The evolution of the girly pinup took an enormous leap forward during the World War 2 years of 1939-1945. From the stunning and often lurid ‘good girl’ art that would grace the noses of American bomber planes, to the saucy 8 x 10s of Hollywood starlets like Rita Hayworth, Lana Turner and Betty Grable, which hung tattered and ogled on the walls of barracks and tents from Iwo Jima to Normandy, pinup girls gave servicemen – particularly those on the frontlines – a connection to back home, a reminder of what they were fighting for, and perhaps an added incentive to want to try and stay alive for.
While it may have appeared to be a largely American phenomena, the wartime pinup was also integral to boosting the morale of men serving in other armies as well. In Paper Dolls, a short (52 min) documentary narrated by Claudia Karvan and produced for the SBS network, the role of Australian pinups during the Second World War is examined in a way that is nostalgic and entertaining, informative and on occasion moving, without being overly-sentimental.
Via old newsreel footage, magazine clippings and interviews with three of the surviving models of the day, we see how the outbreak of war with Germany – and later, Japan – encouraged popular magazines like Man and Pix to run model competitions within their pages, posting the winners on their covers as a cheer-up for the enlisted men. The presence of the pinup girls helped the two magazines to almost double their sales (to 400,000 copies) by the end of the war, and amazingly in those more seemingly innocent times, they actually published the home addresses of most of the models, which resulted in an influx of letters from soldiers, usually requesting photos, or a letter, or even the promise of something more. Some of the surviving letters, narrated in voice-over, have a tone that often dance on the verge of stalking, but perhaps say more of the desperation of combat troops to create a portal of fantasy, no matter how minute, to try and escape through.
As the war progressed and more Australian women enlisted or took jobs in wartime factories, Pix began to feature military and working women more prominently than bikini-clad young cheesecake dames, and some of the models either retired back to family life or, in the case of Adelie Hurley, moved her career behind the camera (Hurley, one of the pinups interviewed, worked with one-eyed photographer Ivan Ive, and went on to work as a wartime press photographer before shooting nude pin-ups for post-war issues of Man). Perhaps the most poignant story is told by Lois Traill, who recollects her correspondences with a company of men who used her photo as their ‘mascot’ and were eventually wiped-out in a jungle confrontation with the Japanese.
One minor quibble I have with Paper Dolls, aside from Carvan’s rather bland narration, is that none of the wonderful archival footage included is given any dates or sources, particularly frustrating when they show some gems like an old newsreel story on pinup gal June Myers. But it covers a long period in a short time, and does it in a way that doesn’t feel rushed, making it a mostly satisfactory introduction and overview of the subject.
Madman’s DVD release contains two nice little supplementary featurettes – Violet’s Story (an interview with another Australian wartime model, Violet Carroll) and War Comes to Australia (which looks at the bombing of Darwin in 1942 and the sneak attack on Sydney Harbour by a Japanese midget submarine the same year).
Paper Dolls – Australian Pinups of World War 2 is available on DVD from Madman Entertainment.