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SERGEANT YORK (1941)

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Discussion before

One of Hollywood’s greatest biographical films was the perfect picture in theaters leading up to and during the days following the Pearl Harbor attack. Sergeant Alvin C. York, a simple Tennessee farmer who became one of World War I’s most decorated heroes, had resisted offers to film his story for years. He only gave in when producer Jesse L. Lasky told him that with the U.S.’ entry into World War II imminent, approving the film was his patriotic duty. He agreed on the conditions that the leading lady not be a smoker, and that Warner Bros. cast Gary Cooper to play him. That took some juggling as Cooper was contracted to Samuel Goldwyn at the time, and Goldwyn wouldn’t approve the loan until Warner Bros. arranged to trade Bette Davis to star in The Little Foxes (1941). For his part, Cooper only wanted one director—Howard Hawks—even though Hawks was primarily known for comedies at the time. Hawks’ fluid camera work and deft coaching of his star resulted in the biggest box office hit of the year. Not only did it win Cooper his first Best Actor Oscar, but it also served as a potent tool for selling war bonds and convincing young men to enlist. (d. Howard Hawks, 144m, 35mm)

Preserved by The Museum of Modern Art with support from the Celeste Bartos Fund for Film Preservation

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