THE LIFE AND TIMES OF ROSIE THE RIVETER -- At the Inner Circle

Whatever happened to Rosie the Riveter, the homefront heroine of World War II?

After thanking her for building all those ships and airplanes, a grateful nation turned her out of a job, and into a national joke.

That's the story told, with surprisingly more cheerful acceptance than bitterness, in a one-hour documentary called "The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter." One of the picture's pleasures is the joy on the faces of veteran women riveters and welders when they talk of the pride of seeing one of their ships launched, or the dream of making an ornamental gate. These are confident and competent workers.

Producer-director Connie Field chose five of them, from 300 at a Rosie the Riveter Reunion, for on-camera interviews. Then she juxtaposed their experiences with the authoritative voices of contemporary documentary films -- wartime newsreels and government propaganda.

The result is devasting. The voice of the society speaks of middle-class housewives propelled into factories by patriotism, aiming to return to comfortable domesticity when the war was won. The voices of the women themselves tell a more convincing story of being allowed, after scrounging a marginal living in domestic and restaurant jobs, to gain and use an important skill -- only to be told, when the emergency was over, that they belonged not in the plants that had run so well on their labor, but back in their old unskilled, low-paying jobs.

The propaganda is so blatant and naive that it looks funny now. Even the women's magazines, the movie notes, went from printing efficient recipes to stressing ones that required all-day cooking. There's hardly a change of inflection between the wartime proclamation that women are full partners who must sacrifice their cozy comfort to serve their country and the peacetime announcement that the nation's welfare, and even safety, depends on the women's being at home with their children.

Both of these official views are irrelevant to the situation of the real women -- single, married and widowed -- who needed to earn a living, before, during and after the war.

They felt the call of patriotism, although they perceived how mixed it was with racism and sexism. The saddest part of this bittersweet film is how much they believed in the American concept of being able, through learning, hard work, dedication and integrity, to better one's lot.

Even now, there is a beautiful energy in these women as they tell of how they fought to overcome prejudice -- but a defeated look when they tell of how the respect they had earned turned to ridicule when they were no longer needed.