Still from an interview with Kerry Kelly Novick.

On Combat Fatigue Irritability: Kerry Kelly Novick Part II

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 II 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: The NLM collection has other films made during World War II, besides Combat Fatigue Irritability, films about various aspects of the emotional difficulties and traumas of men going to war: problems dealing with military discipline, or the experience of the terrible things that occur in battle. We also have films that deal with physical trauma, men who have lost limbs and have to adapt to life wearing prosthetic devices, and who have to undergo various kinds of therapy to prepare them for reentry into civilian life and the very changed post-war world. The themes that we are discussing here are dealt with in all of these films. But none of them is as good as Combat Fatigue Irritability. It seems like Gene Kelly really drew on his own inner experiences, and what he saw going on around him. Since Combat Fatigue Irritability is also so much about the challenge of being a man—How can you be a man if you’re afraid, if you’re suffering torment, if you have to submit to military discipline?—How did Gene Kelly connect to those issues? He was such a manly figure in all of his films.

Kerry Kelly Novick: I think you’re making a really interesting connection when you put together the…impact of combat on people’s functioning and the debilitating and humiliating nature of some of the symptoms that are described in the film,…whether we call it shellshock or combat fatigue or combat exhaustion or whatever. With the notion of how do you be a proper man. And that that also has a sociocultural [dimension], what was contemporary then to the question of what made somebody manly. And the convergence of those sociocultural issues with the historical situation of the war and my father’s own artistic identity is quite an interesting notion in terms of why this film comes across in such a vivid way. And let’s go back then to the old comparison between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Because Fred Astaire was one kind of man and Gene Kelly was another kind of man. And people are constantly comparing them and both guys were constantly asked about the comparison. And we should establish that they were dear friends, adored each other, completely respected each other, learned from each other, enjoyed each other’s different styles, but they had vastly different styles; both on the athleticism front and on what we might call the class front. And so my father in numerous instances of interviews or conversations used to talk about how Fred represented the classy guy, the upper-class guy, the white tie and tails and that Fred’s dancing was deft and dapper and very complex, lighter touched. Whereas my father was the workingman’s dancer. My father was a working-class guy. My father danced in jeans and t-shirts and loafers; totally different wardrobe, totally different bodies. So, my father’s dancing was visceral, athletic. His center of gravity was different from Fred Astaire’s, the kinds of leaps or jumps were different. The repertoire of steps and combinations was completely differently put together. So, all of those contrasts I think in a funny way come into Combat Fatigue Irritability, because the challenge to all the soldiers in the scenes of the Gene Kelly as Seaman Bob Lucas expresses distress.group meetings with the psychiatrist really have to do with these guys trying to establish some sort of…revived dignity. And a lot of the time they’re doing it by comparing themselves with others, comparing themselves with goldbricking guys sitting behind the desks or comparing themselves with the civilians who don’t get it, or comparing themselves with the other guys on the ship or in the unit. There’s a lot of comparison which we all know is stereotypically one of the ways men strut their stuff,…being better than the other guy, bigger than the other guy, stronger than the other guy, faster than the other guy….. So, I think of…the way Seaman Lucas’ character is written and acted, where we see him angry, we see him blustering, we see him being snide to other people, putting other people down a lot. Then we see him break down and cry. And that, I think, was part of the message of the movie, which is that everybody feels a whole range of feelings and if Gene Kelly can do it, anybody can; it’s okay. So there was a huge emotional normalizing message in the film….

CN: Some historians have said that these films are responding to a crisis of masculinity that was occurring in American culture during this time (although there’s probably never a time where there isn’t some kind of crisis of masculinity). But, there’s another masculine figure in Combat Fatigue Irritability, the military psychiatrist. And he’s someone who never breaks down and never loses composure, is always in command. And there’s tension between the psychiatrist and Seaman Bob Lucas, who is constantly challenging everyone around him, saying they’re not real men. They’re goldbrickers, flunkies, they don’t understand.

KKN: Well, I find the military psychiatrist to be a very interesting figure, because he comes across as much more of a stereotype or a cardboard figure, a mouthpiece for the official line. Maybe both the official medical and military line. And there is a real tension within the film embodied in Seaman Lucas and Dr. Bush, the psychiatrist. But I think that also reflects a tension that has been going on since World War I, if not before, maybe even from the Civil War, around how do we deal with whatever we want to call this phenomenon that has to do with the impact of combat service on a group, a percentage, a proportion of soldiers or sailors or Marines or airmen. So, the figure of that psychiatrist, it’s a thankless role I would imagine for poor Lauren Gilbert, playing it. Because there’s not much to get his teeth into. He’s got to be a sort of patrician patronizing authority figure. He’s got to have all the answers. So he’s not allowed to evince any conflict or any complexity whereas everybody else in the movie gets to be like a real person who has conflict and complexity. So, I think it’s a slightly unequal battle, if it’s a battle, and poor Dr. Bush doesn’t come off all that well. Although he tries really hard to be sincere, especially at the end of the movie when there’s a very nice, full-face close up of him earnestly conveying the message of the movie, which is a good message. Which is about when you face your feelings and come to grips with them, everything will get better.

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CN: In some ways, though, the psychiatrist is the hero of the film. There are these two strong men, but the psychiatrist has the last word. He’s the one who says not only do you have to face your fears, but you also should go to someone who’s a trained professional psychiatrist who has command of all this and can orchestrate the process, can save the day. And World War II, of course, is a period when the U.S. military more than any war before starts recruiting psychiatrists into the officer corps and starts getting reports of how we can do kind of emotional psychological management of men at war and to some degree women at war as well.

KKN: Well, they weren’t doing any management of the women at war in World War II. Even after Vietnam, women in the services, and in the ancillary services like nurses, were completely underserved in terms of their emotional needs. And it really is only in the last 15 years or so that the needs of women in the services have been considered psychologically at all. So let’s, let’s put that on the record.

CN: There are no female patients in this film, which focuses almost entirely on men’s trauma. The NLM’s collection does include wartime training films for women that do attempt some kind of psychological counseling through the medium of film. But they don’t address the problem of trauma, which women may have experienced by being close to the front-lines as nurses or by nursing and caring for traumatized men. Or may have experienced because of rape and sexual harassment. Instead the wartime training films for women concentrate on the issue of how a woman who’s doing military service can maintain her femininity.

KKN: We could consider it a more superficial level of concern, although the issue of identity in the military gets us back to how do you be a man and have X, Y, and Z happen to you. So, that’s maybe a tangential direction, but if we go back to the character of the psychiatrist, maybe I’m biased, but I see Bob Lucas as the hero of the movie, since it’s my father playing the part. But I don’t see the psychiatrist as the other hero or the only other hero. I think actually the psychiatrist and the corpsman orderly guy represent a persisting tension in the psychiatric treatment of everybody, not just military personnel and I find that really quite interesting that that duality shows up even in this movie. If we go back a little bit to what you were saying about the recruitment of trained psychiatrists, people who understood mental troubles into care of military personnel, yeah, it was certainly vastly increased. I think it started with the British army and then the Americans began adopting it seeing that it made sense to the Brits. But around World War I, specialists were also called in, usually in the aftermath of the war so people like Freud and his circle, the neurologists and psychiatrists of Gene Kelly as Seaman Bob Lucas woodworking as occupational therapy.that day, were very much involved in the treatment of soldiers after World War I. But in the film we see the psychiatrist talking about facing your feelings, uncovering, discovering, abreacting if you will, and we see the orderly with a much more pragmatic realistically-based approach about engaging, doing, being active. And then the psychiatrist does prescribe the occupational therapy, the woodshop, the basketweaving and the swimming and all of that. But I think there’s a very interesting thread to discuss of the tension between the uncovering of the less conscious and the pragmatic more cognitive active response to troubles. Which in a sense, because this film was made in ‘44-’45, we’re looking at where army or military psychiatry had arrived toward the end of the war. But if we look back at where it was at the beginning of the war they didn’t know what they were doing. They had no idea how to deal with the psychological casualties. There’s a manual that I haven’t actually seen, but I’ve seen excerpts from, that was an… internal manual for psychiatrists, I think in the North Africa theater, and maybe people at the Veteran’s Administration actually have access to this. Maybe you guys have it here at the National Library of Medicine. And from what I’ve read in excerpts from that manual, the doctors were bemoaning how they felt like they didn’t have a clue. They didn’t know what to do and they were rushing around trying to figure out how can we treat these guys who are in dire need of treatment. And they went back then to old materials from the First World War seeking methodology, seeking treatment methods and they came up with the medication aspect. The sort of opioid medication and sedation medication that we see in Combat Fatigue Irritability and they came up with the cathartic abreactive uncovering the unconscious feelings methodology. But both those strands were from World War I and that’s what they were doing throughout the war. So when we get to toward the end of the war where that had become standard practice, best practice, by the end of the war as we see in this film, because I think this film depicts what was considered state of the art, because it’s an official…statement of it. By that time, it began to sound more psychoanalytic. But, in fact, it wouldn’t have been considered psychoanalytic by the practitioners. It was only after the war when all those army psychiatrists went back into civilian hospitals and university departments. They then sought psychoanalytic training, university academic medical school departments, which became very psychoanalytic. That was post war.

CN: This is a subject that certainly deserves further and very close detailed historical research. But doesn’t the film in some way show the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis, the importance of unconscious conflict, and the need to resolve contradictions, which lead to acting out of various things, things that you have to bring to the surface and then resolve through some kind of cathartic breakthrough? Combat Fatigue Irritability was, of course, made in a period when Freudian psychoanalysis was growing in cultural prestige and affecting works on stage, in film and in literature…

KKN: It was and it’s one of the interesting things about what is still relevant from the film and what is sort of dated because at that point both in Freudian psychoanalysis, but also in popular culture the notion of catharsis, the get it out, the ah-hah moment and what nowadays I would call movie psychiatry. You know, suddenly there’s a shattering insight and everything is now fine. That was the prevailing wisdom at that point, but psychoanalysis and psychology and psychiatry have come a great distance from that idea now, because even Freud before the Second World War was writing, for instance, in his piece called “Remembering, Repeating and Working Through” about the fact that first you have to remember. First you have to uncover or let whatever it is surface. But then you have do something with it. Then you have to work it through. And this is where I find it so intriguing that in Combat Fatigue Irritability again very economically, very sparsely we get both those ideas. We get the psychiatrist talking about the uncovering and the cathartic experience which then produces an insight into the meaning. But then we get the corpsmen saying yeah, and you also have to do something about it. Which funnily for me relates very much to my father’s psychology as a person. And part of what has been interesting for me about the process of actually seeing this movie, and rediscovering this whole thing, is thinking about, as we all do, about the influences on our own personalities and functioning and our own vocational choices of our parents. And I am more and more aware that my father’s pragmatic bent, my father’s active stance in the world, has been very influential for me not only as a person of some energy and activity in my life, but also in terms of my ideas as a professional… my brand of psychoanalysis, because in fact every psychoanalyst has their own brand. We draw from a lot of ideas, but since we are the instrument of the work, we end up creating our own brand. My own brand is like a combination of the psychiatrist in the movie and the corpsman in the movie. Because the work that I do with people of all ages really has to do with, let’s understand it, but once we’ve understood it, what are we going to use that insight for? How are we going to put that insight into action so that you can change your life?

CN: You mentioned Lauren Gilbert, who plays the military psychiatrist. Jocelyn Brando plays Seaman Bob Lucas’ romantic partner, his small town girlfriend and fiancée. Are those familiar people to you? Were they family friends?

Gene Kelly as Seaman Bob Lucas in uniform smiling at Jocelyn Brando who plays his fiancee Sue.KKN: No. No, I never heard of Lauren Gilbert until I saw the listing from your posting online. Jocelyn Brando [Marlon Brando’s sister] I don’t recall being around when I was a child. Marlon was a family friend and was around a lot throughout, you know, our whole lives. But I don’t recall our knowing Jocelyn in California at all. Perhaps my parents did, but it was clear to me from looking at the surround of it and thinking of when she was in New York and when my parents were in New York at the beginning of the war, before they went to California. They must have been New York friends. They were theater friends because Jocelyn Brando was in theater productions in New York at the same time as both my parents… in the early ‘40s.

Stay Tuned for the third and final part of our interview with Mrs. Novick, covering her studies with Anna Freud and more about the film, Combat Fatigue Irritability.

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.

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