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Head and shoulders, black and white image of Gene Kelly in a Navy seaman's uniform.Combat Fatigue Irritability
1945 / 35:47
United States Navy, Bureau of Aeronautics
Directed by and starring Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly’s unknown wartime star turn

Michael Sappol, PhD

As America entered World War II, the prestige of science and technology was very high. From early on, the conflict was seen as a total war and a modern war, requiring modern methods in every respect. Thus “all hands on deck” included university-educated professionals and the application of professional expertise at every level in shaping policy and carrying it out.

In this way, psychiatry was recruited for war. Psychiatrists were consulted on civilian and troop morale, preparation of troops for combat, and the treatment of psychological wounds incurred in battle. Psychology was mobilized, the military ethos psychologized. In previous wars, fear was stigmatized as cowardice, an unforgivable moral failing. Troops who suffered from “shell shock” might be pitied and even receive palliative care, but treatment occurred within a moral framework, not within a psychological theory or system. World War II was different. Fear was reconceptualized as an adaptive response, “combat fatigue” as a psychological condition requiring psychotherapy administered by psychiatrists. Freudian psychoanalysis was the dominant paradigm: treatment had to take into account not only the triggering experience, but also the patient’s psychological history, from childhood on. Buried conflicts, repressed emotions, and traumatic episodes had to be brought to the surface, confronted, and in that way resolved.

Psychiatry, of course, wasn’t the only profession inducted into the war effort. Film was an emblematically modern technology, and thought to be almost magically effective in educating and motivating viewers. The U.S. military reached out to Hollywood to produce movies that entertained and distracted the troops, bolstered morale, promoted health, improved efficiency, and complemented classroom and field instruction.

Despite its unappealing name, Combat Fatigue Irritability is one of the best military productions of the war. It features a good script, score, editing, direction, and superb acting by an uncredited cast, including Gene Kelly, then an up-and-coming Hollywood star. Kelly directs and plays the lead role of Seaman Bob Lucas, a troubled and angry “fireman” whose ship was sunk in battle. Many sailors died at sea, and Lucas came close to death himself. But he came through it and suffers from what now might be termed “survivor’s guilt” or “post-traumatic stress disorder.” After repeatedly lashing out at everyone around him, Seaman Lucas comes to understand and control his emotions, and moves from illness to wellness, with the help of a wise (and, typical for the era, chain-smoking) psychiatrist officer.

To prepare for the role, Kelly had himself admitted to a naval hospital, posing as a sailor suffering from combat fatigue. According to biographer Alvin Yudkoff [Gene Kelly: A Life of Dance and Dreams (New York: Backstage Books, 1999)], during his hospital stay Kelly “absorbed the routine: the physical therapy, the drab meals, the bull sessions with the guys, the docs playing with his head . . . and mostly, the hours in bed, staring at the ceiling . . . .” Unsurprisingly, given Kelly’s celebrity, someone snapped a picture of him which found its way into the papers along with a story that mistakenly reported that Kelly had been in combat overseas and was now hospitalized for “battle fatigue”. (In fact Kelly spent his war years stateside, making movies for the Navy.) Kelly considered his performance in Combat Fatigue Irritability one of the best he’d ever given. But no filmography lists it or any other film Kelly made for the Navy. Apart from combat-fatigued sailors for whom the film was made, few people have ever seen it. With this release, it now becomes accessible to Kelly’s devoted fans and the wider public.

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