Fun at the Pictures

by Carl Zebrowski

Before the age of television, movies ruledthe media. Film had an almost mystical power, a quality that transcendeda picture being worth a thousand words. Nearly 100 million people wentto the movies weekly during World War II. That was three out of every four men, women, and children in the country. Movie studio revenues reached all-time highs of well over $1 billion a year.

Though ticket prices rose 33 percent, a movie outing remained a good value for wartime Americans who, thanks to war-related jobs, had more disposable income than during the Depression. “It only cost 25 cents to go to the movies then,” remembered Barbara Kiser of Chicago at “It cost 5 cents each way on the streetcar, 10 cents for the movie, with 5 cents left over to buy candy.” And besides the feature film, theater-goers got to see a newsreel, the forerunner of TV news, and a short or two. A Three Stooges episode was a possibility. So was an installment of a serial adventure that ended with the hero on the verge of disaster, a cliffhanger designed to bring the viewer back the following week.

Well aware of how many people flocked to the silver screen to worship the likes of Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, and Gary Cooper, and of the mesmerizing influence the superstars had, the government positioned itself to take advantage of the captive audience. The Office of War Information (OWI), established in June 1942 to promote the war effort, distributed a manual to advise film studios what to put in their movies. The manual’s message boiled down to “Will this picture help win the war?” Lest there be any confusion, the OWI answered that question for the studios, reviewing screenplays and offering rewrite suggestions. Though the OWI had no power to censor films, it leveraged all the clout it needed by working with the Office of Censorship, which controlled what movies the studios could ship to the lucrative foreign markets.

So, due in part to what interested a people at war and in part to the strong-arming of the OWI, movies of the early 1940s focused on fostering a patriotic atmosphere that encouraged people to make sacrifices for the war effort. About 30 percent of movies released during this time related directly to the war. “That was very important to people who had someone overseas…,” recalled actress Kitty Carlisle Hart in an interview published at “Everyone cared about those war movies.”

At the OWI’s insistence, movies presented an idealized war. “In the movies we would always win the war,” recalled Carolina San Angelo of Naugatuck, Con-necticut, at Germans were painstakingly distinguished from the sinister Nazis among them. The Japanese were not so generously treated. They were unfailingly depicted as myopic devotees of a warmongering emperor. “The Hollywood war movies…always depicted the enemy as sneering and sadistic barbarians,” recalled Robert F. Gallagher of Chicago at “We began to really hate the people of the enemy countries, not just their leaders….” At the same time, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin was made to appear not nearly so brutal as his prewar résumé suggested. And the British seemed eager to eliminate their class system that so annoyed Americans.

America herself was presented at her finest. Since You Went Away was the epitome of the utopian wartime film. Producer David O. Selznick, who had produced Gone with the Wind in 1939, loaded the movie with stars—Shirley Temple, Claudette Colbert, Jennifer Jones, Joseph Cotton, and Lionel Barrymore—and with every conceivable wartime cliché, from dad joining the military, mom taking a job in a war-production factory, and black maid working overtime for the family for no extra pay, to dad coming home on a snowy Christmas Eve and everything returning to normal, only better, after the war. Contrived as it was, the movie earned nine Academy Award nominations.

Three years into America’s involvement in the global conflict, the public had tired of thinking about the war all the time. Hollywood responded and its films began to lean more toward what has always been its forte: pure escapism. When war was depicted, grim realism rather than rosy optimism became the norm, as in The Story of GI Joe, based on the firmly grounded writings of war correspondent Ernie Pyle.

By war’s end Hollywood could boast that it built morale, supplied an essential escape, and still managed to produce some classics, including the masterpiece Casablanca. And all the while it posted record profits.Not bad for a town of celluloid heroes.

Carl Zebrowski is the managing editor and website editor of America in WWII.  This article originally appeared in the April 2006 issue of America in WWII. Order a copy of this issue now.

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