It’s appropriate that So Proudly We Hail! aired during TCM’s new series Friday Night Spotlight (yes, by admitting that I acknowledge this review is a taste late to the party), as it features a war story that doesn’t explore the quiet desperation of army wives at home. The women of the film are women of action, who want to do something for their country, and sacrifice as the men did. It’s a powerful piece that gets too bogged down in sappy romances. A stunning performance from the incredible Veronica Lake, alongside Claudette Colbert and Paulette Goddard creates a story worth watching, even if it’s reliant on formula.
A group of army nurses go to Hawaii to serve their country. Under the guidance of Lt. Janet Davidson (Colbert), the group of women experience the horrors of war firsthand.
For every praise I found in So Proudly We Hail! I found another that bothered me. The experiences the women go through during the runtime are captivating and would be akin to what men go through. The explosions, especially during the moments when the women almost get captured, are realistic and frightening, and death is handed down to the ladies; no playing on their gender. The issue becomes how scared the script, written by Allan Scott, is in dealing with the female cast. God forbid it slips your mind for a second that these are ladies and not gents! Case in point, the misguided elements of screwball comedy stuck into events. It is hidden in an interesting conversation the women have about their distaste for being called “heroines,” but devolves into “High heels, the things we use to trap men.”
The worst offender is Paulette Goddard as Lt. Joan O’Doul. I enjoyed Goddard in The Women, and from what I’ve read, this role was hoped to give her credibility outside the world of comedy and romance. However, her persona as a loveable flirt doesn’t work in a film that wants to be taken seriously and is meant to be a thank-you to the women who risked their lives. The establishment of her character comes as she’s introducing/hiding her two fiancée from each other (she said yes to both because she “can’t say no”) and from there she’s labeled the insensitive one in the group who has to redeem herself. I’m fine with a little levity, considering the horrors that are to follow it’s always nice to have something to laugh at; but why the bipolar characterization? She can’t say no to a guy, but she has no problem taking another woman’s necklace and failing to understand why the other woman is upset with her? Goddard is redeemed by story’s end, but I felt she was the outlier in the group.
The reliance on love stories creates a film that is far too long, clocking in at over two hours. Goddard’s plot isn’t the only romance we see. Claudette Colbert’s Janet Davidson became one of my favorite characters, next to Lake, and she was the one I was frustrated with the most. Her character is equated as equal to a man; her designation as a Lieutenant (complete with dressing-down George Reeves as a misogynist fellow Lieutenant) and her demands for equality are genuine. When the women are holed up, fearing capture, Janet is disgusted that they have to wait for the men to rescue them. But again, the script can’t have you believe these women are equal to men, so there’s a sappy romance between Davidson and Reeves’ character, John Summers. The fault lies at the heart of the genre itself; it’s the same problem I have with horror movie romances. In a war, you’re struggling with anxiety, fear; all the emotions and uncertainty that comes from war, not to mention constant traveling. When Summers and Davidson finally get married, she mentions that she barely knows him! For a smart woman, why did she marry him then? For the same reason, Goddard’s character can’t say no: She’s too nice, caring, loving because she’s female. The script refuses to believe these women are smart and don’t want to put love above the safety of their fellow women; Davidson sneaks away from her regimen to have a honeymoon with a man she doesn’t know! Some leadership! And remember, she falls in love with a man who refused to let a woman wash him, he’s a keeper. I did like Reeves, and I maintain he’d have made a strong leading man if Superman hadn’t pigeonholed him, but his character is simply “the guy.” We know just as much about him as Colbert’s character does, so why care about him? I kept expecting him to die throughout the movie as men in love tend to do.
The true talent is Veronica Lake as Lt. Olivia D’Arcy. I’m a taste biased, but I found her work here to be her strongest in the dramatic field. Olivia desires revenge after losing her fiancée, and she exhibits true frustration and anger about the casualties of war. Her story has absolutely nothing to do with screwball antics or her famous peekaboo hair – which is covered up for a good portion of the film – just pure rage. Olivia is restrained, somber, and quiet. The audience is never privy to her next move. Her depression and detachment leaves her as an enigma to the other women (Goddard is downright unsympathetic to her). When she recounts the death of her fiancée by saying “his face was gone,” it chills you. It’s the strongest emotional performance I’ve seen from her, and her death scene is heart-wrenching considering how far she’s come. She’s the one who truly evokes the war movie mentality; she’s not a girl in the war, but a woman hoping to find purpose.
So Proudly We Hail! should be a far better movie. Unfortunately, it sees its females as “girls” and not women. The emphasis on love and romance doesn’t fit, and the characters played by Colbert and Lake are too hardened when pitted against the flighty Goddard. It’s great for the acting performances from the two ladies, and George Reeves, but it’s not the greatest war movie, nor is it one that provides significant insight on the women’s role during wartime.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.