Nine Movies? Plus One.
Memorial Day is in May in the U.S., and that makes this month a good time to catch up on military movies. Since my novel, Women’s Company – The Minerva Girls, is about three young women in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I’ll focus on ten movies that feature women in the WAC.
Many of the selected films not only cast well-known actors of the period, but also stars such as Tony Curtis, Cary Grant, William Holden, Janet Leigh, Rosalind Russell, Ann Sheridan, Lana Turner, and Richard Widmark.
Most of the stories share an underlying theme: how Army service changes a person.
The War Film Library.
Feature-film ideas for the studios were sometimes borrowed from the shorts contained in the War Film Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
During World War II, the studios requested access to British and Canadian war documentaries, newsreels and combat film. The War Film Library resulted. Ultimately, all of the allied countries contributed to the collection for a grand total of approximately 500 titles documenting the period 1938-1950. More than 230 film prints survive.
“It’s Your War, Too,” is one of the many propaganda shorts and documentaries produced by movie studios on behalf of the U.S. government during World War II. This nine-minute short, produced by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in 1944 about the Women’s Army Corps, gives an overview of WACs in the United States and abroad.
WACs in Hollywood Movies.
I grew up watching war films in theaters and on television. The first movie that I recall seeing about women in the Army was Private Benjamin starring Goldie Hawn—a comedy released in 1980, two years after the WAC was disestablished in October 1978.
My search for Hollywood movies set in the time period of the Women’s Army Corps (July 1, 1943 - October 20, 1978) and featuring WACs netted ten films. Since the Women’s Army Corps and the Army Nurse Corps are two different things, none of the films are about Army nurses.
All ten movies are listed in the American Film Institute’s Catalog of Feature Films, “The First 100 Years: 1893-1993.” None have been inducted into the National Film Registry of the National Film Preservation Board, Library of Congress.
Most are comedies; all were produced prior to 1962. Of the ten movies, the 1945 drama, Keep Your Powder Dry, portrays the most accurate picture of the WAC. Unfortunately, none of the ten films feature WACs who are African-American or Japanese-American or Native American or…
After World War II, most WACs performed either clerical and administrative work in office jobs, or medical-technical work in hospitals and clinics. That situation brings to mind a quote from the Israeli director Talya Lavie whose dark comedy, Zero Motivation, broke box-office records in Israel when it was released in 2014. The female coming-of-age story takes place in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) of 2003-2004.
Ms. Lavie, who is also an IDF veteran, said in a 2015 interview that “…the film is set in the army, it’s not about the army. I referred to the little office as a glimpse into Israeli society.” She also explained:
A Short List.
The ten films I found are listed in order by their release date, followed by the movie title, major actors, and brief notes on the story line. Check your favorite on-line retailer, brick-and-mortar store, public library, or YouTube for availability. Pop some popcorn and enjoy the show!
1944. A WAVE, a WAC and a Marine. 1944. Ann Gillis, Elyse Knox, Henny Youngman. Comedy. World War II. Ann Gillis and Elyse Knox play understudies in a New York theater production titled, A WAVE, a WAC and a Marine. When a Hollywood talent agent, played by Henny Youngman, arrives in New York to recruit the female stars of the play for the movie version of the story, he mistakenly signs up the two understudies. The resulting confusion during the train ride across country and in Hollywood creates ample opportunities for the rapid-fire jokes of Henny Youngman (a lifelong comedian nicknamed the “king of one-liners”). Slapstick comedy and a few specialty song numbers by well-known singers of the day are also featured in this patriotic, morale-boosting movie. About the only mention of WACs occurs in
1945. Keep Your Powder Dry. Lana Turner, Laraine Day, and Susan Peters. Drama. World War II. Three women from diverse backgrounds enlist in the WAC. Lana Turner plays the frivolous socialite, Laraine Day is the know-it-all Army brat, and Susan Peters is the sweet, young wife whose husband is deployed overseas. The conflict in the story arises from the antagonism between the frivolous socialite and the Army brat. The young wife becomes a friend to the warring parties and serves as referee. Of the ten films on the list, Keep Your Powder Dry provides the most accurate description of the Women's Army Corps, perhaps because its creators
1949. I Was a Male War Bride. Cary Grant, Ann Sheridan. Comedy, romance. Allied occupation of Germany after World War II. A French army captain and an American WAC lieutenant work together in Germany during the Allied Occupation: he is a French economic liaison officer, and she is an English/German interpreter. Assigned to joint missions, they drive each other nuts—with comic results—until they finally realize they are in love. Getting married takes more than one wedding and obtaining approval for an alien to join his new wife in the USA present more problems with laugh-out-loud results.
1951. Force of Arms. William Holden, Nancy Olson. Drama, romance. World War II. The movie opens with realistic battle scenes on the Italian front. William Holden, in the role of an Army sergeant, rises to the occasion in spite of the exhaustion that he and his men suffer. When an overdue rest in a small Italian town materializes, Holden encounters a WAC lieutenant, played by Nancy Olson, who is stationed with a postal directory unit. A battle-weary Holden spoils their first meeting. In time, romance blossoms, but the trials of war persist. The couple’s challenge is to surmount the difficulties—sometimes together and usually alone—thrown in their path.
1952. The WAC from Walla Walla. Judy Canova, Stephen Dunne, Irene Ryan, June Vincent. Comedy. Stateside during the Korean War. Judy Canova plays an unsophisticated young woman who enlists accidentally in the Army. Her misadventures in the Army eventually lead her to save the day.
1953. Never Wave at a WAC. Rosalind Russell, Paul Douglas, Marie Wilson. Comedy. Stateside during the Korean War. Rosalind Russell plays a shallow socialite who is also the daughter of a U.S. senator. When she decides that the best way to join her new flame in Paris is to enlist in the WAC, she counts on her dad and his connections to get her out of the rigors of Army life. Basic training at Fort Lee, Virginia, turns out to be the real thing--and her dad approves. Her astonishment changes to comic outrage when her former husband, played by Paul Douglas, uses his current job as an Army contractor to test the limits of her patience. The comedy increases with Marie Wilson in the role of a pin-up girl who enlists to get away from bothersome men. Creators filmed part of the movie on location at the WAC Training Center, Fort Lee, Virginia.
1954. Francis Joins the WACs. Julia Adams, Lynn Bari, Donald O’Connor, ZaSu Pitts. Comedy, fantasy. Set stateside, apparently during the Cold War. An Army mix-up recalls a former lieutenant, played by Donald O’Connor, to active duty and assigns him to a WAC unit commanded by a WAC major played by Lynn Bari. The major is willing to help the lieutenant sort out the mix-up, but not until Donald O’Connor earns the trust of the women in the unit, all of whom seem convinced he is out to discredit them. The antics escalate with the addition of Donald O’Connor’s old friend, Francis the Talking Mule.
1957. Time Limit.
(I updated the blog post on 5/13/2019 to add the tenth film: Time Limit.)
Richard Widmark, Richard Basehart, Dolores Michaels, Martin Balsam. Drama. Stateside in May 1954 during the Cold War era with flashbacks to a prisoner of war camp in North Korea during the Korean War.
The ready admission of treason by former prisoner-of-war Major Harry Cargill (Richard Basehart) confounds the Army attorney, Colonel William Edwards (Richard Widmark) assigned to discover whether the case should go to court martial. Similar testimony from Major Cargill and his fellow soldiers who shared the same miserable hut in a North Korean POW camp collides with Colonel Edwards’ intuition that all is not as it seems. Edwards’ search for the truth is jeopardized by his commanding officer’s insistence to accept the accused Major’s admission of guilt.
Two strong allies assist Colonel Edwards: Sergeant Baker (Martin Balsam) who believes the accused is guilty; and Corporal Jean Evans (Dolores Michaels), who keeps an open mind.
Sergeant Baker proudly describes Colonel Edwards: “He wasn’t always in the chairborne infantry. Him and me were in the Bulge together. College man.” Sergeant Baker also describes Corporal Jean Evans: “She’s got looks, brains, personality, everything. Just got one blind spot. Can’t go for sergeants.”
Corporal Jean Evans later tells Colonel Edwards--after he asks her where she learned the phrase causative factor--“My father was a lawyer.” Throughout the film, Corporal Evans is portrayed as a woman who knows her job and whose boss, Colonel Edwards, learns to depend on to see aspects of the case that others might not. So, when Sergeant Baker addresses Corporal Evans as “Miss Phi Beta Kappa,” I wasn’t sure if she had been awarded the academic honor in college or if Sergeant Baker was emphasizing that even someone with “brains” can’t know everything.
The movie is an adaptation of the stage play by Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey. The exterior films of Headquarters First Army were shot on location at Governors Island, New York Harbor, New York City, New York. The choice to film in black and white adds intensity to the storytelling, as do the close-up shots available in movies but not stage plays.
It's a good film and well-worth your time. You’ll continue asking yourself ethical questions long after the movie ends.
1958. The Perfect Furlough. Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Linda Crystal. Comedy, romance. Cold War era. When the U.S. Army stations 104 men, all bachelors, at a remote Arctic post, the critical nature of the mission prevents furloughs. Months into the mission, moral plummets so drastically that the Pentagon brass decide something must be done. Janet Leigh, in the role of a beautiful Army lieutenant and psychologist, proposes a lottery for one soldier to win a “perfect furlough” designed by the soldiers. Tony Curtis plays an Army corporal and scheming ladies’ man who manipulates the lottery: first, by encouraging the men to suggest that his favorite movie star, played by Linda Crystal, should accompany the winner on furlough in Paris, France; and second, rigging the lottery so that he wins. After the Army brass read the corporal’s personnel file, a raft of chaperones, including the psychologist, accompany him and the glamorous movie star on the trip. Romantic comedy ensues.
1961. The Sergeant Was a Lady. Venetia Stevenson, Martin West, Bill Williams. Comedy. The American Film Institute’s Catalog of Feature Films indicates that Bernard Glasser is the director and producer of this comedy about “computers, working women, and guided missiles.” I haven’t been able to locate a copy of the film, but I've seen posters advertising it. One reads, “It’s panic in the Pacific—and the Pentagon!” and another suggests, “Man the launching pads! Here comes the laugh-rocket of the year!" The still photos I saw from the movie depict the wrong hat for WACs and a skirted military uniform with cuffed short sleeves unlike any in WAC history.
Are there other Hollywood movies featuring WACS?
If you know of any other movies, please email email@example.com and share what you've learned.
“WACs in Hollywood Movies?” compiled by Lynne Schall from the following sources.
Lynne Schall is the author of three novels: Women's Company - The Minerva Girls (2016), Cloud County Persuasion (2018), and Cloud County Harvest (fall 2022). She and her family live in Kansas, USA.