Some of us are addicted to history. We can’t help it. I was well on my way to a probably less than useful PhD in Modern European History when I decided to chuck it in favor of a perhaps slightly more useful life as a journalist. But events keep luring me back to the historical pantry for one more bite of the apple.
Watching Hollywood search for footing amid the coronavirus pandemic—Deadline has chronicled the closures, financial patchwork, morale-building, industry relief efforts, and aid to the general community by the likes of the CORE program run by Ann Lee and Sean Penn—I wanted another look at the show business response to an even larger (so far) but much less ephemeral crisis, America’s descent into World War II. More than Korea, Vietnam, or even the 9/11 attacks, that seems the last moment in which the entertainment industry could rise to meet and help overcome a general disaster.
While sheltering in place, I could think of one readily available marker: The 1941 annual report of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which is posted online by the group’s Margaret Herrick Library. What the report offered is a bracing reminder of how effective Hollywood can be when it applies its greatest skill—a talent for instant mobilization—to a problem bigger than just putting on a show.
The report is undated, but was apparently written in the early part of 1942, when director John Ford was still on his way to the Battle of Midway (setting up a cameo in last year’s Midway from Roland Emmerich). Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, drawing the U.S. into a war that had been raging since September of 1939. As America—entirely uncertain of its prospects and safety—dove in, the film Academy dove with it.
The 1941 report began with a blunt re-statement of purpose from president Walter Wanger, a veteran film producer. “Without minimizing the cultural, educational and inter-branch cooperative functions for which it is primarily organized,” wrote Wanger, “the outstanding contributions of the Academy during the past year have been in the field of National Defense.”
The organ through which the Academy mobilized was its Research Council, a collection of production executives chaired by Darryl F. Zanuck. Its main contribution was to offer Washington instant access to the studios’ filmmaking apparatus. Zanuck explained in a note to the report: “Through the Research Council, the entire vast production facilities and creative talent of the American film industry has been made available to the War Department entirely on a non-profit basis.” There were to be no charges for overhead, equipment, stage space or other facilities.
Remarkably, Hollywood had already contributed to dozens of military educational films by the time Wanger compiled his report. In truth, it had jumped the gun by training one Army Signal Corps officer in each of the eight years since Hitler’s rise in 1933. Some of the resulting films covered mundane if necessary subjects like “Sex Hygiene” and “Personal Hygiene.” Others were more technical, telling, for instance, how to use wire-cutters, or how to service a 240 mm howitzer.
Hollywood’s war effort, initiated by the Academy, grew from there. Filmmakers and executives served in the military. Stars like Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich waited on soldiers and sailors at the Hollywood Canteen. A flood of morale-boosting war dramas quickly followed. Some were as silly as Delmer Daves’ Destination Tokyo, which found Cary Grant scowling through a periscope as an unlikely submarine captain in Tokyo Bay. Others were as profound as Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca, which probed the intricacies of wartime collaboration and commitment, delivering lessons Leni Riefenstahl’s bombastic Nuremberg film could never match. Even Ben Urwand’s The Collaboration: Hollywood’s Pact With Hitler, which chronicled studio appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, noted that around 800 of 1,500 features between 1942 and 1945 addressed the war.
Ford, for his part, served as a Naval Reserve commander, attached to the newly born Office of Strategic Services. He and his corps of Hollywood camera jockeys went into the thick of the action. At Midway in June of 1942, Ford was in thick of the battle, calling targets for anti-aircraft gunners and shooting footage for his The Battle of Midway, which managed to rally viewers while giving a realistic picture of war’s horrors. Back home at the Academy, newly created documentary Oscar categories were soon honoring that film and others that were designed to involve the audience with a war effort that was taking sons and daughters into a conflict that few yet understood.
Coronavirus, of course, is more elusive than a foreign enemy, and is still very new. For the moment, the Academy—with staff advised to work at home—has concentrated on holding things together internally, and helping the industry to regroup. In a statement on Wednesday evening, an Academy spokesperson explained:
The Academy is focused on helping our staff, our members, and the industry safely navigate through this global health and economic crisis. We are in the process of evaluating all aspects of this uncertain landscape and what changes may need to be made. We are committed to being nimble and forward-thinking as we discuss what is best for the future of the industry and will make further announcements in the coming days.
But history has a way of asserting itself. If the viral crisis continues, there’s no reason to believe the industry, and its movie Academy, won’t be in the fight.
How the new effort will shape up is far from clear. It might well involve Canteen-like initiatives. (The wife of one established producer has privately been delivering supplies to Los Angeles shut-ins for weeks.) Or those fleets of production tents, trucks, and parking lots might play a role, if temporary hospitals and emergency pipelines become the order of the day. There might even be a place for a new round of hygiene films, or some sophisticated, film-driven mental health counseling. With all of its imagination–another of its great assets–the film community will find a way to help.