Lunch is to be served promptly at 1 p.m. with guests: her son Theodore (Richard Ney), daughter Patricia (Jean Rogers), best friend Cecila (Spring Byington), family friend Elliot (Edward Arnold) and her doctor (Miles Mander).
Everyone gathers in the sitting room, waiting for Stella, played by Fay Bainter, to make her grand entrance once the last guest arrives. After lunch, everyone sits down to listen to the Boston Symphony on the radio.
But when they turn on the radio, news of the Japanese bombing Pearl Harbor, Hawaii comes through. Though a national tragedy has occurred, Stella turns a deaf ear to the news.
“Please turn off that gibberish, we want to hear the symphony. I don’t know why they would permit such programs on the Sabbath,” Stella says as the news reports play before the room comprehends what has happened.
Elliot and Ted, who work for the War Department, rush to the office; Pat runs to her room to listen to the radio, and Stella is extremely agitated that the usually scheduled program has been interrupted and demands they shut off the radio.
In the process of the news, the maid tips over a tray of Mrs. Hadley’s best tea service-which was a gift from President Coolidge and begins to sob, saying her brother is at Pearl Harbor. While Stella vaguely comforts the girl, she is more concerned that she will never be able to replace the coffee cup.
As the United States enters the war and daily life changes for Americans, Stella lives in an “ivory tower,” and continues to try to live the she was before the war.
Widow of Nathanial Hadley, owner of the Washington Chronicle newspaper, Stella is one of the most prominent women in DC and, prior to her marriage, was one of the most popular girls in Washington. Since her husband died, Mrs. Hadley doesn’t approve of the way the newspaper is being run and snubs wife of the newspaper owner, Laura Winters (Isobel Elsom).
Throughout the film, several examples of changes of daily life hit Stella Hadley and she has a hard time stomaching them. She faces most of these changes with anger, indigence and a lack of understanding of what’s going on in the world.
Stella is especially unhappy when the war upsets her household as they are drafted or take part in the war effort:
- Her chauffer, Peters, lets her know he is leaving his job, because he was drafted and is reporting for service. She says she wishes he had given her more notice and Cecilia chimes in that Stella shouldn’t give the chauffer a reference for his next job.
- Pat volunteers at a canteen on Christmas Eve. When Stella asks why she can’t stay home, Pat says, “It’s Christmas Eve for the soldiers too.”
- Elliot moves Ted, who drinks more than work, to active service. He feels it’s the only way Ted will make anything of himself. Stella thinks she can use her influence to get Ted out of the war but can’t. Ted isn’t happy about going overseas but comes to see that it’s his duty. Angry that Elliot can’t get Ted out of the war, Stella tells him that she never wants to see him again.
- The butler, Bennett, (Halliwell Hobbes), becomes a local air raid warden and has to leave at a moment’s notice for drills.
Other inconveniences include having to turn out her lights during a black out drill and having to be escorted to Elliot’s office in the War Department, rather than being able to waltz back on her own.
While working at the canteen Pat meets and falls in love with soldier Michael Fitzpatrick (Johnson). The two eventually marry, but Stella, who doesn’t approve of the marriage, doesn’t attend.
Society women even scoff at her saying she doesn’t “have an ounce of patriotism in her.”
Her determination to keep everything how it was before for the war leads to Stella ending up alone.
It eventually takes news of Ted and Laura Winters’ son from the war department for Stella to come around.
“The War Against Mrs. Hadley” (1942) is a real gem. World War II-era films are my favorite, and I haven’t seen many like this one. This film is what would be known as a “B-Movie” but somehow; even low budget MGM films sparkle and make you feel good. Since this film begins on Pearl Harbor and depicts the start of World War II in the United States, it seemed appropriate to share a review on the anniversary of the 1941 attacks.
And on an interesting note–December 7 was really actress Fay Bainter’s birthday.
“Mrs. Hadley” was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing, Original Screenplay written by George Oppenheimer. However, the film lost to “Woman of the Year.”
The cast is wonderful. Fay Bainter and Edward Arnold are terrific as the main leads. Spring Byington is also hilariously flighty. “Mrs. Hadley” is also Van Johnson’s first credited role after four uncredited films prior. Johnson said Bainter was kind and helpful to him during the filming. “Thank God for ‘Mrs. Hadley,’” Johnson is quoted in the book “Van Johnson: MGM’s Golden Boy.” “That was the beginning. Then I began to roll.”
This was also Richard Ney’s second film—his first was “Mrs. Miniver” that same year. Sara Algood has a small role as Johnson’s Irish mother, and character actress Connie Gilchrist has some hilarious lines in her five minutes on screen as the cook. One of my favorite characters, however, is the butler played by Halliwell Hobbes.
New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther scoffed at the film, saying it came too late coming after the start of the war and that the character of Stella Hadley is “barely reflective of an average American type.” However, I think this is an interesting time capsule for today’s viewers, showing that not everyone was in favor of the war or willing to change their lifestyles.
In the end, when Stella changes her ways and begins holding committee meetings and hosting soldiers in her home, it is also a message to 1942 audiences that it is not too late for them to get involved in the American war effort.
While “The War Against Mrs. Hadley” is a wonderful little film and one I thoroughly enjoy, it’s unfortunately rather rare. It was never released on VHS or DVD, can’t be found online, but is occasionally aired on Turner Classic Movies.
If you ever have the opportunity to see this MGM jewel, be sure to do so.