Here's What You Need to Know: Along with the brave men and women overseas, the motion picture industry served admirably in their own way during World War II.
World War II came to the Hollywood motion picture studios, the “Dream Factories” as they were sometimes called, the day after Pearl Harbor.
“Hollywood became a military camp. Within a day … studio trucks and drivers were transporting army troops and equipment, studio arsenals were stripped of prop (weapons) and ammunition to fortify undersupplied posts along the West Coast …” wrote Bruce T. Torrence, in his book, Hollywood: The First Hundred Years.
Hollywood Hunkers Down for War
Movie studios mobilized their firefighting equipment, and the beautiful sands in front of Hollywood’s luxurious Malibu Beach homes were soon overrun with soldiers as Hollywood’s yachtsmen donated their entire fleet to the Coast Guard. The physical resemblance of several of the Dream Factory studios with their large complexes of buildings to nearby aircraft factories was suddenly a cause for frightening concern. Warner Brothers Pictures took a unique if not too patriotic action in an effort to prevent Japanese bombers from mistaking Warner’s Burbank lot for nearby Lockheed Aircraft Company buildings. Studio set painters were ordered to paint a 20-foot arrow on the roof of a soundstage that lined up toward Lockheed. Next to the arrow, the painters inscribed in large letters: LOCKHEED THATAWAY.
There were rapid studio changes dealing with civil defense. Most of the studios quickly erected sandbag air raid shelters. Some of these were equipped with cards, dominoes, and dart games, a few were equipped with pianos and even wired up for jukeboxes. What went into a bomb shelter was often determined by who was to use it. Many of the studios had segregated shelters separating executives, stars, technicians, and extras, but a Warner Brothers executive, when asked about an early studio air raid drill, replied, “Oh, it was a big success. The Life [magazine] photographers were there and got swell pictures,” related Richard Lingeman in his book, Don’t You Know There’s a War On? The American Home Front, 1941-1945.
Fighting for Copyrights
While this was going on, studios rushed to copyright titles such as Sunday in Hawaii, Wings Over the Pacific, Yellow Peril, Yellow Menace, and The Stolen Bombsight. While the studios haggled over V For Victory, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer rapidly renamed its new Eleanor Powell-Red Skelton musical from I’ll Take Manila to Ship Ahoy, and Paramount quickly cancelled Absent Without Leave, a film about an AWOL soldier. Six studios competed for ownership of the title Remember Pearl Harbor.
Filming Under Wartime Regulations
The studios began to learn how to deal with the military as the rules for filming quickly changed. Although the rules relaxed somewhat later in the war, initially no cameras were permitted near military reservations, dams, or war plants. Filming from the sea was forbidden in all harbors from Seattle to San Diego. Filming on a train became suddenly impossible as the government requisitioned all available rolling stock. Night filming was made impossible by air raid blackout regulations.
Paramount’s filming of the war film Wake Island illustrated the problems the studios suddenly faced. The Japanese first attempted to invade Wake Island on December 11, 1941. Paramount began filming Wake Island, even while the outnumbered U.S. Marines’ heroic defense of the little island was still in progress. Paramount’s camera crews studied U.S. government photos of Wake Island taken before the war and concluded that California’s Salton Sea and the land around it was the ideal location for filming Wake Island. However, Paramount now had to deal with a naval air facility near the Salton Sea. Although this meant the studio had to comply with naval air security regulations, Paramount managed to make a deal with the Navy. Studio technicians constructed a 4,000-foot clay airstrip in the desert, one mile west of a Navy seaplane base. Paramount then relinquished the base to the Navy after finishing filming. The runway and buildings were used by the Navy for several years.
The studios were used to filming all war scenes in and around Los Angeles, territory that the military now had to protect. Keeping track of Hollywood war photography against the real possibility of Japanese attacks forced the Army to decree that all battle scenes, especially those involving air combat, were to be filmed in Utah.
Hollywood Magic on the Cheap
On May 6, 1942, the studio executives and stars received a body blow. The War Production Board issued an order setting $5,000 per picture as the limit that a studio could spend on materials for the creation of a new set. The studios had always spent lavishly on their sets. Now they had to change quickly. Scenes were rehearsed off camera, cutting down the number of retakes and hence the amount of film used. Still photographs were used instead of movies for wardrobe, makeup, and other tests. Movie credits were reduced and advertising trailers eliminated. The reprinting of approved takes was forbidden. Scriptwriters rewrote scripts to include as few different background locations as possible, and their scripts were often stamped with SAVE PAPER, SAVE YOUR JOB. Even nails were straightened and reused.
The changes were prolific in all areas. Wood replaced concrete and masonry. When a fire scene was filmed, asbestos was made to look like wood. Hidden gas jets were then ignited and, with no damage, the film director had what appeared to be a very realistic fire with which to work. Multiple-use sets were created. While their framework was permanent, windows, doors, and fireplaces were removable. Studios swapped expensive movable sets, such as ship replicas. Hardware fixtures were replaced with glass or plastic, and expensive car chase scenes that wasted rubber tires and gasoline were stopped. The government had ruled that each studio was limited to the purchase of two pounds of women’s metal hairpins per month. Hairpins were checked out of the dressing room, used, then checked back in, sterilized, and reused. The list of changes went on and on, but they did the job. New movies kept coming throughout the war.
Nevertheless, there was one government change that caused panic among the stars and executives. On October 27, 1942, the Government Economic Stabilization Office’s director, James F. Byrnes, announced legislation to freeze wages. Salaries were to be limited to $25,000 a year beginning on January 1, 1943. A total of $67,000 per year was allowed with expenses. However, to the relief of many, this action was rejected by Congress. In 1944, as many as 250 Hollywood employees were earning more than $100,000 per year, and 50 of these were making more than $200,000 per year.
“So They Bombed Pearl Harbor, Did They?”
There were other studio changes, some going back to before America went to war. In July 1941, five months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, a multipart adventure serial appeared in the Saturday Evening Post magazine. The serial, Aloha Means Good Bye, was intriguing. It began aboard a fictitious Japanese freighter sailing from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Hawaii. The story, about a Japanese espionage plot, served as a basis for the Warner Brothers film, Across the Pacific. The film began preproduction in early December 1941, just before Pearl Harbor. The original script featured a Japanese attack on the Hawaiian Islands, but after the real attack the film’s settings were quickly moved to the Atlantic Coast and Panama.
Charles Einfield, Warner Brothers’ director of advertising and publicity, summed up the studio’s reasons for changing the locale, reasons that reflected the hurt of many Americans: “We felt it wise to leave Pearl Harbor out of it, for all this can do is remind us of defeat.”
The American public did not hear Pearl Harbor mentioned on the screen until the early 1942 release of A Yank on the Burma Road. The reference to Pearl Harbor takes place in a scene obviously added after the film was completed. The hero, reading a letter from home, mutters, “So they bombed Pearl Harbor, did they?” The line is quoted in the online New York Times Film Review archives.
However, there were more than just name and script changes. Japanese-American studio employees, many of them with years of fine service, were summarily ordered not to report for work until the government ruled on their status. They never came back to work again. They were forcibly pushed from their homes to inland relocation camps.
The studios also faced other changes related to personnel. They began to feel a shortage of veteran male actors when men like James Stewart, Clark Gable, and Henry Fonda enlisted. In general, those who complained about actors enlisting belonged to one of two small groups. There were those who complained that the actors did more good for the nation by providing fine entertainment to boost morale. The second group, complaining quietly, was much more mercenary. They were the enlisting stars’ agents who lost large commissions when their clients gave up their salaries to join the Army or Navy. The manpower losses were somewhat alleviated by new actors, often men whose only real claim was that they were unfit for military service and could, thus, stay and work through the war.