This is the first in an occasional series about Hollywood and the war industry during World War II.
At the outset of WWII, Hollywood’s well-oiled movie machine became an extension of the nation’s war machine, capitalizing on America’s love affair with the movies. Theatrical cartoons, shorts, serials and feature films produced by the major studios all began to incorporate the war culture into their productions.
The military had their own filmmaking units, but as studio craftsmen were enlisted by the various service branches, the content and quality of government training and propaganda films were elevated to Hollywood levels. Many of filmdom’s greatest producers, directors and stars also enlisted to do their part for Uncle Sam.
James Stewart was reportedly the first film star to enter the service in WWII, having enlisted a year before Pearl Harbor was bombed. He had to talk his way in due to a weight issue (too thin). Colonel Stewart flew 20 combat missions and earned the Air Medal, the Distinguished Flying Cross and seven battle stars.
Clark Gable enlisted at age 41 as a private in the Army Air Force after his wife, actress Carole Lombard, died in a plane crash while on a war bond drive. Gable flew bombing missions over Europe, eventually became a Captain, and appeared in instructional films.
At the outset of the war, Army Reservist Ronald Reagan was called to active duty and appointed to the First Motion Picture Unit – in Culver City, CA. There, Reagan toiled in the hometown comfort of the old Hal Roach film studios, dubbed Fort Roach for the duration. Reagan worked on more than 400 training and propaganda films, appearing onscreen in many.
Movie stars who didn’t join the armed forces, helped out by selling war bonds onscreen. Even Bugs Bunny got into the act (he tried to enlist but was turned down...too dimensional). Many radio and film favorites toured in USO shows or showed up at the Hollywood Canteen to rub elbows with soldiers on leave or about to ship out.
In early 1942, seven years after making the Oscar-winning It Happened One Night, film director Frank Capra enlisted in the Army. He was assigned a key role to convince a skeptical, formerly isolationist nation of the critical importance of America’s participation in the global conflict.
Over the next four years, Capra contributed two important bodies of work to America’s war effort. First, he helped produce and direct an inspired Oscar-winning documentary film series called Why We Fight, and, second, he applied his filmmaking skills to help create and manage a bi-weekly series of motion picture short subjects called The Army-Navy Screen Magazine.
The Screen Magazines were 20 min collections of short films designed to inform servicemen at base movie theaters worldwide about events on the home and war fronts, to inspire and entertain. Most included a Private Snafu cartoon and often a variety show with entertainers like Bob Hope, Dinah Shore and favorite radio and movie celebrities of the day. By war's end, the Screen Magazines were being seen weekly by over 4 million service members. Capra and company knew these films needed to entertain the audiences gathered at base theaters to see the latest Hollywood blockbuster. The Army-Navy Screen Magazines were a very effective shared experience for the GIs, and greatly influenced their perception of the war.
Other prominent Hollywood directors suited up for the war as well. John Huston went from making The Maltese Falcon in 1941 to directing a string of wartime government docs, including such classics as Report From the Aleutians, The Battle of San Pietro, and a controversial longtime withheld film masterpiece called Let There Be Light. John Ford directed several docs, including The Battle of Midway and December 7th, as well as training films like the disturbing short subject called Sex Hygiene, made to caution the soldier about the horrors of VD. William Wyler enlisted and directed a famous wartime doc called The Memphis Belle, and even flew several combat missions himself on the famous plane to photograph some of the scenes.
During the war, the major studios released a steady stream of war-themed cartoons starring their famous cartoon icons, with provocative titles like Daffy Duck in The Ducktators and Bugs Bunny in Herr Meets Hare. The talented cartoon artists at Warner Brothers created the famous Private Snafu as a motivational character, voiced by Mel Blanc, to make the soldier laugh while being taught an important lesson. Snafu (as any GI would know, an acronym for Situation Normal, All F*cked Up) would invariably screw something up, only to learn from the experience. Disney was the one Hollywood studio designated a “key war production plant” and 94% of its work was war related, specializing in the production of animated instructional films.
Some excellent examples of the kind of short films produced during the war by the Hollywood studios and the US Government are playing right now in our Bijou Mini-Matinee theater.