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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: You Can Enjoy Politics

article number 561
article date 06-02-2016
copyright 2016 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Government Tries to Sell Us on the Great War Through Movies, 1918
by Terry Ramsaye
   

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

* * *

WE HAVE COME to the place where the World War impinged upon the affairs of the motion picture in the United States. It is a chapter of sensational importance—because nothing of importance occurred. The United States government declared war on Germany April 6, 1917.

It was quite a large war. But it was all overseas. It was stupendously big and very distant. The war was not very personal to any of us unless we were required to attend with a musket. The public really was not inclined to pay much attention to it.

It was a big show, but monotonous. It had delivered its entire dramatic and emotional punch when the world went to screaming at the top of its voice in 1914. By 1917 we had grown used to the shouting.

This perfectly understandable and honest public attitude was reflected more accurately and frankly in the motion picture than in any other institution.

We had elected Woodrow Wilson, the second time, because “he kept us out of war.” And now in April ‘17 we were in the blamed thing. We went to mass meetings and applauded the band, but we did not enlist in conspicuous numbers.

For related and additional reasons, if you will turn to the published organs of the motion picture, April and May of that year, you will have difficulty discovering that there was a war.

One motion picture of the early war period became an international issue, deeply involved with world affairs with a history that has been held a secret of diplomatic records. It was the serial entitled ’Patria.’ The story is intricate, touching high places and famous names.

Edward A. MacManus was at the head of the International News Service and the International Film Service, both Hearst enterprises. It will be remembered that MacManus first invaded the pictures with his serial idea and the Edison-Ladies’ World-McClure ’What Happened to Mary?’ series.

MacManus was studying the war situation and looking for ideas to be capitalized in the autumn of 1916 when everybody but the public knew we were going into the big fight overseas. The newspapers and the atmosphere were full of preparedness propaganda.

By way of improving the scenery and giving accent to the Internationals’ newsreel picture, MacManus and fellow conspirators planted a most impressive Joan d’Arc, in glittering armor and mounted on a white horse, in a woman’s suffrage parade on Fifth avenue. It was the first flowering of an idea of preparedness for women.

Presently this idea began to elaborate itself in the mind of MacManus and grew eventually into a full-blown outline of a motion picture serial which was to get aboard the trend of the day and capitalize at one and the same time the interest of the feminist movement and the patriotic wave. It was to be a motion picture written to a prescription.

Some elements of the history of the Dupont family of Delaware, famous munition makers for generations, suggested the basis for the story. John Blanchard Clymer started writing the piece. Charles Goddard also took a hand at the story and eventually it came under the pen and hand of Louis Joseph Vance.

The original purpose was to show the United States attacked by an imaginary nation, with the heroine, ’The Last of the Channings,’ saving the country, through great suspense.

   
The politically controversial Hearst serial film ’Patria’ was based on the novel, ’The Last of the Channings.’ ’Patria’ had 15 episodes. Shown above are Irene Castle as Patria Channing and Milton Sills as Captain Donald Parr.

This was, however, too good an opportunity to be lost from the point of view of the Hearst newspapers. It will be recalled that these papers had had a great deal to say about the Japanese, about a naval base in Magdalena Bay down the Gulf of Lower California, about the Mexican situation and the yellow peril in the West.

Also the American punitive expedition into Mexico with its hide and seek pursuit of Villa was fresh in memory as a bit of contemporary history. The stage was well set.

William Randolph Hearst became more than usually interested in this motion picture detail of his multitudinous public enterprises and interests. The opportunity was amazingly pat to make the screen story a harmonic chord in the newspaper and magazine symphony.

The imaginary foe of the United States in the serial story became an allied army of Mexicans and Japanese.

The serial was produced by the Wharton studios. Irene Castle headed the cast, which included Milton Sills, Warner Oland and Nigel Barrie.

There were two nations displeased most particularly with Patria—Mexico and Japan. We were not on speaking terms with Mexico. Japan was suave and indirect.

Mr. Hanrihara of the embassy down in Washington continued to bow and smile as usual. But Japan had a treaty with Britain and some very direct diplomatic wires. From roundabout ways pressure began to build up against ’Patria.’

In various places about the country the picture was banned.

Then one day the International’s home office received a tactful letter, reading:

"Several times in attending Keith’s theatre here I have seen portions of the film entitled ’Patria,’ which has been exhibited there and I think in a great many other theatres in the country. May I not say to you that the character of the story disturbed me very much.

"It is extremely unfair to the Japanese and I fear that it is calculated to stir up a great deal of hostility which will be far from beneficial to the country, indeed will, particularly in the present circumstances, be extremely hurtful. I take the liberty, therefore, of asking whether the Company would not be willing to withdraw it if it is still being exhibited.

"With much respect,
Sincerely yours,
WOODROW WILSON."

’Patria’ was called in for alterations. The Japanese and Mexican flags were cut out of the picture and it managed to squeeze by the censorship and back into the market, considerably crippled at the box office.

When anything is everybody’s business, it is nobody’s business. In such cases we have a meeting and appoint a committee.

The war was a good deal of a committee affair.

The government—our committee at Washington—and its chairman, Woodrow Wilson, had to have some money and quite a bit of help to take care of this war job. They had to get it out of us.

But we were busy with “business as usual,” living, working, playing and going to the pictures. Since we insisted on going to the picture show instead of going to war the committee decided to get to us by breaking into the screen. It was easier to go where we were looking than it was to make us turn around.

   
The Red Cross would show movies to increase sentiment for our involvement in the war but was a service organization limited in skills to recruitment and service.

Naturally the first step was to appoint a committee. The picture business was assumed to be organized into the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry, with William A. Brady its president.

In a letter from the White House, President Wilson appointed Brady chairman of a committee which was to get the motion picture industry to do something about the war.

One way or another the president of every motion picture corporation in the United States became the member of a committee which was to do something about the war. The result was a tremendous rush of publicity in the trade press about the wonderful recognition which had come to the industry. That was the only result.

The first real junction of the screen and war affairs came through the American Red Cross. The Red Cross had to grow tremendously and it had to get before the public fast.

The Red Cross started a bureau of pictures and sought to reach us with film pleas. The pictures were shown mostly at meetings. They were miscellaneous collections of foreign and domestic pictures pertaining to the war.

The pictures were not theatrical products in any sense, which is another way of saying they were amateur pictures without entertainment and a punch. in consequence they reached a very small audience.

About April 14, 1917, George Creel was appointed chairman of the “Committee on Public Information.” It was his difficult assignment to be at once and the same time something of a censor and very much a press agent for the war.

Creel’s job was defined as “selling the war to America.” After the war Creel wrote a book ’How We Advertised America,’ which is a story of that selling campaign. It is rather clear that the war had to be sold to us. They are still collecting installments.

Meanwhile the motion pictures made by the Signal Corps of the army, which were the only American war films available, were going to the Red Cross. Their only important distribution was through the Red Cross bureau of pictures to the newsreels.

The little one reel news releases had the burden of telling us all that was told pictorially about America’s part in the war. The films were haphazardly made, haphazardly distributed and presented in the same way.

Creel, tremendously busy, began presently to see the screen a neglected medium. Looking back it seems a belated recognition.

But the fact is that the Creel bureau had to get to work immediately and the long established institution of the press with which he was most familiar was a thousand-fold more available for propaganda. The basic patterns of operation had all been worked out by long experience. In the realm of the screen they had to be pioneered—pioneered in a world of war.

   
George Creel, chairman of the “Committee on Public Information,” was charged with getting the government into the business aspects of movie distribution.

Charles S. Hart, then an executive of the Hearst magazine organization, was drafted into the service of the Committee on Public Information and assigned by Creel to look into this picture matter.

Hart reported shortly that Red Cross distribution was not giving America a pictorial message. It was not a criticism of the Red Cross, because it was not a propaganda organization. It was a mere incident of the jumbled make-shift rush of war moves.

In March of 1918, nearly a year after America’s entry into the war, a meeting of Red Cross officials, headed by George Murnane, a New York banker, and the heads of the Creel organization was held at 10 Jackson Place in Washington, headquarters of the Committee on Public Information. As a result of that session the pictorial activities of the war were turned over to Creel.

The Division of Pictures of the Committee on Public Information resulted.

Establishing offices in New York, Hart set about trying to connect the flow of war pictures available from the Signal Corps, and other sources, with the established channel of distribution to the theatres, the motion picture industry.

A curious problem existed. There never had been one like it.

Distribution of propaganda to the press was relatively easy. The press is a commercial institution which gets its raw material, the news, by picking it up, free. Its editors are presumed to know news and what it is worth no matter where it comes from.

The motion picture, equally but no more commercial than the press, pays high for its material and judges largely by price. The government could hand a good story to the news associations and every newspaper reader would see it. If the government handed out a free motion picture nobody saw it.

A free picture was not merchandise and could not go through a merchandising machine. The government through the Division of Films of the Committee on Public Information was thereby forced into the motion picture business, as a business.

The only avenue to the public was the theatre screen. The only route to the theatre was a selling route. A picture has to be sold to the distributor, sold to the exhibitor, sold to the public at the box office.

Theoretically the motion picture industry should have been permitted to send cameramen to the war, just as newspapers sent correspondents.

But the motion picture enjoys no such status as the press. Military persons look on all cameras with suspicion. Few officers of the military establishment had ever heard of the motion picture. The idea of filming the war in the sense that it was covered for the newspapers was really beyond comprehension.

The Committee on Public Information went into the film business in New York. It also used all manner of suggestion and pressure to get cameramen to put into the photographic service of the Signal Corps.

When Hart went about New York to put government pictures into the established channels, the big distributing concerns, he came abruptly against the fact that there was no unity in the business. The film world was still a war within itself, recognizing no common interest.

“Hand your pictures over to me—you can’t trust the other fellows,” was the uniform statement up Fifth avenue and down Broadway.

It was sincere, too. That was the way the picture magnates felt about each other. Obviously the government could do no such thing. The principle was impossible.

The result was that the Division of Films fabricated and assembled its own war films, presented them for metropolitan first runs in the name of the United States of America and then contracted on a percentage basis for subsequent circulation through various distributors. The government had all the troubles which beset an independent producer.

Statistically the history of the government in the film business takes about four lines:

- “Pershing’s Crusaders,” 4,189 Theatre Bookings, $181,741.69 in Film Rentals
- “America’s Answer,” 4,548 Theatre Bookings, $185,144.30 in Film Rentals
- “Under Four Flags,” 1,820 Theatre Bookings, $63,946.48 in Film Rentals
- “Official War Review,” 6,950 Theatre Bookings, $334,622.35 in Film Rentals

Sundry other items brought the total receipts of the Division of Films up to $852,744.30.

But the money is of no matter save as it indicates circulation. Dennis J. Sullivan, the same executive who had handled the distribution of the Chaplin comedies for Mutual, was in charge of the distribution of the government pictures through most of their active period.

The war pictures reached about the same number of audiences as Chaplin comedies, about one third of the theatres, an excellent showing considering the slight entertainment value of the war.

   
American production scene from ’Pershing’s Crusaders.’

The manner in which the war was photographed made it impossible to assemble a real production. The cameramen were under no central editorial control. The result resembled a story of the war about as a scrapbook resembles a historical novel. This was no fault of Hart or Creel. It was an incident of war.

The ’Official War Review’ was edited by Charles Urban, the American-British pioneer of Kinemacolor fame, and Ray L. Hall, first editor of Hearst newsreels.

The ’War Review’ was, however, not a newsreel. Censorships saw to that. The feature pictures of the Division got most of their emotional values from the attentions of Samuel L. Rothafel, the Broadway screen showman.

The Division of Films died before the same firing squad which executed the Committee on Public Information. The Creel organization was wiped out by congressional enactment June 30, 1919, without benefit of clergy.

Creel had inevitably made many enemies in what could at best have been a thankless job. The newspapers blamed him for all of the annoyances of the war. The motion picture industry resented him as an intruder. The anti-Wilson politicians hated him because he was a peculiarly personal element of the Wilson institution.

The Committee of Public Information died intestate. The method of its taking off by congress did not even permit of burial, much less administration of the estate. Not a cent was available for closing its accounts and liquidating its extensive and far-flung affairs. It was left in just such a tangle as any going business would have been if overtaken by a disaster which wiped out staff and payroll.

For this reason there were of course many unbanked checks, uncollected accounts and scattered assets, including costly pictures stored in film vaults all over the world. They blamed Creel for that and shouted scandal. He hired a watchman and made weekly trips to Washington at his own expense trying to rescue the claims.

The truth is that the Committee on Public Information’s record is one of the best made by the government in the conduct of the war, considerably better than in certain matters of shipbuilding, aircraft, railroading and the like.

The anti-Wilson forces made their attack on Creel very personal and he, being a Quixotic Cell, took it that way to a dramatic degree. He was so thoroughly martyred that he was able to convert his troubles into current literature for several years.

Creel is something of a professional under-dog fancier, always fighting for somebody or something. Even the title page of his ’How We Advertised America’ announces him as “Author of Ireland’s Fight for Freedom.”

The feelings involved are epitomized in the appreciation of Irish loyalty in the inscription which Creel wrote on the fly-leaf of a copy of that book, presented:

"To Charles S. Hart. — Companion of my travail, solace of my misery, source of my accomplishment, and a gay, faithful and unfailing comrade,—with the devotion of his friend — GEORGE CREEL."

There is the pleasant dolorousness of the skirling pipes in that. It is a refrain from the same eternal tune theme as ’The Lament of Douglas’ or the poetic gloom of ’Mollie Brannigan’ as sung by John McCormack.

The peculiar fact for screen history is that the vast experience of the war contributed nothing whatever to the art of the motion picture.

D. W. Griffith went abroad during the war and renewed his pride of Welsh blood by shaking hands with David Lloyd George.

Griffith, who had made so many excellent wars before the camera in the hills of California, made a war picture in France with the war left out. It was ’Hearts of the World,’ a tale of a village behind the lines.

   
’Hearts of the World,’ directed by D. W. Griffith begins with the intertitles:.

"God help the nation that begins another war of conquest or meddling! Brass bands and clanging sabers make very fine music, but let us remember there is another side of war.

"After all, does war ever settle any question? The South was ruined — thousands of lives were sacrificed — by the Civil War; yet, did it really settle the Black and White Problem in this country?"

Among the countless adventures of the war cameramen, the exploit of Larry Darmour, in the Signal Corps photographic service, was unique. Darmour had served his film novitiate on the Gaumont Mutual Weekly, under the editorship of Pell Mitchell, who assigned the youth to the Ford “peace ship” excursion.

Darmour’s next approach to Germany was in uniform via Château Thierry. He arrived on the eve of the famous advance. He strolled about to look over locations and completely lost track of the war. Darkness came on, and Darmour hesitated to blunder about lest he step on the war in the night. He rolled up in a shell hole and took a nap.

The most eventful morning of the war was announced by an exchange of barrages. Darmour awoke to find that he had been first over the top by several hours. He was in the middle of "No Man’s Land" between the Lines. The American barrage and the German counter barrage swept over him. Darmour stayed by his shell hole and escaped unharmed. He returned from the war with an impression that its perils had been slightly exaggerated.

The war brought Sarah Bernhardt’s last screen appearance in ’Mothers of France’ circulated in America in 1917. In this picture, Bernhard, crippled and enfeebled, a sad relic of herself as the personification of Gallic emotion, sat through her scenes in a chair. Only five years before, this same Bernhardt in her ’Queen Elizabeth,’ imported by Adolph Zukor, started the rise of feature pictures and the re-formation of the entire industry.

There was again a contact between the war and the motion picture in the use of stars to help sell the Liberty Loans. The Treasury Department sought the drawing power of many of the major personalities of the screen, including Pickford, Chaplin, and Fairbanks.

The stars made personal appearances at meetings and little trailer pictures of them were added to theatre programs. This activity established acquaintance between the stars and William G. McAdoo, Secretary of the Treasury, and his publicity engineer, Oscar Price.

There was a confab around Price’s big flat-top desk in the U. S. Treasury building in Washington one day. It reached the chatty stage:

“Why don’t you folks get together and distribute your own pictures—you are big enough to do that,” Price remarked. It was a passing thought—and a disturbing one. A new company and a great deal of complication were to come out of that.

The Treasury Department under Carter Glass, successor to McAdoo, with Frank Wilson in charge of its publicity drives, circulated a pictorial history of the war on the screen, under the title of ’The Price of Peace,’ selling the Victory Loan, the last installment on our debt to LaFayette.

Then Frank Wilson, grown accustomed to the dizzy altitude of big figures in the Treasury, went out to form a motion picture finance company.

   
Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks promote aid to Belgium. Much success for Liberty Bonds as well as relief for Europe resulted from personal promotions by film stars.
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