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Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies 36.1 (2006) 82

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Alexander Nemerov. Icons of Grief: Val Lewton's Home Front Pictures. 213 pages; $24.95.

Stateside Americans

During the Second World War—while Allied troops were routing their foreign enemies in those faraway places with strange sounding names—the Hollywood motion picture industry, mandated by numerous governmental directives, turned out one photodrama after another to reaffirm stateside America's role in the global strife. Many of these motion pictures took potshots at the Axis coalition, reminding Home Front audiences that loose lips sank ships and the Marines' South Sea island victories were first won in the Pittsburg steel mills.

Other titles extolled civilians to report any black market activities, maintain their thirty-five mile per hour national speed limit, keep their blackout shades tightly drawn, purchase war bonds, use their points prudently, water every victory garden, and save all residual cooking grease. After all, as Joe Louis reminded the filmgoers, America would win the conflict because God was on its side.

But not every title dealt with the War. Other storylines offered the usual diet of Western, musical, gangster, soap opera, romance, adventure, melodrama, comedy, science fiction, and horror pictures that appealed to America's diverse population. Even with the War raging in every corner of the world, most people craved some escapism, a little time away from the casualty reports to sit back, relax, and watch frivolous events unfold on the screen in their neighborhood theaters. Why not? If the GI's enjoyed those two-hour furloughs, so could the civilians.

But did these noncombatant motion pictures really sidestep the War? Were there subliminal messages that unobtrusively echoed the global conflict? This is the premise of a detailed study—researched by a Yale art history professor, Alexander Nemerov—that examines nine screenplays from a leading 1940s' director, Val Lewton, explaining how his latent themes found in a popular genre, the horror film, softly emerged—like a cinematic palimpsest—to remind audiences that Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini were still around threatening the Republic's security.

As a strong commentary about America's wartime mores, Icons of Grief: Val Lewton's Home Front Pictures does more than describe the obsession of these B-pictures, explaining what lurks beneath the surface of such titles as Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie, and The Leopard Man: the uncertainty of World War II—that singular, invisible beast—offered moviegoers the opportunity for fear when they felt afraid. After all, Dr. Lewton cites, for some strange, unknown reason during a heightened crisis, people love to be frightened.

In all, Dr. Nemerov weaves in and out of the plotlines of Bedlam, The Ghost Ship, The Curse of the Cat People, The Seventh Victim, The Body Snatchers, Isle of the Dead—and other titles—detailing the subconscious elements that permeate Lewton's vision of America's hidden psyche, that dark side that, perhaps, the War would just turn to dust and, like an unwanted houseguest, just go away. How valid is this observation? As Dr. Nemerov explains, many Home Front civilians lacked a substantial understanding of the hostilities and some even viewed the conflict in purely abstract terms. Look at James Agee's famous 1943 Nation essay. Here, the film critic prophesized that most Americans would emerge from the War almost as if it had never taken place.

Without question, the Second World War stands alone as the pivotal force of twentieth-century history, and its ongoing research explores many new ideas and concepts. Certainly, the 1940s propaganda films remain the most obvious cinematic record detailing this conflict, but other genres offered significant interpretations about America's needs and desires during these uncertain times. For the Russian-born Val Lewton, his B-movies reflected the hopes, fears, and neuroses of a nation that cautiously put its faith in a fourth-term president, a five-star general, and a daily dose of Hollywood motion pictures. Why wouldn't they? As Icons of Grief...


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