Hollywood's Conscientious Objector
Publication Year: 2012
Lew Ayres (1908-1996) became known to the public when he portrayed the leading character in the epic war film All Quiet on the Western Front. The role made him a household name, introduced him to his closest friends, brought him to the attention of his first two wives, and would overshadow the rest of his career. To be a movie star was his first and only ambition as a child, but once he found success, he was never fully satisfied in his choice of profession. Although lacking a formal education, Ayres spent the rest of his life pursuing dozens of intellectual studies, interests, and hobbies. He even considered ended his acting career after just a few years to pursue a more "respectable and fulfilling" path as a director.
Ayres was given not one but two comeback opportunities in his acting career, in 1938 and 1945. He was cast in the film series Dr. Kildare where he showed his abilities in comedy and his unique strength at bringing a level of sincerity to even the most outlandish or idealist character. But he was willing to give up his star status in order to follow his moral compass, first as a conscientious objector and ultimately as a noncombat medic during World War II. To everyone's surprise, he was welcomed back to Hollywood with open arms and new opportunities despite his objector status.
Biographer Lesley L. Coffin presents the story of a man of quiet dignity, constantly searching for the right way to live his life and torn between the public world of Hollywood and secluded life of spiritual introspection.
Published by: University Press of Mississippi
Series: Hollywood Legend Series
On April 3, 1942, Americans awoke to learn that in the midst of World War II, a Hollywood star had declared himself a conscientious objector and had been ordered to a conscientious objector camp in Oregon. Actor Lew Ayres was best known for his performances as the titular character in the MGM film...
Lew Ayres has two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for his work in motion pictures and one for his work in radio. Yet, I bet they are two of the most overlooked stars on those gilded sidewalks. Actually, I’ve seen them and one is in a state of utter disrepair—it’s in a heavily trafficked...
Preface and Acknowledgments
I distinctly recall sitting in my high school freshman history class and being told we would be watching a movie as an introduction to the study of World War I. A break from a lecture was always nice, and at age fourteen, I had almost no knowledge of The Great War, as World War I was known...
CHAPTER 1. Grandma’s Boy
When Lew Ayres burst onto the Hollywood scene, his image was that of a child of privilege and education. Perhaps it was the name Ayres—it sounded elegant and lofty and vaguely pretentious, and carried with it assumptions about how he must have been raised. Or perhaps it was how he...
CHAPTER 2. Young Musician in Search of a Movie
And as his home life became more difficult, constantly fighting with his stepfather, Lew spent more and more time with his musical friends, eventually forming a professional band of his own. With high school just a waste of time and little hope of having anything beyond a “working- class” job, at...
CHAPTER 3. The Kind of Role that Casts a Shadow
The rumors were true, although the predictions by Rohan proved to be unwarranted. Rohan’s comments regarding Lew’s acting were true in that his strength was not fit for silent film acting. Actors in the silent era were dependent on their physical expressiveness and tended toward the broad. Even...
CHAPTER 4. A New Kind of Star
Lew was an interesting case in Hollywood: a boy who had been driven since childhood by the desire to become a star and yet, upon becoming one, seemed to publicly discourage fame and celebrity. Profile after profile of the rising young star noted that he was uncomfortable at the glamorous Hollywood...
CHAPTER 5. Romantic Comedy
The failure of Lew to elevate his performance beyond the pedestrian plot and direction of Don’t Bet on Love was a turning point in Lew’s career. In 1934, similar romantic comedies were increasingly the most popular genre for depression-era audiences, especially screwball comedies dealing with social...
CHAPTER 6. At the Helm
By 1935, Lew was frustrated by the failure of his once promising contract with Fox and withdrew further from society, even from Ginger. Although he had given up hunting and fishing due to moral objections, he still enjoyed the solitude of outdoors for walks in the woods and astronomy studies...
CHAPTER 7. A Short Stay on Poverty Row
When Ginger moved out of the couple’s home, Lew decided to sell it. He purchased a house on Sunset Plaza near Laurel Canyon, on top of what neighbors referred to as “Lookout Mountain.” It had been a dream since Lew first moved to California from Minnesota to live on the mountain. In an interview...
CHAPTER 8. “The Comeback King of 1938”
Almost ten years after George Cukor and Lew had clashed while making All Quiet on the Western Front, the director came to Lew with an unusual offer. Cukor was taking time away from the production of Gone with the Wind—a production that had spiraled out of control and from which he would eventually...
CHAPTER 9. Introducing Dr. Kildare
A year earlier, in 1937, Lew’s friend Joel McCrea had appeared in a Paramount film based on a story by poet and western pulp fiction writer Max Brandt, entitled Interns Can’t Take Money. In the film, McCrea’s character was an idealistic medical student named James Kildare. Brandt had based...
CHAPTER 10. A Doctor, A Comic
Ironically, the same week that These Glamour Girls was released, an uncensored version of All Quiet on the Western Front hit theaters. Capitalizing on Lew’s comeback, Universal rereleased an uncensored version of the film, which Germany still refused to screen publicly.1 In newspaper advertisements...
CHAPTER 11. Echoes of War
After making nine movies in less than two years without a break, Lew was given time to travel for a few months. With time off from his busy schedule, he was able to reflect on his career and life, and found that he was unhappy with what this self-reflection uncovered. Lew had assumed his unhappiness...
CHAPTER 12. Lew Ayres, Conscientious Objector
Lew was in the midst of finishing Born to Be Bad as he prepared for the draft board’s decision. Lionel Barrymore was given more to do in this film, as he would be expected to continue the series should Lew leave for service. One of MGM’s newest stars, Donna Reed, was cast as the concerned girlfriend...
CHAPTER 13. A Camp in Oregon
As the story continued to grow in public interest, Lew quietly registered at the camp in Oregon, operated by the Brethren and Mennonite churches. Much like soldiers in training camps, Lew was permitted to bring one trunk and one suitcase, and would share living quarters with forty men.2 The daily...
CHAPTER 14. “Like a Bomb Was Dropped”
When asked about the effect his stand as a conscientious objector had on him personally, Lew always insisted that he had been kept in the dark about the public outcry because of his limited access to the press while in the camp. This may be why Lew was unable to discuss in detail the effect the public...
CHAPTER 15. Public Debate
A number of individuals wrote only because they were outraged by the apparent favoritism Lew Ayres received if he was allowed to transfer. The American Legion took a particularly aggressive stand against this issue, and even wrote an official letter to General Hershey protesting any reclassification...
CHAPTER 16. Basic Training
Lew immediately went from the conscientious objectors camp to join an induction ceremony for the army. He swore his oath but emphasized to the surrounding press in attendance there had been no change in his views or beliefs. He had nothing else to say and would answer no further questions...
CHAPTER 17. In Search of Something
After over a year of service in the Pacific, which he spent administering to the sick and injured soldiers and civilians, Lew gave this statement. But though he was absolutely certain of his religious convictions, Lew was not speaking of any conventional religious sect. He had not “belonged” to any church...
CHAPTER 18. A Hero Returns to Hollywood
After twenty-two months overseas, Lew walked off the plane and onto American soil. He had survived three beach landings in Hollandia (Kota Bharu), Luzon, and Leyte and was honored with three combat stars. Besides assisting in the medical care of soldiers, civilians, and injured enemy soldiers...
CHAPTER 19. The Comeback of 1946
Lew’s return to films may have been a personal disappointment, but he kept busy. Rather than simply returning to his secluded lifestyle of reading and enjoying art alone in his home, Lew began using his intellectual interests to nourish his personal life. He attended art classes two nights a week, and joined...
CHAPTER 20. Awards and Affairs
It was Harry Warner who saw the picture and pressured the studio to release it with the full support he felt it deserved.2 All involved attended the premiere, which was held with the classic Hollywood fanfare. Lew walked in alone, while Jane appeared on the arm of her husband Ronald Reagan. It would be one of the last times Reagan and Wyman were seen in public as...
CHAPTER 21. The Return of Dr. Kildare
Although Lew’s film work had slowed and become increasingly infrequent, Lew wasn’t in financial need of new projects to occupy his time. Lew had always enjoyed work on the radio, and had been happy to appear on music programs and the radio versions of his films. So when he was asked...
CHAPTER 22. Magnificent Obsession
Lew turned down Magnificent Obsession, plus an impressive salary of $250 a week, to turn his attention to his own obsession. During a free period, Lew had decided he should try something new and more challenging than simply acting on screen. At first he planned to direct a narrative film in Africa...
CHAPTER 23. A Man of Honor and Faith
Lew Ayres had not appeared in a feature film since Donovan’s Brain, and Hollywood had gone through changes no one from the classic era would have expected. Actors were no longer under studio contracts, and there was an entirely new generation of stars, ones more often called actors than types. Younger...
CHAPTER 24. The Older Gentleman
Both in his personal life and on screen, Lew’s romances had always carried an element of elegance and modernity, even in the 1930s. As a young man, without much effort, he could easily play opposite women who were his age or even older. Although he had at times expressed dissatisfaction...
CHAPTER 25. Altars of the World
For twenty years, Lew had been presenting Altars of the East to the public, most often to religious organizations and schools. In 1976, he finally released it theatrically. Edited down from the five hours comprised by the multiple films, the condensed two-hour version was retitled Altars of the World, and...
CHAPTER 26. As Time Goes By
Throughout the 1980s, Lew was becoming more outspoken in public on the issues. This included his concerns over his long held environmental and antinuclear concerns, often giving speeches on the subjects. In a speech delivered before a civics organization, he spoke of the relatively new idea...
CHAPTER 27. Reaching for the Butterfly
As his eighties approached, Lew kept busy. He was impressively active, walking at least two miles every day and biking out to the cabin where he had once lived and seeing his friends who were still on Lookout Mountain. His pool house in his Brentwood home became his art studio, where...