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WWII in the Movies: The Homefront
Remind Me


Although Wallace Beery was one of MGM's top box-office stars, by the 1940s studio head Louis B. Mayer relegated him mostly to low-budget comedies like this 1944 film. The star's lovable rogue characters registered most strongly with rural audiences, and they would flock to his films no matter how much -- or little -- the studio spent on them. Mayer was none too fond of the uncouth actor but couldn't afford to fire such a solid earner. By consigning him to programmers, the mogul could make a profit while only putting up with his presence at the studio for about 12 weeks of each year. That didn't bother Beery. Whatever the film, he turned in a solid, professional performance. The joy of pictures like Rationing today is the simple, unpretentious way they revel in his star image as an overgrown bad boy, a persona that continues to resonate with fans.

For Rationing, MGM's writers assembled a series of jokes about one of the pressing issues of life on the home front during World War II. Rationing had started with the U.S.' entry into World War II in December 1941. First tires, then sugar, coffee, cigarettes, gasoline, meat, butter, cheese, oils, processed foods and shoes were only available in limited supplies back home in order to properly outfit the armed forces. People were issued ration stamps and tokens to present when buying those precious items, while government advertising campaigns advocated public transit and "meatless Tuesdays" as a means of coping with wartime shortages. At the same time, black markets sprung up around the country, offering limited goods at a premium, and some people took to hoarding ration stamps and precious supplies. The situation had already inspired other Hollywood films, turning up in the home front drama Tender Comrade, with Ginger Rogers, and the Popeye cartoon "Ration fer the Duration" (both 1943).

MGM cast Beery as a small-town butcher whose decades-long feud with postmistress Marjorie Main takes off when she's put in charge of rationing. It doesn't help matters that the two had once been engaged, with Beery dumping her for a Frenchwoman during World War I. And just to make matters worse, their children decide to get married, forcing the two grouches to find some common ground. While shepherding the children to the altar, Beery also takes on black market meat dealers and a sexy lady barber, all under Main's watchful and, as it turns out, jealous eye.

This was the fifth of seven films Main made with Wallace Beery. Since Marie Dressler's death in 1933, MGM had not had a strong character woman to pit against him on screen. At first, that wasn't an issue, as he continued to flourish in top studio product, often teamed with major stars like Clark Gable and Jean Harlow. By the 1940s, however, Berry's cantankerous nature had relegated him to mostly lower budget films, while aging made him a less likely on-screen match for younger, more glamorous leading ladies. The studio out Marjorie Rambeau as his sparring partner and love interest in 20 Mule Team (1940), but it was the film released after that, Wyoming (1940), that first paired him with his second great co-star after Dressler, Main.

With her unique voice and large frame, Main could more than hold her own opposite Beery. Her taciturn on-screen persona was matched by a strong, independent spirit off-screen, making it easier for her to deal with her temperamental co-star. The studio and Beery were so happy with her performance in Wyoming she was offered a seven-year contract, with a new one following in 1947. The studio also gave her supporting roles in glossier films like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and, on loan to Universal, The Egg and I (1947). The latter brought her an Oscar® nomination and a top box-office series built around her character, Ma Kettle. Over time, however, Beery tired of being paired so much with the homespun character actress. On the rare occasions he spoke to the press, he complained that "I always go out with pretty ladies -- in fact, beautiful girls. I can get inspired more if they'd give me a good pretty actress to work with."

Not speaking to the press was one of the perks of Beery's long-standing popularity at the box office. It also was a benefit of working on lower-budget films. In addition to ignoring the press, he also mandated a daily nap and a firm quitting time of 5:30 p.m. If they wanted to work more quickly, they could shoot the other actors' scenes while he was sleeping or on the way home. And as long as his films turned a profit, which they did for the rest of his career, nobody dared deny him his little pleasures.

Rationing did the usual solid business and proved particularly popular on Army camps, where the soldiers delighted in its comic vision of life back home. The wartime Office of Censorship was less pleased. They refused to approve the film for release overseas, feeling the emphasis on rationing made it seem as if U.S. citizens were suffering unduly under wartime restrictions. They also objected to the depiction of the black market, which suggested not all Americans were united in the war effort. It took MGM a year to make enough cuts to clear the film for export.

Producer: Orville O. Dull
Director: Willis Goldbeck
Screenplay: Grant Garrett, William R. Lipman, Harry Ruskin
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Score: David Snell
Cast: Wallace Beery (Ben Barton), Marjorie Main (Iris Tuttle), Donald Meek (Wilfred Ball), Dorothy Morris (Dorothy Tuttle), Howard Freeman (Cash Riddle), Connie Gilchrist (Mrs. Porter), Tommy Batten (Lance Barton), Gloria Dickson (Miss McCue), Henry O'Neill (Sen. Edward White), Morris Ankrum (Mr. Morgan), Douglas Fowley (Dixie Samson), Chill Wills (Bus Driver), Carol Ann Beery (Carol Ann), Kay Medford (Information Girl).

By Frank Miller



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