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Hollywood At War

   Did you know that Movie Newsreels were generally more up-to-date for GI’s than what the wartime civilian populace was given?–--this was even true when thousands of American GI’s were roving in 1944 in France, Italy and the rest of the world.  Whether you like it or not, Hollywood during WW II tried to do its part in the war effort to defeat the terrible Axis powers and they worked with the Army and the Navy in utilizing their skills.   The primary job of the Army and Navy that worked with films was to make training films, which were in the beginning, quite boring stuff.   If it weren’t for the intercession and persuasion of two men at the start, it would have stayed boring…AND stale.  

     Fox executive and Army Lieutenant Colonel Darryl Zanuck interceded and the Army brass listened.  He joined the Signal Corps, which did the training films.  The Signal Corps made 32 feature-length documentaries.  Probably the most well-known and influential films in the documentary style at the time were those from the long-showing Why We Fight series of information films, distributed first to Army, Navy and other personnel.  That story is interconnected to Frank Capra. 

Hollywood pioneer Frank Capra 

   Recipient of three Academy Awards for director, Mr. Capra was not summoned.  He was asked.

   The story goes that Brigadier-General Frederick H. Osborn, commander of the Morale Branch, visited Capra and asked him if he would make some film documentaries.  He would be made a major.  It seems he was speaking on behalf of General George C. Marshall, who was the Army Chief of Staff, and #1 of all the generals and admirals.

   Capra said yes and was so overwhelmed, he then rushed out to a local Army-Navy surplus store to buy a cap and gold major’s leaves.  Major Capra began work in Washington D.C., on February 15, 1942.   He became the commanding officer of the Film Production Section of the Information Division of Special Services, under Brig-Gen. Osborn, and by June, Capra had 8 officers and 35 enlisted men.  They then formed the 834th Signal Service Photographic Department, Special Services Division Film Production Section, with the job of explaining to the troops why we were fighting in the war.

   Capra told Marshal he had never done any documentaries before.  Marshall told him he had never been Chief of Staff before and that also thousands of young men had never had their legs shot off before.  And, that Americans are commanding ships today, who a year ago had never seen the ocean before.   One thing about General Marshall, he was very pragmatic.  And, Capra knew the score.  His World War II films were not made in color, and were made to persuade, and to be shown to an audiencea one-time large civilian audiencewhy we were there.  Later, they were permitted to be seen by the public at large.  Frank Capra below on the right.

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   Today, if you are fortunate enough to catch some as reruns on TV, the most widely viewed ones of them all would be War Comes To America and Prelude to War.  The first film released was Prelude to War, released on October 30, 1942.   It cost $60,974 to produce.  Basically, all had social significance.   Plus propaganda core.

   Many people were not sure exactly why we were in, although many had personal reasons for it.  For the Allies, for freedom, for Pearl Harbor, for your dead relative, for apple pie, for back home, for your girl, for the family, for the right, for Americans held prisoners overseas. 

   The Why We Fight series of films represent a comprehensive effort of showing history, using expertly manipulated emotions more than true facts, even turning boring facts into breathtaking entertainment, as some Hollywood critics pointed out.  Capra’s staff used footage from the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, Allied nations, the Army Pictorial Center and various newsreel libraries.  While these were not exactly Hollywood company productions, they did have plenty of top talented producers, directors, technicians, musicians, and writers.  Production of films was led by Lt. Colonel Frank Capra, later promoted.

   Major Sam Briskin, from Columbia Studios, assisted as production manager.   In many documentaries, veteran Service personnel were able to assist him–Lt. Col. Warren J. Clear, who barely escaped Bataan, and Col. Herman Beukema, a great military historian from West Point, to name a few.

8 Orientation Films Why We Fight

     The eight orientation films were distributed by the War Department, with official army seal and everything, even bugle playing. They augmented the newsreels, and, serve as a gateway to popular culture of the period. 

     The orientation set were required army training.  It was mandatory for all GI’s who went overseas. The films distributed were Prelude to War, (this Oscar winning film was released to the WW II general audiences, free to any theatre); The Nazis Strike; Divide and Conquer; The Battle of Britain; The Battle of Russia; The Battle of China–the least historically accurate but, it has great music and builds sympathy for China, and War Comes To America (also released to the public.)  Information Film #8 was about the contribution Black Americans made in U.S. history, but it was also about Black racism in the Army.  It raised an uproar in the South States (because it was true, ie. Black MP’s could not carry guns in “the Deep South”); it was claimed to be morale lowering; and was rarely shown.  But, the Army was changing.

     In July of 1942, Maj. Capra moved his entire unit to Hollywood, and set up in an unoccupied Fox Studio, called Fort Fox by the men.  Col. Zanuck offered the studio to the Army at a super-duper lease of one dollar a year plus renovation costs.   [Beginning in June 1944, special classified war front, weapons testing, and enemy footage was created for viewing only by the President and the Joint Chiefs of Staff.]

    When Ernie Pyle was writing about Italy in December 1943, Maj. Capra became Col. Capra and earned a new role in handling real war front film work. The information film Let There Be Light told the story of recovering veterans in Mason General Hospital, Long Island, but it was suppressed for 35 years before the public got a chance to see it.  

   There was no glamor or gorgeous movie stars in documentary films. With the exception of captured film, or those few shot by our allies, all of the work was accomplished by plain American cameramen, writers, directors, cutters, and electricians–all in the Special Service Division.  

    In March of 1942, the Commanding General of all U.S. Air forces (Henry Arnold) offered a commission to both Jack L. Warner (head of WB) and producer Hal Wallis to create a special unit that would tell the stories of the army air forces--the AF was not independent at that time.  Warner accepted and became a lieutenant colonel, but Wallis too busy with filming Casablanca declined.  It was called the FMPU--official name is the First Motion Picture Unit and it was independent and it was created to make training films for the U.S. Army Air Forces. It became the 18th AAF Base Unit.  They had a crazy motto, "We kill 'em with film."  One of the first films made was Winning Your Wings, a recruitment film that told the story of how valuable pilots are.  Over 150,000 men signed up after it was released.  Things really began swinging when the entire unit moved in late 1942 to the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, now led by Paul Mantz.  Overall, they created over 300 films.  

    FMPU also did Top Secret Films.  Special Film Project 152 provided a pilot's eye view flying over a 90'x60' 3D topographical map of Japan.  It was narrated by Ronald Reagan.  Many pilots recall that they were astounded at the accuracy of the model. Resisting Enemy Interrogation taught pilots how to avoid giving out important information, and it was even nominated for an Academy Award in 1944 for best feature-length documentary.   Animated films were also done, and they had the expertise   from animators of Disney and Looney Tunes.  FMPU trained cameramen to use motion picture cameras on the battlefield. The Combat Camera Units were in military service all over the world.  Although it is not widely known, each director, after receiving his assigned work, directed freely at his own command.  It followed the same principles and dreams that described Capra’s unit, but centered on the design, maintenance, installation, inspection and operation of air force equipment.   According to the wonderful book, Duty, Honor Applause, a story of how Capra explained to his officers what they had to do in a memo he sent to them, which speaks for all in Hollywood, is: “This is a total war fought with every type of conceivable weapon.”  He wrote, “Your weapon is film.  Your bombs are ideas!  Hollywood is a war plant!   Hitler has taken over countries on film.  Your job is to counterattack and take them back....”

  The Stars of Hollywood PDF button admits bearer to see Hollywood's best who participated in WW II.  Below are Hollywood stars Rita Hayworth in color and Jimmy Stewart. A big hit for Rita in 1944 was Cover Girl, and when it came out it was stunning.

Beautiful Rita Hayworth.jpg


     Vast number of films were devoted to Americans living on the U.S. Home-Front; the hard work, the war frustrations of day to day living at home, torn between happiness and sadness, the sudden somber involvement of going away (not that it was meant as an unexpectedness when it came time for someone to leave...but, the suddenness of the situation, which in most war movies had a way of creeping up on you), romanticism, and the rest of emotional life brought on by war.  Unlike WW I, the movie industry was not handcuffed to heavy government censorship.   From the beginning, President Roosevelt declared, "The motion picture industry must remain free....I want no censorship."  However, one would be deliriously wrong to say that Hollywood could write scripts and say anything that could harm the U.S. and give benefit to the Axis. 

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   For those wonderful thousands of movie buffs in the world, let’s divulge a little more within the world of Hollywood by taking an excerpt from my book A Toast For You and Me, America’s Participation, Sacrifice and Victory.

   The best Hollywood movies came in five or six movements.  They all possessed an emphasis on teamwork, the all-important theme. 


   The majority were in black and white, and not in Technicolor.  

   Probably the best Home Front movie is Since You Went Away about life on the Home Front set in 1943.  Primarily aimed at a women’s audience, this Hollywood motion picture provided scenes of real life as well as being patriotic and became a major blockbuster hit, with the American public summing up what people wanted to feel, and see and what actually was sentimentally felt.

    It was made by David O. Selznick (of Gone With the Wind) on a collection by Margaret B. Wilder. Since You Went Away was released in 1944.  There were many Hollywood stars who did their part for the war effort, and this little video is a gem.  Although these musicals may not be widely known, four of my favorites of the WW II era with great songs are Anchors Aweigh (with Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Kathryn Grayson), Pin Up Girl (with Betty Grable), Up In Arms (with Dany Kaye and Dinah Shore) and This Is The Army.  One of the best Home Front musicals is Thumbs Up and V For Victory  with Ann Miller.



     Honolulu with Eleanor Powel (1939). Tap dancing was big in the 1930s and 1940s.  Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942 with James Cagney, who played George M. Cohan. Cagney won an Academy Award. There is a rare version colorized, in VHS).  In Yankee Doodle Dandy, there was a scene where the song Over There was composed and played. It was a WW I song still popular in WW II.  Pittsburgh (1942) is a drama of a rich industrialist portrayed by John Wayne, who cares only about money but then his personal life winds up in the can, he loses everything and is forced to start at the bottom in a war plant–but, in the end he turns around. 

     Priorities on Parade (1942), Blondie For Victory (1942), Sherlock Holmes And The Voice of Terror (1942), The Sullivans (1943),  The More the Merrier (1943), Bombardier (1943), Carolina Blues (1943), Tender Comrade (1943), with Ginger Rogers working in an aircraft plant, who at the very end gets the news her husband never made it, Tarzan Triumphs (1943), Keep Your Powder Dry  (1943), with Lana Turner and Loraine Day, We’ve Never Been Licked (1943),  So Proudly We Hail (1943), and adapted for radio, Salute for Three (1943), Something For The Boys (1944) with Carmen Miranda, and The Human Comedy (1943) starring Mickey Rooney, Marsha Hunt, Van Johnson and Robert Mitchum written by William Saroyan, who won the 1944 Academy Award for Best Original Motion Picture Story, lost to Casablanca as Best Picture with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman.  Don't ever think that all Nazis were portrayed as stoic, or buffoons in films, or radio, for when you have time see The Yellow Canary (released by RKO Radio Pictures 1943) and Hitler--Beast of Berlin, probably the first film showing the concentration camps (released by Producers Releasing Corp 1939; later aka Goose Step or Hell's Devils).  They are great examples of the Hollywood genre, in this clip the common people trying to escape the Nazis.  Moreover, whenever you get the chance, if you never heard of them, try to find and see them, especially the classic Casablanca.  If young, no lie, try a first time to check it out.



    OWI (the Office of War Information) is a rich source of motion pictures, with the most valuable source of footage from United News.  They were for the public. They were produced under the U.S. government auspices in conjunction with the newsreel industry and there are approximately 250 of them, averaging about ten minutes and containing six parts per issue.  OWI is discussed in more detail in the author's vol 2,  A Toast For You and Me, America's Participation, Sacrifice and Victory.     

    The total number of film productions undertaken by the U.S. Government during WW II was actually unprecedented.  The film medium went beyond recording significant data or events.  Many people who lived during the Second World War remember The March of Time films and newsreels. 

    Newsreels consist of footage brought quickly from the shooting of the event.

    They would be released as a projection print for theater use. They were informative clips made by Movietone News, United News, Paramount News, RKO Pathe and Universal Newsreel, all in black and white. This deals with June 6th 1944. The most famous are The March of Time films, but they are not newsreels, even though many people think they were.  Distributed each month, they approximate screen journalism reports. They focused on a subject conveying a particular point of view.  Most run approximately 20 minutes. 

   They were made by Time Magazine, for sixteen years such as this 1938 pre-war era vignette Inside Nazi Germany; not to be confused with this version with the same title.  The very first March of Time in custody by NARS were The Battle Fleets of England 1939 followed by News Fronts of War–1940.  They can be studied at the Audiovisual Archives Division. They are not available for loan or stock footage, nor are any of them in color. This is a wonderful reenactment of a newsreel in color; freeze-frame the auto around 2.38. 

   The U.S. Army, Navy, and Department of State possessed several movie units. The Signal Corps did training films plus propaganda films, and recorded pictures in combat zones, such as The Battle of San Pietro.  A powerful movie Desert Victory, in black and white, was released in early 1943, a conjunction by two British cinematographic entities, M.o.I. Film Division and the Army Film Unit.

   United News reports were focused on both domestic and international fronts.  Examples of what United News covered were varied indeed: food being provided to refugees by the Red Cross; the meetings of Churchill and Roosevelt; amphibious landings; the capture of Tarawa; the capture of the Philippines and Leyte Island; the San Francisco Conference; Liberation of Rome and end-of-year reviews. In the liberation for Rome, we paid a heavy price, and you will see captured American soldiers paraded through the streets of Rome.  OWI also houses seven documentaries made by British civilian defense, including Listen to Britain, directed by Humphrey Jennings, and 48 British newsreel issues entitled War Pictorial News. Those run about 10 minutes each. They report mainly about the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean. The newsreel world cannot be complete without mentioning Britain's newsreels and documentaries produced by Pathé News; ran from 1910 until 1970.  The Pathé News archive is known today as British Pathé.  Here is one from 1943. Note the microphones.  One says BLUE.  Blue was the forerunner to ABC.

   Records of the United States Air Force Commands, Activities, and Organizations are important film projects.  Several films of this type: Target Tokyo, D-Day Minus One, The Last Bomb, China Crisis, and the most famous of all the Army Air Force films, FMPU’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,  which was released in 1944, distributed by Paramount under the auspices of OWI and which showed the participants of the 8th Air Force in England, courtesy of the great folks at ZenosWarbirds.  FMPU was a special film-making unit.

   Hollywood director William Wyler did this documentary; he had won an Academy Award in 1943 for Best Director Mrs. Miniver.   Wyler later did The Best Years of Our Lives, which also won Academies.  The outtakes were recently discovered at the National Archives, and Hollywood director Erik Nelson produced a 4k feature released in 2018 on the Memphis Belle titled The Cold Blue.  

   Under File No. 17679 are grouped 19 reels of 35mm relating to the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    This film project was begun by Nippon Eiga Studios and was later completed by the Strategic Bombing Survey.  Strategic Bombing Survey films include approximately 90 reels of 16mm silent, color film showing the destruction in Japan.   

    (Below)  Actual 1943 footage of a happy crew that not only made it back to base in England, they completed a serious of missions, called a tour.   It was a strain for all crews to complete a “tour” of 25 missions.  Many were not so lucky and were either killed or shot down over Europe.  Their story is told in the book A Toast For You and Me, America's Participation, Sacrifice and Victory.  Often a B-17 was shot to pieces but somehow still made it back.

Memphis Belle returns home 1943. 

Leggy Memphis Belle 2018-10-06 at 4.19.3

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