September 18, 2014
Air Raid Wardens – US, 1943
Laurel and Hardy’s 1943 film Air Raid Wardens, directed by Edward Sedgwick, has the look and feel of one of those educational videos that the War Department pumped out to keep morale up during the Second World War. At the time of the film’s release, the United States was in its second year of the war. Walt Disney studios had been commissioned to produce cartoons related to the war, and other studios were producing patriotic films that presented men and women in uniform as being honorable and valiant. 1942, for example, saw the release of John Huston’s spy drama Across the Pacific, Albert Herman’s The Dawn Express, about a Nazi spy ring looking for a chemical formula that will improve the energy output of oil, David Miller’s Flying Tigers, starring John Wayne, and Saboteur, directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Many of these films told about plots on American soil, and there was a palpable fear that the war would inevitably reach the American continent. At home, people were portrayed as needing to remain vigilant, for one never knew where the enemy might be lurking.
It is in this context that Air Raid Wardens must be viewed, for judged on its merits alone, the film is only marginally interesting. In the beginning of the film, a narrator introduces us to a small town called Huxton. It could easily be any small town in the United States at that time. The narrator then introduces viewers to the town’s residents – its mayor, its business leaders, its prim and proper ladies. The narrator even interacts with them, greeting them cheerfully as if the man behind the camera is a member of their community and a trusted confidant. I can recall many elementary and middle school school videos beginning this same way.
Viewers are eventually introduced to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, owners of businesses that don’t seem to stay open for very long. When we finally see the pair, they are locking up the store and heading to the local military recruitment office to enlist. They want to do their part in the war. At the time the film was released, Stan Laurel was 52 and looked it; Oliver Hardy was 50. It is therefore not a surprise when they are turned down by every branch of the American military. However, the two of them are still determined to do their part, and they are eventually given the opportunity to become air raid wardens, complete with a helmet, a whistle, and a gas mask. They could be more grateful for the opportunity.
Like other instructional movies at this time, Air Raid Wardens devotes half of its running time to demonstrating the ins and outs of being an air raid warden. Laurel and Hardy attend meetings during which earnest, patriotic community organizers explain what they are to do and just why it is so important that they do it well. Most of these scenes revolve around Dan Madison, played by Stephen McNally. Madison is the kind of community leader we are used to seeing in films such as this one – he’s inspiring, down-to-earth, and focused. In fact, I can’t recall him letting his guard down and smiling at any point in the film. Madison arranging training sessions and assigns night patrols to ensure that everyone has their lights off, and it is during these scenes that viewers get to see Laurel and Hardy at work. In one scene, the two of them try to convince one of the town’s inhabitants (Edgar Kennedy) to turn off his lights. Their efforts lead to a confrontation that is one of the highlights of the film. In the scene, a series of flickering lights is interpreted as a signal to the Japanese, as if their planes were always in the vicinity and could use such rudimentary signals to conduct bombing strikes at a moment’s notice. These were real fears at the time.
In a real instructional video, scenes such as the ones described above would be taken extremely seriously. Here, they are played for laughs, as Laurel and Hardy make a series of errors that eventually cause them to lose their treasured positions. Many of the gags in the film have been used in other Laurel and Hardy films, yet no moment in anything they’d done previously quite matches the gravity and patriotic sensibilities that Stan Laurel expresses in a short speech about their wanting to do their part for Uncle Sam. It’s quite touching, and one can clearly see how emotional the moment was for him.
The film includes language true to the time in which it was made, but that is today considered politically incorrect. It is interesting to note however that when the enemy does indeed show his face, it is not the enemy that was referred to in earlier scenes. In fact, Hollywood appears to have viewed German infiltration as a much bigger threat to Americans at home. Of war films made during 1942, only five of them involved Japan, and none of these films featured an attack on American soil.
Air Raid Wardens is not likely to be remembered as one of Laurel and Hardy’s better efforts. It is far too preachy and serious in tone, and in key moments, characters talk to each other as if they had to remind audiences what they are doing and who they are. However, the film has some genuine Laurel and Hardy moments. My favorites involved their efforts to get their nemesis to turn off the lights in his house, their method of getting into the enemy’s hideout, and their misguided attempt to send out a carrier pigeon. Observant viewers will also pick up on a rather curious reference to William Tell. Viewers in 1943 likely saw Air Raid Wardens as both informative and fun. I’m not sure modern-day viewers will find it as informative, yet there is enough that is amusing and fun in the film to make it worth discovering. (on DVD)