Reviewed by Yulian Wrobel
With a script written by Dalton Trumbo and the film’s director being none other than Edward Dmytryk—both dedicated communists and members of the Communist Party USA in its heyday—Tender Comrade (1943), starring Ginger Rogers and Robert Ryan, created a wave of controversy almost immediately upon its release during the intensely political time of US involvement in the war against fascism (World War II), as the film was later used as evidence during the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings as a means to blacklist both Trumbo (and later on Dmytryk) for embedding communist sentiments within the film. Trumbo and Dmytryk, would consequently be included amongst the “Hollywood Ten,” whom the HUAC convicted of contempt for refusing to cooperate and inform the committee about the apparent communist infiltration within the Hollywood film industry. From a contemporary materialist perspective, though, is this film in fact the communist “propaganda” that it has been so firmly touted as? We shall see.
Taking place in exactly the same time in which it was produced, the film centers around the life of Jo (Ginger Rogers), the wife of a soldier (Robert Ryan) who has been selected to be shipped overseas to help wage the war on behalf of the anti-fascist resistance against the Nazi-fascist aggressors. As a result of her husband’s deeply saddening departure, Jo takes on his job at an aircraft factory in order to further contribute to the war effort—a phenomenon that was fairly common at the time, more importantly encouraged by various means such as the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” image, in order to mobilize the greatest number of people in the international struggle against fascism.
In any case, we soon find Jo sitting at a table, eating lunch with her fellow co-workers, whose husbands/future husbands are likewise overseas, engaged in combat. As they converse, the women begin to realize that they’re all stuck with lousy apartments, paying more rent than would merit such drab living spaces. Such a predicament inspires an idea: Jo suggests that if the ladies pooled all their money together, the ladies could afford a sizable house, in which they could all live together and, even better, “we could run the joint like a democracy!” Jo adds that this would enable the women to use things such as cars on a “share and share alike” basis. This dialogue was the first instance in which one might be able to distinguish communist sentiments, as what Jo subtly describes is essentially proletarian democracy; the workers unite in favor of the betterment of their whole, each one gets an equal say in the decisions at stake, and the interests of the collective are prioritized before those of the individual.
As the film progresses, the viewer becomes more aware of the rather old-fashioned nature of the film, as evidenced primarily by the numerous sentimental, nostalgia-induced flashbacks Jo has of her past relationship with her husband and their lengthy dialogues, provoked by now archaic conceptions of traditional gender roles and marital relations. Such roles are rendered even more so archaic when one takes into account the fact that at this point in time, the Soviet Union was light years ahead of the U.S. in the realm of women’s liberation, as in order to industrialize, collectivize agriculture, and prepare for the antifascist struggle all within essentially the same decade, any able person was encouraged to participate in the collective achievement of these goals, resulting in women being widely accepted into the labor force and even being elected to various legislative positions. As a whole, though, the film manages to have some profoundly important and relevant moments relating most notably to collective solidarity and antifascism.
For instance, the women end up realizing their attempts to evenly parcel out the housework in order to keep up their rather large home prove futile, as not one of them ends up being very good at performing housework—perhaps due to the hyper-individualistic nature of capitalist society which discourages being able to rely on others in order to accomplish things, even when necessary. This predicament results in the women hiring a dedicated housekeeper, Manya, to perform such duties. What we find out, though, is that Manya is a refugee from Germany. At one point, after being deeply humbled by the efforts of the women to run the house like a democracy, Manya develops a sorrowful look on her face and explains: “When I was in Germany, we had a democracy … we let it be murdered … like a little child.” Such an account can be understood in the context of the failure to build sufficient support and momentum for a united front against fascism in Germany, ultimately resulting in the triumph of fascism in the mid-1930s as embodied by the Nazi Party.
It should be noted that directly before this scene, the way in which the women handle the economic situation of the house very strongly resembles how wages in a socialist society might be allocated. Faced with the predicament of having to pay Manya, the women propose that they pool all their wages together from work at the factory, and after deducting rent/utilities from that pool of money, the resulting money would be allocated evenly amongst the women, Manya included. Evidently it’s not a perfect representation of Marxian economics due to the film taking place within an obviously capitalist society, but nonetheless this noble effort to live collectively despite differences in personality and divide wages totally equally amongst the inhabitants of the house embodies a very inspiring sense of collective unity and trust amongst these women, perhaps even playing a role in the Popular Front against fascism as they mention time and time again how the sacrifices being made on their part are done with total dedication to the antifascist front being fought overseas.
Perhaps the final, most significant instance in which the above themes manifest in the film, though, is when an altercation arises between Jo and one of the more skeptical inhabitants of the house, Barbara. After speaking about the importance of rationing in favor of the war effort, Barbara scoffs and exclaims that “this joint is getting too moral,” adding that there’s no way that an excess in consumption on the part of a single person would have any material significance on the status at the front, and that she has a hard time making individual sacrifices for an initiative taking place thousands of miles away overseas. In turn, one of the women denounces Barbara as “starting to sound like a fifth-columnist,” and Jo adds on by reprimanding Barbara for this degeneration into hyper-individualism. She importantly notes that if everyone engaged in these kinds of careless behaviors that at first glance seem like harmless excesses in consumption, the impact on the front would indeed be very noticeable and could very probably mean defeat, in this case meaning the deeply troubling victory of fascism over antifascism.
To answer the initial question, though, the communist sentiments, although at times subtle, remain fairly pervasive throughout the course of the film. For instance, the underlying themes of antifascism and putting aside individual differences/desires in favor of those of the collective, while they have a common thread with but are not technically exclusive to communist ideals, remain quite relevant to this day. If anything the greatest takeaway that we as communists can take away from this film is that a Popular Front, while by no means permanent, is quite literally one of the only and most effective methods by which rising tides of fascism can be legitimately eradicated in times of great desperation and struggle; we cannot let sectarianism weaken our movement because that’s exactly what the ruling class wants to happen. Not only this, but Comrade Trumbo makes a very compelling case in this film for the importance of “fellow travelers,” that is, those groups of the population who aren’t necessarily directly involved with our political struggles, but at the end of the day when given the choice to side with the interests of the workers versus those of finance capital and the ruling class, they will at least lend their support to our side in times of great strife and desperation.