Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.
Sometimes I don’t pay attention to my NetFlix queue, and what shows up is something I don’t expect. Thus it is that So Proudly We Hail! arrived the day after Christmas. Well, these movies don’t watch themselves, and I was going to watch it eventually anyway, right? I can’t say I was particularly in the mood for a medical drama, a war film, or a military romance. I also wasn’t really in the mood for a romantic film with Claudette Colbert at this point in her career. The elfin cuteness that defined Colbert in films like It Happened One Night had worn off at this point in her career. One of the main objections I had to The Palm Beach Story from the year previous to this release was the Colbert couldn’t pull off being the epitome of desirable womanhood. Still, I was interested to see Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake in their prime.
Now, if I’m completely honest (and I always try to be), I went into this completely cold. I expect this to be a straight happy propaganda film. I half expected it to be a musical. It’s not. It’s really, really not. This may be told from the perspective of nurses, but these are nurses who are on the front lines in the Philippines. There are battle sequences here that are as close as you’re going to find to the real thing for 1943. It’s pretty impressive, even if to modern eyes it’s easy to tell when we’re on a sound stage.
So Proudly We Hail! is told entirely in flashback. We have a crew of nurses being evacuated from Corregidor. One of the eight, Lieutenant Janet “Davy” Davidson (Claudette Colbert) is on a stretcher and evidently slipping away despite not being wounded. She has evidently given up all reason to live. To discover what might be the cause, we get the story of the group of nurses from the days before Pearl Harbor when they shipped off to the Pacific through to their stationing on Bataan, then Corregidor, and eventually their escape.
A lot of what makes this movie work is going to head into spoiler territory. This is merely a warning for that because I really don’t feel like putting up spoiler tags for a fairly rare 70-year-old movie that has just over four dozen reviews on Letterboxd. If you really don’t want to have this movie spoiled for you, you’ve been warned.
I’ve labeled this as a romance for a reason. It’s not too long before our two principle nurses, Davy and Lieutenant Joan O’Doul (Paulette Goddard) are involved with troops in the area. We learn right away that Joan is something of a flirt, since she has a couple of fiancés who come to see her off when she ships out. But it’s not too long before she’s got something like a romance with “Kansas,” (Sonny Tufts), a beefy bohunk who turns up in her life frequently. She tries to avoid a romantic entanglement with him, but she simply can’t help herself. There’s a constant joke that she tells him not to do something, he says that that thing she has warned him against never happens, and then it happens. At the end of the film, she tells him not to die and he says he never dies. That’s left hanging when the film finally wraps up.
For Davy, the soldier in question is John Summers (a pre-Superman George Reeves). Davy resists the romance as well since the country is now at war and she doesn’t have time to devote to that sort of issue when she has to keep her nurses in line and the soldiers in her care alive. But of course she eventually succumbs. Near the end of the film she and Joe marry on Corregidor and he goes off on a secret mission to get quinine for the hospital and doesn’t return. This, of course, explains Davy’s malaise, since it is revealed that John is missing and presumed dead.
Remember at the top that I said Veronica Lake was in this? She is, but only for a cup of coffee. She’s attached to our unit of nurses after Pearl Harbor. She’s rude and standoffish until Davy finally gets her to open up. No shock here—the man she loved was killed at Pearl Harbor and now she has nothing to live for except for the chance to kill Japanese. But she can’t do that; when she volunteers to work the prisoner ward, she’s unable to off the Japanese troops. She does get her chance, though, when the nurses are forced to flee Bataan, she booby traps herself with a hand grenade(!) and blows up a bunch of troops. I’m sure that played well in 1943, but today, the idea of a suicide bomber hits a little closer to home.
Anyway, while So Proudly We Hail! is very much focused on the wartime romances of Davy and Joan, there’s a lot of combat going on here, too. In 1943, the American movie-going public would certainly be more than aware of the U.S. military’s issues in the Philippines, and the names of Bataan and Corregidor would resonate pretty strongly. There’s only a bit of propaganda here. The Japanese bomb the hospital at one point, and Davy goes off on a screed about the war. But it’s much more focused on the story than on the efforts to boost morale at home.
So, ultimately, it works. I’m not convinced that So Proudly We Hail! is required viewing, but it’s a lot more effective than I would have thought going in. I expected a giant parade of patriotism and gettin’ those fascist bastards. It’s smarter than that and better than that, and even the romance between Claudette Colbert and George Reeves works for the most part despite their age difference. It’s worth noting as well that this was Paulette Goddard’s lone Oscar nomination (in a Supporting Actress role), and she’s good. She’d have been better nominated for Modern Times, but it’s nice to see her get the nomination.
Why to watch So Proudly We Hail!: A surprisingly good war film.
Why not to watch: You can guess where most of this is going to go.