Tender Comrade film review

By Laura MacPhee

Tender Comrade, a 1943 film starring Ginger Rogers, is notable less for its cinematic merits than for the political controversy it provoked years later. The film’s director, Edward Dmytryk, was blacklisted, and imprisoned for several months during the Second Red Scare of the late 1940s. Senator Joseph McCarthy took advantage of the atmosphere of fear and suspicion by launching his infamous attacks on Communism.

Tender Comrade is one of a number of films which were called in evidence against Dmytryk when he was investigated by the House Committee on Un-American Activities. On watching the film it is obvious that the alleged links to communist ideology were extremely contrived, and this is hardly surprising. Even the use of the word “comrade” in the film’s title was said to be a communist reference. In the context of a war film this was hardly the most obvious conclusion.

The film concerns the American Home Front as experienced by four women whose husbands are fighting overseas. It opens with the familiar scene of a wife greeting her husband who has returned unannounced on leave. Having satisfactorily swept her off her feet and kicked the door closed (an impressive feat at a first attempt) the couple recline on the sofa. There follows a series of atmospheric close-ups as they settle back into each other’s company.

We see them enjoying the short time they have together before they have to say goodbye at the station the next day. Rogers epitomises the distraught wife sending her husband away to war. She weeps for him on the platform, dressed elegantly in black. This was a rare fashion moment in a film where she showcases a host of bizarre outfits.

She then returns to join her co-workers at Douglas Aircraft, a defence plant. Over lunch, they realise that it would make better economic sense for them to live together. So they gather their wages together and move in to a house which is much more comfortable than each could afford independently. The concept of living collectively as a community and splitting their money equally (according to their motto, “share and share alike”) is, admittedly, somewhat nuanced with communist ideals. But these are also features of a democratic living arrangement, and it is continuously framed as such. I didn’t count how many times the word “democracy” was expressly used in this way, but it did become something of a refrain. Perhaps this was indeed a case of Dmytryk protesting too much.

Behind these rather crudely presented political messages are the stories of the women’s personal lives. The film particularly focuses on the relationship between Jo (Rogers’ character) and her husband Chris, whose picture she keeps on her bedside table. Their story is told through a series of flashbacks signposted by a dreamlike motif where the couple are shown holding hands on a hillside. The technique is old fashioned, but it is rather sweetly done here. The image is always preceded by a line which is relevant to the flashback, which can come across as contrived.

The film portrays the daily lives of these women and the challenges they encounter. This is often rather clumsily done. They hire a housekeeper from Dresden, who decries the way that Germany “murdered” its democracy. She is the one who objects most vocally when the women are given an extra ration of bacon. She condemns such hoarding as unfair on other people, particularly those who were fighting in the war. This incident gives rise to a fairly overwrought Kantian discussion about what would happen if everyone behaved like that.

It is undeniable that large sections of the film’s dialogue do constitute propaganda, but the explicit message is overwhelmingly pro-American. In the closing scenes, Jo gives her baby son a speech about how his father had died fighting for a good and noble cause, and cautions that he should never forget that or be led to believe otherwise. She claims that the legacy his father left him was a better world to live in, and that the price he paid was his life. Yes, it is extremely clichéd, and this monologue did make for slightly painful viewing, but we must remember it was 1943. It was made as entertainment for an audience living through the very war it depicted. As a film it certainly has its faults, but it offers an intriguing depiction of the clash of ideologies which defined that era.

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