This chapter examines specific ideological and aesthetic dimensions of the representation of children in American films produced during and directly after the Second World War in relation to the promotion and operations of the United Nations.1 It addresses how pitiable and vulnerable children from the world’s warzones – specifically groups of orphaned, abandoned and injured children from different countries – appeared and functioned in four Hollywood studio pictures: Twentieth Century Fox’s suspense thriller The Pied Piper (Irving Pichel, 1942), Universal’s romantic musical The Amazing Mrs Holliday (Jean Renoir/Bruce Danning, 1943), RKO’s comedian comedy Heavenly Days (Howard Estabrook, 1944) and RKO’s family fantasy The Boy with Green Hair (Joseph Losey, 1948). I explore how these films presented groups of children to harness humanitarian sentiment in support of the ideology and activities of the UN, and consider the critical response to (and a director’s reflections on) the juvenile actors who appeared in the films; while the figure of the child acquired new cultural and political significance in the era of the UN’s wartime and post-war humanitarian endeavours, the presentation and performance of the Hollywood child actor simultaneously became subject to new modes of aesthetic apprehension and evaluation.
As Liisa H. Malkki has suggested, children are ‘central to widely circulating representations of “humanity” that are foundational to the whole affective and semiotic apparatus of concern and compassion for “the human” that underlies practices of humanitarian care’.2 Malkki is concerned with ‘tracing affect and sentiment in the humanitarian and humanistic uses of children’ (103), and draws on the work of Ann Stoler, who argues that consent (to the state) is made possible ‘by directing affective judgments’, and ‘by educating the proper distribution of sentiments and desires’.3 The images of children presented by Hollywood contributed to the ‘affective and semiotic apparatus’ appropriate for a new era of global humanitarianism. Raymond Williams described ‘structures of feeling’ as ‘affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating community’.4 A humanitarian ‘structure of feeling’ crystallises around an affective beholding of a group of displaced and dispossessed children; the groups themselves offer a sentimental model of a supranational ‘interrelating community’. Judith Butler’s analysis of the ‘conditions under which it becomes possible to apprehend a life or set of lives as precarious’ is useful for thinking about how the children in these films functioned to produce ‘affective and ethical dispositions’ concerning the suffering of distant others.5 Butler argues that apprehension, as distinct from recognition, ‘is bound up with sensing and perceiving, but in ways that are not always – or not yet – conceptual forms of knowledge’.6 Hollywood films invited precisely such an apprehension of both the child and the obligation to help her; they produced a humanitarian sentiment appropriate for the ‘practical consciousness’ required by mid-century internationalism. As a short New York Times article proclaimed in November 1943: ‘The saddest, dreariest, most heartbreaking aspect of modern war is not battle, in which the soldier has literally a fighting chance. It is among civilians in occupied areas. Old people and children suffer most, and of those two the children are the most sorrowful spectacle.’7 Herbert H. Lehman, the director of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, stated in his November 1943 acceptance address: ‘We must be guided not alone by the compelling force of human sentiments but also by dictates of sound common sense and of mutual interest.’8 However, it is to those ‘human sentiments’ that Hollywood cinema’s ‘sorrowful spectacle’ of suffering children (sorrowful meaning both showing and causing grief) is most likely (and, perhaps, solely) to appeal; as Lilie Chouliaraki has suggested, ‘pure sentimentalism … cancels out its own moral appeal to action’.9
Tara Zahra suggests the Second World War ‘was not only a moment of unprecedented violence against children … [it] also spawned ambitious new humanitarian movements to save and protect children from wartime upheaval and persecution’.10 As Dorothy Stephenson, writing in the New York Times in November 1943, declared: ‘If there are any priorities among war victims when the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration embarks on its mission of mercy after the war, the children come first.’11 For Dominique Marshall, the child, as a privileged focus of global humanitarian endeavour, was of particular significance in the attempt ‘to channel the humanitarian movements of wartime toward international cooperation in peacetime’.12 The children presented in Hollywood’s war-themed films functioned to solicit and shape humanitarian sentiments that were central to popular support for the UN as an organisation and the ‘one world’ vision it was understood to herald. Wendell L. Willkie, in his bestselling book One World, warned ‘if hopeful billions of human beings are not to be disappointed, if the world of which we dream is to be achieved, even in part, then today, not tomorrow, the United Nations must become a common council, not only for the winning of the war but for the future welfare of mankind’.13 Popular cinema was a powerful means with which to promulgate and promote this view: indeed, in 1945, Dorothy B. Jones, former head of the Film Reviewing and Analysis Section of the Hollywood division of the Office of War Information, suggested ‘in a world shattered by conflict it has become increasingly evident that only through solidly founded and dynamic understanding among the peoples of the world can we establish and maintain an enduring peace. At the same time it has become clear that the film can play an important part in the creation of One World’.14 In her discussion of ‘the United Nations theme in pictures’, Jones notes how the ‘sympathetic portrayal of our allies aided in increasing American world-mindedness’ and ‘[contributed] … to a better understanding among the people of the United Nations’.15 More recently, Julie Wilson has shown how ‘[the] atrocities and devastation of World War II … afforded the principles of international cooperation and a shared, common humanity new cultural significance’.16 In her analysis of ‘cultural diplomacy programs and “one world” visions’ Wilson suggests ‘new and expanding conceptions of internationalism and citizenship made their way into popular culture via sentimental discourses that emphasized emotional, common bonds between Western citizens and distant others’.17 Wilson draws on Christina Klein’s work on Hollywood cinema and post-war international relations: for Klein, sentimental narratives ‘uphold human connection as the highest idea and emphasize the forging of bonds and the creation of solidarities among friends, family, and community’. The sentimental is ‘a universalizing mode’ that both ‘imagines the possibility of transcending particularity by recognizing a common and shared humanity’ and ‘values the intensity of the individual’s felt experience, and holds up sympathy—the ability to feel what another person is feeling, especially his suffering—as the most prized’.18 As such, the sentimental is an ideal mode for promoting the UN: Todd M. Bennett, in One World, Big Screen: Hollywood, The Allies and World War II, argues ‘[wartime] diplomats, propagandists, and media moguls mobilized popular culture, especially cinema, to … create from scratch an imagined international community’ and sought to give civilians ‘an emotional investment in the United Nations’.19 Bennett examines how Hollywood deployed ‘kinship discourses’ – ‘international romances, fraternal combat epics, or paternal fantasies’ – to ‘[facilitate] the big screen’s one-world sensibility by emotionalizing inter-Allied relations’; the significance of the child, however, and of paternal, maternal or parental sentiments, for Hollywood’s ‘emotionalizing’ of both inter-Allied relations and the UN, requires further examination.20 Hollywood cinema’s representation of vulnerable foreign children in these films sometimes challenged and sometimes typified the industry’s conventional and sentimental representation of children as appealingly cute. As Lori Merish has argued, cuteness engenders a ‘formalized emotional response’: ‘the cute stages … a need for adult care’.21 The juvenile actors appearing in these films, moreover, were apprehended (by critics) as either challenging or typifying traditions of juvenile performance in American commercial cinema, with a restrained ‘realism’ (an appealing but not appalling authenticity) regarded as a more appropriate register for even popular entertainments concerned with the war’s most vulnerable victims. Hollywood’s humanitarian representations of the child’s ‘need for adult care’, however, were vulnerable themselves to (charges of) a mercenary and manipulative cuteness.
Sentimental modes of representation will be examined here to consider the efficacy of Hollywood films (and the juvenile actors who worked on them) in communicating particular ideas about the UN and providing audiences with an affective apprehension and experience of those ideas. Richard Patterson, writing in 1951, discussed the establishment in 1946 of the Film Division of the UN Department of Public Information, which, in addition to making newsreels and documentaries, sought ‘to interest the [Hollywood] studios in using occasional episodes and turns of plot that might condition audiences to accept the UN as part of their daily lives’ so that ‘the stereotyped image of an organization given to unpleasant wranglings and haranguings would be replaced by the truer impression of high purposes and humanitarian actions’.22 Following the end of the war, in August 1946, the fifth Council session of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in Geneva decided the agency would be integrated into the UNO, following its liquidation in October, but one of its closing actions was ‘to establish an international children’s fund for care of minors in liberated countries’.23 A year later, in October 1947, Gertrude Samuels accused the ICEF (International Children’s Emergency Fund) of failing the tens of millions of children in Europe and Asia, but welcomed the plans for a UN Appeal for Children in 1948.24 For Chester Bowles, Chairman of the International Advisory Committee for the UN Appeal for Children, the appeal sought to support the work of the ICEF ‘by asking individual men and women all over the world to fill in the gap left by their governments’: the Appeal was ‘a challenge to every parent, every worker, farmer and business man who seeks to build a world of peace and understanding’.25 Reporting on this ‘truly global’ appeal, the New York Times stated ‘people in many nations have shown a readiness to act as world citizens’.26
The groups of children in my chosen films provide appealing images of international unity (the children act as one even when they speak different languages) and thus offer a sentimental idealisation of the organisation itself, as well as of the children the organisation’s ‘humanitarian actions’ sought to help, with the aid of ordinary Americans’ charitable support. The groups of children represent miniature international societies in which the specific nationality of each member matters less than their material vulnerability as children. United by the ‘affective authority’ Malkki suggests is conventionally attributed to children, these groups function as triggers for sentimental modes of internationalism and humanitarianism appropriate for the UN era.27 Bonds of affection forged between American adults and foreign children in the first three films provide a model for the audiences’ imaginative and empathic apprehension of the suffering of other distant children; in the fourth film, the American child protagonist appears to ‘imagine’ (dream or hallucinate) a group of suffering foreign children, and then directly addresses the camera, challenging the audience to (in Butler’s terms) ‘apprehend a life or set of lives as precarious’.28
In The Pied Piper, hereafter Piper, an elderly gentleman (Monty Wooley) holidaying in France in the summer of 1940 reluctantly agrees to chaperone two British children (Roddy McDowall and Peggy Ann Garner) back to London. Their party is joined by several further children, of different nationalities, and is captured by the Nazis, but eventually reaches England, from where the children travel to the United States; the events are presented as a flashback when Wooley’s character recounts his adventures at a London club. According to one contemporary critic, the film concerned ‘an austere British greybeard upon whom devolves the unwonted task of shepherding an increasing flock of refugee kids across war-racked France at the time of the Nazi breakthrough’.29 In The Amazing Mrs Holliday, hereafter Holliday, a young missionary (Deanna Durbin) arrives in San Francisco having fled China along with a group of orphans of various nationalities, and pretends to be the widow of a Commodore Holliday (who disappeared when their ship was torpedoed) so that the children can enter the United States. As one critic put it, the film presented ‘the account of a young American school teacher in China who manages to smuggle nine assorted moppets aboard a homeward-bound ship’.30 In the more whimsically episodic Heavenly Days, hereafter Heavenly, Jim and Marian Jordan (Fibber and Molly McGee), visiting Washington, encounter a group of children from various countries while hiding out in the house of a senator who has arranged for their adoption, or, in the words of the critics, ‘get tangled up charmingly with a group of multi-tongued refugee kids’ and ‘act as guardians to a group of United Nations orphans’.31 In The Boy with Green Hair, hereafter Boy, an American war orphan (Dean Stockwell), whose parents were killed in the Blitz, takes part in his school’s war orphan charity drive, and then discovers (dreams or imagines) a group of war orphans in a forest glade. For one critic the film was ‘a novel and noble endeavour to say something withering against war on behalf of the world’s unnumbered children who are the most piteous victims thereof’.32
The groups of children presented in the films gradually grow in size (six in Piper, nine in Holliday, eight in Heavenly and ten in Boy) and, more importantly, are increasingly international in constitution. The ‘flock’ in Piper comprises British, French, Dutch and German children; the ‘assorted moppets’ in Holliday include European or Australian children from Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Burma, and a Chinese baby; the ‘multi-tongued refugee kids’ in Heavenly are from Czechoslovakia, Greece, England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, China and the Soviet Union; the children in Boy, whose nationalities aren’t specified as such, are based on images of children on the posters on display at Peter’s school promoting specific relief campaigns (for children in Greece, Yugoslavia and China, and for Jewish children), and a photograph labelled simply ‘Unidentified War Orphan’. Heavenly’s group most clearly represents the UN (with children from England, France, China and the Soviet Union); the director’s original outline of the story describes them as ‘orphan refugee children, four to eight years old, representing the principal countries of the United Nations, including Chinese [sic]’ and then simply ‘the United Nations children’.33 The children, however, occupy increasingly marginal positions in their respective films: in Piper they are central to the rescue narrative and in Holliday they are the backdrop to the romance plot, while in Heavenly they feature in just a couple of scenes and in Boy they appear in a five-minute dream sequence. All four films, however, accord with James Chandler’s account of the sentimental mode in Hollywood cinema. For Chandler, sentiment, or ‘distributed feeling’, is ‘dependent on a relay of regards’, produced in the Hollywood film via cinematography and editing, patterns of close-ups, reverse shots and eye-line matches.34 In these films, the groups of children are encountered as ‘sorrowful spectacles’ by the protagonists; the audience member thus ‘beholds what amounts to a mutual beholding on the part of two other parties’, which, for Chandler, is ‘a hallmark of the sentimental mode and its way of making a world’.35 Scenes of mutual beholding occur in liminal spaces, thresholds and borders as the children journey towards and arrive in the United States: in the first three films, when the children are ushered inside a safe house in France (Piper), escorted into San Francisco (Holliday) or chaperoned into a senator’s mansion in Washington (Heavenly); in Boy, the children appear in an American child’s dream or imagination.
These Hollywood films are deserving of attention precisely because the stories revolve around or feature children displaced, dispossessed, terrified and traumatised by the war, subject matter more commonly associated with the ‘new’ realist European cinemas of the immediate post-war period. The Hollywood films were produced several years before American audiences (at least those in metropolitan centres) were able to see the neorealist films from Europe. This cinema often privileged the experiences and perspectives of children and featured non-professional child performers in leading roles; well-known examples include Vittorio De Sica’s Shoeshine (Italy, 1946 [released in the United States in 1947]), Gerhard Lamprecht’s Somewhere in Berlin (East Germany, 1946 ), Robert Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (Italy, 1948 ), Geza Radvanyi’s Somewhere in Europe (Hungary, 1947 ), and Aleksander Ford’s Border Street (Poland, 1948 ). In his discussion of children in post-war European cinema Pierre Sorlin refers to filmmakers ‘running the risk of having recourse to juveniles who were not even amateur actors and who seldom made a career in cinema’, and suggests ‘[as] they were not professional, the young actors could not remember long lines and their dialogues were necessarily short’.36 This, however, helped the films: ‘they did not communicate ideas marked by words but raised sentiments and feelings affecting the disposition of the spectators’ minds’.37 In the opening pages of Cinema and Sentiment (1982) Charles Affron states: ‘Art works that create an overtly emotional response in a wide readership are rated inferior to those that engage and inspire the refined critical, intellectual activities of a selective readership’, but then reminds us that ‘the works of the Italian neo-realist directors … immediately recognized by intellectuals as challenging and by general audiences as “art,” are awash with the same trappings of sentimentality … that are often considered negative in “commercial” narrative films’.38 Karl Schoonover has discussed the international reception of Italian neorealism in relation to ‘the emergence of a new visual politics of liberal compassion’ and argues that for both American and European commentators alike ‘an emergent realist aesthetic of cinema could build new vectors of post-war globalism’.39 In De Sica’s cinema, for example, realist devices were ‘capable of triggering and nourishing a charitable gaze in line with the nascent institutional practices of global humanism’.40 The influence of European neorealism on American cinema is usually discerned in films produced at the end of the 1940s, such as Fred Zinnemann’s The Search (1948) and George Seaton’s The Big Lift (1950), both of which were filmed on location in Europe, but Hollywood studio films had since the early 1940s offered audiences commercial and sentimental entertainments in which the ‘realistic’ representation of the war’s impact on children was regarded as innovative and progressive, and seemed designed to ‘[trigger] and [nourish] a charitable gaze’ appropriate for the humanitarian sentiment upon which the UN’s popularity depended.41 These Hollywood films thus preceded and anticipated European neorealism due to their sentimental and realistic representations of the suffering of children from the warzones. When, reviewing Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero, André Bazin declared ‘the days of Shirley Temple [were] now over’, he meant not only that the war demanded more honest stories about children’s lives, but that such films would require a new style of juvenile performance.42 But if Temple had provided the dominant model of the accomplished and irresistible child star during the 1930s, then the children who featured most prominently in Hollywood productions of the early to mid 1940s – Margaret O’Brien, Roddy McDowall, Peggy Ann Garner, Claude Jarman Jr, Elizabeth Taylor – were celebrated for their sensitivity and subtlety as ‘actors’ and were widely seen as inaugurating a more realistic style of juvenile performance, in stark contrast to the precocious posturing of entertainers like Temple and in keeping with the more serious dramatic roles being given to children at this time. In a 1945 LIFE feature about the shift from child stars ‘who relied more heavily on their talent for being likeable than on their ability to portray complex character’ (such as the ‘curly-haired, doll-like Shirley Temple’) to the young ‘dramatic actresses’ of today, who share ‘a remarkable faculty of appearing perfectly natural before the camera’, Garner is described as ‘a severely plain little girl’ and ‘the most perfect example of today’s trend towards realism in child acting’.43 The desire for and apprehension of new and ‘natural’ styles of juvenile performance during the war – what Alexander Nemerov has called ‘the Temple-O’Brien axis’, whereby saccharine cuteness and overt innocence ‘fell out of favour’ with audiences and critics alike – thus precedes by several years the revelatory authenticity of the non-professional child actors in the European neorealist films.44 Tracking evaluations of the child’s appearance and performance in Hollywood’s war-themed films reveals surprising continuities between American and European cinema, and suggests how humanitarian sentiment appropriate for and conducive of a ‘one world’ sensibility was produced by both Hollywood’s professional juvenile actors and neorealism’s non-professional child performers.
The Pied Piper (1942)
Upon the film’s release, the New York Times announced ‘From Nevil Shute’s novel of the war’s saddest flotsam, the children, Twentieth Century Fox has created a warm, winning and altogether delightful film’.45 The success of Piper might be explained by the balance it maintains: as one critic put it, ‘[stern] realism has held the sentiment within bounds so that it never becomes obnoxious’.46 The studio’s press book described the film as demonstrating Hollywood’s new maturity, due to the ‘dignity’, ‘restraint’ and ‘realism’ with which it ‘[focuses] on the quieter drama of civilian life’. LIFE magazine concurred that the film demonstrated the ‘subtlety and sense’ with which Hollywood was capable of responding to ‘the human rights now at stake’.47 Critics agreed that the performances by the film’s ‘Remarkable Group of Child Actors’ were integral to its realism, restraint and subtlety: one critic declared ‘where children on the screen are apt to be either unbearably dull or unbearably precocious, Roddy McDowall leads as sincere and appealing a group of youngsters as we’ve seen’ and another suggested ‘[as] a group these children come pretty close to establishing a new high for the portrayal of children in American-made movies’, adding ‘the fact of genuine child-like quality cannot be denied’.48 The authenticity of the children’s performances could in certain cases be attributed to their own real-life experiences: newspapers routinely mentioned that the cast included actual child evacuees from Europe. Not only was McDowall a genuine ‘British evacuee star’ but Fleurette Zama, who played the French girl Rose, as one review pointed out, ‘was one of those who fled from Paris just a few hours before the Nazis marched into the city and who, with other refugees, walked under a rain of bullets from German planes that strafed the crowded roads’.49
In terms of representing individual humanitarian endeavour, the film offers audiences someone who neither plans to save any children nor flinches from his duty despite the dangers involved, even when the party is captured by the Gestapo and he is threatened with torture. The film makes it clear that John’s understanding of his responsibility grows as the number of children in his care increases, and that it is the children’s intuitive solidarity, the group’s hospitality to outsiders – which takes place between scenes, and off screen – which establishes a standard for his own actions. As one review stated, ‘waif by waif—a French girl, a fear-haunted boy orphaned by Nazi strafers, a shave-headed Dutch lad unaccountably lost in Chartres—the old man’s resistance to his Pied Piper destiny en route is charmingly overcome by the curious, instinctive humanity of children toward one another’.50 Around a third of the way into the film, John, with four children (Ronnie, Sheila, Rose and Pierre [Maurice Tauzin]) in tow, arrive at the house of his dead son’s former French girlfriend, Nicole Rougeron (Anne Baxter). At the front door, John explains that they desperately need a place to spend the night. Nicole invites them inside where they are met by her mother, who welcomes John into the front parlour while the children wait in the hall. In a continuous medium shot from inside the room, John then rather formally introduces the children one by one as they enter the parlour from the hall, accompanied by orchestral music on the soundtrack (it is the melody associated with the children’s nursery rhyme ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, based on Mozart’s arrangement). Ronnie, Sheila, Rose and Pierre enter the parlour in turn and stand with the adults, after which John is surprised to discover a fifth child (Merrill Rodin) by his side, at which point the music pauses. The next shot is from over and behind John’s shoulder, showing the boy looking up at him and then hanging his head (he is dirtier than the other children, his hair has been shaved off, and he has a large open sore on his forehead) and the following shot is from under and behind the boy’s shoulder, showing John looking down at him in amazement. The camera’s position, behind their shoulders, emphasises the mutual beholding presented to the audience. The film then cuts to another medium shot of the parlour, from behind the boy’s head, showing the ‘relay of regards’ as the other characters look at the boy and at each other. The music resumes as Sheila explains to John how the boy came to join the group. John, and with him the film’s audience, are suddenly confronted with a more distressing image of the war’s impact on children; the boy’s appearance is similar to that of the children documented by photographers such as Therese Bonney (whose collection Europe’s Children was published the following year); he embodies what Giorgio Agamben would later term ‘bare life’.51 The critic for the New York Post, noting that ‘[every] youngster Howard acquires … has his own individuality and each presents a special problem’, suggests that this little Dutch boy, ‘lovable because of his sores and his dirt’ must have ‘[passed] through the Nazi decontamination machine’.52 This scene of ‘mutual beholding’ fuses suspense, comedy and humanitarian sentiment. John is somewhat exasperated as to how the boy has joined them (Wooley excelled at befuddlement) but Ronnie and Sheila explain that ‘Willem’ has actually been with them ‘on and off since yesterday’ (this is, however, the first time we have seen him – the film is told from John’s point of view) and that even though none of the children know Dutch (they have or are French) they had made it clear to the boy that he was welcome to join them.53 The increase in realism produced by Willem’s arrival is simultaneous, then, with a rather sentimental account of international relations – the children’s humanitarian hospitality – that utterly bamboozles John, who must abandon any desire for a rational explanation of the spontaneous solidarity, and what he calls the ‘system of Lilliputian communication’, demonstrated by the group of children under his care.
At the very end of the film, John is asked to take with him a Gestapo officer’s niece, who is brought to the harbour where the party are preparing to set sail: yet another child joins their group. Significantly, this little girl, Anna (Julika) – unlike Sheila or Rose – is extremely pretty (or rather prettified), a proper poppet. ‘The days of Shirley Temple’ (Bazin) are quite clearly evoked by Anna (and the little doll she clutches). Her arrival late in the film is important for two reasons: first, and following Shute’s novel, the film shows John’s humanitarian endeavour as profoundly inclusive – the group of children, by the time the film ends, includes both ‘Allied’ and ‘Axis’ children on the boat bound for England.54 Second, the way Anna is styled and behaves (and Julika’s performance), compared with the other children in the film, arguably imbues the earlier style named in Nemerov’s ‘Temple-O’Brien axis’ with a mechanical precision here explicitly associated with Nazism (most apparent when Anna greets John with a dainty ‘Heil, Hitler!’ salute) while the other children (and the other child actors) appear, by contrast, as authentic, ordinary individuals.
The Amazing Mrs Holliday
The Amazing Mrs Holliday, on which the French director Jean Renoir worked for several weeks before being replaced by the film’s producer Bruce Manning, was intended to provide the popular teenaged singing sensation Deanna Durbin with a more grown-up and serious image. Following Renoir’s departure, the studio demanded a more conventional and commercial product, which explains the film’s sometimes awkward blend of romantic comedy (in the San Francisco scenes) and realism (in the China scenes), and its ultimate recourse to a sentimental mode with which to educate its audience about the urgent need for international humanitarian endeavour in China. The reconciling of cultural internationalism with the imperatives of commercial entertainment is perhaps best encapsulated by the sequence in which Ruth sings ‘Rock-a-bye Baby’ to the children in fluent Mandarin. Nevertheless, for William K. Everson (writing in the 1980s) Holliday is ‘probably (in a relative sense since the story is somewhat artificial) the most realistic and certainly the least glossy (in terms of production techniques) of all the Durbin films’.55
The film received mixed reviews: for the Motion Picture Herald it was ‘a heart-warming story of the war’s homeless children, with a good measure of comedy to leaven the sentiment’, featuring ‘nine waifs of uncertain origin and undeniable appeal’, who ‘will enchant the audience by just being themselves’.56 But for the New York Times, the film lacked the ‘understanding and grace’ of The Pied Piper, and was clumsy, ‘contrived and crude’, ‘a trivial story upon a theme much too sensitive and real to be exploited in such shoddy fashion’, in which ‘the authors at no point show any real concern for the children; they are merely scattered through the scenes to serve as a sort of pathetic background for Miss Durbin’s display of mother-love’ and ‘presented in such an awkward and stilted style that one never senses any poignance in their insecure lives’; Durbin’s rendition of the Chinese lullaby, furthermore, was ‘simply sacrificing the genuine for the cute’.57
The flashback sequences showing the bombing of the orphanage in China, usually attributed to the original director Jean Renoir, however, are only slightly less harrowing than the scenes that conclude China Girl (Henry Hathaway, 1942), released a few months before, in which Johnny (George Montgomery), an American cameraman working in occupied China, falls in love with Haoli, a Chinese woman (Gene Tierney) who runs an orphanage with her father. When the Japanese bomb the orphanage, the father and several orphans are killed outright; Haoli is killed trying to rescue the remaining children. One critic suggested that ‘[the] last scenes of frightening realism should not be seen by children, indeed one does not like to see the Chinese children acting in them’, and concluded that ‘[it] is a moot point whether scenes of death and destruction should be used for entertainment, even from the highest motives’.58 In One World, Big Screen Bennett argues Haoli’s death in China Girl results in Johnny’s ‘reformation into a committed internationalist warrior’ and the film’s tragic romance thus ‘symbolized and lent emotional sustenance to the actual Sino-American partnership’.59 The ‘kinship discourse’ deployed in Holliday, however, revolves around Ruth’s intensely felt maternal responsibility for the group of international children; this prompts her to masquerade as the Commodore’s widow, and this pretence is the obstacle to her relationship with the Commodore’s son. While the film is topical, it abides by the conventions of the romantic musical. However, it begins with a scene of ‘mutual beholding’ in which the orphans’ harrowing experiences in the warzones are described (rather than dramatized) for both the immigration officer in the film and the audience of the film.
Figure 1.1The Amazing Mrs Holliday
Figure 1.2The Amazing Mrs Holliday
The scene begins with two shots that bring us closer to a group of children as a young woman tells them about San Francisco, where they will shortly land. Ruth and the children all look over to the left as the inspector from the Immigration Service arrives. Standing to face him, Ruth tells the inspector that while she is not related to the children, they are ‘just like a family’. The inspector asks Ruth whether the children have any documents, and she answers that they have no ‘formal passports’. ‘What kind do they have?’ he asks her. ‘The same kind all children have during a war’, she replies, at which point the film cuts to a group shot of the children, from Ruth’s perspective, and she explains: ‘Fear and need of shelter.’ Ruth volunteers to tell the inspector everything she knows about Marie, Rodney, Winifred, Teddy, Elizabeth, Anna and Vido, and a (Chinese) baby. While she does this, the film shifts between medium shots of the group of children sat on the deck, approximating the perspective of the adults, close-ups of the faces of the individual children as Ruth narrates their particular circumstances, in which each child raises their eyes to meet the adults’ gaze, before dropping their heads (just like Willem in Piper), and a medium shot of Ruth and the inspector looking down at the children (figures 1.1 and 1.2); there is, rather surprisingly, no music on the soundtrack during this sequence. Of Teddy, for example, Ruth explains ‘his father was a doctor in a hospital near our village – the Japs [sic] took his parents prisoner and left Teddy there to die – they didn’t know Teddy – he crawled two miles to a road – a Chinese soldier brought him to us’; of Marie, ‘Her father had a petrol station by a river near our school – the Japs [sic] needed fuel for their boats – she hasn’t seen her mother or father since’. Once Ruth and the children have disembarked a senior immigration officer tells her each child requires a $500 bond; the children watch from a nearby bench, at which point Ruth promises them she will return for them as soon as she can (after presenting herself as the Commodore’s widow, she and the children move into the Holliday mansion). During the ‘relay of regards’ in these scenes, characters view the children in different ways, often in the same shot: Ruth sees them as her family (her children), but the immigration officers see them simply as a case to be processed according to the regulations, despite their being subjected to the same appealing gaze of the children. The children seem to recognise their own precariousness, how they can be apprehended simultaneously by both a sentimental (here, maternal) and a bureaucratic humanitarian gaze. The lack of over-the-shoulder shots in the sequence situates the film audience more securely in the actual position occupied by, first, the adults looking down at the children and, second, the children looking up at the adults. The film thus invites the audience to evaluate the conflict between Ruth’s ‘sentimental’ idealism (regulations should not prevent her from carrying out her responsibilities) and the inspectors’ objective ‘sense’ (responsibility for children requires regulations), but ultimately, and inevitably, endorses Ruth’s subterfuge. It is this subterfuge, after all, which provides the romantic plot with the conventional element of uncertainty regarding the heroine’s eventual marital happiness. While the film establishes very clearly at the start that the claim of the child upon the adult, as the more positive critic suggested of the child actors’ appeal, inheres in children ‘just being themselves’ (that is, children), its obeisance to the conventions of the romantic musical inadvertently demonstrates how a just response to the child’s claim is all the more necessary given how often children are marginalised, or, as the negative review put it, relegated by adults’ affairs to a mere ‘pathetic background’.
For one critic Heavenly was ‘a heartening if not always tip-top example of how even straight comedy can be relevant and constructive’; for another it was ‘an example of how a picture can be both instructive and entertaining’, and offered specifically ‘a preachment for more active participation in public affairs on the part of the average citizen and for better understanding among national groups’.60 These ‘national groups’ are embodied in the film by ‘a young league of nations that demonstrates different international groups can live harmoniously with one another’, or, as the script described them, ‘the United Nations children’.61
In the sequence in which the McGees first encounter the war orphans, around halfway through the film, they are posing as domestic servants in a senator’s mansion in Washington; the arrival of the children (chaperoned by adults of various nationalities) is somewhat similar to the children’s arrival at the mansion in Holliday, while the admission of another orphan (after the McGees have closed the door) is similar to John’s encountering ‘yet another’ child at the door of the parlour in Piper. The scene of ‘mutual beholding’ proceeds as the ‘United Nations children’, attired in national costumes, are lined up as if for an inspection, although the manner in which the children address the adults, in a mixture of broken English and their native languages, suggests at the same time an audition. When they are first asked to introduce themselves, they simply show their official tags, as if anticipating an administrative bureaucratic regard. The McGees persist in talking to them one by one; as they move along the line of children, orchestral music plays on the soundtrack (as in Piper) and the film presents us with close-ups of the children’s faces, approximating the McGees’ perspective, as the children tell the McGees their names and nationalities: Katrina, a Dutch girl, Zoe, a Belgian girl, Pepi, a French boy, Jan, a Czechoslovakian boy, Dimitra, a Greek girl, Yen Choi, a Chinese boy, Antonovich, a Russian boy and, lastly, Drinkwater, an English boy (figures 1.3 and 1.4).62
Figure 1.3Heavenly Days
Figure 1.4Heavenly Days
Unlike Holliday, in which Ruth provided information about each orphan’s bereft and destitute state, Heavenly has the children speak, but only so as to offer thanks to the McGees (or rather to the United States) for their kindness in receiving them.63 Their experiences of danger in the warzones are suggested by their scrambling for safety under sofas and tables when they mistake Fibber’s whistle for an air raid alarm (the children in Holliday do something similar). But Heavenly arguably presents the children in a much more idealised register than either Piper or Holliday, and the efforts of the child actors are emphasised by the formality and theatricality of the occasion; the various orphans’ faltering statements of thanks seem like rehearsed recitations, and when the Russian boy performs a Cossack dance, it is the young performer’s accomplishments (more so than his character’s predicament) the film exploits for sentimental effect. The director’s initial screenplay specifies one of the orphans as ‘[the] cutest youngster, perhaps a Czechoslovakian, an alert, curious boy about five or six’.64 In other words, the ‘United Nations children’ were from the outset conceived in terms of their conventional aesthetic appeal (quantifiable cuteness) as much as their international diversity and specificity.
The Boy with Green Hair
According to Brian Neve (writing in 1992), Boy ‘is a strange mixture of aesthetic experiment, social protest and studio sentiment’.65 The film’s protagonist, Peter, whose parents have died in the Blitz and whose hair has inexplicably turned bright green, encounters the group of war orphans following his involvement in his school’s UNICEF-style charity drive. Earlier in the film, Peter looks at various humanitarian campaign posters in the school gymnasium promoting the Greek War Relief Association, the American Committee for Yugoslav Relief, the United Jewish Welfare Fund and United China Relief, as well as a poster showing an ‘Unidentified War Orphan’. After deciding to run away, he collapses in tears on the ground near a forest glade. A close-up of a tear sliding down a blade of grass, shot from Peter’s point of view, places the audience in the protagonist’s position. Peter hears another child call his name, and slowly stands up, at which point a match dissolve suggests the film enters his dream state or imagination. A shot of the forest glade shows a group of children, frozen in tableau; they are the children from the posters, wearing the same clothes and holding the same postures (see figures 1.5 and 1.6). For a few moments, as Peter approaches, they are motionless, and the film is silent, before some of them begin to walk toward and crowd around him, while melancholy orchestral music plays on the soundtrack. The orphans explain that Peter must tell ‘all the people’ that ‘war is very bad for children’; the ‘Unidentified War Orphan’ refers specifically to the original ‘Four Policemen’ of the UN, asking Peter to tell ‘the Russians, the Americans, the Chinese, the British’. As the children take it in turns to talk to Peter, the film shifts between medium close-ups of the war orphans addressing Peter, close-ups of Peter listening and responding, and medium long-shots showing the orphans arrayed in the glade. Upon receiving his commission, Peter turns to face the camera (and the film’s audience), and insists ‘The world doesn’t have to be blown up’.
Figure 1.5The Boy with Green Hair
Figure 1.6The Boy with Green Hair
Whereas the earlier films presented groups of children journeying towards or recently arrived in the United States, Boy offers instead children who remain distant others. While the first three films show children under the direct care of various guardians, as immediate responsibilities, Boy suggests the children are (still) in need of such care, and their needs remain mediated, first by the humanitarian campaign posters presented in the film, and second by the film itself. The children in the posters at Peter’s school reappear in the dream sequence, and the posters are thus revealed to be images of these juvenile actors posing as war orphans, and therefore as inauthentic and contrived as the glade sequence itself. Director Joseph Losey later admitted, ‘the [original] story really was a fantasy about racial discrimination and that’s what the picture should have been about. But we all felt so strongly that there must be a world movement for peace that we tried to make a film about peace’.66 Alerting audiences to the film’s potentially problematic combining of topical realities and fanciful conceits, the RKO Press Book, which describes Boy as ‘a unique dramatization of the plight suffered by children, innocent and unwilling victims of the wars that plague the world’, acknowledges that ‘the story fluctuates between piquant imagery and realism’. Reflecting on his attempts to combine elements of fantasy and reality in the film, Losey complained:
I was stymied in both because the reality was the RKO lot, their clapboard houses and their streets which had been used a million times before; it’s pretty hard to get reality from that, so that was the problem … The trouble with the fantasy was, nobody knew, nobody understood. What I wanted to get, in the scene in the glade, was absolute horror, real terror, the kind of thing Joris Ivens and John Ferno did in their film of the Chinese-Japanese conflict, The Four Hundred Million , with that shot of the baby sitting on the railway track, bombed and with no clothes, desolate and crying. I wanted to get that kind of horror, that kind of reality / [There’s] no horror and there’s no reality in the glade, and the figures of the children are marionettes.67
Losey’s frustration concerning his ambitions to replicate the ‘kind of reality’ he encountered in Ivens and Ferno’s documentary within his film’s fantastical premise is suggested by his likening the children to puppets. For Losey, the studio’s commercial expediency thwarted his desire to experiment with the realism that a popular format might accommodate.
In a June 1943 address Frances Harmon, the Executive Vice-Chairman of the Motion Picture Industry division of the War Activities Committee, stated: ‘Solidarity in the ranks of the United Nations is a prerequisite to victory in war and peace. Knowledge of one another and mutual appreciation of our diverse countries, cultures and war sacrifices can be obtained most quickly on a popular level through this people’s art which speaks a universal language.’68 In a July 1943 speech Harmon celebrated the ‘inspiring cooperation’ of the film industry, which had ‘proved conclusively that we can come together … as a hard-hitting team in behalf of victory for the United Nations’ and then offered an intriguing analogy: ‘Fundamental differences exist between some of the United Nations, but today all are united in a solemn determination to force the unconditional surrender of our common foes. Basic divergences similarly exist between various branches of our industry—between the artistic and the commercial approach to production problems.’69 In both cases (the UN, the film industry) strength depends on unity, and quarrels will lead to weakness. The representation of children from the warzones in these Hollywood films is sometimes surprisingly realistic (for commercial entertainments) and sometimes objectionably sentimental (for topical dramas). The representation of these groups of children demonstrates how the ‘divergence’ between ‘artistic’ and ‘commercial’ approaches (not, or not always, however, synonymous with realist and sentimental registers) is managed and modulated, sometimes in a single film. The four films’ propaganda unquestionably derives from their presenting groups of children, but with varying degrees of realism and sentimentality – the genuine and the cute – determining the authenticity and appeal of the children (including of course the children’s performances themselves) and thus governing the apprehension of their suffering. The groups of children in the first three films are assembled via increasingly bureaucratic modes of humanitarian action, from the ministrations of heroic individuals to the administration of international organisations: in Piper the children are under John’s unofficial protection; in Holliday the children are originally from an institution (an orphanage) and must be processed by immigration services; in Heavenly the children have presumably come to America under the auspices of an official committee responsible for the adoption of war orphans.70 In Boy, however, the children appear first on photographs (publicity materials for humanitarian campaigns) and subsequently in the protagonist’s imagination. The ambiguous ontological status of the children in this film – played by real children, they are presented first as ‘documentary’ images in the humanitarian campaign posters and then as ‘imaginary’ children in the protagonist’s fantasy – is instructive for a consideration of the presentation of the children in the earlier films, precisely due to the awkward combination of realism and fantasy, and authenticity and sentimentality, with which the real suffering of the war’s youngest victims is presented as a ‘sorrowful spectacle’ both in the film and to the film’s audience.
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