It was a time of transitions at MGM. A year earlier, the studio’s reigning queen Norma Shearer had made her last film. In 1943, she was now unofficially retired. Her occasional rival at the studio, Joan Crawford was on her way out the door, too. Interestingly, back in 1925, Crawford (going by her given name Lucille La Sueur) started as Shearer’s double in the silent film LADY OF THE NIGHT. But after 18 years and countless image make-overs, Crawford completed her last film under contract at Metro, ABOVE SUSPICION.
The wartime espionage thriller costarred Fred MacMurray, and in what would have been a clichéd role for any other actress, Crawford managed to infuse it with considerable personality. It was a hit, and while Crawford would return in 1953 for the musical melodrama TORCH SONG, greener pastures were ahead at Warner Brothers where she had just inked a new deal. At Warners she would take on haughty socialite roles, no longer playing the man-eater character she had started out doing at MGM.
Meanwhile, an eccentric producer named Val Lewton was making a name for himself at RKO. His specialty was the horror-fantasy film, but he had previously worked on action films, such as MGM’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES, as an assistant to mentor David Selznick. It was because of Selznick’s recommendation that he wound up at RKO, supervising his own film unit. He soon produced a series of economically budgeted but successful pictures, mostly directed by Jacques Tourneur and Robert Wise.
One of the biggest hits had been CAT PEOPLE a year earlier. And now, in 1943, he had another strange masterpiece on his hands, THE SEVENTH VICTIM, a story about a young woman trying to rescue her sister from a satanic cult. Kim Hunter, in her motion picture debut, starred as the young woman. Lewton, who much earlier in his career had written pornographic novels, avoided airy romantic sentiment in these films. Instead, his main characters were often trapped in a world of perversion and violence.
While fictional films like ABOVE SUSPICION and THE SEVENTH VICTIM played to audiences, Hollywood also made nonfiction films that detailed various aspects of the war effort. One of these pictures was William Wyler’s independent propaganda piece about bombing raids over Europe called MEMPHIS BELLE. The documentary did not really examine human suffering or the toll that war took on the American people. Instead, it played up the bravery and courage of patriotic flyers.
At the same time other directors back in Hollywood continued to craft fiction films they felt could influence people about what the war meant on a personal level. Pacifist or anti-war ideology seeped into some of these films. One example being RKO’s TENDER COMRADE, directed by Edward Dmytryk, that looked at how women on the homefront were coping. Of course, the content of this film would be used against Dmytryk after the war, when he was called to testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.