Today Mark Sandrich is best known for his film Holiday Inn (1942). However Sandrich produced and directed dozens of films from the mid-twenties through to the late forties, with musical comedies and melodramas as his specialty. One of those films is So Proudly We Hail! (1943); a wartime drama about nurses serving in the Eastern Theater of WWII.
In So Proudly We Hail! Sandrich balances his gifts as a dramatist with the task of creating a piece of propaganda for the war effort. The result leans surprisingly towards entertainment rather than the kind of preachy sentiment that marked so many similar films. This may be due to the absence of racial caricature afforded Chinese and Filipino characters, but it is more likely the result of Allan Scott’s original screenplay.
The script of So Proudly We Hail! benefits from focusing on action abroad rather than the home-front. The standard tropes of the Woman’s Picture is given more agency and higher stakes in this context. One can immediately recognize the influence of Wings (1927) on So Proudly We Hail! just as easily as one can see the legacy of the latter picture on John Ford’s They Were Expendable (1945). War films of the forties that focused on women and women’s issues negate the spectacle of combat as entertainment in favor of a more nuanced and emotionally driven kind of storytelling that is far more affecting to the audience. The strategies of So Proudly We Hail! and those of similar films also tend to have more to say about the cost of war, literally and in the abstract, than their more self-righteous, chest pumping counterparts.
Perhaps the most unique aspect of So Proudly We Hail! is that it focuses not just on a single woman’s experience as a combat nurse, but those of a whole squadron. Paulette Goddard and the inimitable Veronica Lake are both nurses under the command of a senior nurse (rank of lieutenant) played by Claudette Colbert. Each of these three actors is given the dramatic space to become a fully developed character with a clear arc. Their stories are as tragic as they are hopeful just like the war itself. The sincerity and craft of these three leads brings reality to the forefront of So Proudly We Hail!; cutting through the saccharine soliloquizing with more human motives.
The devout patriotism of So Proudly We Hail! feels pretty corny today but it doesn’t diminish the strengths of the film. Claudette Colbert gives one of her finest performances of that decade which alone makes So Proudly We Hail! worth seeing. This is a film that really should be more widely seen.