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Ginger Rogers is Jo Jones, the alpha female in a group of war brides waiting patiently -- and not so patiently -- for their husbands to return in Tender Comrade (1943), whose title was inspired by a Robert Louis Stevenson poem.
It is Jo who broaches the idea to her friends (all of whom work as Rosie the Riveters at a home front defense plant) that instead of squandering their money on separate rents, they should pool their money and rent an enormous communal house. That message of solidarity and frugality applies to every aspect of Tender Comrade which combines wartime propaganda of wives staying vigilant on the home front, with a moving melodrama about this varied group of women pining for their husbands to return.
In numerous flashbacks, director Edward Dmytryk establishes how Jo's husband Chris (Robert Ryan) helped inspire Jo's can-do attitude and prepared his wife for his inevitable departure for the war. But Jo is the heart and soul of the drama, toeing the line alone, and later caring for their newborn child while her husband is away fighting.
Jo's roommates, intended to show various aspects of the WWII home front experience, are a truly diverse group. There is the glamorous, flinty Barbara Thomas (Ruth Hussey) who openly cheats on her husband while he serves in the war, the innocent newlywed Doris Dumbrowski (Kim Hunter), matron Helen Stacey (Patricia Collinge) who has both a husband and a son serving in the war, and the housekeeper Manya Lodge (Mady Christians) whose husband is also stationed overseas.
Like several other more famous members of the Tender Comrade cast (including Kim Hunter who was later blacklisted), Christians would go on to be accused of Communist sympathies during the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) trials. After being blacklisted, Christians was unable to find film work and later died of a cerebral hemorrhage.
Ironically, despite the intensely patriotic message of Tender Comrade, both screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and director Dmytryk were also singled out as alleged communists during Senator Joseph McCarthy's infamous HUAC witch hunt. Both were among the original blacklisted group of writers, directors and producers branded the Hollywood Ten for refusing to testify to Congress about alleged Communist involvement.
After serving 11 months in prison for contempt of Congress, Trumbo made his way back to Hollywood, writing 30 scripts under a pseudonym before officially returning to above ground screenwriting in 1960 with Exodus and Spartacus.
The communal living situation of the women in Tender Comrade was later pointed to as an expression of the screenwriter's and director's ideology. In her autobiography, Ginger: My Story, the actress wrote, "Some of Dalton Trumbo's dialogue had a Communistic turn, which upset me deeply. I complained to the front office and sent notices to those in authority, including director Edward Dmytryk, that they would have to make a finer sifting of this script if they wanted me to continue with the film. In order to satisfy me, David Hempstead, the producer, gave the other actors the dialogue, 'Share and share alike! ' that I was unhappy about. I still hold strong feelings against communism because it is atheistic and anti-God."
Dmytryk was left embittered by the HUAC experience, writing in his autobiography of Tender Comrade, "Their motto is 'share and share alike,' which sounded quite innocently democratic when we made the film, but which turned up to haunt me a few years later when I was instructed that the real motto of a democracy is 'Get what you can while you can and the devil take the hindmost.'"
Tender Comrade was a hit upon its release with Photoplay offering a fair appraisal of its combination of genuine emotion and schmaltz: "a poignant, merry, and sometimes heartbreaking story...There are spots that climb the heights of emotional appeal but there are many flat surfaces in between."
RKO producer David Hempstead suggested Robert Ryan as the male lead for the film after seeing favorable preview cards for Ryan's roles in Bombardier (1943), The Sky's the Limit (1943) and Edward Dmytryk's Behind the Rising Sun (1943). Rogers was initially unimpressed with the actor after screening bits of his films and said he looked mean and was too big (he was 6 foot 3 inches). After a brief face to face meeting between Ryan and Rogers surreptitiously arranged by Hempstead, the actress passed Hempstead a piece of paper that said "I think this is the guy." Tender Comrade turned out to be Ryan's big film break.
Ryan was an intercollegiate boxing champ while at Dartmouth (his father pushed him into the ring to toughen him up after his son took a precocious interest in Shakespeare) and ironically enough, played a boxer in his screen debut, the B-picture Golden Gloves (1940).
Rogers got her start in show business at age 14 when she won the Texas State Charleston contest and later became a regular performer on the vaudeville stage. Rogers became best known to movie audiences for the 10 song and dance musicals she made with Fred Astaire, though she proved her talents in comedy and drama as well. Rogers received her first Oscar® in another Dalton Trumbo-scripted drama, Kitty Foyle (1940) based on a Christopher Morley novel about a poor girl in love with a rich socialite. By 1945 Rogers had clearly established her value in Hollywood no matter what film genre she performed in, as the highest paid actress in movies.
Director: Edward Dmytryk
Producer: David Hempstead and Sherman Todd
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo
Cinematography: Russell Metty
Production Design: Carroll Clark and Albert S. D'Agostino
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Ginger Rogers (Jo Jones), Robert Ryan (Chris Jones), Ruth Hussey (Barbara Thomas), Patricia Collinge (Helen Stacey), Mady Christians (Manya Lodge), Kim Hunter (Doris Dumbrowski).
BW-102m. Closed captioning.
by Felicia Feaster