It’s a truism that art from the past can shed light on the present. While Once Upon a Time (1944), stands as a record of America and Hollywood during World War II, it may also give us some insight into America and Hollywood, circa 2003.
Once Upon a Time, on its surface a classic fairytale, can also be read as commentary on Hollywood’s role in wartime America. It follows the learning curve of Jerry Flynn (Cary Grant), a slick showman who has made his name with spectacular stage musicals. During wartime, his shows are no longer raking in the dough. The theater owner threatens to sell it unless he comes up with the improbable sum of $100,000 dollars by the end of the week. Flynn determines to outdo himself: his new show will conjure up Ancient Egypt — the pyramids, music, fireworks, dancing, and thrilling special effects. Expensive it may be, but, Flynn rationalizes, the audience wants to forget reality, to “escape through beauty.”
Following this declaration, Flynn steps outside, right into two street urchins. For a nickel, they say, he can see their dancing caterpillar. Intrigued, Flynn pays up and, by holding up a cardboard box with a hole punched through it, is treated to the amusing sight of a caterpillar named Curly, that appears to dance when one of the boys plays “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” on the harmonica.
With dollar signs in his eye, Flynn offers to become partners with the owner of the caterpillar, a chubby Little Rascals sort named Pinky Thompson (Ted Donaldson). At first, Pinky’s older sister, Jeannie (Janet Blair), refuses to let them work together. But Pinky is determined to make his pet a star, with only one condition: that Flynn promise never to sell it.
In this set up, Hollywood’s basic structure is revealed. Flynn is the consummate greedy showman, constantly on the hunt for the next “big thing,” the greatest illusion that will draw the greatest crowd. Flynn’s speech at the beginning is, of course, another kind of illusion, or deceit. His proclamation that the audience wants to “escape through beauty” is plainly manipulative and insincere.
Within this simple framework, Pinky and his caterpillar represent artistic integrity, as Pinky generously wants to regale people with the caterpillar’s “natural” talent. And, of course, Flynn embodies Hollywood’s cynical exploitation of the creative endeavor. Flynn’s promise quickly becomes threatened, however, when the press seizes upon the story as a suitable distraction from the war, and Curly becomes a big hit. To Flynn’s secret delight, Disney — of all companies — offers to buy the rights to Curly, based on the increasing media frenzy. Flynn demands (you guessed it) $100,000, while hiding his deal-making from Pinky.
This mawkish and obvious plot is hindered further by the film’s clumsy pacing. With its conflict established in a quick 10 minutes, the remaining 70 minutes serve only to reiterate that everyone loves Curly, and that Flynn shouldn’t sell him to Disney. Consequently, both characters and story fall flat. Even viewed as a fairytale, Once Upon a Time lacks the magic that makes more moving fantasies come alive. The dancing caterpillar, sentimental boy, and saccharin finale may be difficult for viewers today to bear (and perhaps many viewers in 1944.)
Still, Once Upon a Time‘s dissection of Hollywood cynicism has a function for wartime America, then and now. In 1944, movie attendance soared, as viewers sought the very “escape” Flynn named. At one point, we see the soldiers excitedly reading about Curly. Their distraction is underlined when a pilot finishes painting a picture of Curly on the side of his plane, laughing as he heads off to war. Curly is thus transformed from a freak of nature to a symbol of hope and liberation.
As we poise on the brink of another war, we see that Hollywood again provides crucial diversion. Now, movies cater more overtly to our ironic sensibilities as well as to sentiment. The goofy romantic comedy, the patriotic action flick, and the horror film: all offer inspiration or relief. Whether or not they serve as “escape through beauty” is another question.