Tag Archives: wwii

Hollywood and the Office of War Information, 1942-1945


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.


Standing Up for What’s Right: The Friendship of Grace Kelly and Josephine Baker


In response to Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ ousting from the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, VA on Friday, I wrote a tweet detailing one of my favorite Hollywood stories about standing up for core principles and values. To my great pleasure and surprise, the tweet has gone legitimately viral. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, and I wanted to tell the whole story here where I have more space.

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In 1951, Grace Kelly was an up-and-coming star in Hollywood. She had grown up in Philadelphia, a member of an aristocratic Irish Catholic family, and fell in love with acting and theatre under the wing of her uncle, George Kelly, a renowned playwright and director. 1951 saw her first major role in a motion picture, High Noon, which had given her almost overnight stardom.

At home in Philadelphia, in the words of her biographer Donald Spoto, Grace “never understood prejudice.” She was partly raised by her family valet, an African-American man whom she called “Fordie,” and whom she always credited as one of the major foundations of her early life. She asked his advice and followed it, regarding him as a third parent. In addition, her uncle George was gay. It was not a secret within the family, but she witnessed her uncle’s ostracism from society and that influenced her profound sense of awareness of the LGBT community. Later in life, she was known for immediately coming to the defense of gays and lesbians, whenever something derogatory was said about their sexuality.

Josephine Baker was born in Missouri in 1906. She suffered a harrowing childhood, from which she escaped into the world of vaudeville. Because of segregation and other limitations on people of color, she decided that her best chance at success was to go to New York, where she danced at the Plantation Club and Adelaide Hall. She found financial success as a chorus girl in Shuffle Along and The Chocolate Dandies, becoming known as “the highest paid chorus girl on Broadway,” but was never a featured performer.


At age 19, she signed with a French/American business team aiming to bring an all-black revue to Paris, and she opened in La Revue Nègre at Le Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. In France, Baker found performing and living to be wildly different than in the United States. She was an instant hit with the Parisian public, and decided that this is where she could have the most impact. After the European tour, she broke her contract with La Revue Nègre and returned to Paris to appear in the Folies Bergères. Baker starred in three films and thrilled audiences with her performances, including La Danse sauvage (which she performed with minimal clothing). Ernest Hemingway called her “the most sensational woman anyone ever saw,” and she rose up as a phenomenal entertainer, the toast of Paris, called by the French “la grande diva magnifique.” Baker enjoyed immense privilege and wealth in Paris, but she never attained the same respect in the United States. American audiences were put off by Baker’s sensual performances and small voice, and after one failing tour back to the United States, she married a French industrialist, moved to France permanently, and gave up her American citizenship. During World War II, she served as an active member of the French Resistance, carrying messages written in invisible ink in her sheet music. She housed volunteers and helped them with visas, and after the war was awarded the Croix de Guerre, the Rosette de Résistance, and the Chevalier d’Honneur by Charles de Gaulle.

A superstar in 1951, Baker returned to the United States to sing in Miami and then went to New York to celebrate being named NAACP’s “Woman of the Year.” On October 16, she entered the famous and exclusive Stork Club restaurant for dinner, but the staff refused her service. Several different anecdotes exist about what exactly happened–some say Baker was seated and then the staff refused to serve her, others say she was refused a table altogether–but Baker was not served.

Grace Kelly, sitting nearby, was witness to the whole affair. Josephine Baker was world famous, and she knew exactly to whom the Stork Club was refusing service. At the point when it was clear that Baker was not going to be served, Kelly stood up, took Baker by the arm, and walked out with her entire party in tow. She vowed never to eat there again.

After this incident, Kelly and Baker became close friends. Kelly accompanied her back to Europe that summer, and the two spent quality time together in Paris and London. In 1956, Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, and even as a princess, Baker was always close to her heart. By 1974, Baker was having severe financial issues and was struggling to support her many beloved adopted children. Her old friend, now Princess Grace, gave her a royal villa to live in with the children, and together with Jacqueline Onassis, she financed Baker’s triumphant comeback in Paris the following year.


Just a few days after her return to the stage, Josephine Baker was found dead of a stroke in her apartment, surrounded by her rave reviews. She is buried at the Cimitière de Monaco, and remains the only American-born woman to receive a funeral with full French military honors.

The nature of the friendship of Princess Grace and Josephine Baker is one that we would do well to remember in this day and age–their friendship, and indeed both of their personalities independent of their friendship, was based on standing up for principle, helping those in need, and eschewing prejudice in all its forms. May we continue to hold them as examples.