story of G.I. Joe (May 29).
Military Service: Prior to the U.S.’ entrance into World War II, Montgomery enlisted in London for American field service, driving ambulances in France until Dunkirk. After Pearl Harbor, he joined the U.S. Navy, serving as attache aboard British destroyers. In five years of service, Montgomery became a PT boat commander, fought as part of the D-Day invasion aboard a destroyer, earned a Bronze Star, the Good Conduct Medal, and the American Defense Service Ribbon among other citations, and attained the rank of lieutenant commander.
This Month: With John Wayne at his side, Montgomery brings his PT boat experience onboard the 1945 portrayal of the defense of the Philippines in They Were Expendable (May 29). Directed by John Ford, the film features numerous scenes directed by Montgomery (uncredited) due to his unique insight.
Military Service: In 1942, like numerous other actors of his generation, Palance joined the U.S. Army Air Corps to fight the Axis powers. A year later, he was discharged after an incident in which his B-24 bomber lost power during takeoff, causing him to be knocked unconscious and severely injured.
This Month: Palance turns up a couple of times in May, first with fellow veteran Lee Marvin in Monte Walsh (May 14), then in an early noir effort, 1955’s I Died a Thousand Times (May 18).
Military Service: During World War II, Mr. Warmth was a U.S. Navy seaman first class aboard the USS Cyrene, honorably discharged in 1946.
This Month: In addition to Run Silent, Run Deep (May 27), Rickles stars with Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Donald Sutherland in the wartime heist caper Kelly’s Heroes (May 30).
Jason Robards Jr.
Military Service: Serving seven years in the U.S. Navy, Robards was by some accounts at Pearl Harbor on the infamous day of its attack, and was later distinguished with the Navy Cross.
This Month: The Cold War heats up again as Robards plays one of a group of Westerners detained by the Soviets on their way out of Hungary in 1959’s The Journey (May 10).
Military Service: Perhaps the most distinguished of any actor to serve simultaneously in the military and onscreen — Ronald Reagan made it to commander in chief, you may recall, but he’d long since given up acting — Stewart was also the first celebrity actor to join the service to defend his country. Initially refused by the Army for being slight of build, he succeeded on his March 1941 attempt and quickly found himself a commission, and with pilot training behind him, he served as a B-17 instructor for a year and a half as he worked part time with the Army Air Corps’ 1st Motion Picture Unit. He was reassigned to combat in 1943 and eventually flew 20 missions over occupied France and Germany. He would reach the rank of colonel while still on active duty, but ultimately would become a brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. His impressive list of decorations includes the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre and seven battle stars.
This Month: Stewart gets still more honors this month with a birthday tribute (May 20) that includes some of his most beloved films, including his Oscar-winning performance in The Philadelphia Story with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn, as pioneering aviator (and eventual alleged Nazi sympathizer, interestingly enough) Charles Lindbergh in The Spirit of St. Louis, and as the tenacious, levelheaded country attorney in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder.