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"Boy, what a war!" exclaims Tyrone Power in A Yank in the R.A.F. (1941). It's a line that best sums up the picture, for it underscores the film's lightness, exuberance, and simple entertainment value. Power says it as his character, an American pilot, is flying a British warplane from Canada to England so it can be used in World War II. He's figuring that at a salary of $1000 per flight, he might be able to make $50,000 a year doing this. Little does Power know that once in London, he'll run into old flame Betty Grable, who is working there as a nightclub singer and volunteer in the British ambulance reserve. What a war, indeed.
Shot over four months in the spring and early summer of 1941 and released in late September -- about six weeks before Pearl Harbor brought the U.S. into World War II -- A Yank in the R.A.F. "was not a propaganda picture," according to the director Henry King. "It was a story worth telling, a story that was happening... right up to the minute."
Power's arrogant young pilot joins the R.A.F. for the thrill of flying into combat and as a way to win back his girl, but by the end he will, of course, gain an understanding of why this war is really worth fighting -- although even here, director King is right that his film does not hit the audience over the head with a patriotic message. Instead, A Yank in the R.A.F. becomes a genre hybrid that mixes musical, romance, comedy and combat, though it is not truly a "combat film," a genre that wouldn't fully develop for another year.
This was a major production for Twentieth Century Fox, so much so that studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck wrote the film's story (under the pseudonym Melville Crossman) and personally produced the picture. Originally, the script was entitled The Eagle Flies Again and had Power's character dying in a climactic air battle. But due in part to the urging of British Air Minister Lord Beaverbrook, this was changed and the story's lightness was emphasized even more, so as to distinguish the film from other, more propagandistic, war movies of the time. Zanuck had arranged for the full cooperation of the Royal Air Force and was open to Beaverbrook's suggestions. In exchange he got unprecedented support from the British, who set the facilities of the Air Ministry at Fox's disposal, arranged for aerial combat footage to be shot by British crews, and established a council to provide technical advice. (Zanuck also got the U.S. government's permission to use military planes and Canada's permission to shoot at a training field.)
But the aerial footage, which would be combined in the finished film with miniature work and studio shots, was the key item. The R.A.F. equipped some planes with cameras mounted on gun carriages, set to automatically roll when the cannon started firing, and under the direction of a British film crew, thousands of feet of footage were shot over six months showing actual dogfights above England and Germany. Two cameramen, Otto Kanturek and Jack Parry, were killed when their camera plane was shot down. Kanturek had over 100 cinematographer credits to his name, including Carol Reed's Night Train to Munich (1940).
The rest of A Yank in the R.A.F. was shot on Hollywood stages and California locations, including the Lockheed Air Terminal in Burbank, Calif., standing in for an R.A.F. base near London. Actual bombers were being finished on an assembly line during filming, and the air plant workers simply wore R.A.F. uniforms instead of their usual white jumpsuits. These scenes [cut from the finished film] required a retinue of FBI officers, army officials and various police department officers to be on hand to monitor the filming, which a press release claimed did not delay plane production by even one minute.
For the climactic sequence showing the battle and evacuation of Dunkirk, director King found suitable locations along the California coast, especially at Point Mugu near Oxnard, and also at an 18-acre lake dubbed "Lake Michigan" that had previously been built by Fox and used for In Old Chicago (1937). Zanuck spared no expense for the Dunkirk sequence; in fact, after seeing the first week's rushes, he increased the scene's budget from $150,000 to nearly $200,000, boosted its shooting schedule to 28 days, and lengthened the overall film's running time to accommodate the extra footage. Over 1000 extras were used, and the scene received much attention from the studio publicity department and the national press, who praised the scene's staggering realism. ("The most thrilling episode ever pictured," declared The Hollywood Reporter.) The only real problem in shooting the sequence was the day when director King suddenly had to do without hundreds of extras. It turned out they had been sent to the set of John Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) (another Zanuck production) to be Welsh coal miners for the day! Both pictures required extras who were experienced in marching in unison.
The battle and evacuation of Dunkirk has been portrayed on film many other times, including in Mrs. Miniver (1942), Dunkirk (1958), Weekend at Dunkirk (1964), Atonement (2007) and others, but some of the footage from A Yank in the R.A.F. was later used in documentaries about the battle, and that is why for some viewers certain shots here, impressive and dramatically composed, will look familiar.
The excitement of the combat scenes was only one element of the movie to exhilarate critics and audiences. Another was the pairing of Tyrone Power (replacing the originally intended Henry Fonda) and Betty Grable. "What a team!" Henry King later recalled. "Both are as good as they've ever been in this," gushed The New York Times. Power was a superstar after recently appearing in The Mark of Zorro (1940) and Blood and Sand (1941), and Grable was riding a wave following Down Argentine Way (1940) and Moon Over Miami (1941). Starting in 1942, Grable would enter the rankings of top 10 female box-office draws and stay there for a decade. She was also THE pinup girl for American soldiers around the world, and Zanuck knew that to pair her with a soldier character in a new movie was pretty much a box-office guarantee. (A studio press release from the time claimed "one out of every fifteen boys in uniform calls Grable his 'sweetheart.'") Our introduction to Grable in A Yank in the R.A.F. is a long panning shot of her legs as she steps out of an ambulance and runs across the street, and one can only imagine the delight that this must have created in audiences at the time. Grable's presence also allows the film's strange concoction of musical comedy romance and war movie to work; since she was associated with the former on screen and connected to the latter by virtue of her pinup girl status, audiences had no problem accepting her in the film, or accepting the film as a whole, and A Yank in the R.A.F. became an enormous hit.
Incidentally, the genre mix also allowed Grable to tackle a few serious acting scenes, one of which required her to cry and took six hours to film. According to a press release, Grable was so exhausted that King sent her home to rest for a couple of days. "I've danced for days on end and never been so tired," Grable said. "Hoofing is easy work compared to crying."
A Yank in the R.A.F. is one of several movies produced just before or around the time of America's entry into WWII in which Americans join Allied forces as volunteers, but there is one film that followed just a few months later that was truly a knock-off: International Squadron (1941), a Warner Brothers B film starring Ronald Reagan. (In that film, however, the Reagan character does die at the end.) Another one with a very similar story, Eagle Squadron, was released by Universal in June 1942 and starred Robert Stack in the Tyrone Power/Ronald Reagan role. And in October 1942 came Flying Tigers, in which John Wayne plays an American flyer who joins the Chinese Air Force to fight the Japanese before the U.S. enters the war. (The Pearl Harbor attack occurs during the story.) Clearly, this was a story template that resonated.
A Yank in the R.A.F. was Oscar®-nominated for Best Special Effects, but lost to I Wanted Wings (1941). According to an item in the film's production file at the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library, the studio eliminated the words, "Fire! Fire!" from the script "at the request of the Will Hays office, which has had complaints in the past because moviegoers sometimes think someone in the audience is shouting the words and they stampede for the nearest exit."
Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Darrell Ware, Karl Tunberg (screenplay); Melville Crossman (story)
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: James Basevi, Richard Day
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Cast: Tyrone Power (Tim Baker), Betty Grable (Carol Brown), John Sutton (Wing Commander Morley), Reginald Gardiner (Roger Pillby), Donald Stuart (Corporal Harry Baker), Ralph Byrd (Al), Richard Fraser (Thorndyke), Denis Green (Flight Lieutenant Redmond), Bruce Lester (Flight Lieutenant Richardson), Gilchrist Stuart (Wales).
by Jeremy Arnold
Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre
Fox publicity notices on file at the AMPAS Margaret Herrick Library
Fred Lawrence Guiles, Tyrone Power: The Last Idol
Life Magazine, Sept. 22, 1941
Frank Thompson, editor, Henry King, Director: From Silents to Scope