A Letter to President Roosevelt (December, 1941)

Earlier this month we marked the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United States’s official entry into World War II. Just as it had done during WWI, Hollywood quickly shifted into patriotic mode: studios accelerated production on films with war-time themes and began to work with the newly formed Office of War Information to coordinate the on-screen representation of war-related subjects. Additionally, industry personnel organized special committees and events around the country that would help support the war effort.

On December 10th, 1941 industry personnel met at the Roosevelt Hotel for the first Hollywood Victory Committee meeting, with Clark Gable presiding as the chairman. From December 1941 to December 1945, the Hollywood Victory Committee coordinated the activities of just over 20 separate national organizations, as well as radio and in-person appearances of Hollywood stars around the world, and the service of industry talent in civilian war agencies. According to government records, the Committee helped plan nearly 5000 in-person events during the war (Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning 1945, pg. 2619). One such endeavor was the 1942 Hollywood Victory Caravan, which featured nearly 50 stars including Bette Davis, Bob Hope, Humphrey Bogart, and Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy on a train tour to 14 cities across the United States. In total, the Victory Caravan raised around $700,000 for Army and Navy relief funds.

Chairman Clark Gable chats with Hollywood Victory Committee members Gary Cooper, Irene Dunne, and Cary Grant, c. December 1941.
Hollywood stars on the cross-country Hollywood Victory Caravan, c. 1942.

Since the United States was still segregated, the “Hollywood Victory Committee” was all-white. However, there was an equally impactful “Negro Division” chaired by actress Hattie McDaniel. Like their parent organization, the “Negro Division” supported war-related efforts of African-American talent such as Eddie Anderson, Louise Beavers, and Lena Horne. According to historian Donald Bogle, McDaniel devoted much of her time and energy to the cause, including hosting a “massive benefit at the Shrine Auditorium in July 1942 to raise money for black military groups.” Meanwhile, stars like Lena Horne and Hazel Scott toured U.S. military bases, while musician Phil Moore performed on the Armed Services Radio, and became the network’s musical director (Bogle 2005, pg. 234).

Hattie McDaniel (center), chairwoman of the “Negro Division” of the Hollywood Victory Committee, accompanies a group of actresses for a special performance at Minter Field.
Lena Horne (center) with servicemen during WWII.

Like her husband, Carole Lombard was also a member of the Hollywood Victory Committee, and was eager to participate in the war effort. Of course, Lombard was always known as a patriotic star. For example, in 1938 she made headlines after declaring herself in favor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s so-called “Wealth Tax.” In a show of support, she issued a public statement saying that it was the patriotic duty of the richest Americans to pay the highest percentage of taxes “for the improvement of the country.” Her pro-tax sentiment came just as she earned nearly $450,000 in annual income, a sum that made her the highest paid actor in Hollywood (Kiriakou 2020, pg. 188). That year, she paid nearly $350,000 in taxes, and after deducting accountants’ fees and other expenses, Lombard announced publicly that she was left with $20,000 (a figure that was still far and above what the average American made in the late-1930s). Lombard told reporters that “$20,000 a year is still plenty for me and as for giving the government most of my income, I think that’s fine” (Othman, 1938, pg. 6). Lombard’s statement boosted her already favorable public image. Implicitly, too, Lombard called attention to the disproportionate wealth of those in Hollywood (including herself), and the devastating economic disparity that existed in the United States during the Depression. As historian Eric Hoyt aptly summarized, her ideology also “anticipated the sense of patriotic tax-paying the U.S. government tried to foster among the public” in World War II (2010, pg. 12), and helped to strengthen her patriotic and atypical Hollywood star image.

After Pearl Harbor, the Gables didn’t quite know how they would be of best use to the government. Earlier that December, Lombard had just wrapped production on To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942) and was preparing to begin shooting They All Kissed the Bride in the new year. Meanwhile, Gable was about to embark on Somewhere I’ll Find You (Wesley Ruggles, 1942); in their down time between films, they hoped that they could somehow lend their support to the war effort. On the 10th (the same day as the first Hollywood Victory Committee meeting), they wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, asking where their talents would be best served:

President Roosevelt sent a reply letter on December 16th thanking the Gables for their offer. He encouraged them to continue acting in “inspirational and patriotic pictures” that would “help maintain the spirit and morale of the nation,” which he described as being “indispensable at this time.” While Lombard and Gable both were flattered that the President believed their work was a comfort in such a dark time, Carole felt like she wanted to do more.

At a subsequent Victory Committee meeting, she volunteered her services. The Committee coordinated with the Gables, MGM (Clark’s home studio), and Carole’s team: it was decided that after the holidays, she would travel to her home state of Indiana on what would be Hollywood’s first war bonds tour of World War II. That trip (the subject of a future blog post) would tragically bring an end to Carole’s life and those of twenty-one others. The fact that Hollywood continued to raise funds and make films to boost public morale was certainly not down to Lombard, nor was she the first civilian casualty. That said, Lombard’s patriotism and fame did help to personalize the war, and her premature death served as a public reminder of the incalculable loss and sacrifice that so many others would also face during that time.

WORKS CITED

Bogle, Donald. Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams: The Story of Black Hollywood. New York: Random House, 2005.

Hoyt, Eric. “Hollywood and the Income Tax, 1929 – 1955.” Film History Vol. 22 (2010): 5 – 21.

Kiriakou, Olympia. Becoming Carole Lombard: Stardom, Comedy, and Legacy. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

Othman, Frederick C. “Carole Lombard ‘Glad to pay $445,000 taxes, said.” San Jose News, August 26, 1938, 6.

Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning. “Hearings Before the Special Committee on Postwar Economic Policy and Planning,” United States Congressional Records, 1945.

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