Thursday, February 18, 2016

Scrooge Goes to War

Film: The War against Mrs. Hadley
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Propaganda films take all forms. The traditional war propaganda film is the sort that follows a group of “our boys” as they battle with grit, pluck, and determination against the pure evil of the enemy forces. There are other types, of course. Since You Went Away and Mrs. Miniver show the other side of the war—the home front, the keeping of the stiff upper lip and dealing with privation. The War against Mrs. Hadley tells a much different version of the war fought at home.

What’s the angle? The War against Mrs. Hadley comes from the least gung-ho perspective possible. The first thing to know is what the title actually means. Until the movie actually began, I thought this was about a war against the titular Mrs. Hadley. It’s not. It’s about Stella Hadley’s (Fay Bainter) attitude toward the war. In her world, the impact of World War II is entirely personal. The war, you see, is against her because it means that things will change in her world. Suddenly, she’s not the focus of everyone’s attention and there are things that might happen that will mean she doesn’t get her way.

Yes, that’s what we’re in for. Stella Hadley feels about the fact that World War II exists the same way that Ebenezer Scrooge feels about Christmas and poor people. And for about 76 minutes of its 86-minutes of the film, we’re going to have it hammered into our heads that Stella Hadley is a selfish upper class bitch who gives not a shit about anyone who isn’t her and then we’re going to get 10 minutes of Ebenezer Scrooge not having missed Christmas after all.

I’m not kidding, and I’m not exaggerating. The entire point of the film is to have person after person in Stella Hadley’s life come to the realization that the war is actually important beyond how it affects her life, not that it takes anyone else long to figure that out. One by one, all of the people who Stella depends on, and on whom she places demands caused by her privilege become involved in the war effort against her wishes. All she really wants is for nothing to change, and suddenly everything has changed, and in Stella’s world, it hasn’t changed for the better.

So, how about some examples? The film opens on Stella Hadley’s birthday in 1941 and anyone with an ounce of historical knowledge and the way movies work will have deduced that the date of that birthday is December 7 (which in a moment pure coincidence was actually Fay Bainter’s birthday). Her party is ruined by the attack on Pearl Harbor, and that’s exactly how she sees it. The most traumatic event that happens to her is that her maid (Dorothy Morris) breaks a piece of China. Why? Because her brother is stationed at Pearl Harbor. When she finds out later that her brother is alive, Stella’s reaction is to complain that the cup didn’t need to be broken after all.

Ah, but that could be shock. So here’s more. Stella disapproves of daughter Pat (Jean Rogers) working at a canteen for soldiers. When Pat falls for NCO Mike Fitzpatrick (Van Johnson) and the two get married, Stella disapproves so much that she doesn’t attend the wedding and cuts all ties with her daughter. Drunk-in-training son Ted (Richard Ney) is drafted and he accepts the assignment over Stella’s demand that he not join the service. Family friend and War Office honcho Elliott Fulton (Edward Arnold) refuses to pull strings to get Ted out of the service…and so Stella cuts all ties with him, too. She refuses to honor blackouts because they inconvenience her. She even gives up her friendship with Cecilia Talbot (Spring Byington) because Cecilia has had to terrible bad taste to take a first-aid class with Stella’s social rival Laura Winters (Isobel Elsom).

I won’t give the details of what happens in the last 10-15 minutes of the film. But if you guessed that in a general sense that Stella Hadley would undergo some sort of epiphany, well, you understand what a propaganda film is and you’ve watched or read A Christmas Carol at least once. There’s no shock here, and Stella Hadley’s new opinion on the war effort is, well, Scroogean.

There are some decent performances here. Mrs. Hadley’s butler (played by the incredibly butler-named Halliwell Hobbes) gets a few dandy comic moments and there are some interesting moments in dealing with the loss involved in war. But there is absolutely no shock where The War against Mrs. Hadley wants to take us, and no surprise that we’re definitely going to get there by the time the “Buy War Bonds at this Theater!” placard pops up at the end.

What I find very interesting here is that in some respects, The War against Mrs. Hadley is still a little bit relevant. Almost everyone knows that one person who is completely self-absorbed and who interprets every significant event in the world in terms of how it affects him or her, or takes attention away from him or her. In a selfie-obsessed culture, I think we have more Stella Hadleys now than we did in the past. But even with that said, this is still a film that is at best only a moderate success.

Why to watch The War against Mrs. Hadley: Good performances in spite of itself.
Why not to watch: Stella Hadley might be the most unpleasant, non-evil character in film.


  1. I see all your points but I still thought this was a little gem of a film, more for the snapshot it provides into the workings of a giant like MGM during the Golden Age than the actual movie.

    The great thing about these lower budget features from the major studios was that they provided opportunities for great actresses like Fay Bainter to topline films in between providing support in A pictures. Then because the entire filmmaking machine was in place and constantly grinding away an amazing supporting cast such as this one has could be gathered, probably between their work on other films on the lot. Even with a worse story than this one tells I would happily watch again for a chance to see Spring Byington, Sara Allgood, Connie Gilchrist, Isobel Elsom and the great Edward Arnold, in good guy mode for a change, all gathered together in one place.

    They were also helpful as training, and testing grounds, for the young contract players both for the experience and to see who popped in front of the camera. And it worked, even though I've never been much of a fan of his Van Johnson in his few minutes comes across much more vibrantly than any of the other younger cast members.

    You drawing the parallel to A Christmas Carol makes me wonder if that was something that the writers used as a offhand inspiration when they were working on the story. As propaganda goes it is effective, Mrs. Hadley seems a less snide version of the role Agnes Moorehead took in Since You Went Away and if it made some of its audience at the time recognize themselves even a little than it did its job. Unfortunately I think you're also correct that there is a super sufficiency of people who are like Mrs. Hadley at the beginning of the film nowadays.

    1. Honestly, I'm a little surprised that someone else has seen this. I was the seventh person to put up a rating for this on Letterboxd, making it one of the rarer films I've reviewed here. There are 10 now, so at least three other people watched it on TCM yesterday along with me.

      I get the point of seeing a good cast, but with a film like this, I wonder what that good cast was in service of. I don't mind a lower-end picture or something to give the younger players a little experience, but the screenplay is so heavy-handed and plays its cards in such plain view of the audience that I knew where we'd end up after the first 10 minutes. The second all of the characters and social relationships are set, I knew where we were headed almost plot point for plot point. That's a little disappointing.

      The fact that we live in a society that is at least apparently more self-involved than we used to be makes this interesting from a modern perspective, but not much more than that.