The Power of the American Film Industry in World War II

Paper by Danielle Youngblood.

In the late 1930’s, America’s involvement in the war, in result to the challenge of totalitarianism, altered the purpose and goals of the American Film Industry. American film transformed during World War II when the government had Hollywood studios drive a sense of drama into documentaries. The United States film industry relied on “freedom” in their propaganda to justify American intervention in World War II. Film propaganda used fear tactics and emotionalism to sway the attitudes of the American audience with freedom as motivation. Through the growth of the American film industry, and the ability to relay a common message to mass amount of people, film is used as a powerful tool to control the feelings of the population. By evaluating film propaganda used in World War II, it is proven that film had become one of the most powerful tools of the American Government.

World War II had a altering influence on Hollywood, which molded how the American public comprehended and experienced the war. Until 1942, most films made in Hollywood were purely made for escapist entertainment which was used to distract the public from News reporting the expansion of the Axis partners in Europe. But the film industry soon began to change because of President Roosevelt’s concern with foreign policy and wanted to break the idea of isolationism which causes the film industry to begin to produce movies which reported fascism at home and abroad. Then from 1940 to 1941, Hollywood took militarism into its own hands when military events in Europe became more rapid bringing the United States closer to involvement in the war. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor officially brought the United States into the War, resulting in the film industry completely dedicating films to fulfill the obligations and demands of the government. The American film industry now became a very important instrument of national policy. Once Hitler had taken over Czechoslovakia, Mussolini conquered Albania, Japan took the Spratly Islands in the Pacific, Franco had taken over Madrid, and President Roosevelt began to convince the public to change the view on isolationism, that Hollywood fully indulge in political issues.

The famous film of 1939 Confessions of a Nazi Spy, strongly stood against fascism. This film was the beginning of the film industry’s responsiveness to political issues of the war. This film demonstrated the spread of Nazi beliefs in America and warned any fascist to try and challenge American Democracy. Famous landmarks and cities such as Buckingham Palace, the Westminister Abbey, and 10 Downing Street were shot as pictures accompanied by sad music, along with shots which displayed the London citizens crowding into Subways to escape the German bomb raids. These films were meant to gain an emotional response from the American people and give a sense of urgency to intervene to aid Britain. Due to the lack of combat cameramen and government regulation, homefront and battle film were scarce at the time.

T h o u g h , f e w m a d e i t p a s t t h e g o v e r n m e n t r e g u l a t i o n s s u c h a s R e t r e a t f r o m D u n k i r k a n d s h o w e d examples of superior camera journalism and the hard realities of war. The film The Mortal Storm of 1940 was the first film to contain footage from actual Nazi Germany itself, and was the first film to call Hitler by his name, show extreme socialism, and the terror of the Nazi rule. As the American public moved away from the concept of neutrality, the new attitudes favored complete interaction by providing Aid to Great Britain. This is when war films completely filled American cinema.
In result of the April of 1941 proclamation of unlimited national emergency, Hollywood began to produce mass amounts of war films to help families cope with the new and torn lifestyle and accept the consequence of the Selective Service Act. The film industry lightened the moods by doing this through comedy and satire such as Buck Privates, Caught in the Act, Great Gun, and etc. By the Summer of 1941 the films began to become increasingly more militant especially after Hitler’s attack on Russia and the sinking of American Ships with Nazi U­Boats. The tragic events of this time caused an uproar in public nationalism and the films were used to persuade the public to want to fight. Films were now becoming more aggressive which called for counter action. Two films: A Yank in the R.A.F and International Squadron greatly dramatized the roles of American army pilots who were flying bomber ferries to Great Britain. Films such as Parachute Battalion were used to give men courage to fight even with the knowledge of the possible outcomes. The Film Sergeant York was one of the most influential films supporting national defense. It advertised the necessity to defend the nation. They used a pacifist man who read his Bible who became a war hero as a key point in the film to instill popular attitudes about intervention. It gave the pacifist men of America the motivation to join the War effort. Two months after this, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. This tragic event changed the mindset of the public abruptly, and left no room for an isolationists. Hollywood’s role was now urgent. It was no longer needed to use as tool to show the United States the threat of fascism, because it was now proved, the United States was bombed on it’s own land and automatically, the film industry was mobilized for national defense. Starting on December 18th, Lowell Mellett was designated to be coordinator for governmental motion picture affairs. Producers, theatre owners, labor unions, actors, and distributors formed a group called the War Activities Committee which establish a mutual cooperation in the national interest especially in film. The purpose of this was to bring out emotionalism and to glorify the blood and tears that came with the War. “ “Though the screen missed its chance to protest against fascism in a manner worthy of its might, “ wrote Cecelia Ager, film critic for PM, “now it got the opportunity to redeem itself. Now it got the opportunity to exalt democracy in a manner worthy of its might”” ( Jacobs 10).
There were six basic themes which was used as a guide for the Hollywood film industry by the government to contribute to the all­out struggle:

(1) The Issues of the War: what we are fighting for , the American Way of Life; (2): The Nature of the Enemy: his ideology, his objectives, his methods; (3) The United Nations: our allies in arms; (4) The Production Front: supplying the materials for victory; (5) The Home Front: civilian responsibility; (6) The Fighting Forces: our armed services, our allies, and our associates. (Jacobs 10)

If the directors followed these guidelines, freedom of the screen content was highly respected by the government. But stemming from this freedom, came an abundant amount of pressure on the studios to create the best possible motion pictures as a “‘weapon of democracy’ as morale ‘vitamins,’ and ‘for the presentation of the government’s message here and elsewhere’” (Jacobs 10). The government had high expectations for the American Film industry to promote the idea of America at War. One of the most famous films to emerge in Hollywood during World War II was Casablanca in 1942. Warner Brother thought of the film as a “run­ of­ the­mill topical melodrama” (Ames). However, once the film was completely done, Warner Brothers realized they had made something special. This feeling was confirmed through the box office and at the Academy Awards. This film was to capitalize the Allied capture of Casablanca. This film was very popular and grossed three times its production cost and won an Oscar for being the best screen play, director, and picture. Casablanca even today is one of the most shown films on television. What gave Casablanca a lasting reputation was partly the genius of the system. through the assembly line artistry in the studios. Another reason why Casablanca was made so well was because the mixtures of different writers, both Hal Wallis and Michael Curtis were both directors for the film, and the famous song “ As Time Goes By”, and the actors gave an appealing concoction of emotionalism and sadness. The timing of Casablanca added to it’s success;coming out after the attack on Pearl Harbor, so the interventional message Casablanca sent was no longer controversial propaganda but now a encouraging form of wisdom of the commitment of the United States in the War. The interventionalist theme is very hard to pass by. An example of the message would be when Ricky says ‘“ I stick my head out for nobody,’ the local police chief, Louis responds, ‘A very wise foreign policy’” (Ames). Rick speaks to citizens of the United States when he muses to the piano player Sam and explains that it is December 1941 in Casablanca and wonders what time it is in New York, and thinks that most of America is probably asleep. Through Ricks conversion from “selfish neutrality to passionate commitment is made all the more convincing by Bogart’s tough­guy outsider style” (Ames). Ricks committed sacrifice makes the citizens of the United States feel good about themselves. The casting in Casablanca very much represented the Nazi refugees and was very authentic because at least 24 of the 74 cast members were real refugees. As ironic as it may be, most Nazi’s in Hollywood films were played by Jewish refugees. Casablanca was classified as a United Nations film by the OWI. This film was classified in such a way because it emphasized the alliance of the Allied effort and includes many different nationalities even a good Russian and a good German character.The scene where the song “Watch on the Rhine” takes place is one of the most emotional and moving scenes of the movie and “reflects the larger war and demonstrates the heroism and populist strength of the resistance; the insular community of Casablanca symbolizes a world trapped in moral conflict” (Ames).

As the War become more vicious, the amount of motion picture grew and they became barbarous and serious. These films covered the War in all places and included every army service. Movies such as W ar Dogs, Thunderbirds, Flying Tiger, and Suicide Squadron made in 1942 were made to keep up with current events. Some of these films were an attempt to reconstruct history, the actor became less like ators and more like soldiers, and there was no room for happy endings. The movie Wake Island was an example of a film which reenacted the heroic resistance by the American Marines there, and the film was unique because its harsh expressiveness. Some people in the film industry wanted to keep the harsh truth from the public, but Harry M. Warner, the president of Warner Brothers Pictures, rejected any desertion of war films. Both Warner and Bosley Crowther agreed that “ the public is not tired of war’s realities, but of woefully cheap make­believe…What [they] want in our war films is honest expression of national resolve and a clear indication of realities adorned with Hollywood hoop­la” (Jacobs 10). The chief of the Office of War Information’s Bureau of Motion Pictures, noticed the fact that Hollywood had relied on melodramatic parts of conflict without showing the meaning of the war or what the war was really all about. He explains that he thinks it’s impossible for Americans to understand the War when they are completely safe on their land. From this came the beginning of the War documentaries, and one of the most famous ones was the W hy We Fight Series. In this series were many famous documentaries like “T he Prelude to War, The Nazi Strike, Divide and Conquer, The Battle of Britain and T he Battle of Russia” (Jacob 14). These military films were clear and on point with their impact and bleeding persuasiveness. This documentary set a high standard for the rest of Hollywood’s studio created products. This series was made under the supervision of Hollywood, documentary film craftsmen, and most importantly Lieutenant Colonel Frank Capra. The Capra Series was created because of the belief of “if a man knows his enemy, the reasons for war, and why he is fighting, he will make a better soldier” (Jacob 14). Hollywood began to dive deeper into American Allies and their actualities. Many of the films on foreign soil were based on stories of escape and heros, but very few focused on the effects of civilian life. Now the new focus shifted to the conquered people in Nazi­occupied Europe. Films now not only went deeper into the lives of their characters but also began to bring about the arguments of political aspects of fascism in not only its barbarism, and the need for people to resist the Nazi rule to keep their freedom.

By the end of the United State’s second year being involved in the war, the films about “fighting forces” began to unidentify themselves from their romantic military history. The romantic involvement in home pictures with scenes of flag waving and kisses goodbye, which molded the first war film, became very rare. The documentaires now focused on the anxieties, sentimental aspirations, and painful, violent, and “beautiful” death in combat. American films were attempting to reach out to the heart and actual reality of the War. Movies began to broadcast the savage killing and obscenity of war, its solemness and debilitation, the soldiers dignity, his state of conscience and intimate decision, and his satisfaction in group leadership. The camera became a first hand witness to the pain, bitterness, and horror of World War II on all parts of the globe, on ships, submarines, jungles, bomber fields, beaches, and jungles. Films such as Bataan (1943) and Guadacanal Diary (1944) imbued unavoidable convictions of horror. They documented the desperate involvement of men in close accommodation of each other, the traumatizing muteness of men before death, and the puzzling sense of war’s amount of casualties. Even though combat films gave the community a sense of realism and awareness, the homefront films were very important in helping the people cope. They gave film a sense of humor to ease the pain of families with anxiety and going through immense change. These films were proven to help the American people lift their spirits in a time when husbands, brothers and fathers were gone, food rationing was in place, immobility due to gas conservation, their wages frozen, and income taxes were raised. By 1945, the rise of victories for the United States and our Allies in the war, shifted the producers away from the constant production of war films. There soon was a scramble for post war themes and Hollywood was the first industry to do it.

Simulated by the urge of the war, the American film industry during World War II gained purpose and direction. The films gave entertainment to the people working hard to provide weapons for the war, the mourning families to be proud of their passed loved ones, nationalism and for the soldiers who bravely fought for freedom. These films gave the American people a clearer sense of what was going on overseas which led to public awareness and emotionalizing the war situation. The real opportunity came in emotionalizing the war experience, which led to the exposure of the horrors of the enemy, their ideology, treatment of our Allied forces by the enemy, and a more noble depiction of American fighting men. By the dramatizing the stories of our conquered friends the films tried to explain what America and our Allies were fighting for. Hollywood held up its urgent obligations psychologically and materialistically. Out of more than seventeen hundred films made during World War II, over five hundred of the pictures were directly based on the horrors of fascism and war. The best films of World War II were the films which broke through the barricades of propaganda and entertainment to push the truth of the horror and dread let loose by both fascism and World War II itself. The American film industry proved itself in Hollywood during World War II to be one of the most influential weapons and propaganda tools to bring out the emotions, cooperation, nationalism, awareness, and comfort to the American public.

Works Cited
“World War Ii and the 1950s.” E ncyclopedia of American Cultural and Intellectual History. Eds. Mary Kupiec Cayton and Peter W. Williams. Farmington: Gale, 2001. C redo Reference. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.
Jacobs, Lewis. “World War II and the American Film.” C inema Journal 7 (1967): 1­21. J STOR. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.
Springer, Claudia. “Military Propaganda: Defense Department Films from World War II and
Vietnam.” C ultural Critique No. 3.American Representations of Vietnam (1986): 151­67. JSTOR. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.


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