Medal for Benny, A: Small-Town Movie, Starring J. Carrol Naish and Dorothy Lamour

Based on the original story by John Steinbeck and Jack Wagner, A Medal for Benny was set in Pantera, California, in the spring of 1942.

Pantera, the viewers are told by a card, “is a small town which pretends for its own pride that it is a city.” The film acknowledges the contribution of ethnic minorities to the War effort.

The event that sets the narrative in motion is the death of one of the town’s sons, and the preparations for the festivities to honor his death.

The “Paisanos,” of mixed Hispanic and Indian blood, are “a simple, friendly people.” They have lived in town for more than a hundred years, and are the original California settlers.

The film uses an effective device: Benny, the dead War hero, remains an invisible character and, unlike other movies of this kind, there are no flashbacks. A troublemaker, Benny was an outcast, chased out of town by the police. People believe he had disappeared, but he has actually joined the military and died in action in the Philippines. The former troublemaker is now honored as a national hero, allegedly taking hundred Japanese with him.

In thematic mode, A Medal for Benny is similar to Capra’s work about “little people” and “plain folk.” The film’s protagonist, Charley Martini (J. Carrol Naish), is Benny’s ignorant but generous father. “I don’t talk so good,” says the humble father in his patriotic speech, “Maybe it is good for the country that she must depend for life on all kinds of people like my son.” The speech echoes the way Hollywood–and dominant culture–wished Americans would feel about the sacrifice of their sons.

Reflecting the diversity of American society, ethnic heterogeneity is not viewed as a sign of fragmentation or a problem. Rather, the film supports dominant ideology, viewing America as a melting pot, a notion that would be shattered in the l960s. But in the name of integration into white middle-class values, the “Paisanos” are denied their distinctive culture; for them, assimilation and conformity are the rules of the game.

Viewed from today’s perspective, the film is not only sentimental but also condescending to ethnic minorities. Yet it reveals some ideological strains that cannot be easily reconciled. For example, Charley’s landlord threatens to evict him because he cannot meet his payments; the sign “House for Rent” has already been posted. At the bank, the rude officers turn down Charley’s loan application. An impoverished, second-class, citizen, Charley walks around with his entire property, which amounts to chicken and some goats.

The local politicians are not beyond immoral conceits. Aiming to exploit the occasion, they abuse Charley’s trust and nobility. “This medal is going to do for Pantera what the quintuplet did for Canada,” says one. “You get the glory, we get the gravy,” says another. To impress the governor and general, Charley is moved from his shabby house into a nicer home in a better location. But, at the end, told of the scheme, the angry Charley goes back to his old house.

Lolita Sierra (Dorothy Lamour), Benn’s girl, is now dating his rival, Joe Morales (Arturo de Cordova), but he, too, has to prove his worth, i.e. conform, and the best way to do it is join the army. Medal for Benny thus concludes at the train station, with a big farewell for Joe.

The film shows how under the “right circumstances” (War), Benny and Joe, two “little paisanos,” outsiders by ethnicity and conduct (Joe was a nonconformist), are molded into insiders: respectable, middle-class, citizens.