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  • Assimilating the Feminist Voice in Service Comedies, 1941-1980
  • William R. Glass

During the 1940s and '50s, Hollywood produced "service" comedies that dramatized the ordinary civilian's adjustment to military life, a transformation necessary to defeat the Nazis and the Japanese and then to contain the communists. But the transformation was also necessary to maintain the tenets of a conservative, masculinist culture. In the service-comedy genre, reforming a citizen into a soldier through basic training established the fundamental trope of assimilation. For men, this assimilation confirmed their status as contributing citizens. For women, however, especially with films that placed a woman at the narrative center of basic training, the assimilation of the recruit complicated the status of women, especially as feminist voices struggled to emerge from the conservative culture that the military protected.

Broadly defined, a "service comedy" is a movie, novel, television show, or other form of popular culture in which humor is derived from the circumstances of life in the military.1 The first use of the term is not clear, though it does start appearing in reviews of military comedies in the 1940s and in the files of the Bureau of Motion Pictures. In tone and character, Hollywood service comedies from the 1940s into the 1960s frequently evoke the Bakhtinian carnivalesque, wherein traditional hierarchies are reversed and authority is undermined, but this inversion obtains only for the duration of the carnival (or movie or television show). These films, in other words, poke fun at the problems and indignities of serving in the military but resolutely avoid poking fun at the institution. The comedy lies in a character's adjustment to the military, not in the military itself. In terms of plot, the stories in service comedies generally include humorous variations of dramatic military films: combat (Battleground [1949] versus What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? [1966]) [End Page 50] burden of command (Run Silent, Run Deep [1958] versus Operation Petticoat [1959]), shore leave (The Clock [1945] versus On the Town [1949]), the homefront (Mrs. Miniver [1942] versus Blondie for Victory [1942]), veterans adjusting to civilian life (The Best Years of Our Lives [1946] versus Hail, the Conquering Hero [1944]), and basic training, the subject at hand here.

The trop of basic training—in which the civilian must learn to give up his independence and individuality and adapt to the military's hierarchical authority, with its rigid rules, discipline, and demand for obedience—invites both drama and comedy. Not many dramatic films have focused exclusively on this specific process (Jack Webb's The D.I. [1957], Taylor Hackford's An Officer and a Gentleman [1982], and Joel Schumacher's Tigerland [2000] come immediately to mind), but many combat films do begin with basic-training sequences (see, for example, The Sands of Iwo Jima [1949], Battle Cry [1955], and the harrowing first third of Full Metal Jacket [1987]). In general, the recruit is initially inept in the simplest of military duties and chafes at the regulations and regimen. But over the course of the movie, he becomes an effective soldier (sometimes inspired by a girlfriend) and proves his worth in a climactic training exercise or battle (a trope exercised in both masculinist comedy, as in Stripes [1981], and feminist drama, as in G.I. Jane [1997]). That transformation also forms the ideology of the film: the journey from citizen to soldier is crucial to the success of the nation, be it against Nazis, Kamikazes, or Communists. That same transformation lies at the heart of the comedies. The comic spin on the plot often involves the recruit having an absurd "disability" that undermines his efforts to become an effective soldier—like a fear of loud noises for Bob Hope in Caught in the Draft (1941), hypochondria for Danny Kaye in Up in Arms (1944), clumsiness for Robert Montgomery in See Here, Private Hargrove (1944), simply being a Southerner for Andy Griffith in No Time for Sergeants (1958), or having a misplaced sense of entitlement for the Jewish-American Princess Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin (1980). Whatever the flaw, the military duly purges the individual's impediments to meritorious citizenship. As a trope of assimilation, basic training certifies that...


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