America in the 40s

One of the best parts of writer Les Thomas' three-hour tour of America in 1940 is host Charles Durning's thoughtful commentaries and reminiscences. Besides Durning's moving passages, a hat's off to the editors' shrewd intro of clips from period films, newsreels, "March of Time" and anything else from the era that moved. The primary appeal begins in the last two-thirds of the program, when sentiment wells up; by then, viewers will be hooked.

One of the best parts of writer Les Thomas’ three-hour tour of America in 1940 is host Charles Durning’s thoughtful commentaries and reminiscences. Besides Durning’s moving passages, a hat’s off to the editors’ shrewd intro of clips from period films, newsreels, “March of Time” and anything else from the era that moved. The primary appeal begins in the last two-thirds of the program, when sentiment wells up; by then, viewers will be hooked.

Memory is powerful enough to make a man like the great editorial cartoonist Bill Mauldin weep as he recalls a postwar Memorial Day service at a cemetery where a politician, addressing gathered dignitaries, breaks off and, turning to the graves, apologizes to the dead soldiers.

Engaging ex-hillbilly Peggy Terry, going into war work, found herself buying furniture like the stylish people atop the mountain, as she puts it. Her husband , away at the war, surprised her in the kitchen washing dishes; he put his hands on her shoulders before identifying himself. He was home, changed. But home.

Paul Moore, former bishop of the Episcopal diocese of New York, tells rather grandly of growing up in an enormously wealthy family. Joining the Marines, winning a Silver Star at Guadalcanal, he speaks effectively of what combat did to young men, how it changed all of them. “It’s in there. It’s probably still in there, to some extent.”

The clips, celebs and tunes are dated stuff for younger generations, and for those who lived through the years, it’s familiar territory. Most of the time it’s sufficiently lively, but at times the first hour plays like Great Uncle Moe hauling out his scrapbook again.

But something irresistible happens as nostalgia seeps in, as people talk, as the second hour falls into place. Freddie Erban and Val Miele, veterans of the First Division in Europe, still buddies, talk about those old days, about the battles, about the mud. Home again, they can’t forget what’s gone before.

Moore brings up an indelible representation of the American flag as he recalls seeing it on one special occasion. It’s a lovely, potent high point in the program.

Other images, often unidentified, fly by. Irene Dunne gives a 194l train-station bye-bye to civilian Cary Grant in “Penny Serenade”; Jack Webb’s no-nonsense drill sergeant orients Marine recruits; soldier Robert Walker falls over dead on fellow soldier Robert Taylor at Bataan. Real-life housewife Isabel Kidder writes longingly, even disquietingly, to her overseas husband.

The production slickly juggles fictional film scenes with footage of true action. Memories of individuals who were part of the period and places — singer Kay Starr, conscientious objector John Griffith, writer-broadcaster Alvin Josephy, ex-zootsuiter Rudy Sala — share their memories.

Graphic newsreel clips of soldiers’ bodies and stories by several of the testifiers finally bring up how inglorious battle is. As Josephy cryptically notes, it was the last “patriotic war,” although black soldiers are simply ignored, as are the gallant Japanese-American unit that battled so fiercely in Italy.

Indeed, too much was left out of the selective docu, but writer Thomas, confronting a whale of a chore, and producers Tom Spain, Leslie Clark and Felice Firestone worked up a respectable number of souvenirs.

Despite emphasis in the spec on young peoples’ overly hyper dancing — teenagers are represented as jitterbugging, malt-gulping loonies — juves were also fox-trotting and waltzing, rhumbaing and tangoing in the ’40s.

And radio is all but dismissed, though it was the primary means of news and entertainment at home. It’s how most people heard about Pearl Harbor, about Roosevelt’s death (which isn’t mentioned) and about the end of the European war, which according to the spec, was won without much help from the Russians, British or French.

Southeast Germany’s Ohrdruf concentration camp, where thousands of Slav and other Eastern bloc workers’ corpses were bulldozed by German soldiers and captive workers into nightmarishly long trenches, is shown without explanation as to who the wretched victims were.

The homecomings in the third hour are often straight-out tearjerkers, and attention-getters. Soldiers, just out of the service, had a chance to go to college on the GI Bill, which isn’t trumpeted in the spec. Families were reunited, social levels were changing, U.S. geography was tilted westward toward California, where so many servicemen had been stationed.

As Durning, a veteran of World War II himself, wisely observes, “Memory is more like a duffel bag than a filing cabinet.”

America in the 40s

(Wed. (25), 8-11 p.m., PBS)

  • Production: Filmed by Tom Spain Inc. for Reader's Digest World. Executive producers, Mark Fichandler, Tom Simon; producers, Tom Spain, Leslie Clark, Felice Firestone; writer, Les Thomas.
  • Crew: Camera, Herbert Fosberg, Terry Hopkins, Spain, Alex Zakrzewski; editors, Andrew Fredericks, Peter Odabashian, Lawrence Silk; sound, Ken Hahn.
  • With: Host: Charles Durning.
  • Music By: