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Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars and Stories of World War II (Review)

World War II changed the course of culture. While plenty of events defined the twentieth century, few wrought such a toll on a generation not only physically and emotionally, but mentally. With even a superficial look at history, it’s easy to see just how much the world evolved in the wake of the atrocities.

Most film history fans gaze at the World War II era in Hollywood with fondness and nostalgia. In fact, the classic movies coming out of this period are still held up as some of the greatest ever made.

I mean, Casablanca makes this point on its own.

In his book, Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars and Stories of World War II, author Christian Blauvelt dives head first into this iconic period, with which most readers are at least a little familiar. He manages though to not only make the well-trod subject matter feel fresh, but at the same time covers a heck of a lot of ground in only 200 pages of historical analysis. The book spans the years of the war (covering roughly 1939 through 1946) and I found myself constantly in awe of Blauvelt’s ability to juggle the countless stories of this period while maintaining an effortless flow. With the scope of this topic, it’s no easy task.

Discussions of perspective and representation are important ones in Hollywood history, especially in the classic era when these subjects weren’t really a focus. Throughout Hollywood Victory, Blauvelt paints a complex and diverse picture of the industry at the time. Sure there’s plenty of nostalgia thanks to talk of The Hollywood Canteen and iconic pin-up girls; at the same time though, he tackles challenging subjects which until recently haven’t received the airtime they deserve.

I love the nostalgia, the discussions of Bob Hope, “Thanks for the Memories” and “White Christmas” as much as the next girl. Where Hollywood Victory really shines though is the time and care spent in discussions of how performers of color united in support of a country which didn’t often show them the same respect. Particularly powerful is of course the life and career of Hattie McDaniel, widely known as the first African American actress to win an Academy Award. McDaniel was a leading figure supporting the war effort on the homefront. However, with all the work she did to raise money, support the troops and bolster fundraising effort in the African-American community, she was met by hostility and discrimination from the Hollywood establishment. Her’s of course isn’t the only story like this. Blauvelt discusses such diverse figures as Anna May Wong, Lena Horne and Carmen Miranda. Each of these women bring different stories and different identities, but they all had one thing in common, they were raked over the coals by the industry for one reason and one alone: their skin color.

I will admit as I jumped into Hollywood Victory, I didn’t give it enough credit. It looks a bit like a coffee table book. It’s pretty and it’s flashy, but just how much substance could it have? Well readers, Blauvelt’s seamless construction of his detailed chapters with bright, large and interesting pictures completely hooked me with each and every page.

Heck, Hollywood Victory looks immaculate! For such a packed cultural study (as mentioned, it comes in at a relatively breezy 200 pages) there’s lots of great pictures spread throughout. I say this openly… I’m a nerd for 1940s and 1950s culture and many of these pictures weren’t familiar to me. These weren’t images I’d seen on Google dozens of times before and that in itself was thrilling.

Film history aficianados can appreciate just how much an effective use visuals can bring a study of history to life. With well-placed pictures, all at once the names in a textbook becomes more interesting. Suddenly these names become people with faces and identities and all at once it’s easier to become emotionally invested in these stories.

The book even finds a way to take subjects which should feel cut and dry and make them new. Many would agree, it’s difficult to think of new ground to break in discussing Casablanca. The 1942 drama is widely recognized as a one of the greatest movies ever made. However, Blauvelt provides a sensitive and powerful examination of the film through the lens of its cast of refugees. He talks about the performers who aren’t as widely remembered as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. From Helmut Dantine to Madeleine Lebeau, S.Z. Sakall and Louis V. Arco, the cast was packed to the brim with recent refugees from Europe who contributed so much to the movie. Their names might not be topping the marquee, but their stories and personal experiences played a huge role in shaping Casablanca into the classic it became. There’s always a fascinating story behind the story and Blauvelt is crafting new and interesting discussions on this essential almost 80 years after its premiere.

Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars and Stories of World War II came out of the gate and surprised the heck out of me. The newest book from TCM‘s library of goodness is more than just a coffee table weight about a widely analyzed era. Author Christian Blauvelt puts together an intelligent and savvy history of the period which breaks new ground. He steps out from behind telling the same stories about the same movies and provides some of the historical context which has lacked over the passage of time. All at once, we’re reminded that history isn’t a ‘black and white’ discussion. Even in a period which seems as cut and dry as the World War II era, there’s a surprising amount of gray to expose.

Hollywood Victory: The Movies, Stars and Stories of World War II is now available wherever you get your books!

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