Friday, February 20, 2015

Hollywood's Forgotten Hero

Lt Wayne Morris in the cockpit of his F6F Hellcat during World War II.  The Hollywood actor served as a Navy fighter pilot in the Pacific, shooting down seven Japanese planes (U.S. Navy photo) 

On the weekend when Hollywood celebrates itself--and its "values--it is worth remembering that the film community was once populated with patriots, men and women who actually believed in America and what it stands for.

Such traits were on full display in World War II, when scores of actors--and literally thousands of production staffers--gave up lucrative careers in the entertainment industry and volunteered for military service.  Some became heroes while in uniform; Jimmy Stewart actually joined the Army Air Corps before Pearl Harbor, quickly earned his wings and later served as commander of a B-24 bomber squadron and group, flying more than 20 combat missions over Nazi-occupied Europe.  He earned both the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

Eddie Albert, best known for the 60s sitcom Green Acres, commanded a section of landing craft during the invasion of Tarawa in 1943.  His boat rescued at least 40 Marines who were wounded while trying to cross 500 yards of open water and reach the shore.  Military planners had failed to account for a neap tide that left the waters too shallow for landing craft to cross, and put the Marines on the beach.  Mr. Albert, a two-time Academy Award nominee, received the Bronze Star for his actions.

And the list goes on.  Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., developed tactical deception techniques as a Naval Reserve officer, used to great effect in the Mediterranean and Pacific theaters; Sterling Hayden actually completed British commando training but was medically discharged after injuring his leg in a parachute jump.  Undeterred, he returned to the U.S., enlisted in the Marine Corps, earned an officer's commission and went on to fight with the OSS behind the lines in Yugoslavia.  Character actor John Howard--best known as Katherine Hepburn's fiance in The Philadelphia Story--served as executive officer on a Navy minesweeper.  Howard was credited with saving the vessel and its crew after it struck a mine off the southern coast of France, killing the Captain.  for his heroism, Howard was awarded the Navy Cross.

Yet, among all from Hollywood who served, only one became a fighter ace.  That distinction belonged to actor Wayne Morris, who seemed headed for stardom in the late 1930s, after his performance in Kid Galahad, alongside Edward G. Robinson, Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis.  At 6'2" with an athlete's physique, Morris looked the part of a heavyweight boxer.  Critics praised his "natural, realistic performance."

Three years later, Morris decided to learn to fly in preparation for "Flight Angels," a "B" feature from Warner Brothers, where he was under contract.  While the film was largely forgettable, Morris discovered an affinity for aviation.  He earned his private pilot's license and with America's entry into World War II, he joined the Naval Reserve.  Morris completed military flight training in 1942 and (like Jimmy Stewart) was initially assigned as a flight instructor.

Determine to fly fighters--and serve in combat--Morris contacted Commander David McCampbell, a relative through marriage who was Commander of Air Group 15, and would become the Navy's leading ace of all time.  "Give me a letter," McCampbell told Morris and few months later, the actor found himself flying F6F Hellcats off the USS Essex.  During his tours in VF-15, Morris flew 57 combat missions, shot down seven enemy aircraft and helped sink five enemy ships.  For his actions, Morris earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal.

When he returned to Hollywood in 1946, Morris found his acting career had stalled.  Making matters worse, Warner's didn't put him back on the screen until a year later, and for most of the following decade Wayne Morris found himself relegated to low-budget westerns.  He maintained his military connections, remaining in the Naval Reserve (where he rose to the rank of Lieutenant Commander) and performing drill tours between acting roles.

Almost a decade later, Morris mounted a career comeback, receiving good notices for playing a washed-up boxer on Broadway in William Saroyan's The Cave Dwellers.  That same year (1957), Stanley Kubrick cast Morris in Paths of Glory, as a drunken, cowardly French infantry officer in World War I.  Movie-goers who knew of Morris's record as a brave, tenacious fighter pilot appreciated the irony of Kubrick's decision, and the actor delivered: his performance as Lt Roget is remembered as one of his finest.

Sadly, Paths would mark one of final screen appearances.  During a reserve tour on the carrier Bon Homme Richard in 1959, Morris suffered a massive heart attack and died a short time later at a navy hospital in Oakland, CA.  He was 45 years old.

Fifty-five years after Wayne Morris's passing, Hollywood is speculating about this year's competition for Best Picture, which includes American Sniper.  There is general consensus that Clint Eastwood's film about Chris Kyle will lose to one of the other entries, since many academy voters are squeamish about his depiction of the Navy SEAL sniper, who killed 160 enemy combatants with a dedication and determination that some (falsely) depict as racism.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.  Chris Kyle understood the savagery of war, as did Wayne Morris.  It's one more reminder of how much Hollywood has changed over the past 70 years, and not for the better.                                        

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