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BEACON Senior News - Western Colorado

Relating to the sacrifices of 1944 film “Rationing”

Oct 25, 2021 11:26AM ● By Jacqueline T. Lynch
Poster for 1944 film "Rationing" featuring Wallace Beery and Marjorie Main as leads

The 1944 film “Rationing” pokes fun at a wartime homefront nuisance, while at the same time staunchly upholding support for this act of civilian sacrifice. It’s one example of many from an era where decency was expected (sometimes enforced) and lauded as noble—even if comically mocked—in a way that was genuinely and charmingly American.

Wallace Beery runs a general store in a small town. Wartime rationing is his nightmare and having to deal with irate customers is the sacrifice he makes for his country during wartime.

Marjorie Main, in a role unlike her usual daffy spinsters, plays the humorless administrator of the local Office of Price Administration (OPA), which regulated the ration system and issued books of ration stamps and tokens. She and Beery are adversaries and constantly spar, but there’s more to their fractious relationship: they were once headed for the altar, but her mother did not approve of the match. They each married other people under different circumstances. He is now divorced, she widowed.

Main’s office is next door, at the post office. Beery petitions her for more gas coupon books. She won’t give them to him. Not her usual frumpy role, Miss Main looks quite stylish in her upsweep hairdo and business suit.

She is a model of efficiency, and gives him forms to fill out in triplicate and cautions him that he must not sell any merchandise in his store that requires tokens, or “points,” without the customer turning in those points with the payment. The audience at that time surely could relate and smile.

Main has a grown daughter played by Dorothy Morris, who is in love with Beery’s adopted son, played by Tommy Batten. Batten is preparing to go into the Army. They want to marry right away, and though Uncle Wallace doesn’t object, they are all afraid Main will not give her consent. She actually does approve of the marriage, but wants to make sure practical matters are addressed.

Young Richard Hall plays Teddy, a boy whose mother is away looking for work in a war plant, so Beery is babysitting and entertaining him with his rationing book version of what really happened in “Little Red Riding Hood.” His tangled tale gives us an idea of the complexity of the rationing book system.

But this movie features villains far worse than the wolf, and two of them.

Donald Meek is the equivalent of a homefront villain: a hoarder. Beery admonishes him, as well as all the crabby ladies who come in for meat, that the country must save its resources for the fighting troops. The film’s second villain runs a black market scheme. Boo! Hiss!

A subplot involves a lady barber with whom Beery is comically infatuated. She’d like to wheedle a rationed rubber girdle from Beery, who must sneak one under the watchful eye of Main (and will later have to sneak it back). Main comes to him for a toothache preparation, and he sarcastically teases her. The two old pros play well off each other.

Fed up with the OPA rules and Main, Beery takes a train to Washington D.C. to visit with his senator, who is also his old Army pal, and to ask him to loosen up the rationing rules for his store. The senator reminds him of the vital patriotic nature of rationing, and appoints Beery to work alongside Main on his local board. Now the shoe is on the other foot and his added responsibility turns Beery from the guy who wants to bend rules to the guy who has to make sure the rules are upheld.

Beery runs smack into a black market ring right under his nose and becomes a hero when he foils the unpatriotic, greedy villains. Main buys a half interest in his store, and to avoid a 72-page form to dissolve the partnership, Beery takes the lesser of two evils: he signs a marriage license instead.

The movie is a lighthearted look at Americans’ economic travails on the homefront, while the civilian population was lauded as heroic and patriotic for cooperating. Its subject matter of war rationing alone will cause this movie to be referred to as dated, yet in today’s divided post-pandemic world, we may marvel at how many Americans once put country over self. 

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