South Pacific, Walter Winchell, Joe DiMaggio.
–“We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel
Walk into the Casa de Regalos (House of Gifts) gift shop at Ventura Harbor Village in Ventura, California, or any other gift shop in an area heavy with tourists that has to sell more than it represents in order to stay open, and you’ll find either cards or booklets or both that promise to show you what happened, what movies opened, what TV shows were on the air, and what prices were, during the year you were born. They’re good for a few minutes’ entertainment if you’re not planning to buy them, or a generally decent reference guide if you must know at all times that people weren’t taking on mortgages in order to buy gas. Of course, money moved differently during those decades and what we think of as cheap might have been expensive for those who lived back then.
Mill Creek Entertainment takes a more novel approach to those cards and booklets with its The Decade You Were Born series, beginning with the 1940s. The centerpiece of the 1940s DVD is a 92-minute documentary that Mill Creek farmed out to Centre Communications, Inc., likely with full access to all that it owns for distribution. Therefore, in the section of the documentary about movies during the decade, you get not Casablanca, but Judy Garland singing in Till the Clouds Roll By, and Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff looking somewhat menacing in Invisible Ghost and British Intelligence, respectively. That’s actually the best way to go about it because people know Casablanca so well, and there should be more attention to lesser known titles, which producer Kenny Jones, director Ron Meyer, writers Meyer, Mark Reeder and Jones, and editor Jones ably give. These men being the foremost power on this documentary gives it a tight-knit feeling that never drifts into superfluousness.
The documentary is heavy on entertainment, such as music, programs on the radio (there’s two great pieces of footage, one of a sound effects man making necessary noise during a live broadcast of Fibber McGee & Molly, kicking around pots and pans to simulate the contents of a closet falling out; and another man walking in place and then opening and closing a small door during a soap opera), and then goes into household appliances meant to make housewives’ lives easier. A General Electric film touts the benefits of silicone in sealed windows, bouncing putty, and other uses. Two of the most valuable pieces of footage for history buffs of the decade are of Carl Sandburg, the foremost authority on Abraham Lincoln at the time, being interviews upon the Library of Congress unsealing Lincoln’s papers, and Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
The opening mentions that babies in the first half of the decade were War Babies, and in the second half, they were called Baby Boomers, soon to be known as the Beat Generation. Later, the end of World War II is shown, but there’s not enough about the United States’ involvement in the war itself, just that we got into it after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Considering that it defined a great deal of the 1940s, that the United States was first isolationist before Pearl Harbor, a few more minutes, just to quickly lay out where we were involved during the war, would have gone a long way. This documentary only means to show viewers the highlights of the decade, and if they want to know more, the resources are wide and deep. But to not include more about World War II and what caused the beginning of the Cold War in 1947 ignores major parts of the decade. If this is perhaps shown in classrooms, I hope those teachers provide that information as well.
The real novelty of this DVD lies in its bonus features, beginning with Till the Clouds Roll By, starring Judy Garland and a bevy of other famous names showing off the career of Jerome Kern through continuous musical numbers. The movie is in the public domain, so Mill Creek works with what it has, meaning that the sound is a bit muffled throughout, and the picture looks limp as well, but to have it as part of this DVD is the point, to make it representative of the 1940s.
There are five 1940s commercials as well, the first with Bugs Bunny telling audiences to buy bonds, and also briefly performing as Al Jolson in blackface. Another is for the “Victory Loan Drive” because someone has to pay for the war, and it’s got to be the American people, so actor Edward Arnold gently suggests that people buy, buy, buy Victory Bonds. The commercial for Camel Cigarettes proudly proclaims that in a 30-day smoking study, there was “not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels.” A commercial for Mum Cream Deodorant goes for a secret agent theme, and “Christmas Brings Joy” merely touts that most wonderful time of the year, with narration by Ed Herlihy, who’s also featured in the documentary as the voice of a newsreel.
My favorite bonus features are first the interactive timeline which gives events from 1940-1949, a section for each year, so at least the war is covered here, and is of benefit to any classroom showings. After each set of events, the Billboard music hits for each year are shown, along with the movie that won the Academy Award for Best Picture that year, Time’s Person of the Year, and after all the years are covered, there are listings of the “Top Rated TV Shows of the 1940s” and the “Top Grossing Movies of the 1940s.”
My other favorite bonus feature is the first episode of The Lone Ranger, which is about how he became the Lone Ranger (Clayton Moore) and how Tonto (Jay Silverheels) became his sidekick. In hindsight, the writing is too obvious, with the Ranger explaining the run of the series in a few sentences as his new purpose in life, but it’s easy to see why it ran for 221 episodes, with barren settings that add to the suspense, and wondering how the Lone Ranger will get out of his many scrapes. Plus, Moore and Silverheels work well together, a believable partnership.
By this series, Mill Creek Entertainment has become a low-key curator of history. Looking at the actors performing on the radio, those sound effects men, those scientists in the laboratory working on silicone (or something else, and the General Electric film made it look like they were studying silicone), the other men next to Carl Sandburg at the Library of Congress unveiling, and composer/critic Deems Taylor chairing a meeting of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (remember him as the host of Walt Disney’s Fantasia?), I wonder when they were last seen like this. Certainly they were seen in the 1940s, but since then? Maybe, maybe not. They are well-remembered here, along with the average population doing different things. The advancements of technology still never fail to amaze me, that here we are in 2012 watching pieces of the 1940s on a DVD player. Who could have imagined that back then? Because of that, we get to know more about the decades that came before. And Mill Creek has taken wonderful advantage of that. Those cards and booklets in gift shops have some competition now.