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Perhaps the most significant and complex development in prewar Hollywood was the on-screen treatment of the war. While what might be termed the “war film” began to take shape during this period, this development was by no means a uniform or coherent process. Rather, the war film developed in different ways and at a very different pace in newsreels, documentary shorts, and features, with nonfiction films taking the lead in covering both the war overseas and war-related events at home. And when feature films did begin treating war-related stories and themes in 1940—1941, they were likely to do so in any number of genres and forms—from slapstick farce and romantic comedy to female Gothic and family melodrama, and most prominently in spy films and suspense thrillers. Noticeably lacking, in fact, were the combat films and home-front melodramas that would typify Hollywood’s war-film production during and after the war.

Despite this rather uneven and haphazard treatment of the war in 1940-1941, most of the industry’s war-related output shared a common thematic emphasis. With the out-break of war in Europe, Hollywood’s fiction and nonfiction films tended to be firmly pro-interventionist, pro-military, and anti-totalitarian. The newsreels, documentaries (both studio-produced shorts and imported features), and dramatic features released in the United States from 1939 through 1941 consistently portrayed the Axis powers, especially Nazi Germany, as a threat to the interests of America and its allies and to the American way of life. These films also depicted U.S. preparedness as absolutely necessary owing to what came to be perceived as America’s inevitable entry into the war. 93 There were a few pro-Nazi films in circulation, most of them German-produced documentaries released by independent distributors on a very limited basis. By 1941, these had virtually disappeared from the U.S. market, which by then was dominated by pro-Allied and interventionist pictures produced either in the United States or Britain.

Actually, Hollywood’s interventionist and pro-military—if not to say pro-war—stance was rarely evident in its feature films before 1940. As late as 1938-1939, with the European markets still open and isolationist sentiments at home still relatively strong, films criticizing fascism or promoting the U.S. military buildup were simply not considered good business. Before 1940, in fact, only Warner Bros. seemed willing to treat political conditions in Europe directly in feature films, owing largely to Harry Warner’s virulent anti-Nazism. Bucking current industry wisdom, Warners released CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY in April 1939. The documentary-style feature starred Edward G. Robinson as an FBI agent battling German espionage in the United States, and the film actually mentioned Hitler and Nazi Germany despite PCA objections. The critics raved, with the National Board of Review naming CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY “the best film of the year from any country.” 94 But the public was less enthusiastic; after doing moderate business in the United States, the picture was either banned or heavily censored overseas (including Great Britain). 95 Warners released a similar film in September 1939, ESPIONAGE AGENT , starring Joel McCrea; it too fared better critically than commercially, despite the outbreak of war in Europe that same month.

Conditions in Europe and the escalating U.S. defense buildup in late 1939 induced the other studios to deal with the war in dramatic features, although it would be well into 1940 before the results reached the screen. Warners remained the trendsetter, releasing THE FIGHTING 69TH in January 1940. The World War I drama starring James Cagney was important because it depicted Americans in combat against a German enemy (albeit a quarter-century earlier), and also because it involved the successful adaptation of both a Warners star and an established formula into a war story. THE FIGHTING 69TH depicts the conversion of Cagney’s swaggering, self-centered tough guy, so familiar from crime and action films, into a team player on behalf of the war effort. Significantly enough, the conversion is sparked by a priest, played by Pat O’Brien—something O’Brien’s clergyman had been unable to accomplish with Cagney’s gangster a year before in ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES . Cagney did “see the light” before going to the chair in the earlier film, but in THE FIGHTING 69TH his conversion results in a more heroic demise: Cagney gives up his life for his fellow soldiers by throwing himself on a German grenade.

THE FIGHTING 69TH was among Warners’ biggest hits in 1940, and its popular and commercial success enhanced Hollywood’s general shift to war-related features that year. By the spring and summer, as the Nazi blitzkrieg overran Europe and pushed to the English Channel, Hollywood had begun a blitz of its own—although with very few movies dealing directly with World War II. Indeed, one of the more interesting aspects of Hollywood’s own “conversion” to war-film production in 1940 was its continued avoidance of the current war and its tendency, à la Warners in THE FIGHTING 69TH , to treat the war indirectly. According to one industry survey, Hollywood from September 1939 through August 1940 released 129 features (including 27 from Britain and France) and 60 shorts “dealing with the war and the troubles in Europe, national defense and preparedness, patriotism and Americanism, dictators and democracies.” 96 This number included a remarkably wide range of genres, from Civil War epics and foreign legion films to westerns. In terms of features directly related to World War II, however, Hollywood’s output was still quite limited. According to an in-depth study by James Earl Shain, Hollywood produced only six World War II-related films in 1939 (1.2 percent of its 483 releases), and twelve in 1940 (2.5 percent of 477 releases).

Most of those appeared later in the year as the industry shifted noticeably to more militaristic, nationalistic, and political themes and to a heavier emphasis on U.S. preparedness. “By 1940 Hollywood had crossed an important threshold,” note Clayton Koppes and Gregory Black in Hollywood Goes to War . “Some studios had begun to make explicitly interventionist films.” 98 In September, Thomas Brady of the New York Times observed that “only in recent months” had the movies begun “proposing active American counteraction” to Nazi aggression. 99 Later that month, Bosley Crowther, noting the coming “wave of propaganda pictures” in his Times survey of the schedule of   1940-1941 films, commented that “films are fast assuming the role predestined for them in time of crisis.”

While Hollywood turned increasingly to war-related subjects in 1940, the studios relied on established genres and story formulas to dramatize those subjects. FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT , for instance, rehashed ESPIONAGE AGENT as well as Alfred Hitchcock’s quasi-political “chase” films, THE LADY VANISHES and THIRTY-NINE STEPS (1935), and gave the espionage thriller a twist by adding a familiar 1930s screen figure, the crusading, wisecracking reporter (Joel McCrea). MGM’s THE MORTAL STORM (1940), directed by Frank Borzage, was a domestic melodrama about a family torn apart by the Nazis when the family patriarch, a university biology professor, refuses to preach Aryan dogma to his pupils. Even the reviews tended to read the film in terms of family melodrama. Bosley Crowther, for instance, while recognizing the breakthrough status of the picture, opened his review with this assertion: “At last and at a time when the world is more gravely aware than ever of the relentless mass brutality embodied in the Nazi system, Hollywood has turned its camera-eye upon the most tragic human drama of our age.” 101 Other films also tapped the family melodrama in anti-Nazi pictures—FOX’s FOUR SONS (1940), for instance—though none as successfully as THE MORTAL STORM , due to Borzage’s sensitive direction, the all-star cast (including James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, and Robert Young), and the clear invocation of the “Jewish question.”

Another interesting 1940 genre variation was Warners’ THE MANI MARRIED , which cast Joan Bennett in a female Gothic about a woman whose German-American husband gradually is won over by Nazi propaganda during a trip to Europe. The film is also notable for being one of the first mainstream features to actually use the word Jew in dealing with the Jewish question. 102 A more sanguine variation was A RISE MY LOVE (1940), an offbeat romantic comedy scripted by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder about two reporters (Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland) who fall in love while covering the war in Europe.

Perhaps the most significant genre variation was THE GREAT DICTATOR , with Chaplin’s Little Tramp transposed into a meek Jewish barber who is mistaken for the dictator Adenoid Hynkel. Released in late 1940, THE GREAT DICTATOR was a huge critical and commercial success, emerging as the number-two box-office hit of 1941. The numberone hit in 1941 was SERGEANT YORK , Warners’ biopic of a reluctant World War I hero, and among the other top ten hits that year were A YANK IN THE RAF , DIVE BOMBER , and CAUGHT IN THE DRAFT . These clearly signaled an increased audience interest in warrelated features in 1941, as Hollywood intensified its direct treatment of the current war. According to Shain, 32 of the studios’ 492 releases (6.5 percent) in 1941 dealt with World War II. The majority were espionage thrillers, as the spy genre proved increasingly amenable to war-related adjustment. In fact, over one-third of the 50 Hollywood features from 1939 to 1941 related to World War II (18 in all) were spy films.’

Chief among the war-related spy films in 1941 was MAN HUNT , a Fritz Lang-directed thriller about an effete big-game hunter (Walter Pidgeon) who decides to take a shot at Hitler, simply for the sport of it. Like so many of the war films of 1940—1941, MAN HUNT featured a conversion narrative, with the hero eventually being caught and tortured by the Gestapo, escaping to England, then joining the military to get a legitimate shot at Hitler. The majority of conversion narratives were decidedly less offbeat than MAN HUNT , tracing instead the fate of the self-assured individualist who, in the course of military training, learns to subordinate his own interests to those of the group. This theme surfaced in a number of military training films—invariably complemented by a celebration of the armament and technology involved, from tanks to dive bombers to submarines. Of the fifty war-related films of 1939-1941, thirteen involved soldiers at home, and virtually all of these focused on military training. The most popular and prevalent of these films were the service comedies mentioned earlier and aviation pictures like INTERNATIONAL SQUADRON (1941), FLIGHT COMMAND (1940), and I WANTED WINGS (1941).

Interestingly enough, only three of the fifty World War II films released in 1939-1941 dealt with soldiers in combat. This proportion would change dramatically in the next few years as the combat film came to dominate the standard conception of the war film and as the service comedies, military training, and espionage films declined. But given the conditions both at home and abroad before the war, it is scarcely surprising that political intrigue and military preparedness were the dominant themes in Hollywood’s war-related output in 1940-1941.

While Hollywood features turned gradually and somewhat belatedly to the subject of World War II, there was extensive prewar treatment of war-related subjects in documentaries and newsreels. The most notable of these were the “March of Time” newsreels, produced by Louis de Rochemont, a young documentary filmmaker educated at MIT and Harvard. De Rochemont created the March of Time in 1934 with the backing of Time-Life, Inc., and by the late 1930s the international news service and its newsreels were a worldwide success. Issued monthly, usually about fifteen minutes in length Page 122  but occasionally longer, the newsreels covered an array of issues and events. Virtually the only direct mention of Hitler and Nazi Germany on American movie screens before 1939 came via the March of Time, notably in a sixteen-minute May 1938 issue, “Inside Nazi Germany.” From September 1939 to December 1941, over twenty newsreels covered the war and related events in Europe and the Far East.

In 1940, de Rochemont produced the March of Time’s first feature-length documentary, THE RAMPARTS WE WATCH . Released in September, one year after the out-break of the war in Europe, the film combined a celebration of small-town American life with a biting critique of fascism. In 1941, the March of Time turned increasingly to U.S. preparedness, the defense buildup, and other domestic concerns (espionage, the disruption of shipping, etc.). De Rochemont resumed the anti-Nazi, anti-isolationist push in September 1941 with one of his most powerful films, “Peace—By Adolf Hitler,” which traced the German leaders record of broken promises and devastation of Europe.

A very different form of war-related nonfiction filmmaking in Hollywood in 1940-1941 were the military training and informational films. The studios began to regularly produce these one-and two-reel films in late 1940, primarily through a Hollywoodbased reserve unit of the Army Signal Corps comprising some two dozen officers and 300 GIs trained in film production. The unit was headed by Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Levinson, who also acted as vice-chair (under the chairman Darryl Zanuck) of the Motion Picture Academy Research Council, an organization which coordinated industry support for the Signal Corps’ production efforts. 105 By 1941, these efforts were well under way and Zanuck was increasingly involved. In fact, Zanuck himself made a trip to Washington in August to meet with army brass about Hollywood’s military-related filmmaking operations. Zanuck brought with him six of the one hundred or so training films already completed, including a Ford-directed one-reeler, “Sex Hygiene.” (Another forty were in production, including Capra’s “Combat Counter-intelligence.”) The military leaders were favorably impressed, and Zanuck was forthright about the industry’s pro-military, anti-isolationist stance—a position he and his fellow studio heads would publicly defend in the Senate propaganda hearings only a few weeks later.


IN THE NAVY (1941) and EAGLE SQUADRON (1942) provide illuminating examples of Hollywood’s prewar incursion into war-film production. Both were produced and released by Universal and directed by the staffer Arthur Lubin, and both signaled Hollywood’s newfound resolve to cultivate a market for war films. But beyond that, the two films were radically different. IN THE NAVY was an Abbott and Costello service comedy (cum musical) and the second of eight Abbott and Costello vehicles that Universal cranked out in 1941-1942. EAGLE SQUADRON , conversely, was in production longer than all eight of the Abbott and Costello films combined and was an attempt by the independent producer Walter Wanger to integrate drama and documentary in an innovative portrayal of an RAF squadron during the Battle of Britain.

Thus, IN THE NAVY was by far the more routine production, demonstrating the studio’s capacity to respond quickly and effectively to changing social and industrial conditions and to exploit the sudden emergence of new talent as well. Universal’s Abbott and Costello films did exceptional business, averaging about $2 million in revenues and carrying the duo from obscurity in late 1940 to the number-three slot on the Exhibitors’ Poll in 1941 and then, incredibly to the top spot in 1942, displacing Mickey Rooney.

The lanky long-suffering straight man and his dumpy, bumbling sidekick had started in burlesque in the early 1930s, then moved to radio and Broadway late in the decade. They signed with Universal for a second-rate (even by Universal’s standards) 1940 comedy, ONE NIGHT IN THE TROPICS , and then were featured in an early-1941 military farce, BUCK PRIVATES , as a pair of inept army draftees who comically survive basic training and become unlikely heroes. The plot was a pastiche of army jokes and vaudeville routines, interspersed with tunes performed by the Andrews Sisters—including the Oscar-nominated “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B,” which became a wartime standard.

By the time BUCK PRIVATES was released in February 1941, Universal already had finished shooting another Abbott and Costello vehicle, HOLD THAT GHOST (1941), a genre parody that melded gangster and horror formulas with the duo’s verbal-physical comic style. 107 But when BUCK PRIVATES took off at the box office, Universal shelved HOLD THAT GHOST , planning to bring it in line with BUCK PRIVATES by adding a romantic sub-plot and a few Andrews Sisters musical numbers. Meanwhile, the staff producer Alex Gottlieb and the director Arthur Lubin, two B-movie specialists, set to work on a seafaring follow-up to the army comedy. Ten weeks later, IN THE NAVY was “in the can” and ready for release, an incredible feat even by B-movie standards, let alone for a picture destined for holdover first-run release.

Actually, the picture would have been ready even sooner except for problems with the Navy Department—problems suggesting that the regulation of movie content would take on a new dimension during wartime. The plot had Abbott and Costello spatting, pratfalling, and ad-libbing their way through naval recruitment and training. After passing muster with Breen and the PCA, Universal requested official navy approval. The navy’s reply that approval would “not be forthcoming on material of this sort” precluded Universal’s use of navy facilities and file footage, both crucial to the rapid and efficient production of the film. 108 The script was rewritten to accommodate the navy’s concerns, and Breen personally appealed directly to the secretary of the navy on Universal’s behalf. 109 Breen secured navy approval, enabling Lubin to shoot much of the film at a naval training station near Los Angeles.

IN THE NAVY was shot in only twenty-three days at a cost of $479,207, most of which went to Abbott and Costello ($35,000), their costar Dick Powell ($30,000), and the Andrews Sisters ($15,000). Gottlieb earned $6,350 and Lubin $5,166 on the picture, based on their respective salaries of $300 and $350 per week. There were eight musical numbers in the picture (taking up thirty-five of its eighty-five minutes), including another 1940s standard, “Gimme Some Skin.” Just before its release, Universal previewed the film for the navy—and again there were problems. In the film’s chaotic climax, ship maneuvers are botched by Abbott and Costello’s inept signaling, thus implicitly demeaning naval training. At the navy’s behest, Universal sent the picture back into production. In yet another display of efficiency, additional scenes were written, shot, and edited into the picture in only three days, transforming the disastrous maneuvers into a Lou Costello dream sequence.

IN THE NAVY was released in June 1941, and Universal’s newly assembled Abbott and Costello unit—including Gottlieb, Lubin, writer John Grant, cinematographer Joe Valentine, and the Andrews Sisters—then went to work on HOLD THAT GHOST . The overhaul on that picture was completed by August, and the unit then cranked out an air force service comedy, KEEP’EM FLYING , for a November 1941 release. Universal launched the film with a location premiere in Detroit, where retooled automobile plants were producing military aircraft at an incredible pace—although the factory system in Detroit had nothing on Universal’s assembly-line production of Abbott and Costello comedies.

That same month, November 1941, Universal signed a one-picture deal with the independent producer Walter Wanger for EAGLE SQUADRON . Interestingly enough, the Universal-Wanger deal was not to initiate but to complete the project, which already had been in the works for over a year. Difficult projects were not new to Wanger, a Dartmouth-educated Hollywood sophisticate who by 1941 had a reputation for taking risks and challenging industry convention. Wanger had worked his way up through the ranks as an executive and producer at several studios in the 1920s and early 1930s before signing a ten-year deal with UA in 1936, with UA to arrange both financing and distribution. The Wanger-UA union went very well for a few years, but after STAGECOACH in 1939 Wanger produced seven straight box-office flops, with Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT and Ford’s THE LONG VOYAGE HOME (both 1940) among the biggest losers at $370,000 and $225,000, respectively.

That put considerable pressure on Wanger’s EAGLE SQUADRON project, by far his most challenging to date and among the first Hollywood features designed to integrate documentary and fiction material. Wanger developed the project with Merian C. Cooper, a World War I flying ace who made documentaries during the 1920s before getting into movies as a producer. Coopers partner in his documentary and early feature filmmaking efforts was Ernest B. Schoedsack; the two codirected such classic documentaries as GRASS (1925) and CHANG (1927) before coming to Hollywood, where their most successful collaboration was on KING KONG in 1933. Schoedsack was to collaborate on EAGLE SQUADRON as well, shooting and codirecting with the British filmmaker Harry Watt, who had recently completed an acclaimed documentary about the London blitz, TARGET FOR TONIGHT , which had been a success in the United States as well as England, winning a special Oscar in 1941.

The plan for EAGLE SQUADRON was to document the training, exploits, and day-today lives of a group of American pilots who joined the RAF during the Battle of Britain and the London blitz. Wanger and Cooper wanted to use actual combat footage and to have the pilots portray themselves. Some of the picture would be dramatized and in fact would incorporate a rather typical conversion narrative—not unlike the yarn that Zanuck conjured up for Tyrone Power at Fox in 1941, A YANK IN THE RAF, which depicts a Yank mercenary coming around to the British cause. But for the most part, EAGLE SQUADRON would be a factual account of Squadron 71 of the RAF and thus was quite innovative by Hollywood standards, although the number of feature documentaries on the market at the time did create a favorable climate for such an effort.

By the time UA announced EAGLE SQUADRON in July 1941, Watt and Schoedsack already had shot several thousand feet of film. But the Battle of Britain had ended two months earlier, and so Wanger spent much of that “blitzless” summer trying to figure how to reorient the narrative to accommodate the relative lull in the action. There were also problems with the British Air Ministry, which impeded correspondence between the filmmakers and balked at approving the aerial combat footage." 113 In mid-August, Watt and Schoedsack informed Wanger that they still felt that there was a “fine film” to be made on the subject, but that “getting a picture of feature length on the screen, using the boys of 71 Squadron in their actual parts, presents us [with] almost insurmountable problems.” By September, Watt was convinced that “the only way this film now can be made is as a fictional one, using actors as the key members of the squadron, but always against a very factual and realistic background.” The dramatic interplay of the fliers on the ground, now a virtual necessity because of the lack of action in the air, probably could not be “put across by amateurs,” reasoned Watt. “In any case, their feelings would not allow them to reenact the most poignant episodes,” especially those involving the deaths of their fellow fliers.

Wanger agreed and assigned the screenwriter Norman Reilly Raine to do a dramatization of Squadron 71’s story. Raine was ideal for the job, with a background in biopics and action pictures and more recently in war dramas—including THE FIGHTING 69TH and another Cagney film, CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS (1942), about an American flier in the Canadian Air Force. Wanger put Raine to work on the project and informed the UA board of directors of his decision to go with a dramatic approach. He figured that UA, which was responsible for funding his pictures, would be relieved at the decision, but this was hardly the case. UA already had sunk a considerable sum into the project, with little to show for it, and had been through a similar fiasco with FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT , on which Wanger had used over twenty writers and spent $213,000 in script costs alone. UA informed Wanger that there would be no additional funds for EAGLE SQUADRON , and so Wanger decided to leave UA and look for another producer-distributor. Wanger’s split with UA gave the company his profit share on his most recent film, SUNDOWN (1941), and he in turn was able to keep the 14,000 feet already shot for EAGLE SQUADRON .

Wanger shopped the project around Hollywood—but without Cooper, who had taken a commission in the Army Air Corps. The footage from the Battle of Britain and the London blitz proved to be Wanger’s ace in the hole, and several studios expressed interest. The best offer came from Universal, which agreed to put up $60,000 for Raines script and another $50,000 for the documentary footage; the studio also agreed to hire Wanger at $2,500 a week as producer and to finance the completion of the picture. Wanger’s contract gave him “complete supervision and control of this production,” although the studio retained approval rights over the director, cast, and final cut. Wanger had full use of Universal’s personnel and facilities and was allowed a budget “contemplated” in the $700,000 range. All net proceeds were to be split evenly between Universal and Walter Wanger Productions, Inc."

Thus, Wanger became an in-house independent at Universal, with access to the studio’s resources—including the director Arthur Lubin, who was between Abbott and Costello pictures at the time and was quite capable of completing EAGLE SQUADRON quickly and economically. Wanger and Lubin started shooting in January 1942, and the picture was completed and released by summer. By then, its costs were just over $900,000 and the market was glutted with war movies, but the Watt-Schoedsack footage gave the otherwise routine picture a distinctive edge. While the finished product was scarcely what Wanger initially had envisioned, EAGLE SQUADRON was a solid success. The picture grossed $2.4 million, and after Universal’s production and distribution fees were extracted, it turned a profit of nearly $750,000.

By the time EAGLE SQUADRON was released, the United States had gone to war and so had Hollywood. Any hint of caution or hesitation in the movie industry’s support of the war effort was long forgotten by mid-1942—if anything, according to the bureaucrats in the Office of War Information in Washington, Hollywood’s penchant for warmongering had grown too pronounced in the early months of the war. The industry would soon strike a more balanced treatment, however, and would be contributing to the Allied war effort as effectively as any major U.S. industry.

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