Գլխավոր էջ The Motion Picture Goes To War: The U. S. Government Film Effort During World War I

The Motion Picture Goes To War: The U. S. Government Film Effort During World War I

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Aristote: Petits traités d'histoire naturelle

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The Motion Picture Goes to War
The U.S. Government Film Effort
during World War I
Larry Wayne

Ward

BOSTON
PUBLIC
LIBRARY

*

The Motion Picture Goes
The U.S. Government Film
during World War I

to

War

Effort

Studies in Cinema, No. 37
Diane M. Kirkpatrick, Series Editor
Professor, History of Art

The

Other

No. 29

University of Michigan

Titles in This Series

Hollywood and the Profession of
Authorship, 1928-1940

No. 30

Richard Fine

The Political Language of Film and

Dana

the Avant- Garde

No.

3

1

Reflex ivity in Film and Literature:
From Don Quixote to Jean- Luc Godard

B.

Polan

Robert Stam

Maureen Turim

No. 32

Abstraction in Avant-Garde Films

No. 33

The Filmology Movement and Film
Study in France

Edward Lowry

Struggles o f the Italian Film
Industr y during Fa scism, 1930-1935

Elaine Mancini

No. 34

No. 35

Soviet

Cinema

in the Silent Fra,

Denise

1918-1935

No. 36

Youngblood

Hitchcock as Activist:
Politics

No. 38

J.

and

the

War Films

Bernard Herrmann: Film Music
and Sanative

Sam

P.

Simone

Graham Bruce

The Motion Picture Goes to War
The U.S. Government Film
during World War I

by
Larry

Wayne Ward

m
UMI RESEARCH PRESS
Ann

Arbor, Michigan

Effort

Copyright © 1985, 1981
Larry Wayne Ward
All rights reserved

Produced and distributed by
UMI Research Press
an imprint of
University Microfilms International

A

Xerox Information Resources Company

Ann

Arbor, Michigan 48106

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

Ward, Larry Wayne.
The motion picture goes
(Studies in cinema

;

to war.

no. 37)

Based on the author's thesis (Ph.D.)

University of

Iowa, 1981.
Includes index.
I.

2.
I.

World War, 1914-1918

Moving-pictures
I

itle.

1)522.23.

II.

Motion

United States

pictures

History

and the war.
20th century.

Series.

W37

1985

ISBN 0-8357-I683-X

791
(alk.

.43W09358

paper)

85-14034

For Ann, Mary Ann and Way

Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface

1

ix

xiii

Backdrop

Coming

1

of

Age

Mr. President, See
2

Film and Politics

M; y

Film
Years

in the Neutrality

21

Newsreels and Neutrality

The "Official Films"
The German Film Effort
The Allied Film Effort
The Preparedness Films
3

Flourishes and False Starts

45

The World's Greatest Adventure

in

Advertising

Mobilization of the Film Industry

The Signal Corps Goes into Production
The Formation of the Division of Films
4

Reorganization and Expansion

The Government Goes

into the

91

Movie Business

Distribution and Exhibition

5

Government Controls and

the Industry's Quest for Accept
Domestic Film Censorship
Export Controls
Congressional Scrutiny and the Universal Affair

The

Essential Industry

viii

Contents

Epilogue

Notes

135
141

Bibliography

Index

171

163

List of Illustrations

1.

Tally's storefront theater

was one of the

theaters in the United States.

2.

D. W. Griffith and his
a shot.

4.

permanent movie

first

of the

new "movie

4

palaces."

3.

Strand was the

Built in 1914, the

first

3

brilliant

cameraman,

Billy Bitzer,

Frame enlargement from

a

contemporary newsreel showing

President Wilson marching in a preparedness parade.

5.

7-8.

24

Staging "war films"

German-looking

in

Van Courtland Park, New

soldiers in

two scenes from

J.

Stuart Blackton's

10.

Douglas Fairbanks signs up fan for the Liberty Loan.

11.

The

photograph
12.

in

War Cooperation Committee
Washington.

37

40

Portrait of J. Stuart Blackton.

industry's

26

Jersey.

Vitagraph production of The Battle Cry of Peace.
9.

13

Wilson's neutrality statement could be copied on movie film or

used as a slide before the newsreel.

6.

ponder

9

58

poses for a

59

Charlie Chaplin directs the band at a huge Washington Liberty

Loan

rally.

60

x

List

13.

14.

of

Illustrations

Mary Pickford

Sam

Loan

film.

to Play

Bond crown in
Your Hand, * an industry-sponsored

61

The Germans execute nurse Edith Cavell

in Select Picture

Corporation's 1918 film, The Cavell Case.
16-17.

Patriotic children interrupt the pacifists' rally with
in

21.

22-23.

64

The Eagle's Wings: German saboteur captured by the Secret

German

butler

Spy.

66

A

twist

The

and wife toast the

on the pie-in-the-face

The war
medals

24.

some

The Kingdom of Hope.

Service as he puts explosives in lumps of coal.

20.

Man

63

Afraid.

marching and flag-waving
19.

62

Before and after: The "slacker" son goes off to war in The

Who Was
18.

60

Actress Pauline Frederick wearing a Liberty

"Stake Uncle
Liberty

15.

The Great Liberty Bond Hold-up.

in

—

title

in slapstick

Mack

in

for

My

in

65

kaiser's portrait in

Swat the Spy.

Swat the

66

— "heroic" German soldiers and cut-rate

Sennett's Yankee

Fours Years

in

Doodle

Germany

in Berlin.

67

highlighted Gerard's

68

participation.

25.

Actor portraying Ambassador Gerard, center frame, repudiates
Germans' statement that America won't fight.
68

26.

The

kaiser

wads up

with the Kaiser.

27.

A

28.

The

29.

very

literal

kaiser's

the

American

flag in a scene

from To Hell

69

representation from To Hell with the Kaiser.

War

Council

in

The Kaiser, the Beast of

Berlin.

71

The brutal

German occupation

Beast of Berlin.

72

of Belgium

in

The Kaiser, the

70

List

30.

Erich von Stroheim as the cruel
Unbeliever.

German

xi

of Illustrations

officer in

The

73

31.

Heart of Humanity: As starving Belgians watch, the Germans
dump milk donated by the American Red Cross.
73

32.

Von Stroheim

men away

sends his

so he can be alone with the

nurse (Dorothy Phillips) in Heart of Humanity.
33.

A

crying baby, just before

of Humanity.
34.

36.

is

thrown out the window

in

in the trenches in

Europe.

Griffith, left of

75

Sorting film in the Signal Corps Photo Laboratory.
Signal Corps

Heart

74

Contemporary newsreel footage showing D. W.
camera,

35.

it

74

cameraman

in the

78

trenches with a lightweight

camera, precisely the kind the Signal Corps most needed.
37.

38.

Animated

in

France.

sequence from an early Signal Corps-CPI war
was distributed by the Red Cross.
87

George Creel

in Paris

with the American Commission to
92

Negotiate Peace, 1919.

from the

41.

Title card

42.

At work

43.

Inspecting a

44.

Sailors spelling out the

45-47.

83

title

film which

40.

from a

pictures

81

Signal Corps cameraman, center, photographing military

bombardment
39.

cameraman taking

France, 1918: Signal Corps

wrecked building.

80

Official

in the Signal

roll

War Review.

98

Corps photographic laboratory.

of film in the Signal Corps laboratory.

title

for

America

s

Answer.

In sequence, the wife in His Best Gift learns
failure to

100

buy War Risk Insurance.

104

100

102

about her husband's

—
List

xii

48.

49-50.

of

Illustrations

Navy band marching

in the

Animated Signal Corps

CPLs

Official

film warning soldiers

of joy-riding and the results of going

51.

Actress

Mary Pickford works

Ill

the

crowd

at a Liberty

Loan

122

showing that a film has been passed by the

Title card

CPI.
54.

^bout the dangers

113

rally.

53.

A*WOL.

107

Animated sequence from an industry-produced war
newsreel.

52.

War Review.

122

Speakers from the CPI's Four-Minute Men organization pose for
photograph in New York.
128

a 1918

55-56.

Gish and Douglas Fairbanks in a Liberty Loan Film
The Motion Picture, a Win-the- War- Factor, distributed by the

Lillian

National Association of the Motion Picture Industry.

57.

Contemporary newsreel showing D. W.
badge for
program.

58 59.

War

Griffith as he receives a

Savings Stamp

133

Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa in a Liberty Loan
film production and as bond salesman at a Liberty Loan
rally.

60.

his participation in the

130

137

George Creel and President Woodrow Wilson together on a
Swiss train platform after the war.

139

Preface

As a graduate student in an innovative crossAmerican Cinema/ American /Studies at the

This book grew out of a film.
disciplinary

program

in

I had the opportunity to participate in the production of
an hour-long documentary for Post-Newsweek Television and Blackhawk
Films. Under the guidance of David Shepard, formerly of Blackhawk Films

University of Iowa,

(now Special Projects Officer for the Directors Guild of America West), and
working together with three fellow Iowa graduate students (John Abel,
Robert Allen, and Peter Dufour), we produced The Moving Picture Boys in
motion picture
the Great War, a compilation film about World War
I

propaganda.
While doing research for the

film, I became interested in the use of
motion pictures by the Committee on Public Information (CPI), the U.S.
government's official wartime propaganda agency. Under the leadership of
chairman George Creel, the CPI created a Division of Films to exploit the
motion picture as a channel for public information and persuasion, the first
large-scale attempt by the U.S. government to employ this relatively new
medium in an official capacity. By the end of the First World War, the CPI
had developed a surprisingly complex and sophisticated motion picture
campaign, a program which provided many precedents for the far betterknown government film effort in World War II.
Initially, at least, my primary objective was to chronicle and analyze the
government's use of motion pictures in the Great War. In his various reports
on CPI activities, Creel seemed to generate as many questions as answers,
offering only the barest information about the kind of films the CPI produced,
and almost nothing about how and where they were made, who made them,
and how these films were distributed and exhibited. As I progressed further in
my research, however, it became clear that the government's wartime film
program was inextricably linked to the contributions of the private film

industry.

xiv

Preface

The government's interest in motion pictures coincided with a period of
American film industry, a period characterized by the
introduction of longer and better films, the construction of new "first-run"
rapid growth in the

development of powerful studios ancf stars, and the emergence of
and more affluent middle-class audience. Wartime correspondence
between industry leaders and government officials, particularly President
Woodrow Wilson and George Creel, revealed the film industry's seemingly
overwhelming desire to obtain official recognition and approval.
theaters, the

a larger

many

respects the industry's quest for acceptance and approval
on a much smaller scale, the central theme of Garth Jowett's
wonderful social history of American film, Film: The Democratic Art. Less
than a decade prior to the First World War, the motion picture was considered
a rather disreputable form of amusement, a peepshow novelty suitable chiefly
for the uneducated masses. The war, and the government's desire to use
motion pictures as part of its wartime public relations campaign, provided the
American film industry with a unique opportunity to enhance its stature and
solidify its role in American society.
Although contemporary observers made extravagant claims about the
effectiveness of the government's World War I film program, most of the work
was begun too late in the war to have much impact on public opinion. The
great wave of propaganda research generated after the First World War
focused, rightly, in my opinion, on the persuasive power of the press. What is
important here is that contemporary filmmakers and government officials
thought motion picture propaganda was effective and that they tried to use
motion pictures in this new persuasive role during the First World War.
have tried to use the word "propaganda" without attaching a negative
connotation to it. The modern use of the word is far different from its use
during the First World War, when "propaganda" was understood more in its
In

echoes,

I

dictionary sense: spreading or extending a doctrine or idea.

There are many people

I

want to thank

for their help

and guidance. The

Rockefeller Foundation provided a fellowship which helped

me

begin the

book and also to start production on The Moving Picture
Boys in the Great War. Post-Newsweek Television and Blackhawk Films
made it possible to collect and view most of the extant war-related films in the
research for this

National Archives, the Library of Congress and
also

in

debt to Dudley Andrew,

Pepper and especially Richard

American historian.
David Shepard played a

MacCann and

my

University of Iowa, John Abel and Bobby

and observations.

Miller,

I

am

Robert

Larry Gelfand, a consummate

far greater role than he realizes in helping to

define the scope of this work, and

insights

in private collections.

John Raeburn, Franklin

fellow graduate students at the
Allen, provided

many

invaluable

Preface

xv

Terry Hynes gave hours of careful reading and counsel, and Ed Trotter
and George Mastroianni offered the kind of encouragement and prodding
that kept the entire project in perspective.

Finally, I would be remiss in not thanking Ann Ward for her
encouragement and support. Through hours of proofreading and discussion,
I am sure she learned more than she ever wanted about the U.S. government's
World War I film program. Her patience and unflagging interest were
irreplaceable.

Backdrop

If the First

World War had occurred

just a

few years

earlier, there

would

probably have been no reason to write this book. It is doubtful that the motion
picture would have been sufficiently developed as a medium of mass
entertainment or communication to play a meaningful role in a government

World War I, in fact, the United States government
had made only limited use of motion pictures in an official capacity. Several
government agencies, notably the Agriculture Department and the
Department of the Interior, had begun to make short informational films; but
their film production units were small, and their films were not widely
distributed. When the Army Signal Corps, for example, wanted to shoot films
of a historic test flight by the Wright Brothers in 1908, they were forced to ask
the Agriculture Department for assistance. The Signal Corps, it turned out,
had neither cameramen nor cameras.
Ten years later this had completely changed. By the end of the First
World War, the Photographic Section in the Signal Corps had built a staff of
nearly six hundred men, and Signal Corps cameramen had shot almost one
million feet of film in Europe and the United States. Some of this film was
turned over to the U.S. government's official World War
propaganda
agency the Committee on Public Information (CPI). From this material, the
CPFs Division of Films produced over sixty government motion pictures,
ranging from multi-reel features like Pershing's Crusaders to a weekly

film program. Prior to

1

I

—

newsreel entitled the Official

What was

War Review}

the reason for this change?

government embark on such a
picture

How and why did the United States

large-scale effort to use the

medium as a channel for public information and

young motion

persuasion? These are

complex questions and we can do little more here than suggest some answers.
The war, obviously, provided most of the impetus for the governments
new film program. With the very life of the nation threatened by global
conflict, it is hardly surprising that government officials would use any

medium

to help mobilize public opinion.

We should also consider the impact

Backdrop

2

of progressive ideology which emphasized the people's role
the

in

government. In

part of the twentieth centu-ry, progressive presidents

showed a
growing awareness of the importance of public opinion, as well as of their
ability to manage it. The administration of Theodore Roosevelt, for example,
was marked by increased contact with the press and the use of executive press
releases to disseminate news and public information. Woodrow Wilson
instituted the first regularly scheduled presidential press conferences.
Although Wilson later abandoned this practice, his interest in managing
first

public opinion eventually culminated during the First World War in the
Committee on Public Information, which he established (by Executive Order
2594) on April 13, 1917.
Another reason, and perhaps the most important, for the government's
3

establishment of a wartime film effort relates to the rapid growth of the

American

film industry. Film historians have long pointed to

World War I

as

when the motion picture came of age as both an art and an industry.
During the war years the film industry experienced a number of developments

the period

and innovations which enhanced the motion picture's status as a mass
medium and reshaped the American film business as well. 4

Coming

of

Age

The development of

the star system, the introduction of feature-length films,

and the construction of large first-run "picture palaces" like the Strand
Theatre in New York had all started by the beginning of the First World War.
The war years also marked the beginning of what Mae Heutig has described as
the "vertical integration" of the American film industry, i.e., the combining
within a single film company of what had previously been the separate areas of
5
production, exhibition, and distribution.
Production costs escalated on every front. The growing film audience
6
seemed to place more emphasis on complete stories. As a result, film
companies increasingly found themselves paying royalties to prominent
writers in order to use their books or plays as the bases for films. Such stories,
in turn,

often raised the costs of production in other areas such as costumes,

props and

sets.

With production

costs escalating,

it

became even more

important for film producers to protect their investments by hiring established
stars,

or by building studio organizations which could produce a steady

supply of films and ensure their widest distribution.
Before World War I, the center of film production had been shifting from

New York

Hollywood. As the war continued, this trend intensified. The
quality of motion pictures improved. Film programs no longer changed on a
his necessitated the development of new methods for distribution
daily basis.
and exhibition. To fill the new theaters with patrons, film companies began to
to

I

Figure

I.

Tally's storefront theater

was one of the

movie theaters in the United States.
(Post-Newsweek Television Stations,
Films)

first

Inc.

permanent

and Blackhawk

1

Backdrop

5

expend more effort and money on publicity and advertising. Motion pictures
were clearly in the process of becoming both a major mass medium and a far
more complex business. Competition within the film industry during the war
years reached a level of intensity that historian Lewis Jacobs has described as a
dramatic announcements of new
sort of mad gold rush, characterized by "
.

companies, revolutionary

Most of

.

.

policies, fantastic successes or failures."

7

growth had no connection with the war, but in the film
export business, the Great War had a direct and immediate impact. Before
August 1914, European film producers had provided the American film
this

its strongest competition. Two of the original members of the
once-powerful Motion Picture Patents Company, Pathe and Melies, had been
foreign companies; and many foreign film manufacturers, including Itala,

industry with

Gaumont, Great Northern, Ambrosio, and Eclair, had New York offices
8
when the war began. The World War had a devastating effect on most of
these companies. Vital employees were drafted into the army and European
companies were forced to compete with the military for supplies and
equipment needed to make films. Some of the same raw materials used to
manufacture film stock were needed for the production of gun powder; and
cameras, lenses, and film processing chemicals were also increasingly difficult
film

to obtain.

9

Prior to the war,

London had been

the center of world film trade. But the

disruption of European film production and the difficulty of shipping films

out of

many European

ports put foreign manufacturers at a great

disadvantage. American film companies were quick to capitalize on what one
trade magazine gleefully described as "the psychological

moment

for every

10

branch of the industry."
Although American companies faced the same problems as their
European counterparts in shipping films to the continent, they were able to
make almost immediate inroads in the British market. The British Board of
Trade reported that in the first two months of 1915, American films made up
85 percent of the films imported into Great Britain. Statistics released by the
1

Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce showed that American film
first eight months of 9 5 nearly doubled the quantity of films
12
exported during the previous two years. By 1916, American films, valued at
ten million dollars, were sent abroad, primarily to England, while only one
13
million dollars worth of foreign films were imported into the United States.
The disruption of European production also enabled American film
companies to open up new markets in areas which had previously been
controlled by European manufacturers. Writing in 1915 for the trade
magazine Moving Picture World, W. Stephen Bush could barely contain his
excitement about the golden opportunity awaiting American film producers
in South America:
exports for the

1

1

Backdrop

6

Not

a foot of

motion picture film

produced in South America. The market must be
The population of Latin America is greater than that
of France and Italy combined. The market is open to all
is

supplied exclusively by importation.

of

Germany and

as great as that

producers on even terms. ... At present the best gr^de of film is supplied entirely by
European producers. This is the best time to reach out for the South American market.

Banking

facilities

are better than ever before; transportation has been vastly improved; the

old prejudice against the

Yankee

is

rapidly dying out and to

some

extent has disappeared

even now.

14

Moving

Picture World, in fact, had already taken steps to expand

its

own

The cornerstone of this effort was the publication
Spanish-language edition of Moving Picture World entitled Cine-

Latin American operations.
of a

Mundial. Dr. F.G. Orteyga, a former journalist

Cuban
was

who had

also served with the
delegation in London, was appointed editor of Cine-Mundial, and he

assisted

by L. H. Allen, a film distributor and exhibitor with considerable

experience in the South American market. The publicity campaign for Cinestressed the "new era of understanding" which the magazine could
between the two hemispheres, but its primary goal was clearly to help
American film companies as they expanded their South American

Mundial

foster

operations.

15

There is no way to judge the effect of Cine-Mundial in the Latin
American market, but American film companies did seem to heed the call
from south of the border. By 1916 the Fox Film Corporation had established
branch offices in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires, Rosario, and
16
Montevideo.
And later the same year, Moving Picture World's
correspondent

American

in

Rio de Janeiro

filed

a glowing report about the success of

films in Brazil:

What little there is left of French and Italian films in this country proves how complete has
become the American invasion of this market. An American who arrives in this city for the
lirst time may make himself at home so far as amusements go, and he may see his favorite
17
actor in almost any of the numerous amusement houses on the "avenue."

The growing domination of American

films in the world film

market was

another sign of the industry's rapid development during the war years. By the
end of the war, industry spokesmen were claiming, incorrectly, that the

motion picture business had become the fifth largest industry in the United
States, a statement which actually reflected the industry's desire to be
18
accorded the press-like status of a "fifth estate." Such inflated claims are
understandable. In a short period of time the motion picture had achieved a
degree of respectability and acceptance which probably astounded all but the
most optimistic early film pioneers. Had the World War occurred just a few
years earlier, motion pictures would probably have played nothing more than
the limited role they played in the Spanish-American War at the turn of the

Backdrop
century. Without the industry's spectacular growth, without the
innovations,

is

it

unlikely that motion pictures

than a passing glance from government

Woodrow Wilson

7

new

would have warranted more

officials. Certainly, as

President

discovered, motion pictures were becoming increasingly

difficult to ignore.

Mr. President, See

On

February

18,

My

Film

Woodrow

1915,

Wilson, his daughter, members of his

cabinet and their families gathered in the East

watch David Wark

The

Nation.

Room

Griffith's twelve-reel Civil

War

of the White House to
epic,

The Birth of a

members of Congress and the Supreme Court,
Edward White, saw the film in the ballroom of the

next night,

including Chief Justice

19

Washington.
Both of these unprecedented screenings were arranged by Thomas
Dixon, a Baptist minister turned novelist, playwright and screenwriter. Dixon
had maintained contact with Wilson since his days as a graduate student at
Johns Hopkins, and as a personal favor to him, the president agreed to view
The Birth of a Nation provided projection equipment could be brought to the
White House and that there would be no publicity concerning the private
screening. Evidently Dixon's command performance was a smashing success.
Raleigh Hotel

in

After watching the film, Wilson reportedly said: "It

My

lightning.

only regret

is

that

it

is all

This story has been told and retold

Nation
It

was the

first

like writing history in

most film

20

The Birth of a
one of the most important films in motion picture history.
important American-made feature-length film and signaled the

after

is,

is

so terribly true."

in

histories.

all,

advent of the feature film as the industry's standard unit of production. In
addition, Griffith's sensitive use of the

made

a

significant

contribution

to

camera and his mastery of film editing
the development of film narrative

technique.

of a Nation was

development of the
motion picture as an art form, the large audiences drawn to the film and the
controversy it generated also indicated the medium's potential social and
political impact. For many Americans, both black and white, The Birth of a
Nation represented an intolerable justification of racial bias and white
supremacy. When the film opened in Los Angeles in early February 1915, the
local branch of the recently formed National Association for the
Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) secured a commitment from the
mayor to eliminate some of the film's most inflammatory scenes. Eventually
the NAACP succeeded in convincing local censorship boards in several cities
and states to remove some of the film's more racist sections, and in a few cases,
21
the film was banned entirely from commercial theaters.
But as important as

77?^ Birth

to the

8

Backdrop
«.

These protests, however, did not seem to deter attendance. Audiences
throughout the country thronged to the film and less than a month after the
White House screening, Dixon told the president that the negative publicity
surrounding the film, what he called "valuable afouse," actually seemed to be
spurring public interest in the film.

22

Though Dixon was gloating about
White House was not. At

the positive effects of negative

NAACP had
sought to block the screening of The Birth of a Nation, lawyers for the film
tried a new line of defense, revealing that both the president and the chief
publicity, the

justice of the

Supreme Court had seen

the film and had found nothing
This implied endorsement angered Justice White in
threatened to publicly denounce the film and wrote Wilson,

objectionable in
particular.

He

hearings where the

it.

suggesting that the president

make an

effort to stop

such testimonials.

Several weeks later, in response to an inquiry by Representative

Thomas

23

C.

Thatcher, Joseph Tumulty, Wilson's secretary, tried to clarify the president's
involvement with the picture:
of a Nation was produced before the President and his family at
was entirely unaware of the character of the play before
it was presented and has at no time expressed his approbation of it. Its exhibition at the
24
White House was a courtesy extended to an old acquaintance.
...

it is

true that The Birth

the White House, but the President

Wilson obviously had many pressing matters on his mind in the spring of
1915, but the controversy aroused by The Birth of a Nation surely increased
his awareness of the motion picture's growing importance as a medium of
mass communication. Throughout the war the president received numerous
requests from filmmakers anxious to secure the presidential "imprimatur"for
their own films. D. W. Griffith, for example, wrote the president a short time
after the White House screening seeking his assistance on a series of historical
and political films which he claimed "could be made to sledge hammer home
those opinions and thoughts which you might desire to put into the very hearts
25
of the American people." Although the president expressed some interest in
Griffith's proposal, he declined any direct involvement, citing the pressures of
his

busy schedule.

26

Griffith's desire to involve the president in his

new

film projects

was

hardly an isolated incident. Throughout the war years Wilson heard from a
variety of filmmakers, producers, studio executives

were, of course,

many

and

publicists.

There

reasons for filmmakers to write the president of the

is a single theme which shines through this
film industry's almost obsessive desire to
American
correspondence, it is the
secure official recognition and approval. Social historian Robert Sklar has
suggested at least one possible motive: the movies were the first medium of

United States, but

if

there

Figure

3.

D.

W.

Griffith

and

his brilliant

cameraman,

ponder a shot.
(Post-Newsweek Television Stations,
Films)

Inc.

Billy Bitzer,

and Blackhawk

Backdrop

10

communication controlled by men "who did not share the ethnic or religious
27
backgrounds of the traditional cultural elites."
In fact, many of the
important early film pioneers like William Fox, Samuel Goldfish (Goldwyn),
Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor were Eastern European Jews, fairly recent
immigrants who had gone from careers in the jewelry or clothing businesses to
positions of prominence in the film industry. For them, the Great War may
have intensified the motion picture's long-standing cultural inferiority
complex, raising new questions about loyalty, patriotism and public service.
And, when the war began, the movies were not very far removed from their
humble origins in the vaudeville houses, nickelodeons and storefront theaters,
a heritage which the Hungarian-born Zukor himself considered a "slum
28
Against that background it is easier to understand the meeting
tradition."
that the Universal Film Manufacturing Company tried to arrange with
Woodrow Wilson so that its German-born president, Carl Laemmle, could
29
simply "shake hands" with the president of the United States.
As trivial as this request may seem, it is symbolic of the acceptance and
recognition that many filmmakers sought for themselves and their medium. It
would have been flattering of course, and possibly a boost to business, for the
president to show interest in any film or film company. But in the years prior
to American entry into the First World War, there was still another reason for
the president and other government officials to become the focal point of an
industry-wide public relations campaign: the threat of government regulation.
Shortly after the war began in the summer of 1914, Congress passed the
first of several war-related taxes on motion pictures. A special war tax was
enacted in October 1914 as a means of offsetting an expected decline in import
duties caused by the European war; it provided for new taxes on loans,
alcoholic beverages, and various forms of amusement, including motion
picture theaters.

To

30

further alarm the industry, the implementation of federal censorship

legislation

seemed a distinct possibility. Prior to World War most attempts
motion picture industry and motion picture content had taken
I

to regulate the

place on the state or municipal level, but in early 1915 Representative D.

M.

Hughes (Democrat) of Georgia introduced a bill to establish a federal motion
31
Under the terms of Hughes' bill, President Wilson
would have been responsible for appointing five motion picture
commissioners to examine and license all films before they went into interstate
32
commerce.
Though this legislation was never close to passage, the threat of
censorship and the very real burden of war taxes helped unify the motion
picture commission.

picture industry. In a business

known

for

its

competitiveness and cut-throat

individualism, these issues provided a rallying point. Filmmakers and film

companies

alike

were willing to put aside

their rivalries in a concentrated

Backdrop
educate both the public and government

effort to

officials

about the

11

evils

of

censorship and taxation.

One

new

sign of this

spirit

of unity was the formation of the Motion

Picture Board of Trade in September of 1915. The membership of this
organization cut across the entire spectrum of industry interests:
manufacturers, exhibitors, publishers, suppliers, writers, directors and actors.
In an interview with Moving Picture World, the Board of Trade's executive
secretary, Jacob W. Binder, summarized his new organization's basic
objectives:

We
all

propose to

start a

campaign of publicity which will provide the press of the country with

Our bureau of information will offer its
way we hope to get the truth about motion

the essential facts of the motion picture industry.

services to the press of the country. In this

combat prejudice, to conquer ignorance and to diffuse
knowledge of the truth. We propose to be heard in the halls of legislation, opposing all
unjust and oppressive laws aimed against motion picture interests, but admitting at the
same time constructive and beneficial legislation, for we believe that the true interest of the
pictures before the public, to

industry and the true interest of the public are identical.

The next

33

one which would later make a
government's wartime film effort, the

year, a similar organization,

significant contribution to the U. S.

National Association of the Motion Picture Industry
in

New

these trade associations survived

made

representatives
to

(NAMPI), was formed

York. William A. Brady was elected president. Although neither of

much beyond

the First

World War,

their

frequent appearances before congressional committees

lobby against censorship and taxation during the war years. These

organizations also spearheaded the industry's comprehensive public relations

campaign.

Most of this

publicity effort

was concentrated on Congress and the

press,

but industry leaders were also anxious to draw the president out on the
If the Hughes censorship bill had been passed, Wilson
would have been responsible for appointing the five members of the Motion
Picture Commission. Not surprisingly, the trade associations made a

censorship question.

determined effort to

elicit

the president's views about censorship.

December 1915, Jacob Binder wrote Wilson, inviting him to speak at
Motion Picture Board of Trade's annual dinner. His letter also provided
In

the

him with the opportunity
motion picture:
You may
country.

to give the president a

not realize that the motion picture

As

More than

a

medium

of thought expression

it

is

sales pitch

today one of the greatest forces

ten million people daily throng the thirteen thousand

It

speaks convincingly.

It is

bound

about the

in the

ranks with the press and the spoken word.

throughout the country. As a propaganda medium,
language.

little

it

to play a

is

motion picture theatres

unexcelled.

It

speaks a universal

tremendously important part

in

the

Backdrop

12

next presidential campaign.

I

want the men who ARE the motion picture industry to know
and to Relieve in him, his personality and his policies as

the President of the United States,

do.

I

34

'

f

The same day Binder

Tumulty, urging him to use his influence
to ensure the president's acceptance. With Tumulty, Binder took a different
tack, describing in detail the dangers awaiting any politician who failed to
recognize the tremendous power of the screen when used "deliberately ... for
35
With obvious relish, Binder explained the fate of Harold
political purposes."
J.

also wrote

Mitchell, a candidate for the state legislature of

Last year he introduced a

bill

New

York:
name for political graft
men now constituting the

creating a state censor board (another

harassing the motion picture industry). Through the efforts of the

Motion Picture Board of Trade, this bill was defeated. Mitchell ran for re-election. His
campaign slogan was "Censor the Movies." The screens in his district ran a single slide
opposing the principle of legalized censorship, and not mentioning Mitchell's name. In a
district normally Republican by a thousand majority, he was beaten by more than a
36
thousand votes. A Democrat was elected.

Despite Binder's heavy-handed invitation, Wilson agreed to speak at the
Board of Trade dinner in the Biltmore Hotel in New York. The movie men
were delighted, viewing the presidential visit as a sign of official approval.
Plans were made to record the event on film so that it could be shown to the
public through the major newsreel services. In an effort to help the president
prepare for his speech, Binder wrote him again, enclosing a list of "facts"
about the motion picture which provides a remarkable summary of the
wishful thinking and self-aggrandizement that characterized the motion
picture industry's official public relations campaign:

FACTS ABOUT THE MOTION PICTURES
1

NEW VEHICLE OF EXPRESSION

It

is

a

It

is

akin and similar to

(a)

Speech.

(b)

The printed page
The newspaper.

(c)

Those who know

it

in a

book.

best speak of the

motion picture as the

FIFTH ESTATE. The

Constitution expressly guarantees freedom from pre-publicity restraint
to the
I

I

1

1

[

censorship

spoken and printed word.
S AMI

GUARAN

I

EE

SHOULD

BE GIVEN TO

I

HIS

NEW VEHICLE OF

XPRESSION.

2

The language of

3

There are

in

the

Motion Picture

is

a

UNIVERSAL LANGUAGE.

the United States 12,000 motion picture theatres.

12,000,000 people attend these theatres

EVERY DAY.

Backdrop

Figure

4.

13

Frame enlargement from a contemporary newsreel
showing President Wilson marching in a preparedness
parade.

(Post-Newsweek Television Stations

Inc.

and Blackhawk

Films)

Five hundred million dollars are invested in the industry.

Nearly a million people are employed

The industry has grown
4

There are now
pictures the

to

its

in

it.

present place and magnitude in just a

six nationally circulated

news of the world.

First they

News

little

picture services. These

over a decade.

tell

in

motion

were issued only monthly; then weekly; now

twice weekly; soon they will be dailies with two or three editions.

w

dream of a major presidential address devoted entirely to the
motion picture was never realized. On January 27, 1916, the president
unveiled his new preparedness program in speeches before the New York
Federation of Churches and the Railway Business Association. At the
conclusion of a patriotic speech to the railway men, Wilson was escorted to the
Board of Trade dinner by a five-hundred man contingent from the Ninth
Coast Guard Artillery.
This entrance might have been good for the newsreel cameras, but the
president clearly had more on his mind than motion pictures. Speaking
Binder's

extemporaneously, Wilson gave a rambling speech about the political
situation in Mexico. His only reference to the movies was about the newsreels.
Seeing himself on screen, the president revealed, "often sent him to bed

unhappy." Wilson also told the filmmakers that if they could only find some
pictures of what was going on in his mind, they would find

way of taking

Backdrop

14

any audience anywhere." 38 The
president's refusal to seriously address the industry's concerns about
censorship must have been a bitter disappointment to both Binder and the
Board of Trade, but the Binder-Wilson correspo»dence Tdoes indicate one of
the central themes in the industry's official public relations campaign: the
attempt to differentiate the functions of the motion picture from other forms
of entertainment or communication.
The trade magazine Moving Picture World described that difference as
material "that

would be entertaining

to

the "distinct educational value of the screen," a difference,
Italian

government had already recognized

in its

own

it

argued, which the

taxation of motion

pictures:

Motion pictures are taxed in Italy if they deal with purely dramatic themes, but they are
exempt from taxation if they are educational in character. A motion picture theater which
shows at least one or two educational films (newsreels) on its daily program ought to be
exempt from special war taxation. If we tax educational films we might as well tax the
newspapers and the books and the lectures in the universities. The motion picture theater is
the university of the plain people.

39

This argument was heard time and again during the war years. Although
most of the industry's resources were devoted to the production of theatrical
films, the newsreels played an increasingly special role in the industry's official
public relations effort. In an effort to counter charges that the movies had a
negative impact on social and moral standards, industry spokesmen began to
stress the educational benefits that the American people derived from the
screen. While some filmmakers undoubtedly felt that their dramatic films
provided a form of education for the masses, it was often easier to justify
claims that the movies were "educational and informative" by focusing
attention on the newsreels.
President Wilson, in fact, was well acquainted with the newsreels. He had
begun hearing from the newsreel companies shortly after his inauguration in
1913. At that time, the newsreel companies were primarily interested in
securing pictures of Wilson and his cabinet, or in obtaining permission to
40
photograph the wedding of Wilson's daughter.
Although the president
showed some interest in these proposals, he was fearful that the White House
might be overrun by cameramen, and he limited his personal involvement to
the filming of public events.
In

March of

1915, however, Carl

Laemmle, president of the Universal

Film Manufacturing Company, devised a novel plan for coaxing Wilson into
participating in a special issue of Universal's Animated Weekly newsreel.

him that Universal's
communicating
directly with the
newsreel offered a unique means of
American public. What Laemmle had in mind was a presidential message

Laemmle wrote

the

president,

trying to convince

Hack drop

shown

15

movie theaters across the nation.
Citing the movies' "tremendous influence on the public," and the "30 million
copied on film which could be

in

who view

people in the United States

Wilson to take advantage of

this

pictures every day," Laemmle urged
powerful new communications medium:

Think of the amount of good you

will accomplish by sending a message of good cheer to the
American public at this time. The subject is entirely in your hands. We would like to have it
on optimism. You can preach the gospel of neutrality if your prefer or stimulate interest in
home industry. There is some message that you want to send to the American public; will
41
you let us send it for you?

There
of

is

no record of presidential action on

Laemmle had begun

1915,

prominent people to be used
of the

in

conjunction with a special

author in

but by December

New

from other
Year's release

shown on the
which portrayed the
some characteristic pose. Laemmle wrote Wilson again, trying to

Animated Weekly. Each

screen via

this request,

gathering similar messages

title

person's statement was to be

cards, preceded by a short piece of film

secure his participation in the project, but the president declined, noting that

"composing messages of this
did not

know how

to do."

sort has always been the particular sort of thing

I

42

Laemmle, however, was not used

to taking

no for an answer, even from

He wrote his own version of a presidential New Year's
message and then asked the president by telegram if he could use that version
in the newsreel. As a clinching argument, he also let the president know that he
had already obtained similar messages from the president's entire cabinet, and

the chief executive.

from many others, including John D. Rockefeller, J. P. Morgan, German
Ambassador Johann von Bernstorff, and British Ambassador Cecil Spring
43
Rice.
This last bit of news was evidently all that the president needed. He
immediately rewrote Laemmle's draft and made his first contribution to the
Universal newsreel:

I

sincerely join with

my

fellow citizens in praying that

God may

grant unto us during the

He may give us as a
now endeavoring to

year 1916 the blessings of abundant and rewarding prosperity, and that

nation the guidance

we need

in

playing the very difficult role

we

are

play amidst the confused affairs of a world dominated by war. In maintaining our position
as the foremost neutral nation in the

world we must not only guide our government wisely,

but must ourselves as individual citizens seek to attain that high standard of individual
justice

God

and probity which has been the

grant that the American people

presently see

New

Year.

its

ideal of the nation

may

from the day of its independence.

continue to enjoy peace and that they

blessings return to all the other nations of the world.

I

wish

all

a very

may

happy

44

During the 1916 election campaign, the idea of using screen messages of
this

kind was frequently discussed. In March, Wilson heard from Edward L.

Backdrop

16

Fox of Paramount Pictures, who described the advantage of using motion
pictures to show the "big things" the president was doing for the country. Like
most people trying to convince Wilson to use motion pictures, Fox stressed
the large crowds attracted to the movies. He al$o introduced a new argument
about screen publicity, the advantages of addressing what was essentially a
captive theater audience. In comparison to a magazine reader, Fox assured
the president, a film viewer could not turn the page on motion picture

—

propaganda "no matter how prejudiced he may be on a certain subject." 45
At first Wilson seemed intrigued with Fox's idea and he instructed
Tumulty to inform Fox that he would dictate some sentences for him "at the
46
earliest possible moment."
Wilson evidently neglected to follow up on this
offer and when he heard from Fox again, he told Tumulty that Fox should
simply "cull what he needs" out of speeches that he had given in the past. 47
At almost the same time, Wilson heard from William Brady, president of
the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry. Brady, a staunch
Democrat and active Wilson supporter, had maintained close contact with the
president during the industry's continuing battle against federal censorship
48

and war taxes.
Working together with Henry Morgenthau of the
Democratic National Committee, Brady had developed a plan for exploiting
screen publicity nearly identical to the one already proposed by Paramount's

Edward Fox:
... if

the President

would

call

would agree

them— on

to

make

several simple speeches

— kindergarden

[sic]

ones

I

Peace, Prosperity, or any of the slogans of the campaign, with

personal views of the President, portions of his speech could be

shown on

the screen

between views of him.

For instance,

if

he spoke on Peace,

we could show

spoke on Prosperity, we could show pictures of
United States

at the present

While plans of

this

contact with the movie

in the picture the

mills,

horrors of war.

If

he

mines and farms throughout the

time enjoying the limit of happiness and prosperous welfare.

44

may have intrigued the president, his frequent
men had also made him aware of some very real

kind

problems with using motion pictures for political purposes. While
acknowledging the "very considerable advantages" of screen publicity,
Wilson wondered how he could work with one motion picture company and
50
keep its competitors from charging him with favoritism. Another problem
was inherent in the silent motion picture. The industry's practice of showing
scenes of a speaker interspersed with title cards explaining what the speaker
was saying was awkward at best. To a speaker with Wilson's oratorical skills,
the limitations of performing speeches before a silent camera must have
seemed almost unbearable. Although there was no way to entirely avoid
employing this technique, the president did express some serious doubts
abouts

its

value:

—
Backdrop

It

is

just the simple fact that

speeches will be
thing

flat

awkward and

and

do not know how

I

my self-consciousness

ineffective.

I

The
make the whole

to lend myself to plans of this sort.

the lace of the

camera

will

ought, perhaps, to apologize to the campaign managers for

being so unserviceable, but the simple fact

One

in

17

is

as

I

have stated

51
it.

novel solution to this problem was supplied by S. A. Bloch, an

enterprising

filmmaker-inventor from Chicago.

Bloch claimed to have

perfected a talking-motion picture apparatus and he tried to convince the

president that his

new invention was

the perfect tool for delivering

campaign

speeches to spellbound movie audiences. The basic advantage of talking

was that "the speaker is always in good
52
Bloch's "new" invention, a record
projector,
was actually an old idea. As early
player mechanically attached to a
as 889, Thomas Edison and his assistant W. K. L. Dickson had experimented
with film projected in rough synchronization with Edison's phonograph
cylinders. Although Bloch's process may have been technically feasible in
1916, the means of amplifying the sound had not yet been developed and it
never seemed to have crossed Bloch's mind that installing such a system in a
significant number of commercial movie theaters would have been an
expensive and time-consuming process. In any case, Bloch's scheme held no
appeal for the president. Evidently, the president had made some sound
recordings a few years earlier, and he told Tumulty in no uncertain terms that
it had been "a dismal failure and I don't mean to try it again."
Ironically, the one film which may actually have had some impact on
public opinion during the 1916 campaign was neither an official campaign
Thomas Ince's pacifist war
film nor a newsreel, but a theatrical film
drama Civilization. This film told the story of a submarine captain who
refused to sink an unarmed passenger liner. After being sent home, the captain
embarks on a campaign to convince his king and fellow countrymen that they
should pursue peace instead of war. He is thrown in jail and dies, only to be
reincarnated in the body of Christ. In this spirit-form, he confronts the king
and leads him on a tour of battlefields in his war-torn country, forcing the king
to see the horrors of war with his own eyes. Deeply moved, the king eventually
signs a peace treaty and returns his subjects to their blissful prewar state of
54
peace and happiness.
As melodramatic as this might sound, Civilization did seem to echo
Wilson's 1916 campaign slogan: "He kept us out of war." According to
William Cochrane, a press representative for the Democratic National
Committee, Civilization played a significant role in Wilson's re-election, a
perception which might have been enhanced by the fact that some prints of the
film contained an epilogue in which the president was actually shown shaking
55
hands with producer Ince and congratulating him on the film.
pictures, as Bloch described them,

voice;

on time; and

full

of magnetism."

1

5

—

'

18

Backdrop

This on-screen presidential endorsement was probably produced without
Wilson's knowledge. It was a publicity scheme cooked up by Ince's energetic

manager, Alec Lorimotz. After seeing Civilization at a local
Washington theater, Wilson had written Ince several t'imes, praising the film
and thanking him for his "efforts to advance the cause which have the honor
56
to represent at this moment."
A few months later, long after the film had
gone into distribution, Ince obtained permission to shoot film of Wilson at
some public event at Shadow Lawn. On his own initiative, Lorimotz copied a
few of Wilson's positive comments about the film onto title cards and cut them
together with footage of Ince and Wilson together at Shadow Lawn. Lorimotz
then began attaching this short trailer to prints of Civilization, where, as he
publicity

I

later assured the president,

it

always "received a wonderful reception."

In the end, however, there

films than action.

Not

commissioned an

official

was a great deal more

talk

57

about campaign

out, the Republican National

Committee
campaign film from the Hal Reid Photoplay
Company. But when the film was finished it showed scenes of the president
asleep at his desk and of rebels attacking Catholic nuns in Mexico, and the
to be

left

Republicans refused to sanction

58
it.

The filmmakers and film companies were clearly more impressed with the
potential of screen publicity than either political party. Citing the advantages

of addressing a "captive audience" and quoting inflated movie attendance

movie men continued to bombard the president with a variety of
motion pictures to communicate with the American people.
schemes
While the camera-shy president did expand his contact with the newsreel
59
companies, allowing somewhat greater coverage of White House activities,
he never agreed to employ motion pictures directly in his re-election
campaign.
Nevertheless, the rapid growth of the American film industry and the
threat of government regulation brought the film industry into much closer
contact with the president and other government officials. Filmmakers who
just a few years earlier had been embarrassed to be associated with the
fledgling film business now corresponded directly with the White House. In
the battle against film censorship and war taxes, industry leaders had become
regulars in the halls of Congress. Equally important was the development of
personal relationships such as the one between President Wilson and William
figures, the

for using

NAM

PI. Ironically, the industry's new trade associations,
Brady of the
organizations which were created primarily to lobby against government

interference, actually facilitated the government's use of the

motion picture

industry later in the war.

To some
publicity.

extent, the film industry

Having

may have become a

stressed so strongly the

motion

prisoner of its

picture's

own

unique power to

Backdrop

19

persuade and inform, the industry may have been under some pressure to
this ability. Despite the president's personal reticence to use

demonstrate

motion pictures for political purposes, the two and one-half years of
American neutrality provided the perfect testing ground for the concept of
screen propaganda.

Film and

Politics in the Neutrality

Years

Before 1914, motion pictures had seldom done anything more than provide
entertainment. Although American film companies consistently trumpeted
the "informational and educational" value of their newsreels, the newsreels

were actually more of an entertainment vehicle than a source of news. In part,

worked against the coverage of fast-breaking
events. An important story shot in France had to be processed, edited, and
shipped across the Atlantic before it could appear in American movie
theaters, a time-consuming procedure which explains, at least in part, the
"news" with a long shelf-life:
newsreel's propensity for more timeless stories
fashion shows, zoo tours, daredevil stunts, new inventions and biographies of
the rich, the famous, the unusual. Nevertheless, the First World War and the
government's desire to employ motion pictures as a means of public
information and persuasion raised new questions about the motion picture's
role, or its potential role, in American society. These questions are interesting
not only for what they reveal about the growth of the American film industry,
but for the tensions they exposed within both the government and the film
industry concerning the development of motion picture propaganda.

the technology of filmmaking

—

Today, when the president of the United States is a former film star,
moving images are used daily to sell everything from soap flakes to defense
budgets. It is no great revelation that press conferences and political
conventions are staged with an eye for the camera. Armed with a large staff of
pollsters and professional publicity men, politicians regularly use the media to
explain their ideas or to promote themselves as candidates. We may not even
remember the candidate's name, but we can often recall some of the images
from the campaign film: the would-be president walking alone in the surf at
sunset, or the candidate, dressed in blue jeans and work shirt, kneeling down
in a cornfield to examine the soil. Before the advent of television, when the
motion picture was a relatively young medium, the idea of using films to
explain policy, to generate public support, to sell war bonds or to encourage
enlistment was still new and untested.

Film and Politics

22

in the Neutrality Years

This began to change during the two and one-half years of American
War. From 9 1 4 to 9 7, American film audiences had

neutrality in the Great

1

numerous opportunities

1

1

to see films partial to the ^llies or the Central

Powers, as well as a variety of films portraying the joys of peace or the dangers
of pacifism. Although the United States government

attempt to use motion pictures during

made

only a limited

prewar propaganda films
provided a number of precedents for the government when it later developed
its wartime film program. By the time America entered the war virtually every
technique for producing or exploiting screen propaganda had already been
tried. During the neutrality years motion pictures were regularly used for the
first time on a large scale as a persuasive weapon.
this period,

Newsreels and Neutrality

When

the

war began

in the

summer

of 1914, most Americans could not

envision a reason for American involvement.

The European

conflict did not

appear to threaten interests vital to the United States. More importantly, the
broad expanse of the Atlantic Ocean seemed to provide a natural buffer
against the flames of foreign battlefields. President Wilson

summed up many

of these feelings both in his official neutrality proclamation and in a series of
policy statements in which he sought to explain non-intervention to the

American

Perhaps the highlight of Wilson's neutrality campaign was a
statement he gave to the press on August 8, 19 4, in which he urged the nation
to "be impartial in thought as well as action
public.

1

1

.

The public response
demonstrated the

difficulty of

involved the president
directly to

American

.

.

war
and inadvertently
neutrality message

to war-related newsreels in the early days of the

in

maintaining

a scheme to

this posture,

communicate

his

film audiences.

The concept of releasing a weekly film "magazine" or newsreel had
in Europe with the founding of the Pathe Journal in Paris. The
Pathe Company was also responsible for the first American newsreel, the
Pat he Weekly, which began releasing issues in the United States in 1911. By

originated

Weekly had attracted a bevy of
Monthly
competitors including the Vitagraph
of Current Events, the Mutual
Weekly, the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial and the Universal Animated
\\ 'eekly.
When the war began these companies seemed to have declared their
own war in an effort to satisfy the great public demand for war newsreels. The
motion picture trade papers of August were filled with advertisements set in
headlines proclaming"War! War! War!,"and
the form of newspaper extras
in somewhat smaller type, a list of current news releases. Mysterious film
companies appeared overnight with equally mysterious news film
compilations such as With Serb and Austrian or The Man of the Hour, Kaiser
August of 1914, however, the Pathe

—

"

Film and Politics

in the Neutrality

Years

23

a film which the Kaiser Film Company felt compelled to advertise
3
from Actual Life and by special permission of the Kaiser himself.
Most of these films were little more than re-edited newsreels, focusing
primarily on training activities, equipment displays and endless scenes of
marching troops. Actual combat footage was extremely rare, but American
audiences thronged to the theaters anyway, anxious for a glimpse of the
competing armies and the newest military hardware.
The demand for such "war films" appears to have been greatest in areas
where recent immigrants made up a significant part of the population. Most of
these new immigrants had settled in large metropolitan areas such as New
York and Chicago where they not only supported a thriving foreign language
4
press, but made up a significant part of the early film audience. Not only were
the movies inexpensive entertainment for them, but the broad acting style and
simple stories were readily accessible to recent immigrants, regardless of their
5
ability to read title cards. In 1914, however, the movies threatened to inflame

Wilhelm

II,

as "taken

old rivalries.

months of the war there was a growing fear that the
newsreels
might lead to violence. Observing the large crowds
war
exhibition of
outside a New York theater, a Times reporter warned that "unless the local
authorities take some steps to curtail the activities of some film exhibitors,
am afraid we will have riots on the east side before the war is over." 6 Riots, in
fact, had already occurred in San Francisco between French and German
reservists who were attending the showing of a theatrical film about the
7
Franco-Prussian conflict. Against this background, the National Board of
Censorship an industry-sponsored organization which later became the
National Board of Review issued an appeal to film producers and theater
In the early

I

—

—

owners:

When you

are producing pictures containing

war scenes please precede

the actual pictures

with about five feet of captions asking the audience to kindly refrain from any expressions
of partisanship as the pictures are shown.
materially by adding that this request

is

You

will

strengthen such an announcement very

directly in line with the policy of President Wilson.

s

September 1914 Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan happened
to attend a theater where the management had followed this recommendation
and preceded its newsreels with a request to the audience to refrain from
partisan applause. It occurred to Bryan that a similar request copied on film in
the president s own handwriting might have a greater impact. Moreover, as
Bryan told Wilson, it would explain the need for neutrality to an audience very
In

much

in

need of such a message. The president complied with Bryan's

suggestion and in a short time his letter had been copied on film and was

appearing

in

movie theaters across the nation.

9

Film and Politics

24

Figure

5.

in the Neutrality Years

Wilson's neutrality statement could be copied on movie
film or used as a slide before the newsreel.

(Post-Newsweek Television Stations,

Inc.

and Blackhawk

Films)

The

president's

campaign

for screen neutrality also received the full

support of the Universal Film Manufacturing Company. In September of
1914, Universal notified the White House that it had produced a short film

Be Neutral "in appreciation of the efforts which the President is
1,10
making to keep America neutral in the European war.
This film was
reportedly produced in forty-eight hours as a means of publicizing Wilson's
neutrality proclamation. It told the story of factory workers who became
embroiled in a heated argument about the war and in the process, let their

entitled

factory burn to the ground. In case viewers missed the point of this short

was supplemented by title cards which said: "Don't Take Sides,"
11
"Be American First," and "Forget the Horrors of War." Universal also
began running Wilson's neutrality letter with its Animated Weekly newsreel,
although Universale Jack Conn requested another presidential letter which
12
was "not quite so long."
In many respects the campaign for neutrality at the newsreels typified the
administration's half-hearted involvement with motion pictures in the
parable,

it

neutrality years.

I

he president did, at the urging of Secretary of State Bryan,

use motion pictures (or motion picture theaters) to amplify his neutrality

proclamation, but the impetus for this campaign was clearly the industry's:
with federal film censorship already under discussion, the

last

thing the

industry needed was riots at local movie theaters. Even though government

r

Film and Politics
officials

had not asked for help,

it

in the Neutrality

made sense for the

Years

25

industry to volunteer, not

dangerous situation, but as a means of
demonstrating both the industry's ability and willingness to actively support
only

to

head

off a

possibly

administration policy.

By modern standards

it is

difficult to see

how this early newsreel coverage

could have been considered inflammatory. Authentic scenes of the European
conflict

were rare and some companies

tried to satisfy the

demand

for

"war

films" by releasing war-related fictional films. Others simply reached into

anything that marched or wore a
The Pat he Weekly of August 5, 1914, was typical of this early "war
coverage." This issue showed stock footage of Emperor Franz Joseph in Paris,
King George the Fifth in London, Czar Nicholas II in St. Petersburg, and

their film vaults for old newsreel footage of

helmet.

Kaiser Wilhelm

13

Other supposedly war-related newsreels gave
American audiences a glimpse of Swiss Army maneuvers or scenes of New
14
Jersey governor James Fiedler reviewing national guard troops.
It soon became obvious to almost everyone that the newsreel companies
were having a difficult time obtaining actual war films. Archive footage could
be passed off as newsreels for only so long and strict military censorship in
Europe dampened the prospects of shooting new film of the competing
armies. Even if an enterprising newsreel cameraman overcame these
obstacles, his problems had just begun. Military authorities were generally
reluctant to allow civilian photographers near the front, not only to protect
them from the potential danger of enemy fire, but as a means of restricting the
release of photographs and newsreels for security reasons. Although a few
newsreel companies succeeded in smuggling small amounts of film out of
II in

Berlin.

Europe, contemporary accounts provided a stream of horror stories about

cameramen who were shot

at or arrested as spies,

confiscated and their film destroyed.

with their equipment

15

Faced with a seemingly insatiable demand for war films, unscrupulous
found a far easier and safer method of giving the public what
they thought it wanted. Armed with a few guns, some actors, old uniforms,
and a willing cameraman, such producers could easily create stirring "war
films" that exceeded the quality of films that could actually be shot in the field.
In the early days of the war this practice became so widespread that
Universal^ J. D. Tippett concluded that "anything you see in America of any
consequence is fake," a perception enhanced by exposes about fake war films
16
which appeared in a number of magazines.
The Literary Digest, for
example, obviously enjoyed the opportunity to describe the Hollywood-style
production of British "war films":
film producers

As the charging "Germans reach the opposite bank and make straight for the "British"
machine guns, terrible explosions occur. ... At the proper moment the fake mines are

26

Film and Politics

Figure

6.

in the Neutrality Years

Staging "war films"

in

Van Courtland

(Post-Newsweek Television Stations,

Park,

Inc.

New

Jersey.

and Blackhawk

Films)

exploded by throwing a switch or pressing a button, thus sending clouds of smoke and a

dummy

The

figure or

two

into the air.

17

"Official Films"

The development of what came to be known as "official films" provided an
important means of combatting the general belief that all war pictures were
fake. The term "official films" was used in many ways during the neutrality
period. In the beginning, "official films" were simply films which had been

obtained with the official sanction of either the government or the military in
one of the European nations. Such films might have been purchased from
military cinematographers, or shot by commercial newsreel cameramen under
the watchful eye of military advisors. Although these films seldom featured
battlefield action, the fact that they had been secured "officially" gave
American audiences some assurance that the films they were watching had not
been staged, that what they were seeing were authentic views of armies, tanks,
and on occasion, battlefields. Even the knowledge that such "official films"
had been subject to heavy military censorship tended to increase their
legitimacy. By the middle of 1915, in fact, most of the warring nations had
begun to produce their own "official films." Utilizing photographers and film
editors attached to the military, these government-sponsored productions

Film and Politics
offered an unusually vivid

audiences both

at

means of explaining the war

home and

Years

27

effort to

movie

in the Neutrality

abroad.

Surprisingly, neither the established newsreel companies, nor the warring

That honor
two resourceful cameramen, Edwin
F. Weigleand Donald D. Thompson. In 19 14 and 1915, the Tribune released a
series of war newsreels including On the Belgian Battlefield, perhaps the first
"official film," With the Russians at the Front, and The German Side of the
War, probably the first news film exhibited in the United States which showed
18
When war was declared, Weigle and
the war from the German point of view.
Joseph Patterson, a Tribune editor, had sailed for Europe. Both Weigle and
Thompson, a freelance photographer-cinematographer, were in Antwerp
when the city fell to the Germans. After securing permission to shoot film
from the appropriate military authorities, the cameramen shot footage on
both sides of the line in Belgium. Later, they continued their work in
Germany, with Thompson concentrating his efforts on the Eastern Front
where he shot most of the footage for the Tribune's With the Russians at the
nations were the

first

to exploit the concept of "official films."

belonged to the Chicago Tribune and

its

19

In addition to shooting their own film, both cameramen were able to
buy footage from military photographers attached to the participating armies.
Often they were required to donate prints of film they had shot to the archives
of the host government, a procedure which meant that footage shot by Weigle
and Thompson might have appeared in "official" German, French, or British

Front.

films released later in the United States.
In

many

respects

20

Thompson and Weigle

coverage of the war. Even with

official

set the

standards for newsreel

permission to shoot film, their work

was often dangerous. Thompson, in particular, seems to have cultivated the
image of the death-defying war cameraman, willing to risk all for a few
priceless feet of film. According to Alexander Powell of the New York World,
Thompson's exploits on the battlefield had made him something of a war
hero. At the very least, Thompson knew how to dress the part:
who were drawn to the Continent on the
was a more picturesque figure than a little
photographer from Kansas named Donald Thompson. met him first while paying a flying
visit to Ostend. He blew into the consulate there wearing an American army shirt, a pair of
British officer's riding breeches, French putees, and a Highlander's forage-cap, and
carrying a camera the size of a parlor phonograph. No one but an American could have
accomplished what he had, and no one but one from Kansas. He had not only seen the war,
21
all military prohibitions to the contrary, but he had actually photographed it.

Of

all

the horde of adventurous characters

outbreak of war ...

I

doubt

if

there

I

When
late 1914,

it

the Tribune released

announced

would be turned over

its first

"official film" in the

to

United States

in

from On the Belgian Battlefield
the Belgian Red Cross, a procedure which became

that half of the profits

Film and Politics

28

in the Neutrality Years

commonplace when

fairly

"official films"

during the neutrality period.

22

were exhibited

in the United States
Aligning the film with the American Red Cross

had some obvious public relations benefits. Each screening of the film became
something more than a night at the movies; it became an opportunity to attend
and participate in a gala Red Cross benefit screening. In addition, the Red
Cross' involvement provided an aura of neutrality which tended to protect
film companies from complaints that their films favored either the Germans

Who, after all, could complain about patriotic excesses in the
when money was being raised for an obviously humanitarian cause?
The Tribune's success with On the Belgian Battlefield demonstrated
something more. In early December 1914 the Tribune presented a $10,000
or the Allies.

theater

check to Dr. Cyrille Vermeren, the Belgian consul

Chicago. This was only

in

Red Cross contributions generated by On the Belgian
23
Battlefield and it showed that war films could be very useful in fundraising.
When the Tribune released the feature-length The German Side of the
War in September 1915, it continued the pattern of benefit screenings by

the

first

installment of

would be donated to a special
fund for wounded German soldiers. This film was composed of footage shot
by Thompson, Weigle and others, and although the film was advertised as

announcing that a share of the

presenting the

German

film's profits

point of view, the filmmakers tried to emphasize

its

Thompson's description of The German Side of the War was
offend no one:

neutrality.

meant
II

to

you had been with me

in

Germany and had

discipline, the endless preparation

them." But then,

.

.

.

you had been on the other

if

seen the

you would have
side

German

soldiery, the

wonderful

"The whole world can't whip
with me and could have seen the bravery
said:

of the English, the enthusiasm of the French, the courage of the Belgians and the great

organization of the

allies

you would have

said again:

"They

can't be

whipped."

4

When The German Side of the War opened at the 44th Street Theater in
New York
drew record breaking crowds. In the long lines outside the
it

theater, ticket scalpers tricked

German-speaking patrons

into buying

worthless soda tickets. Eventually, extra police had to be called out to avert a
riot.

The

film sold out for every

performance, and accordingto the Times, the

audience's frenzied reaction to scenes of the kaiser "could not have been

outdone had every
/'he

German Film

The success

seat been taken by reservists."

Effort

of the

(iermans were the

25

The
from
cameramen
allow

Tribune's "official films" did not go unnoticed.
first

of the warring nations to

neutral countries to shoot film with their troops and until the Allies relaxed
their

ban on newsreel cameramen, the Germans enjoyed a great propaganda

Film and Politics
advantage. Ironically, the Germans'

initial

in the Neutrality

Years

29

success with "official films" shot by

cameramen appears to have undercut efforts to establish a covert
film program in the United States.
As early as March 1915, the German secretary of foreign affairs, Alfred
Zimmerman, had recommended the establishment of an organization in the
neutral

German

German propaganda films and photographs. This
put
into
operation
a month later with the incorporation in
was
suggestion
New York of the American Correspondent Film Company. Felix Malitz was
appointed vice-president and general manager and Dr. Albert Feuhr became
United States to distribute

secretary.

26

American Correspondent Film Company proved
German government. Malitz and Feuhr began
their work with a simple and, in the commercial film business, contradictory
policy: making money with their films was less important than getting them
shown to the largest possible audiences in the very best commercial theaters.
While such objectives are understandable in a propaganda campaign, they did
not take into account the tremendous expense of booking first-run movie
theaters or the high cost of financing an advertising campaign to help fill those
theaters with patrons. Throughout its brief existence the American
Correspondent Film Company was teetering on the edge of financial

From

its

inception, the

a disappointing venture for the

disaster.

27

The company's
securing authentic

financial problems were

German war

films.

compounded by

When

the

the difficulty of

American Correspondent

Company began

operation, Malitz possessed a few films about German
and industry, and several Austrian war films, most notably Albert K.
Dawson's The Battle of Przemysl, a four-reel film which highlighted the
28
Austro-Hungarian drive through Galicia on the Eastern Front. The British
naval blockade made it extremely difficult to import additional German war

Film

culture

films into the United States. In an effort to solve this problem, Malitz made
arrangements with the stewards on several neutral Norwegian ocean liners to
smuggle films and photographs past the blockade. Next Malitz tried to work

out a distribution agreement with the Hearst-newsreel organization, an

arrangement which might have made

When

that plan

fell

distributor to handle

it

easier to get films past the British.
line up a New York
American Correspondent Film

through, Malitiz was able to
all

films supplied by the

Company. 29
These plans, however, were doomed. Malitz's negotiations with
American film distributors had been contingent on two bases: first, that he
could guarantee a steady supply of German war films; and secondly, that he
could give a distributor a complete monopoly on official German war films in
the United States. Malitz was unable to deliver on either count. He was never
able to secure a consistent supply of German war films. Even more damaging

Film and Politics

30

in the Neutrality Years

was the fact that the German government was unwilling to give the American
Correspondent Film Company complete control of German films in the
30

American market.
The German government had been delimited by the positive public
reaction to the Chicago Tribune's "official films" and during 1915 and 1916, it
granted a number of private companies permission to shoot films of various
military campaigns: How Germany Makes War (Central Film
Company), Behind the Fighting Lines of the German Army (Great Northern),
Germany on the Firing Lines (Kulee Features), and The Fighting Germans
(Mutual Film Company). German officials felt that films produced by neutral
American companies would have a greater impact on American audiences
than films released through a company connected with the German

German

government.
In fact, the relationship between the

Company and

American Correspondent Film

German propaganda service became common knowledge
in August 1915 when the Chicago Tribune and the New York World published
a series of articles based on the stolen papers of German Counselor Henrich
Albert. These articles provided a detailed account of the German Information
Service in the United States, including the German government's support of
31
When confronted with these
the American Correspondent Film Company.
his
relationship
with
revelations Malitz did not deny
the German government.
Instead,

the

he stressed the fact that the American Correspondent Film

films had always been openly advertised as "official German
and that he had always conducted the company's affairs "in a straight32
forward, businesslike and neutral manner."
Despite this setback Malitz continued making plans. By March 1916 he
had concocted his most grandiose scheme for exploiting German propaganda

Company's
films,"

films in the United States.

He

tried to

convince

German

officials that they

should purchase fifteen large metropolitan motion picture theaters. This,
Malitz argued, would allow the

German government

profit in choice theaters. After the war, these

same

to

shows its films at a
would provide a

theaters

German films in the United States. 33
summer of 1916 the German government had evidently given up
The American Correspondent Film Company was disbanded;

natural outlet for

By the
on Malitz.

however, privately produced pro-German films continued to be shown
United States. In
playing
I917.

fact, a film entitled

at the prestigious

Germany and

Strand Theater

in

New

in the

Armies of Today was
York as late as January
Its

34

From the outset the German's covert film effort had been crippled by lack
money and poor organization. Undoubtedly, the most successful proGerman films shown in the United States were actually produced by
American companies who either shot their own films or purchased film
of

Film and Politics

in the Neutrality

Years

31

German military photographers. Compared to that of the Allies,
German film effort was at great disadvantage, a situation Dr. Albert Feuhr
tried to explain to his own government:
footage from

the

Our opponents now seem

to have recognized the effectiveness of this

exhibiting films from their fronts here which do not

fail

to

propaganda and are

make an

impression, with

extraordinary outlays for expensive advertising, and under the patronage of the highest

Some

personalities.

of the films are quite excellent, others are obviously "maneuver

pictures," which, however, have a thrilling effect

The

A Hied Film

on the

,s

public.

Effort

Dr. Feuhr's analysis of Allied film activity was hardly an exaggeration. British
control of the shipping lanes facilitated the importation of Allied films.
in the

Once

country, Allied films were distributed by companies that were already

well established in the United States

distributed

most of the French

Company's

Picture Patent

summer

the war began: Pathe and Melies
General Film Company, the Motion

film distributing subsidiary, eventually provided

an outlet for both British and
In the

when

films; the

Italian

war

of 1915 the French

films.

War Department announced

the

coordinate the work of army
cinematographers and the three largest private film companies. This office
was responsible for producing the first two "official" French films, France in
Arms and Fighting in France. The powerful Pathe Company distributed both

creation

of a

of these films

special

film

office

when they reached

to

the United States.

36

The French also began to experiment with new uses for the motion
The French commander-in-chief, Joseph Joffre, announced his
intention to shoot motion pictures as a means of documenting battles for
picture.

future historians. In Paris the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began showing

combat what it considered misleading German
Ministry of Finance initiated a scheme to use
and
the
battlefield accounts,
37
motion pictures to drum up support for the French war loan drive.
When Fighting in France appeared in Canada under the sponsorship of
the Toronto World, Canadian military authorities unveiled another new way
turning movie theaters into minito use motion pictures in the war effort
recruiting stations. Between reel changes during the film, army recruiters gave
patriotic speeches and showed slides of military life. Outside the theater,
automobiles were waiting to take interested patrons to the nearest enlistment

films to neutral journalists to

—

office.

38

By 1916 motion pictures had become an important tool in fostering
Franco-American relations. One of the most successful "official films," Our
American Boys in the European War, was actually produced by the American
Triangle Company with additional footage supplied by French military

{

Film and Politics

32

in the Neutrality Years

cinematographers. This film highlighted the

activities

of the American

Ambulance Corps in France and the Franco-American Flying Corps. 39
At the New York premiere of Our American Boys in the European War,
Robert Bacon, the former ambassador to France, followed what was a fairly
all proceeds from the film would
40
be donated to the American Ambulance Corps in France. To help publicize
the film, Triangle arranged a number of special screenings at fashionable
resorts and first-run theaters across the country. Triangle also began securing
endorsements for Our American Boys in the European War. Theodore
Roosevelt missed the film's New York premiere, but Triangle wisely arranged
well-established pattern by announcing that

its New York office. After
Roosevelt delivered to the press exactly the kind of rousing
endorsement that Triangle was expecting:

a special screening for the former president at

watching the

.

.

.

these

film,

young men whose deeds we have been watching

helping this nation save

everything except

its

its

soul.

been thinking of the soul

in this film

soul, and, as a whole, the nation has

today have been

been thinking of saving

The nation has been preaching "safety first"'; these boys have
There isn't an American worth calling such who isn't under a

first.

heavy debt to these boys for what they have done.

41

Our American Boys in the European War proved to be a natural fundAmerican audiences. On December 23, 1916, a special benefit

raiser with

performance of the film sold out the 3,000 seat Strand Theater in New York.
Tickets for this screening were priced at five dollars per seat with some boxes
selling for one hundred dollars. In addition to the box office receipts, over
42
$36,000 was pledged to the Ambulance Corps during the performance.
The British were somewhat slower than the French to develop a formal
motion picture campaign. Wellington House, the British wartime propaganda
bureau, was unable to convince the War Office and the Admiralty of the need
to utilize motion picture propaganda until the fall of 1915. Charles Urban,
who had been actively campaigning for British propaganda films since early in
43
Urban's background made
the war, was picked to organize the film effort.
him an ideal choice for spearheading the British film campaign. He was an
American who had become a naturalized British subject and he had strong ties
with the film business on both sides of the Atlantic. He had helped found the
Warwick Chronicle, an early British newsreel, and the American-owned
Charles Urban Trading Company was well known in the U.S. for its
"Kinemacolor" newsreels, a process using black and white film and colored
44

produce very primitive color film.
Urban's irst film, Britain Prepared known

filters to

f

in

the United States as

March

How

1916. The film

Britain Prepared), was
showed scenes of the Grand Fleet in action, a variety of military training
activities, and a tour of munitions factories and shipyards. The Patriot Film

not ready for exhibition until

Film and Politics

in the Neutrality

Years

33

Company, an American company with strong British ties, was formed to
distribute the film. Using the now familiar pattern for publicizing the film,
Urban set up special screenings of How Britain Prepared for leaders of the
45
American preparedness movement and various military officials.
Urban also lined up endorsements from Secretary of War Newton D.
Baker, and the assistant secretary of the Navy and future president, Franklin
D. Roosevelt,

who

felt

that

How

Britain Prepared conveyed a vital message

about preparedness to the American people:
These pictures must be of tremendous interest all over the country and will undoubtedly
carry the lesson that, while an enormous amount of work had been done by England since
the war began, all of this would have been very greatly simplified if there had been more
adequate preparation for

it

before hostilities

commenced.

46

Even with such positive endorsements, Urban had a
securing adequate bookings for

How

Britain Prepared.

Corporation had disbanded by the time he finished

The

difficult

time

Patriot Film

his next "official British

The Battle of the Somme. This new film was actually part of a
fourteen-reel newsreel serial which the British released in four large featurelength blocks including: The Battle of the Somme, Jellicoe's Grand Fleet,
1
Kirchener's Great Army and The Munitions Makers* These films received a
tremendous boost in circulation with the creation of Official Government
Pictures, Incorporated, a new company created with the expressed purpose of
using films to raise money for the British Relief Fund and the American Field
Ambulance Service. Official Government Pictures worked out a simple
they secured an agreement with
solution to Urban's distribution problems
the General Film Company to handle distribution of British and Italian war
films in the United States, a move which ensured Allied war films of regular
48
screenings in movie theaters throughout the country.
Together with the official French war films and a few belated Italian
productions like The Italian Battlefront and Italy's Flaming Front, the sheer
volume of Allied motion pictures overwhelmed the German film effort.
Although the Germans had been the first major power to recognize the
potential of motion picture propaganda, it did not take the Allies very long to
take advantage of vastly superior distribution outlets and advertising
campaigns. Certainly by the time the United States entered the war in April
1917, official Allied war films assumed a dominant position on American
movie screens.
The war was nearly over when the German chief of staff, General Erich
Ludendorff, asked the Imperial Ministry of War in Berlin to beef up its efforts
to use motion pictures as a political weapon. "The war has demonstrated the
superiority of the photograph and the film as a means of information and
persuasion," he said. "Unfortunately our enemies have used their advantage

war

film,"

—

Film and Politics

34

over us in this

field

in the Neutrality Years

so thoroughly that they have inflicted a great deal of

49

damage." Belatedly, Ludendorffs appeal led to the formation of a Photo
and Film Office in the German army and, only a few months before the war
ended, to the construction of the massive stifdio coTmplex of UFA, the
Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft, a facility that was ready and waiting for a
different war less than two decades later.
Although it is questionable whether film propaganda actually played as
decisive a role in shaping American public opinion as Ludendorff suggests,
the German and Allied officials films did provide a firsthand demonstration of
the many ways motion pictures could be used to persuade and inform. Later,
when the United States government began to produce its own films through
the Army Signal Corps and the Committee on Public Information, it adopted
many of the production techniques, advertising plans and exhibition patterns
that were developed during the neutrality years by the European powers.
Furthermore, official war newsreels were not the only form of motion picture
propaganda released in the United States during the two and one-half years of
American neutrality. American military leaders and government officials
showed as much, or even more, interest in films which dealt directly with the
United States'

own

preparation, or lack of preparation, for war.

The Preparedness Films

The public debate over American military preparedness began in the early
months of the war. While the vast majority of the American people
undoubtedly supported the president's neutrality policy, there was a sharp
division of opinion regarding the best

means of maintaining that neutral
number of movies about

stance. Eventually this debate spilled over into a

preparedness.

On

one side of the preparedness question were the

Secretary of State Bryan and Senator Robert

M

pacifists led

by

They argued that
an aggressive American peace campaign was the surest way of keeping the
country neutral and bringing the war to a speedy conclusion. This viewpoint
.

LaFollette.

was opposed by a group of Americans who felt that the European conflict
demonstrated the country's need to improve its defenses. Under the leadership
of Theodore Roosevelt, former Chief of Staff Leonard Wood, Representative

Augustus

P.

preparedness

Gardener,

and Secretary of War Lindsay Garrison, the

movement generated

a

stream

strengthen the nation's military readiness.

As the war

in

Europe continued,

of proposals designed to

50

the preparedness advocates began to

organi/e their efforts to mobilize public opinion. In December 1914 the

meeting of one hundred and fifty
York City. Together with the Army League and the

National Security League was formed
public leaders in

New

at a

Film and Politics

in the Neutrality

Years

35

champions of a strong military, the National
51
American military preparedness.
The preparedness controversy was one of the central issues facing the
country during the neutrality years and it is hardly surprising that commercial
film companies made an effort to exploit the public's interest in the subject. In
January of 1915, the Lubin Company told the trade press that it had presented
Secretary Daniels with a series of motion pictures showing Navy maneuvers
and torpedo practice. Later in the year the Lubin Company also released two
theatrical films which dealt with the European conflict: The Rights of Man
and The Nation's Peril, a film which showed how the invention of a flying
52
torpedo helped to foil an enemy attack on the United States.
The Edison Company also released a preparedness film entitled
Manufacturing Big Guns for the Nation's Defense. Advertising for the film
stressed the fact that the film had been produced with the cooperation of the
War Department, a statement which simply meant that Edison had to have
53
the War Department's permission to shoot film in an armaments factory.
During the submarine crisis in 1915, film companies stepped up efforts to
link their preparedness films to military leaders and government officials.
President Wilson was invited to a special screening of Uncle Sam's Navy on
Review with the now familiar assurance that his attendance would not be used
54
Several months later the Eiko Film Company held
for advertising purposes.
up the release of its preparedness film, Guarding Old Glory, until it could
secure endorsements from a number of military men. Eiko's general manager
also wrote the president, trying to convince him that Guarding Old Glory was

Navy League,

the traditional

Security League spearheaded the drive for

a film he could not afford to miss:

It is

strictly

educational and free from

all

play features.

The

picture has been designed to

stir

make and seems to have
been finished at the psychological [ly most effective] moment. We have shown the picture to
Secretary of War Garrison, Secretary of the Navy Daniels, General Hugh Scott, General
Leonard Wood, and Admiral Benson, each of whom has pronounced the picture to be most
up patriotism, and help

recruiting.

It

has taken several months to

wonderful, very instructive, and [said

it]

will

do

a lot of

good

for the country.

55

In many respects the summer of 1915 did seem to be "the psychological
moment" to release a preparedness film. The sinking of the Lusitania had
created a new surge of interest in preparedness and the membership in the

various preparedness organizations increased dramatically. In June, the

National Security League organized a Conference Committee on National

Preparedness to coordinate the work of the many different organizations
involved in the preparedness crusade. These organizations released a flood of

pro-preparedness propaganda, and with increasing regularity, the
preparedness organizations began to sponsor or produce moton pictures that
56
advanced their cause.

Film and Politics

36

in the Neutrality Years
%,

September 1915, J. Stuart Blackton of the Vitagraph Company
released The Battle Cry of Peace, a film that was probably the single most
In

important preparedness film shown

The

in the

United States during the neutrality

was based on Defenseless Americti, a bo3k by the inventor and
munitions manufacturer, Hudson Maxim. Defenseless America stressed the
need to equip the U.S. military with modern weapons. In graphic terms, it also
depicted the terrible fate awaiting an America betrayed from within by what
Maxim referred to as "the dubs of peace." 57
After discussing the project with Theodore Roosevelt, one of his
neighbors at Oyster Bay, Blackton began production on The Battle Cry of
Peace using extras from the Grand Army of the Republic and the National
Guard to help him stage the film's spectacular battle sequences. Blackton's
film told the story of a young American, John Harrison, who hears a lecture
by Hudson Maxim (who plays himself) and is converted to the cause of
years.

film

preparedness. Harrison

tries unsuccessfully to persuade his fiancee's father,
Mr. Vandergriff, to abandon the Peace Movement, which has been infiltrated
by enemy agents, and is unwittingly helping to stall a military appropriations
bill in Congress. At a huge peace rally, Vandergriff releases a flock of doves
just as an enemy shell comes crashing through the building. An unidentified,
but vaguely German-looking, foreign power has begun its invasion of the
United States. Armed with vastly superior weapons, they quickly reduce New
York, and later Washington, to flaming rubble. Enemy soldiers shoot both
Vandergriff and Harrison, whose fiancee is killed by her own mother to keep
58
her from falling into the hands of the rapacious invaders.
To help build public interest in the film Blackton staged a number of
"invitation-only" screenings in New York and Washington prior to the film's
general release. Each of these screenings gave Blackton the opportunity to
pack the audience with government officials, military men and popular
entertainers who were invariably linked to the film in the newspaper accounts
which followed. Blackton secured official sponsorship for the film from the
National Security League, the Army League, the American Red Cross and the
59
American Legion.
Blackton's representatives also invited President Wilson to one of the
special screenings and although there is no record of the president's response,
Blackton was able to obtain endorsements from a number of prominent
figures including Secretary Garrison, General Leonard Wood, and Admiral
George Dewey, all of whom appeared on screen at the end of the film, praising
60

The Battle Cry of Peace with the aid of title cards.
By the time the film premiered in New York in September 1915, Blackton
built
enough momentum to turn the evening into a gigantic preparedness
had
rally. In a theater draped with Hags and bunting. C aptain Jack Crawford, an
actor in the film, began the evening's activities by attacking the pacifistic war

—
Film and Politics

in the Neutrality

Years

39

*

song,

"I

My Boy to Be a Soldier." The audience also heard
Hudson Maxim and from Blackton himself, who read a letter

Didn't Raise

speeches from

of praise from Theodore Roosevelt. In an obvious reference to attacks on his
British upbringing, Blackton also revealed that he had recently become an
61
American citizen.
The tremendous publicity created by the prerelease screenings, celebrity
endorsements, and preparedness rallies helped to turn The Battle Cry of Peace
into a huge success at the box office. When the film was released nationwide,

many

exhibitors repeated Blackton's exhibition pattern, filling their theaters

with soldiers, sailors and spokesmen from local preparedness organizations.

62

Car maker Henry Ford, a leading pacifist, was so angered by the film that
in 250 newspapers, denouncing The
Battle Cry of Peace as a thinly disguised attempt to bring the United States
into the war, an act sure to benefit Hudson Maxim's munitions company. The
Vitagraph Company sued Ford for libel, but by the time the suit was settled
63
the United States had already entered the First World War.
In the same month that Blackton's film was released throughout the
country, Thomas Dixon developed a sudden interest in the subject of
preparedness. He wrote the president about his new project
The Fall of a
Nation a preparedness film which he claimed would rally public opinion for
Wilson's "brave and patriotic foreign policy." With his letter, Dixon enclosed
a brief synopsis of the story and asked the president to make any suggestions
he took out full-page advertisements

—

he thought necessary to ensure the film's success.

64

Dixon's Fall