Oral History with Owen Crump

Owen Crump

Pictured above: Owen Crump (left) and a fellow officer at the First Motion Picture Unit, ca. 1944.

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Owen Crump (1904-1998) got his start as a radio announcer at KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana. He came to Hollywood to write and direct at KFWB, the Warner Bros. radio station, and that led to a writing contract with the studio in 1938. He later joined Warner Bros.’ short subjects department, where he supervised the production of government-sponsored shorts at the request of studio head Jack Warner. One of these films, "Winning Your Wings," featuring James Stewart, was credited with greatly increasing Air Force enlistments. Around this time, General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold asked Warner to set up an Air Force filmmaking unit, and Warner called on Crump to help him make it a reality.

As an officer in the Army Air Force, Crump was instrumental in setting up the First Motion Picture Unit, and throughout the war supervised its film production activities. Housed for most of the war at the Hal Roach studios in Culver City, the FMPU (sometimes called "Fort Roach") was the Air Force’s primary training and intelligence film production unit, and was unique in that it was staffed to a great degree with personnel from the motion picture industry, including actors, producers, writers, directors, cameramen and technicians. The hundreds of training and morale films produced by the unit were known for transmitting vital information while still being visually engaging and entertaining. Owen Crump’s oral history, conducted by the Academy in 1991–92, is invaluable for shedding light on the outstanding work done by the filmmakers of "Fort Roach."

Owen Crump was nominated for an Academy Award in 1951 for his work on the short subject documentary "One Who Came Back."

Interview Excerpt

CRUMP: When we went over to Roach studios I was the commanding officer, and then one day Paul Mantz appeared and in a couple of days he was the commanding officer, because we received notice from our Washington office that Paul was to be appointed the commanding officer because he was a command pilot. As you know every Air Force unit must have a man who is a pilot with wings as a commanding officer. They can't have a guy like me who didn't have any wings at all. (laughs)

Paul's rank was major. On that same day when he took over I was also promoted to major. And I don't remember exactly how long Paul was the commanding officer, I honestly don't, but he had kind of dual duties, because not only was he commanding officer but he was doing flying for us, for our films, and as you know Paul was one of the greatest stunt fliers that ever lived. And he also had some airplanes out at the airfield, in the hangar, that he owned. So we had airplanes all the time, with cameras, making training films. And Paul would very often fly the camera ship, and sometimes all kind of stunts that illustrated what we were talking about in the film, so he was a very busy fellow, running between the studios and out to the airfield where he was most of the time.

INTERVIEWER: What sort of a commanding officer was he?

CRUMP: Our job was making films, and we were making so many of them and so fast, Paul actually was running the flying echelon of the unit. He didn't have anything to do with the writing or the producing of the training films. He was just kind-of in-name commanding officer, and he took care of all the flying. He sure did that. Marvelous! A good example was the first film we made. The film was to demonstrate the wrong way to do a whole lot of things. (laughs) A lesson for cadets.

INTERVIEWER: "Learn and Live"?

CRUMP: Yes, "Learn and Live." We wrote that script while we were still at Vitagraph, with all that was going on there, and we had the script, not only written, but approved by Training Aids before we ever got over to the Roach studios. Now, when you say things went in a hurry, that was a hurry. And within two weeks after we got to the Roach studios, that film was in production, cast, and shooting!

It was the first film the unit made anywhere. When we went to the Roach studios, we already had a script, as I told you. We got Guy Kibbee to play God. (laughs) Because we could hire some people to appear in our films, we didn't use just Air Force men. Sometimes we used actors, paid them a union wage. And I can't think of any instance, not one, where any of them, or their agents, wanted more money or whatever. Patriotic, in those days. We made the film, six reels, almost feature length, and we sent it back to Training Aids, and they immediately approved it, and it was sensational. A training film had never been
made quite like that...call it a "Hollywood product," because the story we wrote was a fantasy in a sense. Well, it's a fantasy of telling you how not to be killed! And that's a kind of an odd fantasy. It showed cadets in heaven, all wearing wings on their shoulders like angels, but in uniform.