Soap Operas Go To War

As a fully-formulated radio genre with a certain precedent for involvement with topical matters, the soap opera played a significant role in the American war effort during the 1940s. By integrating into their plots war messages, themes, instructions, and propaganda, the soaps helped rally American women to understand and fulfill their critical role in the global struggle. It might have been a government announcement to save used cooking fats needed in the manufacturing of ammunition, or to turn in scrap cans and other used metals needed to build tanks. Sometimes, it was a soap heroine admonishing a friend to give blood for the war effort. Or it was a development within the plot such as the return of a wounded or amnesic soldier, or even the death in battle of a heroine's son. However it was done, the daytime serial was effective in conveying to millions of listeners political and personal messages necessary for survival.

Almost contemporaneous with the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in September 1939, the implications of the Second World War were made known to American housewives in Against the Storm. Written by Sandra Michael, this serial debuted six weeks after the war began and told the story of two young refugees from Central Europe trying to adjust to life in America. Set against the backdrop of the battle, the program probed issues such as democracy and its ideals, and the meaning of fascist brutality. By setting the series in a small college town, Michael was able to inject lengthy statements of principle—spoken as lectures by the professors—which otherwise might have sounded plodding and out of place in a soap opera. Further, using the guise of a lecture by a distinguished visiting professor, Michael arranged for famous personalities to appear on her program. On April 24, 1941, poet Edgar Lee Masters read selections from his Spoon River Anthology. On November 3, 1941, the poet laureate of Great Britain, John Maesfield, read from his work via shortwave from London. Twice in 1941 folk-singer John Jacob Niles lectured and sang on the program. Michael had even scheduled President Roosevelt to broadcast on her soap opera, but the entry of the United States into World War II in December 1941 compelled the Chief Executive to cancel his appearance.

Against the Storm was a powerful and acclaimed soap opera. Critics at the time praised its maturity, and in 1942 it was presented a Peabody Award as "a case of merit in a field of mediocrity." Though it left the air in December 1942, after Sandra Michael withdrew from writing it, the serial created a warm, poetic world in the midst of international turmoil. Even in its opening statement, the program appeared philosophical as the announcer softly asserted, “Against the storm keep thy head bowed, for the greatest storm the world has ever known came to an end one sunny morning.”

Against the Storm was undoubtedly one of the most pronounced propaganda programs on the air, capable of great idealism as well as powerful invective. At a time of world conflagration, this soap stressed the rational and humanistic values of democratic America. It spoke, too, of the simplicity and gentleness of an ideal life. This was the epitomized in the program of October 15, 1941, when a newspaper reporter related to a refugee the meaning of America as they sailed through the morning mist and into New York harbor. Reading a portion of the inscription on the Statue of Liberty, he softly spoke of the peace that America provided.

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free....
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

The peaceful life was also the theme of a conversation between a mother and her daughter on the broadcast of June 20, 1940. Here in pastoral terms a placid, American Eden was described.

Daughter: ... when I came in the gate here, I saw you bending over that flower-bed, the butterflies skimming around over your head. I thought, that's the way summer ought to be for everyone. It looked so good, mother. The house and the garden—and you, looking so pleased with your flowers. And I wondered if it makes any sense to believe in things like that anymore.
Mother: Do you know of anything that makes any better sense, Siri?
Daughter: No.
Mother: Well, then, I think we ought to believe in the good things—with all our might and with all our hearts.

Like all good propaganda, Against the Storm mixed its softness with polemic statements. This was aptly demonstrated when someone remarked to a refugee from the Nazis that "Hitler has done a lot for Germany." Her response represented one of the strongest political statements by any character in soap operas.

I can tell you what he did for the German people! He held them up at the point of a gun, took their children from them, poured poison into the minds of the new generation, harnessed them all, the young and the old, to his insane machine of war. He put Germany into slavery, and he sent the slaves out to enslave others, and to war against everything decent and free in the whole wide world. That's what he did for his people. And never, never let anyone tell you anything else! Is the persecution of one human being not sufficient to condemn a man as a criminal? His Nazis have persecuted and murdered thousands in cold blood. Suppose he had built the most wonderful national order ever conceived, would you say it was justified if the ground of his nation were soaked with the blood of innocent people? And that maniac did not try to build a great nation. He built a slave state, whose purpose is the destruction of all free states everywhere.

In its own way, The Light of the World was as much a wartime soap opera as Against the Storm. Debuting in March 1940, The Light of the World dramatized the Bible in contemporary language and sought to meet a spiritual need at a time of worldwide disillusion. The soap opera created a controversy when it first appeared on NBC. Radio and the other popular arts had evolved rigid rules concerning religious dramatizations. Although there had been several financially successful motion pictures—for example, King of Kings and The Ten Commandments—as well as theatrical productions in this vein, radio had failed to achieve an acceptable format in which to produce Biblical stories. In fact, the infamous "Adam and Eve" skit performed by Mae West and Don Ameche on the Edgar Bergen-Charlie McCarthy Show almost three years before had served only to make radio critics more skeptical.

In 1935, the Montgomery Ward department stores had sponsored a thirty-minute Biblical program, Immortal Dramas. But the company felt so uncertain about mixing its advertisements with the solemnity of the stories, the stores were mentioned briefly only at the beginning and the end of the broadcast. The program was cancelled after thirteen broadcasts.

The popularity of The Light of the World attested to the skill and foresight of Frank and Anne Hummert who produced it. Beginning with the story of Adam and Eve, the serial traced the Bible chapter by chapter until the program left the air in 1950. General Mills, the sponsor, cautiously worked in commercials for Cheerios, Bisquick, and other products at the beginning and end of each broadcast, but these announcements were not specially edited and were similar to advertisements on its other serials. The writers, however, were careful to assure listeners that the program was "presented as a living, human monument to man's faith in God," and that it was "reverently told." Furthermore, at the close of each show the announcer noted that all dramatic materials had been prepared with the assistance of "nationally-known Biblical authorities of various faiths."

More than a technical triumph, however, the success of this soap opera suggests the mood of American society in 1940. Diplomatically neutral, if not emotionally so, Americans viewed the German onslaught through Western Europe in the spring of 1940 from their posture of isolationism. Certainly Americans were pleased that such brutality was not happening in their country. But many must have felt betrayed by science, nationalism, and governmental leaders who had promised peace and prosperity in their time.

In somber, understandable terms, The Light of the World offered listeners reaffirmation of the religious source from which American civilization had emerged. Moreover, the serial projected itself beyond the listeners' world and declared for itself a universal orientation, as it was daily introduced as "the story of the Bible, an eternal beacon lighting man's way through the darkness of time." In an era of international crisis the program proffered reassurance to those who feared, and faith to those who doubted. In January 1941, it was rated fifteenth among the sixty serials broadcast daily. Although its popularity waned toward the end of the war, The Light of the World retained a respectable rating throughout its tenure and was a prestigious series for network, sponsor, and producer, as well as for radio.

With the exception of Against the Storm and a short-lived, insignificant Mutual soap, Helen Holden, Government Girl, daytime serial dramas were not quick to adapt their plots or formats following the entry of the United States into World War II. Radio scholar, George A. Willey, has suggested that a full commitment to the war effort did not enter daytime serials until the middle of 1942. Perhaps the time lag was the result of using scripts and stories that had been prepared months before the war began; perhaps, also, the advertising agencies and sponsors were ambivalent as to the advisability of blending war themes into the serials. Yet, once the decision to introduce war-related material was made, the soaps became a consistent medium through which the sacrifices and goals of wartime were communicated.

Early in the war several programs touched upon home-front realities by having younger males face the issue of enlistment or conscription into the armed services. As early as March 1942, this dilemma was confronted by characters on David Harum, Amanda of Honeymoon Hill, Jones and I, and Ma Perkins. In the first two serials, the young men were rejected for reasons of health. But in the latter two soaps—despite enlistment being complicated by having to decide whether or not to marry their respective girlfriends—the characters entered the Army.

The only popular serial to focus directly upon the war in the first months of hostilities was Against the Storm. It had had an anti-Nazi direction since its inception, and by early 1942 it was stressing Gestapo brutality and persecution in Germany. Nevertheless, by the fall of 1942, soap operas were strongly committed in plot and emphasis to the American military cause. A survey revealed that in August and September military-related deaths occurred in five CBS soap operas, while a non-service death happened only once. A fuller treatment of the war, however, was best realized in new soaps developed with the war in mind, in special broadcasts and obvious plots produced in cooperation with the United States government, and in strong depictions of familiar serial personalities having to cope with the realities of the home front.

New programs dealing specifically with the problems of wartime America were not usually successful. In May 1941, NBC had attempted to reflect pre-war conscription and military training in an ill-fated series, Buck Private and His Girl. During the war, new serials tried again to exploit domestic conditions. Lonely Women, which premiered in June 1942, focused on "the universal cry of womanhood—loneliness" as aggravated by the conditions of war. Written by Irna Phillips, the serial emphasized several characters who lived lonely existences at a hotel for women. It followed their efforts to find companionship in a society being depleted by war of its young men.

The theme of a group of differing personalities contending with the exigencies of war became a familiar format in other new series. The problems of women left at home was the subject of Brave Tomorrow beginning in October 1943, and This Changing World in July 1944. Lighted Windows dealt with the problems of an idealistic American family as it faced the social and physical demands of war. Sweet River in January 1944, was concerned with a small town and how it dealt with the war. And The Soldier Who Came Home (renamed Barry Cameron in 1945) premiered in 1942 and treated the readjustment of a wounded veteran and his family.

Two of the more noteworthy new serials avoided such limits of characterization and reflected the war in more imaginative ways. The Open Door, which was written by Sandra Michael, the erstwhile author of Against the Storm, debuted on NBC in June 1943, but lasted only a year. Much like her earlier program, this serial treated the war philosophically and intelligently. It focused on a college dean encountering various characters touched by the war. In unfolding the individual stories of these people, the program reiterated its anti-authoritarian convictions. In fact, the egalitarian political persuasion of the program was noticeable from the beginning, as each broadcast opened with the announcer proclaiming:

There is an open door to a good way of life—to all men, for all men.
This open door is called Brotherhood, and over its portals are these simple words:
"I am my brother's keeper."

Woman of America began on NBC in January 1943, and approached the demands of war in an allegorical manner. Set in the Old West following the Civil War, its story of the strength and determination of a pioneer woman, Prudence Dane, held obvious implications for wartime female listeners who, themselves, were being called upon to be courageous and persevering. Tracing the exploits of the heroine as she moved westward in a covered wagon, the serial stressed the equality of men and women fighting to establish and maintain civilization. It was a struggle which the narrator, the great-granddaughter of the fictional Prudence Dane, suggested was analogous to the world of 1943 where "the women of America are once again fighting side by side with their men in the factories, farms, and homes."

Throughout the war the sponsors, writers, and broadcasters of soap operas cooperated with the American government. The central characters in many series made supportive references to federal programs such as rent control, conservation programs, crusades against absenteeism, and the sale of war bonds. On occasion they mentioned recent important political developments, integrating into their stories references to speeches and trips by national leaders, discussions of recent military battles, and considerations of pressing social issues. To keep radio writers abreast of the latest policy decisions, the Office of War Information (OWI) three times each month provided pamphlets explaining governmental programs. While there was no compulsion to use these pamphlets, if a writer wished to introduce into his serial such matters as manpower shortages or economic fluctuations, he was equipped with the latest official information which would insure exactness and compatibility with the war effort.

As part of their commitment to the war, radio stations and networks in 1942 also carried special programs and series produced in association with federal agencies. For example, beginning in mid-October CBS and NBC and the producers and sponsors of the nation’s most popular soap operas cooperated with the OWI in week-long adaptations of their serials to edify American women regarding the war effort. Each of these serialized specials was broadcast in the quarter-hour before (CBS) and after (NBC) the regular bloc of soaps began at 10 AM (9 AM in the Central time zone). The CBS effort, called "Victory Front," and the NBC project, called "Victory Volunteers," lasted into early January, 1943.

This was heavy-handed propaganda, pure and simple. Still, by utilizing familiar characters of these soaps to dramatize stories treating wartime problems, the OWI spread governmental war information in an entertaining, persuasive manner. The partial list below enumerates the several of the participating programs and the themes each developed during its week in the service of the wartime government

Stella Dallas: the wartime Merchant Marine
Young Widder Brown: women in the work force

Our Gal Sunday: role of the Allies in prosecuting the war
Big Sister: wartime home economy
Life Can Be Beautiful: the nature of our Nazi enemy
Young Dr. Malone: home nursing
The Goldbergs: home front morale
We Love and Learn: price controls
The Romance of Helen Trent: rationing
Second Husband: rubber shortage

Most of the information disseminated in these projects was sober and directly applicable to everyday living. The most polemical presentation, however, occurred on the Life Can Be Beautiful adaptation. The fourth episode of its Victory Front week dealt with the imagined results of a Nazi occupation of New York City, and the brutal handling by the invaders of Chichi, Steven Hamilton, and Papa David Solomon. Hamilton, a lawyer and a paraplegic, was sent to a concentration camp because he would not practice law according to Mein Kampf. Chichi was sexually attacked by German soldiers, but managed to stab one of them to death in the struggle. And Papa David Solomon was savagely beaten because he would not renounce God and pledge allegiance to Hitler. Despite the violence, Papa David managed to utter a ringing statement of American idealism and hope.

We believe in God and humanity. Without either one men become beasts like you. With them, no matter what happens—whipping with the strap, torturing, killing, or even worse—even life can be beautiful, and someday it will be again.

Another way in which soaps joined the war effort was opening their stories to spokespersons for the national military effort. As special guests they were usually introduced at the beginning of the program and made their statements before the story actually commenced. In this manner, Eleanor Roosevelt appeared on The Story of Bess Johnson and spoke with the heroine about the role of women in the war. Susan B. Anthony II discussed women in wartime industry on a broadcast of Bright Horizons; and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Commander Mildred H. McAyer of the WAVES spoke on Aunt Jenny's True Life Stories.

Occasionally, speakers were integrated into the plot of the story. Thomas M. Reardon, the first Marine to land on Guadalcanal, appeared on Bright Horizons as part of a War Bond tour that was visiting the soap’s fictional hometown, Riverfield. Adet Ling, the daughter of Lin Yutang, the noted Chinese writer and scholar, spoke as a guest on Young Doctor Malone in 1943, appealing for blood plasma for Chinese Relief at precisely the time when the story was set in China and was strongly advocating postwar cooperation between China and the United States. The most frequently visited serial, however, was Woman of America, which on twenty-one occasions replaced the opening commercial for Procter and Gamble's Ivory Snow with a war message from a guest speaker. These authorities were usually war heroes or women involved with the national effort. They all underscored the responsibilities of women at home and on the job during the hostilities.

The federal government also worked directly with soap operas producers to propagate information in individual broadcasts. The Department of War cooperated with Frank and Anne Hummers in producing in 1942 their short-lived series, Chaplain Jim, U.S.A. This serial focused on an American clergyman serving on various battlefronts, and as such, was the only soap opera to deal specifically with military action overseas. Late in the war the OWI experimented with radio characters passing from one program to another. In May 1945, the agency assisted Irna Phillips in merging her two consecutive fifteen-minute serials, Today's Children and Woman in White, into a one-time half-hour broadcast. In this special the characters from both soaps visited one another and in the process discussed the problems of rehabilitating wounded veterans.

Despite the new pressures and demands of life on the home front, soaps remained the most popular programs in daytime broadcasting. Listeners stayed loyal to their "stories," and even newer, flashier types of programming—quiz shows, conversation programs, and musical variety shows—failed to break that allegiance. Government agencies were aware of this sustained popularity and, as a supplement to their cooperation with commercial serials, actually developed their own soap operas.

Sam at War was a government vehicle for spreading information about gasoline and meat rationing and similar home front deprivations caused by war. The Department of Agriculture produced a limited serial, Give Us This Day, which in five broadcasts treated issues involving food production and distribution. More elaborate, however, was Hasten the Day. A weekly broadcast of fifteen minutes, this OWI program related the story of the Tucker family which had moved from the country to the big city so that Mr. Tucker, the head of the household, could work in a war factory. The serial began in mid-1943 and lasted until the end of the war, and each program dramatized a different theme of home front life. The entire Tucker family was a testimonial to citizen cooperation with the government. Mother canned food, the children saved scrap metal and were hospitable to soldiers on leave, and when not laboring at the factory, father was looking for ways to stop waste and promote economy. Even the Tucker house, an abandoned gas station which the family had converted into a comfortable home, provided a model for listeners adversely affected by the national housing shortage. As if these characteristics were not enough, each broadcast of Hasten the Day explored pressing problems such as rent control, the nature of rationing, national patterns of food distribution, and the efforts of American farmers to produce crops for the war effort.

Despite the development of new programs or governmental intervention, daytime serials dealt with the war most frequently and most effectively by integrating relevant themes into their regular plots. In this way, the strongest patriotic messages were communicated and made a working part of the serial world. The most common device to lend relevance to such stories was to place soap opera figures in wartime surroundings. This allowed a soap to continue with familiar stories of accidents, tragic diseases, romances, jealousies, and childbirths, but it added the important dimensions of topicality and patriotism. The popularity of this pattern was such that by the fall of 1943, seventy-five percent of the twenty NBC soap operas with contemporary settings were involved with the war.

Much as they had done in the early months of the conflagration, conscriptions and enlistments occurred throughout the war. By finding an eligible male character 4-F, a soap opera could continue its normal story line and avoid charges of draft dodging. But, many serials patriotically surrendered characters to the cause. Husbands entered the military on The Right to Happiness, Helpmate, Backstage Wife, Rosemary, This Changing World, and The Story of Mary Marlin. Sweethearts were given up by heroines on serials such as Portia Faces Life, Young Widder Brown, and Pepper Young's Family. And a son went forth on The Goldbergs. These were noble sacrifices which only mirrored the actual experiences of millions in the audience. In the case of actor Alfred Ryder of The Goldbergs, his fictional induction occurred because in reality he did enter the military.

Just as millions of Americans were flooding into war-related employment, so too did the principals of many soaps. Factories producing war materials became soap opera locales. Pepper Young, who had been classified as Unfit by his draft board, did his part by working in a war plant. By the fall of 1942, Danny O'Neill of The O'Neills was the manager of a factory constructing secret weapons for the government. And the hero of David Harum was also a plant manager.

Several female characters entered war industries. Peggy Farrell of Front Page Farrell and the heroines of Stella Dallas and Kitty Foyle, all labored in factories to help win the war. Work related to the struggle was featured on Lora Lawton when the heroine, a young Midwestern woman, moved to Washington, D.C. to become the housekeeper, then sweetheart, then wife, of a shipyard owner. And the rewards of voluntary labor were featured on The Strange Romance of Evelyn Winters as Evelyn spent much of her time as a volunteer worker for the Red Cross Blood Bank.

Most dramatic were those soaps that developed elaborate stories involving the war and its consequences. Injuries and amnesia occurred to many characters who served overseas. For months Mary Marlin's husband was lost in the war zone, only to be discovered in a hospital in Tunisia with his eyes bandaged. Bill Roberts, the husband of the heroine of Rosemary, returned from the overseas with a severe case of amnesia. As he gradually regained his memory, he recalled having married another woman and fathering a child with her.

One of the more convoluted cases of war injury happened to Walter Manning, the fiancé of Portia Blake in Portia Faces Life. While in the Army he worked for Intelligence, but after being wrongly accused of spying for the Germans, he resigned his commission and became a foreign correspondent. The Nazis, however, captured and tortured him for his military secrets. Eventually rescued and exonerated, Manning faced an uncertain future for he now required intense psychiatric rehabilitation.

Throughout the hostilities, military and home front themes drifted in and out of the serials. By 1945 the storyline of Mary Noble, Backstage Wife jumped between the home front where “Mary Noble war wife” struggled to survive, and the Pacific Theater where her husband Lt. Larry Noble fought the Japanese. One of the characters of Lonely Women mixed romance and intrigue as she was secretly married to, and then made pregnant by, a man accused of being a Nazi spy. Portia Manning became involved with espionage in 1944, and when Portia Faces Life moved from NBC to CBS, she continued to pursue enemy agents, despite the rule at CBS forbidding spy stories in network broadcasts. Strained relations developed in several soaps when sweethearts and husbands went off to war, and lonely women were compromised when returning mates discovered their women had found new romantic interests during the separation.

Although almost 300,000 American men died in battle during World War II, only one important soap opera character died in action. In early 1944, Ma Perkins' son, John, was killed in Europe, and the report of his death caused a furor among listeners, program officials, and radio executives. Critics complained that in wartime the millions of listening wives and mothers should not be reminded of the grim potential of war. Yet, in answering such anger, Roy Windsor, supervisor of the program for the Dancer, Fitzgerald & Sample advertising agency, touched upon a significant aspect of the soaps. Windsor claimed that such events could not be avoided if radio were going to be honest and try to portray life as it really was. "If it can happen to Mrs. Slotnik and Mrs. Smith," he argued, "why can't it happen to Ma Perkins?" His final point suggested that this death was written into the story to make it relevant and, hopefully, instructive to all listeners.

We did not use the death of John, Ma Perkins' son, as a story device, and we do not intend to bring him back in later episodes. He's dead, and the point is that we gave Ma Perkins the same problem as other mothers face. We also believe that, in the face of the type of character Ma Perkins portrays, the episode will give strength to her listeners who have already faced the same kind of tragedy or may in the future. We are willing to face adverse criticism on the terms that we have done something honest in radio.

During the war years soap operas were under constant attack from reformers, educators, and network and advertising officials who felt they lacked taste and relevance in the 1940s. The Federation of Women's Clubs, championed by its organizations in New York City and in several cities upstate, assailed the serials as unfit for broadcasting. Their chief intellectual spokesman was Dr. Louis Berg who alleged that listening to soaps could cause serious medical repercussions, including tachycardia, arrhythmias, increased blood pressure, profuse perspiration, acute anxiety, tremors, vasomotor instability, nocturnal frights, vertigo, and gastro-intestinal disturbances. Such criticism, plus the search for new listeners and new revenue, led network arid advertising executives to seek alternatives to the daytime serials. Such experimentation was evident in 1943, for instance, as the weekly number of hours in which non-serial shows were broadcast jumped from six and one-half in January to more than eighteen by December.

Criticism and innovation, however, never broke the loyalty which many American women felt toward soap operas. These serials were aimed specifically at the typical housewife who maintained a home, raised children, and did her own shopping. Advertisements were meant to inform her of consumer products and why she should purchase them, and the stories were intended to attract her fantasies and sense of romance. Like much of popular culture in the United States, the esthetic quality of the soaps was incidental. They were primarily commercial entertainment forms. To sell the cereals, flours, floor waxes, detergents, and other sponsoring products, they sought to be important to their listeners. Only by such pertinence could they expect to attract and hold a large enough audience to remain on the air.

Like all forms of American popular art, too, they avoided philosophical universals and esthetic concerns and focused, instead, upon those themes that would appeal to a mass audience. If romance was a constant theme, and if wartime developments abounded in the first half of the 1940s, it was because these were pertinent to the interests and concerns of most listeners. And if wealthy clubwomen, intellectuals, and network leaders were critical of such programming, it was because they shared neither the tastes nor the attitudes of the millions of "average" housewives for whom soap operas were intended. The failure of the critics to understand mass society was only underscored by the fact that during World War II—a period when loyalty and industriousness were vigorously solicited through the soaps by the federal government—they chose to attack this popular type of entertainment.


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