Famed actor Gene Kelly (l) once appeared in a U.S. Navy training film, which is now being made available at NLM. Kelly’s daughter Kerry Kelly Novick (r) gave a talk about the film at a recent meeting of NLM’s board of regents.
Photo: Michael Spencer
Among the treasures preserved by the National Library of Medicine is a World War II U.S. Navy training film directed by and starring Gene Kelly, who was then a rising Hollywood star. Combat Fatigue Irritability is a historically significant yet largely unknown work. Now, NLM’s History of Medicine Division (HMD) is making the 1945 film available to a wide audience, with supplementary materials from NLM historians, including a unique interview with Kelly’s daughter, Kerry Kelly Novick.
Novick, a developmental psychoanalyst who studied under Anna Freud, was a guest speaker during NLM’s February board of regents meeting. HMD has added her talk to its Medical Movies on the Web portal. The site features a full-length version of Combat Fatigue Irritability with written commentary by NLM historian Dr. Michael Sappol.
Speaking as a daughter and as a mental health professional, Novick talked about her father and aspects of the film that are still relevant for service men and women and their families.
“When my father joined the Navy in World War II, our lives changed as they did for so many other families,” Novick said. She and her mother moved east and lived with her grandmother to be closer to Kelly. He was stationed in Anacostia, making training films for the Navy’s photographic unit.
Combat Fatigue Irritability focuses on Kelly’s character, Seaman Bob Lucas, whose ship is torpedoed and sunk. He’s in a military hospital, trying to understand why he’s angry, on edge and unable to get along with people the way he once did.
The desire to learn more, Novick said, is something she got from her father and that he demonstrated in making the film—he prepared by having himself admitted to military psychiatric hospitals.
Novick said there is a “culture-wide tendency to view emotional, psychological or mental troubles as weakness or failure” and diagnostic labels like “PTSD” or “shell shock” may make veterans reluctant to seek help. “A strength of this film is that it gives us a single sailor to focus on, reminding us perhaps that considering each person’s individual story is at least as important as the diagnosis,” she said.
She lauded the film for including interactions with family, children and the community to demonstrate how their behavior affects Seaman Lucas and vice versa. And she noted the importance of addressing feelings of guilt, or what’s now termed “moral injury.”
“These are wounds to the soul, the effects of having done something that conflicts with the moral code that a person was raised in or from the feeling of guilt for having failed to do something, again violating their moral code,” she explained.
Novick also praised NLM for preserving history (her father had a lifelong interest in the subject) and recognized NIH and NIMH for their research efforts.
“Mental health parity puts all aspects of care on equal footing, acknowledging also the interconnectedness of emotional and physical health,” she said.
In addition to Medical Movies on the Web, HMD is providing an interview with Novick on its blog, Circulating Now. Visit http://circulatingnow.nlm.nih.gov/tag/gene-kelly/.