Thursday, February 28, 2013

Hollywood Commandos - 1997

“Hollywood Commandos” (1997) is a made-for-television documentary that classic film buffs, as well as students of World War II history, should see.  It tells the story of one Army Air Corps unit that profoundly altered the training of troops, how the war was to be fought, and documented the entire military experience of World War II from recruitment, to technology, to combat action, to the grisly discovery of Hitler’s concentration camps and the apocalyptic scenes after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Its home base of operations—Hollywood.
This Army Air Corp unit was called the First Motion Picture Unit, or FMPU.  Though the motion picture industry made many contributions to the war effort—in battle and home front pictures to boost morale, in welcoming servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen, and in the promotion of bond selling—FMPU was the motion picture industry’s greatest and most valuable participation.  We know that many film actors put their careers on hold to join the military during those years, but the FMPU was as if the industry itself put on a uniform.
We discussed “Resisting Enemy Interrogation” (1944) here last week as part of the Fabulous Films of the 1940s blogathon.  That film was produced by FMPU. 
FMPU had its start when the Warner Bros. studio, a step ahead of the other studios to openly denounce the fascist powers of Europe and acknowledge the coming storm, produced a series of shorts about the different armed services.  Army Air Corps General “Hap” Arnold contacted studio head Jack Warner and asked for a recruitment film.  As we mentioned in last week’s post, when the US entered the war we were far behind our enemies in combat strength and had a lot of catching up to do.
Jack Warner was made a Lieutenant Colonel (the unit would later be commanded by famed movie stunt pilot Col. Paul Mantz), and he, along with writer/producer (later Colonel) Owen Crump, launched production on “Winning Your Wings”.  James Stewart, who was already in the Army Air Corps as a pilot, was pulled off duty to star and narrate this film.  It was made in 18 days and rushed out to theaters and college campuses. 
It is reported that over 150,000 enlistees into the Army Air Corps can be traced directly to seeing this movie.
So the race began to catch up to the enemy, both in recruitment and in training, and FMPU was established in June 1942.  The unit soon moved to the old Hal Roach studio.  Where Laurel and Hardy bungled their way through odd jobs, and the Our Gang kids messily marched through childhood, the new 18th Air Force Base Unit churned out training films, recruitment and morale films, and trained combat photographers. 
Many Hollywood technicians were called into this unit: writers, directors, cameramen, carpenters, makeup men.  Most of the actors were starting their careers and were for the most part, unknown.  This was useful in depicting the trainees as average guys with whom their Army Air Corps audience could identify.  Stars tended to take away attention from the lesson.  Captain Ronald Reagan was the personnel officer for this unit, and appeared in a few films, including “Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter”.  In this, he plays a trainee who mistakenly fires at an American plane piloted by Craig Stevens, who is understandably grumpy about it.  This film was made because several friendly fire incidents needed to be addressed early in the war.
For the most part, Captain Reagan’s participation in these films was as a narrator.  Craig Stevens also appears as a pilot trainee in “How to Fly the B-26 Airplane” (1944).  Don Porter is his instructor.  It’s not as good a story as “Resisting Enemy Interrogation”, but if you can stick out watching it, you will most certainly know how to fly a B-26 airplane.
“Hollywood Commandos” is a terrific documentary that gives a glimpse into the making of these films.  Loaded with archival footage, there are also several interviews, with Owen Crump, with writers, directors, technicians, actors including Ronald Reagan, DeForest Kelly (whom we may most remember as Dr. "Bones" McCoy on the "Star Trek" TV series), and also Craig Stevens in what must have been his last appearance on film before his death a few years after this documentary was made.  Many anecdotes are told, some quite funny. 

Stevens comically relates his dread of appearing in “Three Cadets” which dramatized the dangers of venereal disease and the protocol for treatment.  Lt. (later Capt.) William Orr, the father of the writer/director/producer of this documentary, had a famous role “Three Cadets”, and he tells a funny story about it. 


Other actors in this unit who later became more well-known include Arthur Kennedy, Van Heflin, George Reeves, and George Montgomery. 

Some of the actors in this unit who were already started or well along in their careers include Alan Ladd, William Holden, Ronald Reagan, of course, and Clark Gable was attached to the unit briefly and flew on combat missions to film documentary footage.
“Hollywood Commandos” has a fascinating segment on a top-secret project to create a huge scale model of Japan, all detail done by hand, and film a virtual “fly over” to educate flight crews who would be sent on missions over Japan.
There are dramatic segments on the “Learn and Live” and “Ditch and Live” films that instruct flights crews on how to survive a crash.  These lessons were the forerunners of the US military’s later survival schools.
Some of the training was done through animation, and much voiceover work was volunteered by the great Mel Blanc.
“Hollywood Commandos” points out in a chilling sequence that, as it was said at the time, the first shots of the war came not from a cannon or gun, but from a camera—and we see German director Leni Riefenstahl’s jaw-dropping Hitler spectacle of the Nuremberg rallies, “Triumph of the Will” (1935).  Film was now a weapon of war, and who mastered the art of filmmaking in terms of gathering and disseminating information would win the war.
FMPU, and other film units of the various branches of the military, played a huge role in our victory. 

It is poignant that Gregory Orr, the son of a member of this unit, created this documentary as a tribute to this mostly forgotten aspect of Hollywood history.  Likewise, it is poignant that Ron Reagan, the son of another member, Ronald Reagan, narrates.

I was able to see this film by special arrangement with Mr. Orr, but the rights to this documentary are owned by AMC, and unfortunately, they have not released it either on VHS or DVD.  It should be available to younger generations to see and learn about the immense value the film industry had to the generation that fought World War II.
Maybe you can help.  I would ask readers of this blog to contact the AMC network here: and request that they either broadcast “Hollywood Commandos” again, or make it available for sale as a DVD.
I leave you with one more film, and I urge you to watch it.  It’s not long, only about nine minutes, but here Ronald Reagan narrates “Wings for This Man” (1945).  It is about the Tuskegee Airmen, first unit of African-American pilots and flight crews in the Army Air Corps.  We may sometimes dismiss wartime films under the umbrella label of “propaganda”, but that label does a disservice to this film and any film that enlightens us on what we are, and more importantly, what we should be.
For more information on the First Motion Picture Unit, have a look here, and here.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Resisting Enemy Interrogation - 1944

“Resisting Enemy Interrogation” (1944) is an intriguing film partly because of what it accomplishes, and partly because of what it represents.  It was a training film made by the Army Air Corps, but tells a story so skillfully that it was nominated for an Academy Award for best feature-length documentary.  Some well-known Hollywood stars appear in it, and some unknowns who later became stars.
This post is part of the Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association.  Please visit the other blogs listed here at the CMBA website for more great films of the Forties.
“Resisting Enemy Interrogation” is a short film, only just over an hour, that shows a bomber crew being captured by the Germans.  The film begins with the narrator, Lloyd Nolan, who will also appear later on in the film as a US debriefing officer.  Nolan drones the comfortable opening words, “Tired of it all, gentlemen?” 
The camera pans on a pleasant pastoral scene, but an undercurrent of tension soon begins to filter through and we are brought to an interrogation camp in this idyllic countryside where the men of this crew, and us by proxy, will be put through a very serious test.  How much will they reveal to the enemy? 
The film was made by the US Army Air Corps First Motion Picture Unit (or FMPU).  We’ll discuss more about this unique unit of World War II American forces next week.  Hundreds of films were made by this unit, some were for raising morale, some were meant for recruitment, but most were like “Resisting Enemy Interrogation”, training films.
One of the marvels of US participation in World War II was our country’s speedy production of war materials (we had a lot of ground to make up when our enemies had spent a generation preparing for war), and also our speedy preparation of fighting troops.  We took hundreds of thousands of civilians with no military experience and en mass turned them into warriors.  Urgency and survival compelled us to act quickly.  One of the best tools for doing this turned out to be film.
The young people who became our fighting forces were the first generation to have grown up watching movies.  What better device to teach them?  This was a new tactic for teaching, not only for the military, and would lead to the use of multi-media in education ever afterward.
“Resisting Enemy Interrogation” was not just a series of do’s and don’ts.  It had a story, and what may be surprising to the audience is that the Germans here are not presented as bombastic, evil, stupid stereotypes.  They are the tricky enemy, to be sure, with no good intent.  But we look over their shoulders watching their efforts to deceive the Americans; we spend as much time observing their viewpoint as their captives'.  Their calm sleuthing is set against the Americans’ anxiety.  It makes for a fascinating story. 
As the American crew is led to their captivity, they are warned by co-pilot Don Porter, “We will not talk.”  He reminds them they are to provide to the enemy only their name, rank, and serial number.  As the movie unfolds, we see the many devious ways the Germans have of extracting more information from them—using trickery, kindness, intimidation, and even using simple small talk as a way of furthering how much information they acquire.
The German head of command, played by Carl Esmond, whom you may have seen in dozens of films and TV, is a clever, mannered chap who is teaching a new officer (and us) about interrogation.  He remarks, “Just as there is no such thing as an innocent question, there is no such thing as a valueless statement.”
Anything the American men say can be useful to the enemy.  One by one, through the course of this film, we see how they are tricked.  If we found ourselves in the same situation we might be fooled in the very same way.  It all seems so innocent.
Like many of FMPU’s films, this had a cast largely of unknowns, some of whom would later become more familiar to us.  Don Porter plays an officer in the downed bomber crew, easy going, and genuinely surprised to be given a nice room and treated royally by his captors.  Later in the film when Commandant Esmond primes the pump by dropping hints that he already knows all about the bomber’s mission, Porter shrugs, figures, oh, well, if it’s common knowledge—and spills facts.
Kent Smith plays a German officer who was raised in the US, and so with his knowledge and his comfortable camaraderie with the American boys, tricks them into trusting him.
Hans Twardowski has minor role as a German Red Cross representative, also out to trick the men into filling out Red Cross forms that ask too much information.  You may remember him from “Casablanca” as a Nazi soldier.
James Seay plays the bomber crew Captain, most stalwart of the group, yet even he slips up and gives information he has no idea he’s giving.
Arthur Kennedy is a standout in the film as a cocky crewmember who thinks he’s going to outwit the Germans by giving them false info, but they are onto him and twist his words so that they find out the truth.  Kennedy gives a raw performance as man who is clearly rattled by these mind games.
It’s interesting to watch the Germans cleverly sort out the mystery of where the downed bomber came from, and where it was going.  By putting together small bits of information the men have unwittingly given them in unguarded moments, the Germans discover where the next raid of American bombers is likely to come from and where their next target is to be. 
When that next bomber mission occurs, the Nazis are waiting for them.  They shoot down most of the squadron of planes.  The footage, simulated obviously, of the American planes being shot down is not what that first generation of boys who grew up on movies would have ever expected to see.  It is brutal, with planes on fire, with machinegun fire ripping through crews, and images of blood spurting from the heads and faces of pilots and gunners.  The lesson about not talking is driven home graphically.
Only a few crews from this mission limp home.  They are debriefed by Lloyd Nolan, and bewildered over how the mission could have failed so badly. 
Rand Brooks has a small part as an American  back at the base, who grimly makes the accusation, “Somebody talked!”
George O’Hanlon, whom you might remember from a bunch of “Joe McDoakes” shorts also appears back at the base.  Mel Torme has a bit part as a pilot, though I confess I didn’t spot him.
Craig Stevens plays a returning pilot back at the base as well, interrogated by Lloyd Nolan after the disastrous mission.  Nolan, in that wonderfully edgy, serious tone that makes you pay attention to him no matter how quietly he is speaking, calms the men and tells them that the only information they are ever to give is their name, rank, and serial number.  Above all, don’t talk.
Then he looks right into the camera, right at us.  “Don’t talk.  Don’t talk.  Don’t talk.”
We may never talk again.
The FMPU was comprised of men from all the different Hollywood studios.  Some of them were not actually in the Army Air Corps, like Nolan, and like occasional guest actor Guy Kibbee.  The others who were, ranged from actors, writers, directors, cameramen, many of whom served their entire hitch here in Hollywood, and others who went on combat missions photographing the war, or to serve in other units.  More on that next week.
I’m not certain at this time the military rank of the men who performed in this film or many other FMPU training films.  I do believe Arthur Kennedy was a sergeant.  I believe Craig Stevens was a corporal.  Sgt. David Rose, incidentally, composed the music score for this film.
The AMC channel broadcast a documentary in 1997 made by Gregory Orr Productions called
“Hollywood Commandos”, about the First Motion Picture Unit, and we’ll be discussing that next Thursday.
“Resisting Enemy Interrogation”, now in the public domain, can be watched here on YouTube.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Kissing Booth Answers

We had some very good guesses. Our kissing couples are:
A:  An aggressive Jane Wyman and a totally surprised Leon Ames in “Let’s Do it Again” (1953), which we discussed here. 
B: Alexis Smith has been trying to get Franchot Tone to notice her in “Here Comes the Groom” (1952), discussed here.  She finally succeeds. 
C:  One of my favorite movie kisses.  Mary Wickes shows her approval of Bing Crosby in “White Christmas” (1954).
D:  Richard Barthlemess gives one of the most tender, sweet screen kisses to faithful friend Aline MacMahon in “Heroes for Sale” (1933), discussed here. 
E: Dan Dailey kisses Cyd Charisse for luck in “Meet Me in Las Vegas” (1956). 
F:  Jane Russell and Victor Mature in a flashback of better days in “Las Vegas Story” (1952). 
G:  Lovely Lillian Gish and dashing Conrad Nagel in “One Romantic Night” or “The Swan” (1930),which we discussed here. 
Come back Thursday for the CMBA Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon and “Resisting Enemy Interrogation” (1944).
My twin brother John and I just published a children's picture book.  Bob the Bear Likes to Run is the story of  a bear named Bob who likes to run.
Picture book, pre-K.  Bob the Bear loves to run, but when his friend enters him in a race, Bob faces a bewildering world of competition.  When he trips on his shoelace and falls, he is more worried about disappointing his friend than losing the race.  Both friends learn in this warm and gentle story that winning isn’t everything and there’s always a next time to try again.
Now available as an eBook through Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Smashwords.  Other eBook outlets and print version to follow.



Thursday, February 14, 2013

Valentine's Day Kissing Booth

Happy Valentine's Day... join us here in the kissing booth.  Who's doing all this kissing, and from what movie?  Answers on Monday.


Thursday, February 7, 2013

Coming Up in February...

This is to announce what’s happening here in February.  First, the Classic Movie Blog Association is running its “Fabulous Films of the 1940s” blogathon from February 17th through 22nd.  Visit the CMBA blog here for a roster of all the great bloggers participating and the films they’ve chosen to explore this exciting decade in film.
My pick is “Resisting Enemy Interrogation” (1944), which will be posted Thursday, February 21st.  If you haven’t heard of the film, don’t worry, it’s probably just because you’re a civilian.  This was made by the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Corps as a training film for troops and was never shown to the general public.  However, unlike a lot of rather dry training films, this one is a smash, one of the most intriguing and dramatic films to come out of the war, despite its simple lesson of giving only your name, rank, and serial number.  Nobody actually “stars” in this training movie, but you’ll see a lot of young men who later became familiar faces: Arthur Kennedy, Craig Stevens, Don Porter, and Mel Torme.  Rand Brooks and Kent Smith already had made a foothold on their film careers.  Lloyd Nolan, the only “veteran” so to speak, of the group, is our narrator and debriefing officer.
You may recall (or not) that some months ago I put out an APB on the TV documentary “Hollywood Commandos” (1997) about this First Motion Picture Unit (or FMPU).  With special thanks to Moira Finnie of The Skeins, I was able to contact Mr. Gregory Orr, the producer of this documentary, who (though the film is not currently available for sale), kindly provided me with a copy.  The following week, February 28th, I’ll be discussing "Hollywood Commandos" and the FMPU in more detail as a follow-up to “Resisting Enemy Interrogation.”
I’m looking forward to it.  In the meantime, I’ll see you next week with a Valentine’s Day kissing booth.  But don’t get any ideas.

Coming up: I'll be speaking at the Westfield Athenaeum, Westfield, Massachusetts on Tuesday, March 12th in celebration of Women's History Month. I'll be drawing from essays in my recently published States of Mind: New England. This, and some of my novels, will be available for sale at this event.

I'll be appearing with a number of other local authors at the Author Fair at the Springfield City Library, Springfield, Massachusetts on Saturday, April 6th. This will be a meet-and-greet event with the public, and a selection of my books will be available for sale.

I'll be speaking at the Chicopee Historical Society, meeting at the Chicopee Public Library on Thursday, May 16th with a PowerPoint presentation about topics from my recently published States of Mind: New England. That book will be available for sale at this event.


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