One obvious side effect of war, especially a global one, is the shortage of men at home, and World War Two was no different. Countless Hollywood fixtures, whether cast or crew, enlisted or were drafted into the armed forces, leaving studio rosters a little thin for the time being. Naturally, this gave rise to more movies dominated by women, such as 1945’s Keep Your Powder Dry. Starring Lana Turner, Susan Peters, and Laraine Day, the film not only made use of the available female talent, but also tells a very of-the-time story.
Valerie Parks (Lana Turner) is a Park Avenue playgirl. She parties all night and sleeps until the mid-afternoon. She’s also set to come into a sizeable inheritance, but there’s a catch. The board of trustees who will be granting it have set a morality clause, and unless Valerie straightens up and flies right, she won’t get her money. Valerie is aghast, because she doesn’t see anything wrong with her lifestyle. Do the trustees expect her to milk cows? Get an American flag tattooed on her chest? Join the WACs or the WAVEs?
Actually, says her lawyer, Mr. Lorrison (Pierre Watkin), that’s not a bad idea. Fresh air. Exercise. Wholesome food. It could be the best thing for her. Valerie’s reluctant, but finally agrees. Once she’s got the money, she’ll make some excuse to get out and then go off and live happily ever after with her fortune.
Ann Darrison (Susan Peters) is a newlywed, whose husband, Johnny (Michael Kirby) is a bandleader. He’s enlisted in the Army, and both are resigned to parting company for the time being to serve their country. Johnny is a sweetheart who’s more concerned about Ann than about himself, and he tells Ann to go to Medical if she feels the least bit tired.
Last but not least is Leigh Rand (Laraine Day), whose father is Major General Lee Rand (Henry O’Neill). She’s been around the Army her entire life, and she’s more than comfortable with the idea of joining the WAC. Her dad knows his daughter, and he warns her not to parade her background. Leigh promises to behave, sorta.
Our three newly-minted WACs arrive with a crowd of others at the train station in Des Moines, Iowa. They’re a diverse bunch, with women from all walks of life. Among them are Sarah (June Lockhart), an average, likeable lady, and an ex-vaudevillian, Harriet (Natalie Schafer). For her part, Leigh’s barely off the train before she’s getting everyone in line. And she doesn’t stop even once they’ve been installed in barracks, either. No, Lee’s a fount of knowledge, and she isn’t shy about sharing it.
Leigh and Valerie butt heads almost right off the bat. Val gets off the train in her high-fashion suit and fox stole, and is quite the picture until she busts her heel. Leigh rather smugly reminds her that they were told to wear low-heeled shoes, and Val smirks at her.
After that, they’re off to the races. Leigh tells Val she doesn’t have what it takes to make it as a WAC, and Val promises to prove her wrong. Much to Leigh’s chagrin, Val excels in the Corps, especially once she masters the about-face, showing her up on every level. Her uniform even fits better sans alterations. There’s nothing for Leigh to do but take it, which she does, though all the drilling and classroom work and calisthenics.
Our three cadets progress through basic training, and then to specialist school. Val’s first idea is to focus on Radio and Television, but when she hears Leigh’s got the same idea, switches to Motor Transport at Fort Oglethorpe. There’s a “Gift of the Magi” angle to this development, because unbeknownst to Val, Leigh switches to Motor Transport, too. The two of them are on the same crew, along with Ann, and work passably well together. Most of the time, though, Ann is the referee of their spats.
When all three of them are accepted into Officers’ Candidate School, Leigh and Val temporarily bury the hatchet. Very temporarily. Captain Bill Barclay (Bill Johnson) comes to see Ann at the behest of Johnny, who wants to know how his wife is doing.
Bill is a bit of a smooth talker, because while Ann’s off making a voice record for Johnny, Bill tries to talk his way into a date with Leigh. When that doesn’t work, he moves on to Val, who is more than happy to oblige, even if it means lying to get a pass. Leigh takes matters into her own hands, and asks to have Val put on CQ, or charge of quarters, for the night. Instead of going out on the town, Val is stuck guarding the barracks entrance. So much for burying the hatchet.
Right in the midst of OCS, Val gets what she thinks is a telegram from her lawyer, so she goes into Chattanooga to have dinner with him at a hotel. Much to her dismay, it’s not her lawyer who sent the telegram, but her old friends from New York. They’re pressuring her to sign a lease on a Palm Beach house, which Val doesn’t want, but she signs to get them off her back. Her friends don’t give two fleas about the war, and they make fun of Val, ripping her uniform and throwing her hat out the window. She gives them a piece of her mind before storming out to get her hat.
Unfortunately, Leigh, who has a weekend pass, is right across the hall trying to sleep. She’s irritated enough with these people, but when she sees Val, her scorn is thick enough to slice. Long story short, she gets the wrong idea about Val, and since she’s Val’s acting commander, she’s tougher on her than anyone. Put it this way: She makes Patton look like a teddy bear.
The right people have noticed the changes in Val, though. Her fortune comes through, to the tune of $639,000, or just over nine million in today’s money. Val’s no longer interested in it, though, because she’s finally seen what’s up, and her biggest dilemma is to get through OCS. What happens to she, Leigh, and Ann is a long time coming. There’s heartbreak in store before graduation, but also satisfaction.
Keep Your Powder Dry is refreshing in a bittersweet way. It was the last film in which Susan Peters was seen walking. Three months before it was released, she was injured in when a hunting rifle accidentally discharged and a bullet lodged in her spine. She would spend the rest of her life as a paraplegic and die in 1952 at the age of thirty-one. While she was initially able to utilize her paralysis for a role in 1948’s The Sign of the Ram, acting in a wheelchair didn’t really pan out. As such, it’s hard to look at Keep Your Powder Dry without a certain amount of melancholy.
Other than that, the movie is a lot of fun. Val was an unusual part for Lana Turner, who played against her trademark bombshell type. She and Laraine Day brought a fiendish glee to their dynamic. When they feuded, they really feuded, and when they reconciled, they were the best of friends. Even their in-between times are enjoyable, because it’s anybody’s guess when the next salvo will be fired. The film is also an interesting, if abbreviated peek into the WAC training process and a great example of late World War Two film.
Another “Origins” post is on the way. Thanks for reading, all, and see you next week…
This film is available on Amazon.