The Pre-War Years: 1940

In 1940, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad was extolling the virtues of passenger trains. Some more familiar cultural works appeared that year, including the novel “Native Son” by Richard Wright, and the groundbreaking comic strip “Brenda Starr”, which would run for 70 years:

“The redheaded comic heroine, whose first appearance came in a June 1940 Chicago Tribune insert, is putting the notebook away for good next month. Tribune Media Services, which owns Brenda Starr, announced Thursday that it’s ending the feature’s newspaper syndication.

The cartoon is a rarity in the world of comics, with a strong female lead role and a female-dominated creative team, originating in a time when the workplace wasn’t as friendly to women. Messick was a New York greeting-card artist who changed her name from Dalia in the 1940s so her work would be better noticed.”

However, across the oceans, Europe was moving quickly into a continental war, and Asia also continued its slide into hostilities. Notably, the Olympic Games were supposed to be held in Tokyo in 1940, and ended up being cancelled:

“Under these circumstances it became questionable whether the 1940 Tokyo Olympic Games would ever take off. But what finally sealed their fate was the expanding war in China, which had broken out in July 1937. At first, the Japanese hoped that the hostilities would end in a short time and they would be able to stage the Olympic Games as scheduled. But as the war situation intensified and required more and more lives and materiel, the prospects of the games started to look dim….

…Meanwhile, the IOC had chosen Helsinki to host the 1940 Olympic Games, but the Second World War, which broke out in September 1939, led to the cancellation of both the 1940 and 1944 Olympiads.”

In Poland, what would become the largest concentration camp in Europe, Auschwitz, opened.

In France, a random wandering resulted in an breathtaking discovery of early art:

“Near Montignac, France, a collection of prehistoric cave paintings are discovered by four teenagers who stumbled upon the ancient artwork after following their dog down a narrow entrance into a cavern. The 15,000- to 17,000-year-old paintings, consisting mostly of animal representations, are among the finest examples of art from the Upper Paleolithic period.

First studied by the French archaeologist Henri-Édouard-Prosper Breuil, the Lascaux grotto consists of a main cavern 66 feet wide and 16 feet high. The walls of the cavern are decorated with some 600 painted and drawn animals and symbols and nearly 1,500 engravings. The pictures depict in excellent detail numerous types of animals, including horses, red deer, stags, bovines, felines, and what appear to be mythical creatures.”

Speaking of mythical creatures, the famous cat and mouse cartoon duo Tom & Jerry had their debut in 1940 with the short film, “Puss Gets the Boot” (watch here).

Finally, another film which debuted in 1940 was Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator”. The great film critic Roger Ebert wrote:

“In 1938, the world’s most famous movie star began to prepare a film about the monster of the 20th century. Charlie Chaplin looked a little like Adolf Hitler, in part because Hitler had chosen the same toothbrush moustache as the Little Tramp. Exploiting that resemblance, Chaplin devised a satire in which the dictator and a Jewish barber from the ghetto would be mistaken for each other. The result, released in 1940, was “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin’s first talking picture and the highest-grossing of his career, although it would cause him great difficulties and indirectly lead to his long exile from the United States.

Chaplin’s film, aimed obviously and scornfully at Hitler himself, could only have been funny, he says in his autobiography, if he had not yet known the full extent of the Nazi evil. As it was, the film’s mockery of Hitler got it banned in Spain, Italy and neutral Ireland. But in America and elsewhere, it played with an impact that, today, may be hard to imagine. There had never been any fictional character as universally beloved as the Little Tramp, and although Chaplin was technically not playing the Tramp in “The Great Dictator,” he looked just like him, this time not in a comic fable but a political satire.”