Commandos Strike at Dawn – 1942 (Affron/ Oderman)
Once Lillian was free of her commitment to Serlin, Lester Cowan offered her a role in Commandos Strike at Dawn. After the close of Life with Father, Lillian’s work for the AFC intensified. She stayed with Mary Pickford and her husband, Buddy Rogers, at Pickfair while making the rounds of the studios, returned to New York in September, saw all the new plays and the old friends, took a New England vacation, and was back in Los Angeles on December 4. Like millions of Americans, she heard about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7. She wrote the word “War” three times on the page in her date book. In preparation for Commandos Strike at Dawn, a movie about the Norwegian resistance, she was at the Columbia studio the morning of December 8 for makeup tests, and the day after for her screen test. The picture was not scheduled to begin production until the following summer. In the meantime Lillian read scripts for plays and substituted briefly for the ailing Dorothy on the Life with Father tour. “Bertram” (Colonel McCormick) appears frequently in her date book.
On July 27, 1942, Lillian noted, “Work for first time in 10 years before camera.” The work was excessively easy, both in the studio and on location in British Columbia. When she saw Commandos Strike at Dawn, she remarked, “It means nothing for me but gave me a nice vacation.” Lillian was correct in this assessment. Although billed just below the star, Paul Muni, her role was less important than that of two other women in the cast, Anna Lee and Rosemary DeCamp. She plays the wife of Bergeson (Ray Collins), a man arrested by the Germans after the Nazi invasion of Norway. For all that she contributed to the plot, Bergeson might just as well have been unmarried. Her brief interventions practically cease one-third of the way into the movie; we glimpse her for a second at the conclusion. None of this points to a noteworthy return to the screen. Her only gain from the venture was her $8,000 salary.
Kurt Frings, who was married to the author of Mr. Sycamore, tried to woo her away from the George Volck Agency. Frings was critical of the way Volck had handled her, particularly in allowing her to return to the screen in a role as weak as that of the wife in Commandos Strike at Dawn. Volck, who was serving in the armed forces, released Lillian in February 1943. Her letter of thanks reflects the warmth of their relationship and, as late as 1943, is categorical in her feelings about the war. “I will feel lost without you both [George and his wife, Helen], as I have felt now for well over a year, as I think George left the office in November 1941 Just another and a great big reason for me to hate everything about this war, and to pray fervently for an early end to it.” Kurt Frings needed a few months to find what he considered the right opportunity for Lillian. It turned out to be even less beneficial to her career than Commandos Strike at Dawn, which was, after all, a serious, well-made movie. (Charles Affron)
COMMANDOS STRIKE AT DAWN – 1942: Lester Cowan Productions/ Columbia Pictures; d. John Farrow; p. Lester Cowan; s. Irwin Shaw, based on story by C. S. Forester; Paul Muni, Anna Lee, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Ray Collins, Robert Coote, Rosemary DeCamp, Alexander Knox, Elisabeth Fraser, Richard Derr, Erville Alderson, Barbara Everest, Rod Cameron, Louis Jean Heydt, George Macready, Arthur Margetson, Ann Carter, Elsa Janssen, Ferdinand Munier, John Arthur Stockton
Lillian went back to New York. There was no work for her in Hollywood. In July, director John Farrow offered Lillian a small part in Commandos Strike at Dawn, an anti-Nazi film being shot on the coastline of Victoria, British Columbia, although the scene of the action was a Norwegian village. Eager to be seen in anything anti-Nazi, no matter how small the part, Lillian agreed, not knowing anything about the plot, or even the name of her leading man. When she learned her leading man was Paul Muni, she was thrilled.
Mr. Muni, as he was called by his fellow professionals, was a perfectionist who stayed by himself between takes and didn’t socialize with anyone while he was on the set. Muni preferred to remain in character as much as possible. He would be playing a Norwegian patriot whose village was suffering under the invading Nazis. During the filming, Canadian troops would be utilized, as they always had to be on hand should there be any attacks from the real Germans! Commandos marked a return to the screen after a considerable absence for both Lillian Gish and Paul Muni. Happily, Lillian told The New York Times, her spoken dialogue was minimal. Working under tight wartime security during the summer of 1942 must have reminded Lillian of the risks she and Dorothy and their mother must have taken when they crossed the Atlantic on a ship fitted with black sails in 1917 to film Hearts of the World for D. W. Griffith. Lillian explained: Both Hearts of the World and Commandos Strike at Dawn were made during two different World Wars in countries open to air attacks. We never had a work schedule we could depend upon when we were shooting in Vancouver, as the Canadian troops were always on call to practice drills and maneuvers. Canada was open to the threat of constant attacks, which I am glad to say never occurred. We learned never to ask questions regarding their availability. Matters regarding wartime security were serious business. We knew why scenes we had rehearsed were suddenly dropped in favor of other scenes. Prior to the film’s January 14, 1943, New York opening, screenwriter Irwin Shaw announced that he “would not assume full responsibility for the film, as it had been tampered with by persons unknown.”
Lillian, responding in the late 50s to Shaw’s remark, had no comment, except to state that Commandos had not been a critical success, but was one of many war films made quickly for audiences who wanted to see them. Film critic Bosley Crowther, covering the picture for The New York Times, noted that Lillian had a “few fleeting moments in which to look like a Norse housewife.” While not pleased with the critical reactions to her film, Lillian felt being in any anti-Nazi film had vindicated her honor and erased her former association with the misguided America First Committee. In November 1942, both she and Dorothy were back on the boards, opening in different plays within days of each other.
Had Commandos Strike at Dawn been a success, perhaps Lillian might have been cast in 20th Century-Fox’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, which utilized the talents of Commandos player Sir Cedric Hardwicke in another film about invading Nazis and Norwegian villages. Even Warner Bros. had their version of a Norwegian village under Nazi occupation in Edge of Darkness. In all of the aforementioned films, the Nazi and Norway theme didn’t totally succeed. Production offices at the three studios who made these films (Columbia, 20th Century-Fox, and Warner Bros.), believed audiences were becoming tired of pictures about war,31 particularly war films involving only the Norwegian aspect. Seeing the slightly declining grosses, musical films might be the solution to boost the morale of the military and promote patriotism. (Stuart Oderman)