Sergeant York was the mega hit of 1941. It was seen by over 35% of the people in the U.S. Think of it. That’s more than a third of the entire population at the time.
And it’s not hard to see why.
There’s the story: the biopic of perhaps America’s most decorated war hero in World War I — Alvin Cullum York, a likable, modest, God-fearing rube from rural Tennesee — based upon York’s own writings. An amazingly accurate sharpshooter, York found himself taking command of his nearly wiped-out platoon and capturing a heavily-fortified German position almost singlehandedly.
The movie boasts realistic, exciting action, romance — between York and demure Gracie Williams (played by Joan Leslie, see photo above) — and a gust of full-throated patriotism especially welcome in the same year as Pearl Harbor (the Japanese sneak attack occurred while Sergeant York was still playing in theaters).
There’s the cast: York, who died in 1964, cannily sold the movie rights to his amazing story to Warner Bros providing that the movie shied away from “phony heroics,” that the role of Gracie be taken by a non-glamorous actress and that Gary Cooper be cast in the lead. Director Howard Hawks assembled a large, talented cast including, among others, Walter Brennan, Ward Bond, Noah Beery Jr., Howard Da Silva and Dickie Moore.
As for Joan Leslie, her career started out strongly and then fizzled. Even so, she remains one of Joe’s favorite actresses. Leslie, whose career spanned more than 50 years from her film debut in Garbo‘s Camille to her work on Murder She Wrote,” died in 2015. She was 90.
And then there is in the title role Cooper, one of the biggest stars ever produced in the Golden Age of Hollywood. He was known by one name — “Coop.” He was so good looking that men admired him, and sophisticated women fell instantly.
Ernest Hemingway viewed him as the embodiment of the detached hero while Carl Sandburg celebrated him as one of the “most beloved illiterates this country has ever known.” He was supremely adept in a broad range of genres including westerns, comedies, romances and Great Depression dramas.
It’s been said that he never played a mean or dishonest man. By the end of the 1930’s Cooper was Hollywood’s biggest box office star. He’s been gone for well over a half century; he died in 1961 (at just 60) after racking up appearances in some 120 movies dating from the early silent period through the year he died.
Sergeant York was one of three movies Cooper made in 1941, one of two directed by Hawks (the other was Ball of Fire costarring Barbara Stanwyck) and a third directed by Frank Capra (Meet John Doe, also costarring Stanwyck). Cooper won the best actor Oscar for Sergeant York. His second Oscar came about a dozen years later for his rugged portrayal of the hard-pressed sheriff in High Noon.
Sergeant York proved not only a huge hit at the box office but a boon to the World War II propaganda effort. Young men rushed to sign up after seeing the film. Bond sales spurted, and a wartime scrap drive flourished. Not many Hollywood entertainments can make those claims.