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World War II Hollywood Style

Great war movies from the greatest generation

Nov. 8, 2016
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A lifelong, devoted cinephile, I am often asked the name of my all-time favorite film. And my war movie answer may be surprising, since I am as anti-war as anyone.

As kids of the so-called “Greatest Generation,” we loved 1940s World War II flicks in which America fought Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. We flocked to Milwaukee movie houses on Saturday afternoons to see them.

Over the years, our faves included Air Force (1943), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), A Walk in the Sun (1945), Command Decision (1948) and Twelve O’Clock High (1949). They were the stuff our war movie dreams were made of. 

But my all-time favorite was 1949’s Battleground, a film for the ages. Touted by MGM as “50 Guys and a Gal,” it told the story of one platoon of the storied 101st Airborne Division (“Screaming Eagles”), surrounded in the Battle of the Bulge by elite German troops at Bastogne, Belgium, in the snowy winter of 1944.

Two young friends and I first saw Battleground at the old Palace Theater at Sixth and Wisconsin. We later learned that the “Jody Jive” chant in the opening scene was created by Pvt. Willie Duckworth, a black soldier who briefly appeared in the film. To wit:

“You had a good home when you left. You’re right. Jody was there when you left, you’re right. Your baby was there when you left, you’re right. Sound off. One, two. Sound off. Three, four. Cadence count. One, two, three, four. One, two. Three, four!”

And what a cast! Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalban, James Whitmore, George Murphy, James Arness, Jerome Courtland, Marshall Thompson, Don Taylor, Richard Jaeckel, Douglas Fowley, Bruce Cowling, Guy Anderson, Leon Ames, Scotty Beckett and the gorgeous Denise Darcel. 

Battleground received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Director (William Wellman) and Supporting Actor (Whitmore); and won Oscars for Story and Screenplay (Robert Pirosh) and Black-and-White Cinematography and Film Editing (Paul Vogel). An instant smash, it became one of the biggest hits in MGM history. And it’s interesting to note that much of its appeal was its many humorous scenes. 

For example, Johnson holding his breath as the buxom Darcel sliced bread with a big knife that came close to her ample bosom; a German radio broadcast proclaiming: “And now for a song that’s fast becoming a favorite of the men of the 101st, ‘I Surrender Dear,’” which Fowley accompanied by snapping his false teeth; an American colonel relaying his general’s cryptic reply of “Nuts” to a German general’s surrender demand; and a sleeping Fowley falling into a baby’s crib as he was nudged off a kitchen table.

But there were somber moments as the outnumbered and outgunned men of the 101st Airborne eventually won out and became known as the “Battered Bastards of Bastogne.” 

To wit: As an old woman scrounged through garbage for food, Johnson said, “I don’t even see those things.” Hodiak shouted: “Well, I want to see them. I want to remember them”; Montalban freezing to death in snow beneath an overturned jeep; Whitmore complaining that the battalion aid station “won’t take frozen feet until they start to change color”; and Courtland killed reaching out of a foxhole for his galoshes.

Battleground also had its share of heartwarming moments, as the soldiers recalled their lives back home. In one scene, Montalban frolicked in new fallen snow, explaining that he’d only seen snow on mountaintops in the distance outside Los Angeles.

Then there was that great finale—one of the most memorable in Hollywood history. After having been relieved, surviving members of the platoon trudged along a dirt road to a rear area. Johnson spotted a column of incoming replacement GIs and called out to his sergeant, the grizzled Whitmore: “Hey, Kinnie. Whatever happened to Jody?”

“Awright, come on, come on,” shouted Whitmore, chewing on a cigar. “What do you want these guys to think you are, a bunch of WACs?” Leading the chant, he barked:

“…Ain’t it great to be alive. Jody’s working nine-to-five. You ain’t got nothin’ to worry about, your kids are happy till you get out. We’ll be back at the end of the war. In nineteen-hundred-and-seventy-four. Sound off. One, two. Sound off. Three, four. Cadence count. One, two, three, four, one, two—three four!”

We kids loved it and marched out of the theater chanting “Jody Jive.” And to this day, Battleground—my all-time fave—still typifies World War II, Hollywood style.

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