Tag Archives: hollywood

Hollywood and the Office of War Information, 1942-1945

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The other day as I was eating breakfast, I began to think (as normal people do) about wartime food rationing. Today, few people blink an eye when eating an omelette or a cookie, which consist almost entirely of foods rationed during wartime, but when the United States entered World War II and began limiting the availability of many goods, the content of meals was an everyday concern.

Rationing, enacted by the United States government in response to the increased military needs of wartime, was not an easy sell to the American public. In order to convince the public to accept rationing, and other wartime necessities in the eyes of the government, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt had to get creative. The Office of War Information was tasked with making the American people believe that the government was doing what was best for them and for the world. To achieve that goal, they turned to Hollywood.

From the beginning of the U.S. involvement in World War II, the Office of War Information had played an integral role in maintaining American support for the war effort. Formed by executive order in June of 1942, it partnered with Hollywood almost immediately as an image liaison to the general public. As OWI director Elmer Davis said: “The easiest way to inject a propaganda idea into people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of an entertainment picture when they do not realize they are being propagandized.” Roosevelt agreed–the medium of motion pictures were a powerful tool, he felt, and the restrictions on the film industry were much lighter than other industries, allowing for maximum utility. He instructed the OWI to implement a Bureau of Motion Pictures, which would serve as a New Deal stronghold and would influence the content of nearly all of Hollywood’s output during the time of its existence. The Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, released by the BMP in June of 1942, underscored that World War II was to be seen as the common man’s war, that the Four Freedoms (freedom of speech and religion and freedom from want and fear) were at stake for the whole world, and this was to be shown in the films screened in American theaters. Soon, the Manual for the Motion Picture Industry became the go-to book for employees working in wartime Hollywood.

From banning re-releases of Gunga Din and Kim due to the government’s anti-imperial stance, to forbidding the international release of The Palm Beach Story (Americans would be viewed as too silly, they said), the OWI’s influence on the industry was far-reaching. By the end of 1942, nearly all major studios were allowing the OWI to examine their scripts and story treatments, toward the end goal of “Will This Picture Help Win the War?” Short films began to appear touting the war effort, often featuring major stars. Here is a Warner Bros short film featuring Bette Davis encouraging Americans to buy war bonds instead of Christmas presents.

Chuck Jones and the Leon Schlesinger Unit at Warner Bros produced “The Point Rationing of Foods” for the Office of War Information, to sell the concept of rationing to the American people. The United States had begun rationing almost immediately following the attack on Pearl Harbor. The change was introduced gradually, with the government rationing one item at a time, but by the end of 1943, most everyday items were rationed.

In order to prevent hoarding and people selling goods on the black market for a higher price, the government instituted price ceilings for rationed items, as seen in “Prices Unlimited.” Here, we also see how ration boards worked, and the government’s idea of what would have happened if rationing were not implemented.

After Republicans made major gains in Congress in the 1942 congressional election, the House of Representatives voted to defund the entire Domestic Branch of the OWI for 1944, seeing it as just a mouthpiece for Roosevelt’s policies. Funding was ultimately restored, but with severe restrictions, and the office was officially closed with the end of the war in 1945. With the rise of the Red Scare coinciding with the end of the war, many of those involved with the BMP and the OWI in Hollywood were targeted for being communists, and several employees admitted to having belonged to communist front organizations. Elmer Davis, who became a journalist after the war, was vocal in his defense of his colleagues in the wake of invasive investigations by Senator Joseph McCarthy and HUAC. In his book, But We Were Born Free, he blasts McCarthy and the HUAC hearings as “a master class of obscene innuendo.”

In signing the Executive Order ending the OWI, President Harry S. Truman credited the OWI with an “outstanding contribution to victory,” and while its underlying morals of propaganda are controversial today, the OWI’s work is considered to be an important part of American mobilization on the home front.

2016 TCM Classic Film Festival Schedule, SUNDAY

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I leave tomorrow for the TCM Classic Film Festival, so here is the final installment in my rundown of the 2016 TCM Classic Film Festival schedule.

Sunday will be a light day for me, because in the morning I will be going to visit an old research friend in Hollywood. However, the schedule offers some prime choices for attendees on Sunday morning, including a screening of 1961’s King of Kings at the Egyptian at 9:00, Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid at the Chinese multiplex 1 at 11:00, and Children of a Lesser God at 1:00, also at the Egyptian. TCM pulls a bit of a trick on festivalgoers at 2:30, with the simultaneous programming of the conversation with Gina Lollobrigida, and the Live From the TCM Festival interview with Faye Dunaway, which will be broadcast on the channel.

I am going to try to get back from my friend’s by 2:30, in time for the Faye Dunaway interview. Dunaway is one of the most prominent actresses of the 1970s, with starring credits in such enduring classics as Chinatown, Network (for which she won an Oscar), and Bonnie and Clyde. Her appearance at the festival comes as a pleasant surprise–the interview was originally scheduled with Burt Reynolds, but when he had to drop out due to unforeseen circumstances, Faye Dunaway stepped in at the last minute. It will be fascinating to hear what Dunaway has to say about her long career and her Oscar win for Network, playing at the TCM Festival that evening.

Sunday’s schedule includes many spots marked TBD, which is TCM’s way of accommodating movie fans whose film choices filled up quickly. In a TBD slot, TCM will program a movie shown in a previous time slot that was so hugely popular that many fans were left outside due to lack of space in the theater. It is difficult to speculate what will play in a TBD slot, but based on the length of the Faye Dunaway interview, I will likely not make any of the movies in the next time slot except the TBD one. I am looking forward to seeing what that choice will be.

The next thing on the schedule is Network, at 8:00. I changed my flight home so that I could see Network on the big screen, as I feel that it would be remiss of me to let one of the most eerily prescient movies ever to have been made fall by the wayside just for a flight.

Network is the story of Howard Beale, a veteran newsman fired from his job due to poor ratings, who threatens to kill himself on national television. His network sees the ratings value in his remarks, and builds an entire show around Beale and his pseudo-political ravings. In order to boost ratings even further, another show is developed surrounding a terrorist cell–and herein lies Beale’s downfall, and the network’s triumph. The movie won several Oscars, including one for Faye Dunaway’s portrayal of the ruthless news producer, Paddy Chayefsky’s writing, and a posthumous award for Peter

In 1976, the premise of a network manipulating ratings based on the ravings of a “manifestly irresponsible man” was considered satirical and farfetched. But screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky seemed to have a vision of what was to come–today, the basic tenets of Network drive much of our 24-hour news cycle, especially during this presidential election year. Networks know that the incendiary words uttered by certain presidential candidates invite shock and outrage, and so they broadcast those words over and over, analyze them, and discuss them, because they know that people will tune in to hear them. The symbiotic relationship between outrage and ratings is well known now. We seem to be living out what Paddy Chayefsky envisioned in his imaginary world of news cycle absurdism in Network. It is a simultaneously fascinating and extremely frightening situation.

MY SUNDAY CHOICES: Faye Dunaway interview and Network

See you in Hollywood! As usual, you can follow along with all the action right here on the blog, as I enable a live Twitter feed during the festival. To send us off, hit it Bing!

Maureen O’Hara, 1920-2015

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Maureen O’Hara, whose subtle Irish beauty and fiery red hair made her a favorite of director John Ford, died yesterday in her sleep at 95. In recent years she had moved from her home in the south of Ireland to Boise, Idaho, to be with her family, and was continuing to make appearances as late as 2014, when she appeared at the 2014 TCM Classic Film Festival.

Born Maureen FitzSimons in the Dublin neighborhood of Ranelagh on August 17, 1920, Maureen had a few bit parts in 1938 before making her formal debut with her mentor Charles Laughton in Jamaica Inn in 1939, which was followed by The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and Dance, Girl, Dance (1940). In 1941, she played Angharad in How Green Was My Valley directed by John Ford, with whom she would go on to make 5 feature films and whom she would always name him as her favorite director.

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With Walter Pidgeon in How Green Was My Valley (1941).

She became an American citizen in 1946, and raised issues with the naturalization documents that listed her as English instead of Irish. She successfully lobbied to have the documents changed, and it marked the first time in American history that an Irish person was declared a citizen of Ireland, independent of Great Britain. “It was one hell of a victory for me,” she later wrote, “because otherwise I would have had to turn down my American citizenship. I could not have accepted it with my former nationality being anything other than Irish, because no other nationality in the world was my own.”

Her bright red hair made Maureen a natural for Technicolor, and with John Ford directing, she made The Quiet Man with frequent co-star and long time friend John Wayne in 1952. In The Quiet Man, set in Ireland and filmed in Cong, County Mayo, Maureen was able to show the national pride for which she had fought so hard 6 years earlier, and was able to speak a bit of Irish Gaelic while the beautifully photographed Technicolor accentuated the Irish landscape.

In an interesting side note, the dialogue in this clip translates to a situation in which she had “sent her husband from her bed,” and was written in Irish Gaelic in order to avoid the censors.

She married several times, but the love of her life was Charles Blair, a pilot who died in a plane crash in 1978. She had one daughter, Bronwyn, with William Price, and in her last years lived with her grandson, Conor.

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With daughter Bronwyn.

I was lucky enough to meet and spend time with Maureen O’Hara in 2011, while I was studying abroad in France and had the opportunity to travel to Ireland for the Maureen O’Hara Classic Film Festival, organized by several friends of mine and taking place near her home in Glengarriff, County Cork. The festival included showings of several Maureen O’Hara movies on the big screen, as well as a signing event where Maureen signed my copy of her book, ‘Tis Herself.

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Because my friends organized the event, I had the great privilege to be invited to join Maureen for a chat in the hotel pub on the last night of the festival, where she joked, told stories, and was just as fiery and wonderful as I had hoped she would be.

This is a video made by my friend Sara, who helped to organize the festival and who showed this movie on the big screen with Maureen there. It moved Maureen to tears at the festival, and it now moves me to tears remembering her.

BOOK REVIEW: My First Time in Hollywood

The first time Lillian Gish saw Hollywood was after a five day train journey from a blustery New York. She describes Los Angeles as warm and inviting, a city that “smelled like a vast orange grove, and the abundance of roses offered a cheery welcome.”

This was the Hollywood of the early days, before tourist-clogged Hollywood Boulevard, seedy shops and tourist traps kept locals at bay. In these early days, those wishing to make a name for themselves in the budding film industry ventured to an oasis called Hollywood, where orange trees blossomed and the rural landscape was dotted with farmhouses. It is difficult for us to imagine a Hollywood like this, but in My First Time in Hollywood, writer and historian Cari Beauchamp has immortalized the Hollywood of the past by compiling and annotating the words of those who lived it.

Beauchamp, the author of the beautiful Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, has created a portrait of early Hollywood that is at once nostalgic and poignant. These are the people who built the movie business as we know it, their work and commitment setting the stage for the writers, actors, and directors who would come after them. In reading their words about their Hollywood, we see just how much these men and women were responsible for building the town, and also how the Hollywood of this book has largely disappeared due to the exponential growth and explosion of the entertainment industry, causing a web of traffic, corporate buildings, and overpriced houses.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland, 1907.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland today.

The book includes stories from familiar names like Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, as well as lesser-known Hollywood figures such as secretary Valeria Belletti and Evelyn Scott, daughter of Beulah Marie Dix. Many of the stories are from the perspectives of women, a refreshing realization in an industry comprised of a mostly male-dominated Hollywood narrative.

My First Time in Hollywood is an ode to a Hollywood gone by, but also a testament to the lineage of the town, how it came to be, and the characters who made it. It is a wonderful and enlightening read, and a must for anyone interested in Hollywood history. One of my favorite lines from the book comes from Colleen Moore:

“For years I had believed, if not in the Never Land of Peter Pan, in the Never Land of Hollywood. Had believed, had thought lovely, wonderful thoughts, and for all that my Never Land was a continent away, it might as well have been second to the right and then straight on till morning.

Until now. Now at last I had found it. I was right here in it, this place of enchanting make-believe. And I was going to stay here and become a star.

How could I possibly go home?

I was home.”

A young Colleen Moore, shortly after she arrived in Hollywood.

If you would like to purchase the book, here is the link to the Amazon site. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

See you next time, and happy reading!

HOLLYWOOD’S HISPANIC HERITAGE BLOGATHON: Rita Hayworth and the Loss of Hispanic Identity

In the above scene, we are presented with a dichotomy that may not be immediately apparent if one is not familiar with Rita Hayworth’s unique position in Hollywood. In The Loves of Carmen, Rita plays the legendary Carmen, made famous by the popular opera and Prosper Merimee’s book on which it was based. Carmen is a Spanish gypsy, in love with soldier Don Jose, and their love combined with Carmen’s wild nature turns tragic for them both. For Rita, playing Carmen should have been the role of a lifetime. She was fiercely proud of her Spanish blood, and her own grandmother had, like Carmen, been a Spanish woman working in a cigarette factory. But professionally, Rita was in constant limbo in regard to her identity as a Hispanic in Hollywood. The character of Carmen presents a particular irony, as Rita had been all but stripped of her Hispanic heritage within the Hollywood system.

Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino in New York City to a Spanish father and an Irish-American mother. Her father had been a professional dancer in his hometown of Sevilla, Spain, and Margarita showed the same aptitude as a child. The family moved to California and she became her father’s dance partner at the age of 12. She spent her childhood performing traditional flamenco and Spanish folk dances with her father, up and down the coast between San Diego and Tijuana, Mexico. Steeped in the mixture of her father’s Spanish Roma traditions and the Mexican culture of the dance halls in which she performed, Margarita easily saw herself as Hispanic and identified with the Spanish-speaking locals of Tijuana as much as (or more than) she identified with her American peers.

Dancing with her father.

At the age of 16, Margarita garnered her first film role, a bit part in Cruz Diablo which was billed as a “Spanish Robin Hood.” From there, her career slowly grew, with small, stereotypically ethnic roles in Under the Pampas Moon, Charlie Chan in Egypt, and Paddy O’Day with Jane Withers. With her long, jet-black hair and low hairline, it was difficult for Hollywood to know where to place her in an industry dominated by white, non-Hispanic standards of beauty. In order for her potential to be realized in this milieu, shortly following her signing with Columbia in 1936, studio chief Harry Cohn began altering her image.

She underwent painful electrolysis to shorten her “ethnic” hairline, and dyed her deep black hair a light shade of red. When they were finished, she was a  no longer Margarita Cansino–in addition to whitewashing her physical image, Columbia changed Margarita’s name to Rita Hayworth (a variation on her mother’s maiden name, Haworth).

For the rest of her career, Rita played either non-Hispanic characters, or Hispanic characters with an American overtone.

In Blondie on a Budget, one of her first movies after the transformation, she plays Dagwood’s old girlfriend, an all-American girl named Joan Forrester.

In You Were Never Lovelier, she plays an Argentinian, but an extremely Americanized one.

In Gilda, she plays an American living in Argentina.

In 1948, in The Loves of Carmen, Rita finally got the chance to play a character close to her own heart. But instead of Margarita Cansino in the role, we see Rita Hayworth, the product of a Hollywood that could not promote the career of a young woman with jet-black hair and a low hairline. The Loves of Carmen is a tragic double standard that is difficult to get past, but as much as the studio tried to whitewash her image, they couldn’t take away her identity. In Rita’s dance sequence in the village, Margarita Cansino is still there, dancing the way she did as a child.

This is an entry for the Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon. Many thanks to Kay and Aurora!

See you next time!

THE HAPPIEST MARRIAGE IN HOLLYWOOD: The Story of William Haines and Jimmy Shields

William Haines and Jimmy Shields with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and friends.

William Haines and Jimmy Shields with Jean Harlow, William Powell, and friends.

In 1933, a young and successful actor lost his job in Hollywood. His name had been featured in many wildly popular hits in the 1920s, and his appeal was so great that he had been one of the lucky ones to make the transition to sound. The public loved him, and his contemporaries loved him. He was a huge moneymaker at the studio. So what could have prompted Louis B. Mayer to let him go so abruptly?

Louis B. Mayer called William Haines into his office one day in 1933, to deliver him an ultimatum. He had been seen with a man, and to quiet rumors about his sexuality, Mayer wanted Haines to enter into a “lavender marriage” that would save the studio from public scandal. If he did not, Mayer would have to let him go. Haines looked Mayer straight in the eye and stated “But I am already married.” He was referring to his relationship of 7 years with his partner, a man named Jimmy Shields.

Gay classic Hollywood is a topic that is little discussed in mainstream circles, and its neglect in general discourse has led to surprise from an unaware public when they hear of the gay community’s thriving existence in the Golden Age of Hollywood. The beautiful 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet works to ease that surprise and clarify misunderstandings, and it has become essential viewing for anyone interested in the inner workings of Hollywood. But for many, the vibrant gay community of classic Hollywood remains an enigma, and many of the stars who were part of that community have sadly disappeared into obscurity.

For William Haines, the decision to allow his career to lapse was an easy one.

Born in Staunton, VA, Haines became enamored with the movies at a young age. After winning the “New Faces of 1922” contest, he traveled to Hollywood to begin his movie career, which took off the following year with his first film Three Wise Fools at Goldwyn Pictures (a studio that would merge with Metro in 1924 to become Metro Goldwyn Mayer). The studio was impressed with him, and began building him as a star. By 1926 he was an established name, and his role in Brown of Harvard (1926) cemented his onscreen persona as a young man “too big for his britches” that ultimately comes around.

On a publicity trip to New York during the same year, Haines met Jimmy Shields for the first time. It is unclear exactly how they met, but scholars believe that Jimmy may have been down on his luck, working as a prostitute on the streets of New York. Haines picked him up, telling him that he would bring Jimmy out to Hollywood to work as an extra, and soon they fell in love and were living together as a couple.

With Joan Crawford and her husband, Al Steele.

Haines and Shields were very well-liked in Hollywood, counting Jean Harlow, Joan Crawford, Marion Davies, and Gloria Swanson as close friends. They were invited to all the parties around town, treated just as any other couple would be, with no attention to their sexuality.

Haines, with his melodic and pleasing voice, made an easy transition to sound. The public still flocked to his pictures. But the country remained very religious and intolerant of “alternative lifestyles,” and Louis B. Mayer knew this. If MGM were to keep William Haines on and the public got a hold of the fact that he was in a long-term, committed relationship with a man, it could spell ruin for the studio. By this time, Haines and Shields were inseparable. They were married in everything but name, and Haines refused to give Jimmy up for the sake of his career. So he opted to be fired, and his film career was over.

This could have easily meant financial and emotional disaster for Haines and Shields. But drawing on the huge affection that their Hollywood friends felt for them, they decided to go into business together and open William Haines Designs, an interior decorating company that became very successful. They gave free decorating advice to their friends, and many became loyal clients. Joan Crawford, unhappy with the dark look of her home, hired her good friends to do a complete overhaul and transform it into a softer and more sophisticated style. Crawford was one of Haines and Shields’ oldest and dearest friends, and she called their relationship “the happiest marriage in Hollywood.”

Joan Crawford in the home designed by William Haines and Jimmy Shields.

In 1936, Haines and Shields were staying at their beach home in Manhattan when they were accosted, dragged outside and beaten by 100 members of the Ku Klux Klan, after a neighbor accused the two of propositioning her son. The accusations were wildly unfounded, and the scandal infuriated those who knew the couple well. Marion Davies, another very close friend, pleaded with her companion William Randolph Hearst to use his influence to make sure the neighbor was prosecuted and punished for what she had said about Haines and Shields. But ultimately, Haines and Shields did not press charges, and they were cleared of all wrongdoing due to lack of evidence against them.

The two continued their design business until the early 1970s. Haines’ death from lung cancer came shortly thereafter, in 1973, and after 47 years of companionship, Jimmy Shields could not go on. He slipped into Haines’ pajamas, took a bottle of pills, and wrote a note:

Goodbye to all of you who have tried so hard to comfort me in my loss of William Haines, whom I have been with since 1926. I now find it impossible to go it alone, I am much too lonely.

They are buried next to each other at Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.

A true Hollywood love story.

If you haven’t seen The Celluloid Closet, I would highly recommend it. It is available on Netflix, and it is a loving and informative tribute to a part of Hollywood history that is sadly and unfairly overlooked.

See you next time!

The Hollywood Canteen

Servicemen gather outside the Hollywood Canteen at 1451 Cahuenga blvd. in Hollywood.

 

On this Memorial Day, I would like to pay tribute to an integral part of Hollywood history that relates to the holiday. On October 3, 1942, the Hollywood Canteen opened its doors at 1451 Cahuenga blvd. in Hollywood, with a purpose to provide music, entertainment and food to active service members, completely free of charge. Staffed by volunteer Hollywood celebrities and open to all serving members of the Allied forces–men and women, black and white, from all the allied countries–it was a venture to preserve Allied morale and a method for members of the entertainment industry to contribute to the war effort in a meaningful way.

The idea for the canteen came from actor John Garfield, who was inspired to recreate the successful Stage Door Canteen in New York for service members on the West Coast. Unable to serve in the army himself because of a heart problem, he wanted to do something to aid the efforts overseas and sought partnership with fellow actor Bette Davis, who helped set the wheels in motion. Working long hours to get the canteen up and running, Garfield and Davis managed to get the canteen built in less than 1 month, complete with elaborate chandeliers and a giant dance floor.

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Bette Davis installs a chandelier.

Per the rules of the “Hollywood Victory Committee,” established after Pearl Harbor in order to allow actors to volunteer for the war effort without having trouble with the Screen Actors Guild, Davis and Garfield were able to procure volunteers who not only would keep the canteen running smoothly, but would also provide unmatched amusement and entertainment for the patrons of the canteen. Among the frequent volunteers were Rita Hayworth, Deanna Durbin, Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Crawford, Jeanette MacDonald, and countless other Hollywood luminaries. Upon the visit of the millionth service member in 1943, the lucky sergeant Carl Bell was brought into the canteen by Marlene Dietrich where he received a kiss from Betty Grable. It was unlike anything most of these servicemen and women had ever seen.

Though the Hollywood Canteen seemed to be a fantasy land in which soldiers could escape from the harsh realities of wartime, its walls were not immune to the difficult social problems of the time. Upon seeing that tables were not segregated at the canteen, many white soldiers opted to leave in lieu of sitting and chatting with fellow service members of African-American descent. Bette Davis, known for her refusal to entertain for segregated audiences, took to the microphone when this happened to explain the policy of the Hollywood Canteen. “The blacks got the same bullets as the whites did, and should have the same treatment,” she said.

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Bette Davis signs autographs outside the Hollywood Canteen.

In addition, it was at the Hollywood Canteen that a pregnant Gene Tierney was signing autographs when she was approached by a fan who had recently been quarantined for German measles. Tierney contracted the disease, and her daughter was born with severe problems including blindness, deafness, and intellectual disability. Tierney suffered from serious mental anguish and guilt for the rest of her life because of her decision to go to the Hollywood Canteen that night.

In 1944, the canteen was such a famous institution that Warner Bros. decided to make a movie about it. Based loosely on the experiences of Sgt. Bell, it tells the story of two servicemen on leave who spend several nights at the Hollywood Canteen–one of whom becomes the millionth G.I. served and wins a date with Joan Leslie. The movie features so many stars that, according to Variety, “There isn’t a marquee big enough to hold all the names in this one, so how can it miss?” The movie was a smash success, and received 3 Academy Award nominations. 40% of ticket sales went to the real Hollywood Canteen.

The Andrews Sisters in Hollywood Canteen (1944)

The canteen continued even after the war was over, finally closing for good on Thanksgiving Day, 1945. Today, in keeping with corporate lack of appreciation for history, the building has become a parking garage for the building next door. But the legend of the Hollywood Canteen lives on, a true testament to the power of Hollywood to maintain morale and keep spirits up in the most difficult times.

Many of these photos were found over on Karen Noske’s wonderful blog Movie Star Makeover. Go visit it if you have the chance, K is a friend of mine and does a magnificent job with her site.