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FROM THE VAULTS OF THE ACADEMY FILM ARCHIVE: World War II Films

“The War Film Library is a visual report of mobilization, civilian defense and expansion of the armament industries of the Allies. It is a graphic account of manpower problems; the participation of women in industry and the armed services; the story of rationing, the home front, and progress of various war bond campaigns. This is a cumulative record of modern mechanized warfare on land, sea and in the air from battle fronts all over the world.” – Margaret Gledhill, June 1944

John Ford shot footage for "The Battle of Midway" on his 16mm handheld camera using color Kodachrome film stock, which has a very saturated color palette. The results were blown up to 35mm for its U.S. release.

In April 1942, Donald Gledhill, the Academy’s Executive Secretary, organized a conference attended by Thomas Baird of the British Ministry of Information and representatives from all of the Hollywood studios. The topic on the table was how the studios could get access to British and Canadian war documentaries, newsreels and combat footage.

By the end of the meeting, a plan had taken shape to establish a library of prints, administered by the Academy, which would allow the studios to view the material for pictorial research, or even for inclusion in their wartime films. Soon after, the Academy began actively collecting prints of war films from Britain, the U.S., Canada, Australia and Belgium, and the Academy War Film Library was born.

"When final arrangements... are completed, Hollywood film studios will have access to the greatest supply of material of this kind in their history."
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In a press release announcing the ambitious plan, Academy President Walter Wanger stated, “As a result of this new work of the Academy, more than a quarter of a million feet of such important film will be made available from Great Britain. ... When final arrangements with Canadian and American agencies are completed, Hollywood film studios will have access to the greatest supply of material of this kind in their history.”

Although the project was initiated by Gledhill, after he left for Army service it was managed by his wife, librarian and interim Executive Secretary Margaret Gledhill, her secretary Lupe Amador, and film librarian Grace Gaunt. They arranged for prints to be shipped to Hollywood, prepared and distributed catalogs, held special screenings for Academy members and film industry employees, loaned the prints to movie studios, and provided contact information if the studios wished to obtain film clips for commercial use. The studios paid the Academy a nominal rental fee of $3 per print from the collection, which was housed at the Academy Library at 1455 North Gordon Street in Hollywood. In June 1944, the Academy published a cumulative catalog to the collection, complete with a detailed subject index. At that time the collection included more than 400 titles, but by the end of the war that number had risen to more than 500.

Today, the War Film Collection represents a rare and fascinating sampling of shorts made during the war.

In addition to lending the prints to the studios, the Academy also made the War Film Library available, on a limited basis, to other individuals and groups, including Hollywood stars with their own private screening rooms, organizations like the American Red Cross and the Motion Picture Society for the Americas, and local military installations, such as the First Motion Picture Unit. The Academy also loaned prints from the collection to San Quentin Prison, where the films were screened for the inmates.

The creation and management of the War Film Library between 1942 and 1945, and the continued interest in the collection in the years following World War II, are documented in the Academy War Film Library files at the Margaret Herrick Library. The files include lists of borrowers, correspondence with government agencies like the Office of War Information and the Office of Emergency Management, letters to officials in various countries, hundreds of print receipt slips, and detailed internal memos about the project. The collection, which also includes correspondence from such figures as John Grierson, Frank Capra and Gregg Toland, is available to researchers by appointment at the Margaret Herrick Library.

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE FILM COLLECTION

The National Board of Canada's "To the Ladies" (1946) from the "Canada Carries On" series is a tribute to women for their contributions to the war effort.

After many years of being held in various storage facilities, the War Film Collection (formerly known as the War Film Library) became part of the Academy Film Archive’s (AFA) holdings when it was created in 1991. Today, there are approximately 230 titles in the collection, as over the decades some films made by Allied countries were repatriated back to archives in those countries and other films were lost due to nitrate deterioration (nitrate film stock is highly susceptible to decay, unlike modern safety-based stock). Many of the prints in the collection represent the best surviving material, sometimes the only known surviving elements, for those titles.

Some of the titles in the War Film Collection have rarely been seen since the war, such as “The Fighting Generation,” directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Jennifer Jones as a nurse’s aide urging the public to “do a little something extra” and buy war bonds. Another rarity is “The Story with Two Endings,” the only known film to be directed by Actors Studio founder Lee Strasberg. The 1945 documentary short depicts the disastrous result of runaway prices following World War I.

Many of the prints in the collection represent the best surviving material, sometimes the only known surviving elements, for those titles.

The collection has a number of films that were nominated for or won Academy Awards, or received Special Awards from the Academy. Among those are well-known titles such as “The Battle of Russia,” supervised by Frank Capra as part of the “Why We Fight” series, showing how the Russian Army’s method of fighting was bound to defeat the Nazis. “The Battle of Midway,” which received a Special Award in 1942, is technically a record of the first victory in the Pacific War, but director and cameraman Commander John Ford shot and edited the 18-minute film to convey an emotional response to the war.

Among the many Oscar-nominated documentary shorts in the collection are “Bomber” (1941), written by Carl Sandburg; Disney’s “The New Spirit” (1942), with average taxpayer Donald Duck listening to a broadcast urging early payment of income taxes and then rushing off to pay his share; and “The American Scene, Number 11: Library of Congress” (1945), which features songs by Woody Guthrie and shows the national library as a monument to the ideals of free expression and free thought.

Some of the titles in the War Film Collection have rarely been seen since the war.

Canadian-made films in the collection include the National Film Board of Canada’s “Battle for Oil,” which is narrated by Lorne Greene and focuses on Germany’s desperate need for oil and the vulnerability of the world’s oil fields, and “Letter from Aldershot,” an intimate ‘letter home’ from the men of the First Division of the Canadian Active Service Force.

The British titles include “Night Shift,” which gives a very human look at the skill and spirit of 2,000 women who work in one of England’s munitions factories, and “London Can Take It,” which shows the resolve of Londoners amid utter destruction. Another British film, “New Towns for Old,” scripted by Dylan Thomas, chronicles the redevelopment of the urban and industrial areas of the town of Sheffield, which was heavily bombed during the war.

A Scene from Price Unlimited

"Prices Unlimited" (1944) is an off-beat short depicting an alternate world where food rationing rules are lifted.

Some of the films have a very “Hollywood” feeling, including “The Last Will and Testament of Tom Smith” starring George Reeves (‘Superman’ in the 1950s TV series), with Lionel Barrymore in a supporting role. Reeves plays an American pilot shot down and captured, who recalls his home life while awaiting execution. In the David O. Selznick-produced short “Reward Unlimited,” Dorothy McGuire plays a girl who decides to join the Cadet Nurse Corps.

Many of the films feature well-known actors; for example, Katharine Hepburn narrates “Women in Defense,” part of the “Women at War” series. Hepburn's narration was written by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (also assistant director of the Office of Civilian Defense at the time). The film shows women sewing uniforms and parachutes, operating drill presses, and working for the Red Cross. “Winning Your Wings” has Lt. James Stewart urging young men to enlist in the Army Air Forces, while Bob Hope hosts “The All-Star Bond Rally,” which features a plethora of glamour girls – Betty Grable, Linda Darnell, Carmen Miranda and others – and stars like Harpo Marx and Frank Sinatra, urging the public to buy war bonds. Spencer Tracy narrates the Garson Kanin-directed documentary short “Ring of Steel,” which details the American soldier’s part in preserving the fundamental ideals of the nation.

The collection includes many unusual shorts, such as “Prices Unlimited,” which paints a picture of a world without food rationing and the resulting mayhem; “Food and Magic,” directed by Jean Negulesco, in which a sideshow magician uses ‘magic’ to alert the public to the importance of food management; and “Rat Destruction: Methods of Control in Urban Areas.”

PRESERVING THESE FILMS

The Fighting Generation

Jennifer Jones appears in the Sixth War Loan trailer "The Fighting Generation" (1944). The title card describes her as "winner of the Academy Award and Graduate Nurse's Aide, Class 38, American Red Cross, Los Angeles Chapter."

Over the past several years, the Academy Film Archive has been systematically evaluating the state of the collection and prioritizing titles for preservation. Films that won or were nominated for Academy Awards are top priority along with films for which the Academy has the only known film material in existence.

Preserving from the 35mm elements yields a higher quality restoration, so titles that exist elsewhere but not as early generation prints are also a high priority for restoration. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., has a substantial collection of WWII shorts, but in some cases the only elements for a particular title are 16mm or 35mm third or fourth generation copies, whereas all of the war shorts at the Academy Film Archive are early generation 35mm nitrate prints.

AFA preservationist Heather Linville says, “Many of these nitrate prints were struck directly off the original camera negative. While it would be ideal to use the camera negatives as a preservation source if they survived today, unfortunately most of them do not. Since the nitrate prints are one generation away from the original negative, they are the next best film element, providing good image sharpness and proper balance of color or black and white.”

A Journey

"A Journey" (1944) from the American Scene series highlights the cooperative efforts of citizens in four
U.S. cities to solve wartime issues at home.

The preservation process begins when Archive staff complete a detailed inspection of the 35mm nitrate print and make any needed major repairs, to ensure that the film is stable and secure enough to run though a modern printing machine. Then the print is sent to a film laboratory, where a brand new 35mm duplicate picture negative is struck from the original nitrate print.

The nitrate print is also the source for the audio restoration. The sound track is digitally restored at a sound restoration facility and a new restored track negative is created. Only audible defects that have appeared over the life of the print have been removed; any characteristics inherent to the original recording, like missed musical cues and bad edits, are left in as a historical record of the film production process and the original audience experience.

Two new prints are struck from the new preservation picture and track negatives: a preservation element for the Academy Film Archive’s vaults as a record of the preservation work, and a second print, which is made available for public screenings and for scholars and researchers who use the Archive’s Public Access Center.

Academy War Film Library files

Items in the War Film Library files include lists of borrowers, correspondence with government agencies, letters to officials in various countries, hundreds of print receipt slips, and detailed internal memos about the project. The collection, which also includes correspondence from such figures as John Grierson, Frank Capra and Gregg Toland, is available to researchers by appointment at the Margaret Herrick Library.

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So far 30 prints in the collection have been preserved, with the eventual goal being to preserve every title in the collection. To help prioritize the next set of films to be preserved over the next two years, Linville recently visited the National Archives and the Library of Congress to compare war film material at these institutions to the AFA’s film holdings, ensuring that the best surviving elements (which in most cases are the prints from the War Film Collection) are used for preservation.

Today, the War Film Collection represents a rare and fascinating sampling of shorts made during the war. The collection provides a clear historical record of the wide variety of topics covered or emphasized by the United States and Allied countries. Many titles are now available for the first time since the war.

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