PTSD and Gene Kelly’s Lost Wartime Star Turn

by Michael Sappol

Gene Kelly, in a flotation divice stands in front of a bank of gauges looking up.Before there was PTSD there was shell shock and combat fatigue and Gene Kelly’s Combat Fatigue Irritability.

Combat Fatigue Irritability was made during World War II as a “naval training film” (although, unlike most military training films, there is very little training going on in this film). First screened in 1945, it was probably only shown to two select groups: men who were being treated in military facilities for what was then called “combat fatigue” (a category that eventually gave rise to our term, “post-traumatic stress disorder“); and to health professionals who treated such men. It was a “restricted” film, only for military viewing. After the war it was forgotten. It has never received any attention from film historians, and very little from fans (a few of whom did know of it but never got to see it). It is missing from the Gene Kelly filmographies in reference books and not listed on IMDB, Wikipedia and other websites.

Missing, but never really lost. For the last six decades or so, a copy has been filed away, along with thousands of other films, at the National Library of Medicine. The only people it has been lost to are the public and Gene Kelly’s devoted and still numerous fans.

But now the National Library of Medicine is featuring Combat Fatigue Irritability in Medical Movies on the Web, and the film will be given a well-deserved, though very belated, New York premiere, on October 5, 2013, at the New York Academy of Medicine. Well-deserved because Combat Fatigue Irritability is a richly interesting historical document, a fascinating artifact of its time. And well-deserved because it is a very good piece of filmmaking, very watchable, with a first-rate performance by Navy Lieutenant Gene Kelly, in a purely dramatic role. Gene Kelly was famously a joyful and athletic dancer, a romantic and sometimes comedic Hollywood star. But there was another Gene Kelly, a dark Gene Kelly, who, in a few films, was especially good at playing morally troubled, and even unbalanced, characters. Combat Fatigue Irritability did not mark the debut of that Gene Kelly—he had already starred in Robert Siodmak’s noirish and twisted Christmas Holiday (1944). But it does show off Kelly’s determination to take on difficult roles and his ability, even in a low-budget military production, to carry it off. (Contrast Dick York’s performance in the companion film Combat Fatigue Insomnia (1945, also in the collection of the National Library of Medicine), which utterly fails to convince.)

Readers here may want to know a bit of historical context: on the role of film, and particularly training films, in the American war effort; on medicalization and the role of psychiatry in the war effort; and also on the making of Combat Fatigue Irritability.

First the war: America entered World War II in December 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. 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 the deployment of university-educated professionals and the application of professional expertise and technology at every level in shaping policy and carrying it out.

A distinguished looking man sits smoking in conversation.In this way, psychiatry was recruited for war. Psychiatrists were given the status of officers and 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 typically stigmatized as cowardice, an unforgivable moral failing. Troops who suffered from “shell shock” might be pitied and even receive palliative care, but treatment occurred largely within a moral framework, not within a psychological theory or medical 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, relived, confronted, and in that way resolved. Sedatives, occupational therapy, and exercise played a supporting role.

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. The U.S. military also drafted Hollywood talent, directors, animators, technicians and actors, including up-and-coming stars like Gene Kelly.

Gene Kelly, as a troubled seaman, expressing anxiety.Despite its unappealing title, 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. Gene 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.) Yudkoff reports that Kelly considered his performance in Combat Fatigue Irritability one of the best he’d ever given.

Gene Kelly in a flotation vest and seaman's hat.

Combat Fatigue Irritability (1945; b&w; 35:07)
United States Navy, Bureau of Aeronautics
Directed by and Starring Gene Kelly

Combat Fatigue Irritability will be screened at the New York Academy of Medicine (1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St., New York, NY) on Saturday October 5, 2013, at 1:00 P.M. The screening is part of an all-day Festival of Medical History and the Arts and is free and open to the public. A second screening, also free and open to the public, will take place as part of the History of Medicine Lecture Series at the National Library of Medicine (Lister Hill Auditorium, Bldg. 38A, 8600 Rockville Pike, Bethesda, MD), on November 19, 2013, beginning at 2:00 P.M.

Medical Movies on the Web highlights selected films in the National Library of Medicine’s digital collections along with expert commentary and supplementary material that sets the films in historical context.

profile portrait of Michael Sappol in ChicagoMichael Sappol is a historian in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.