On Combat Fatigue Irritability: Kerry Kelly Novick

Last fall, Circulating Now featured a unique film in the NLM’s vast historical audiovisual collection, the World War II U.S. Navy training film Combat Fatigue Irritability (1945), directed by and starring Gene Kelly, who was then a rising Hollywood star. Today, we share Part I of a three-part interview with Kerry Kelly Novick, a practicing psychoanalyst and the daughter of Gene Kelly and actress Betsy Blair. This series is an edited transcript of our longer conversation with Mrs. Novick, in which she discusses Combat Fatigue Irritability, Gene Kelly, and her own life and career as a psychoanalyst specializing in the treatment of children.

A formal portrait of Kerry Kelly Novick.

Kerry Kelly Novick
Courtesy Kerry Kelly Novick

Circulating Now: When you were growing up, what was it like for you to have Gene Kelly as a father? Is there something that connects Gene Kelly as a husband and father to the Gene Kelly as an actor and star?

Kerry Kelly Novick: Well, I was born in Los Angeles at the time my father was making his first film in Hollywood. He had been in Pal Joey on Broadway in 1941 and was signed to a contract at MGM and went to California to be in For Me and My Gal with Judy Garland, and that’s when I was born. When I was growing up in California I was one of the few people I knew who had been born in Los Angeles. That’s what a small town it was then.… We were in the east, living at my grandmother’s house in New Jersey, during World War II, when my father was stationed in Maryland, where he was posted after boot camp in San Diego. And then we went back to California after the war. And my parents bought their house on Rodeo Drive, which became a kind of center for a whole group of transplanted New York intellectual creative folks who were part of…what became the Arthur Freed unit, making all the famous musicals through the next 10 years. And we lived in California on and off from then on. I grew up as an only child, in a house full of very active lively grownups…. There were always lots of other grownups living in our house, either transiently or permanently: other artists, dancers, musicians, writers. I was around a lot, listening to the grownups, being part of what was going on. And one of the interesting features of that time in the United States was that most intellectuals and most creative people were in psychoanalysis. So the only person I knew growing up who was not in psychoanalysis was my father, but everyone else was. And, of course, they talked about their therapy, their analysis, their analyst. So I can’t remember not knowing about psychoanalysis.

CN: Was your father opposed to psychoanalysis? Why was he the exception?

KKN: I think for several reasons. He was certainly not opposed, but he was a very self-sufficient, active person. And he was a little bit older than a lot of the other people in his circle. And so I think he felt like he had it together and I think that he was busy with his creative work and his various hobbies of sports and reading and history. So, he basically had no need or no time.

CN: What about your mother, the actress Betsy Blair? How did your parents meet? What was your family life like?

KKN: It’s a charming story. When my mother was 15 she graduated from high school and Sarah Lawrence [college] would not accept her until she was 16. And she was a dancer and decided that she should get a job while she waited to go off to college at 16. So she answered a casting call at Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe in New York for a chorus call. My father was the choreographer and the rest is history. She never went to college because they got married when she was 17. And then she was in The Beautiful People on Broadway, was kind of discovered by William Saroyan. And then this darling, beautiful, young, talented couple went off to Hollywood in a blaze of glory in the fan magazines.

CN: So you lived in a sort of charmed circle around this charismatic mother and father, with these interesting intellectuals, dancers, actors and writers coming over and often staying with you. And then the war happens. How did your father come to join the Navy?

KKN: I’m not sure I knew a lot of detail about it because, of course, I was a baby at the time. But the way it was always described in the family was that he had wanted to enlist early on. He lost his very best life-long friend quite early in the war, a man called Dick Dwenger, and it had a big impact on him. It was a real blow, and there were other friends and relations in the services, but I think when Dick Dwenger died, my father wanted to go to war right then. But he was under contract to the studio and he was doing a great deal of USO and war bond tour work and also a lot of entertaining in hospitals. He was doing a lot of hospital visiting and basically I think they held him back from joining up for close to two and a half years. So, finally at some point, when he had finished making Christmas Holiday, I believe, he said okay, I’m going now and enlisted in the Navy and went to boot camp in San Diego. And I don’t know that people know this about him. He was an extraordinary all-around athlete and very strong and vigorous,… pretty much a guy’s guy. And so one of the things he did at boot camp was he boxed. And, of course, the studio was horrified that he was boxing. And I’m not sure the Navy loved it, because they quite liked having publicity photographs of movie people in the services. But evidently he comported himself quite respectably in the ring at boot camp. I believe he was a welterweight and so then after boot camp,…it was a big discussion about where he was going to be posted. And they decided to put him in the Navy photographic unit to make training films. And he, …I think, had mixed feelings about that. On the one hand it was a proper use of his talents and capacities and he wasn’t that young at that point. He was 32, so he wasn’t at the age of most young soldiers. So he was Lieutenant JG and put in that photographic unit. But evidently, after VE [Victory in Europe] day, he was being sent to a combat unit and then the bombs were dropped in Japan and so he didn’t go. But he was going to ship out sometime between VE day and VJ [Victory in Japan] day. So, in a sense he was going to get into combat eventually.

CN: That’s interesting because there’s a passage in Combat Fatigue Irritability, where Gene Kelly, playing the character Seaman Bob Lucas, talks about his anger at not being able to shoot at the enemy and fight the enemy, the frustration that he feels because he’s below deck and can’t see the enemy. Gene Kelly plays this very effectively. Was he channeling a bit of his own frustration at not being able to contribute more actively, not being able to get to the frontlines of the war effort?

KKN: Well, I think that actors draw upon their own feelings and their own experience. So, I don’t know that I would say channeling his frustration. But certainly knowing what it feels like to not be sure that you’re completely pulling your weight or doing what is expected. So, I’m sure that that informed that aspect of the performance.

CN: Let’s get into the film a bit. As you know, Combat Fatigue Irritability is one of the 17,000 historical audiovisuals in the collection of the National Library of Medicine. It’s been sort of a lost film, missing from the Gene Kelly filmographies, which understandably focus on his Hollywood work as an actor, dancer and director. IMDB, which is probably the most accessible filmography in the world, an internet filmography database, now does list the film, probably in response to the National Library of Medicine’s posting of the film online. And so, apart from a few comments in Alvin Yudkoff’s biography of Gene Kelly and a fan website, not very many people knew about the Combat Fatigue Irritability and Gene Kelly’s role in military films during the war. When did you first see it? Were you aware of it when you were a child? Was it discussed around the dinner table?

KKN: I did not see it until you all posted it online. I had heard of it and it was the sort of thing that was just sort of known in the family. There wasn’t discussion about it. I don’t recall first hearing about it. It was just that’s what he did during the war, …he made training films. And he used to talk about the research that he had done for the film. He talked more about the experience of going to hospitals and psychiatric wards in military hospitals then he did about actually making the film or the film itself. So I think the context and content of the film was what was significant to him, more than the making of the film. Although I find it intriguing that this was his first directorial effort and he certainly did a lot of later directing, both films that he was in and films that he just directed. But I think he really enjoyed the experience of directing the film. He was a very take-charge sort of person. So, being in that role would have been a pleasure to him.

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CN: He had already played an intense, psychologically troubled character in a film called Christmas Holiday. Have you seen that?

KKN: Years and years ago; I barely remember it. But, in fact, For Me and My Gal, which was a musical he also plays a rather bad character. And, of course, he had made his big name as Pal Joey, who was not a nice fellow at all. So, in fact, his first few important roles were all guys with at the very least a chip on their shoulder or a nasty side or a shady side. So, it’s an interesting aspect to that sunny character who everyone thinks of, from the later musicals.

CN: Yeah, everyone thinks of Gene Kelly as a romantic lead, a joyful dancer, a sunny optimist. But he was already playing complex characters….

KKN: Yes and there’s a thread through his whole career of those. I mean the various straight movies of varying quality, of course. There’s The Black Hand. There’s Cross of Lorraine, which is an absolutely dreadful military sort of war potboiler. There was an awful thriller called The Devil Makes Three, which is a straight movie. There may have been others and then there was Inherit the Wind, which is I think a brilliant performance, but not the nicest character either. So most of the straight roles were either crooks or nasty guys.

CN: In Combat Fatigue Irritability he plays a character named Seaman Bob Lucas, who’s not really a nasty person, but often nasty to the people around him, because he’s so troubled, psychologically tormented due to his experience in war. What did your father bring to the role?

KKN: Well one of the things that really impresses me about the movie is how economically it conveys a lot of information. In a sense we could write Seaman Bob Lucas’ life story from the very small bits that were given in the film that were extremely evocative. So we get a character who was…a beloved sunny small-town big man on campus, …going with the cutest girl in town, part of a popular group of people in high school, going on weenie roasts, going out to the old swimming hole, hay rides, the whole bit. And then they all go off to war and have terrible experiences. And we see one of the old gang back, having lost an arm, others of the old gang… There’s one scene where the guys are getting together and we see their camaraderie, but we also see them all as emblematic of guys who have been scarred by their experiences in combat. So there’s a whole biography very economically conveyed in this very short film. And then we get to how this nice guy has been troubled and transformed by his experiences in combat. And the bulk of the explicit performance is him struggling with those symptoms and the feelings involved and the anguish that he’s going through, trying to process what happened to him and the guys around him.

Stay tuned for part two of our interview with Mrs. Novick, covering the complex gender issues at play in Combat Fatigue Irritability and how the film reflects the contemporary influence of Freudian psychoanalysis.

Watch the complete interview now.

Preceding Mrs. Novick’s interview in the NLM’s History of Medicine Division, she offered a presentation to the NLM’s Board of Regents and Friends of the NLM, entitled Unique Perspectives on Gene Kelly’s 1945 Film Combat Fatigue Irritability.