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Winning the war, one frame at a time

During World War II, the First Motion Picture Unit used all the skills of Hollywood to recruit enlistees and train troops. Sixty years later, it is honored.

October 30, 2002|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

Eighty-three-year-old Stanley Frazen knows how he would start a book on World War II and the First Motion Picture Unit of the Army Air Forces: "The Celluloid Commandos advanced three frames today.... "

Frazen, whose unit recruited Hollywood stars and other filmmakers to make movies with a patriotic purpose, served his country doing what he did best: cutting film.

The most glamorous man in the unit may have been personnel officer and later adjutant Ronald Reagan. The rising star and future president once described the unit's remarkable concentration of gifted directors, cinematographers and other moviemakers as "$200 million worth of talent on the hoof."

Heartthrobs Clark Gable, Alan Ladd, William Holden and George Montgomery served in the unit. Future bestselling novelist Irving Wallace was a writer and celebrity photographer George Hurrell changed his focus from glamour shots of Rita Hayworth to close-ups of P-38s. Directors included William Wyler, who made the legendary documentary "The Memphis Belle."

Frazen and 50 other veterans of the First Motion Picture Unit will be honored on its 60th anniversary with a dinner tonight in the executive dining room at Warner Bros., where the Celluloid Commandos began with the aid of Lt. Col. Jack Warner.

"They're part of our history and our legacy," said Gary Credle, an executive vice president at Warner Bros. "They were here before we were, and we are very proud of them.... Hollywood had a lot to do with the war effort, and these are the guys who did it."

On Thursday, the men will be feted at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley. Whether the movies they made were about firebombs or how to give first aid to a downed crew, members of the unit used all their skill to make good pictures, survivors say.

In 1942, Pvt. Hal Levy boasted in the unit magazine about their first official effort, "Learn and Live," a "Green Pastures"-style spectacle set in heaven: "The training film is being reborn; it is going to assume 'box office' aspects. It's going to have production values. And these production values will pay dividends in lives saved."

Unit members say they were unaware of how brilliantly the Nazis were using film to advance anti-Semitism and German expansion. But the men at Ft. Roach -- the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City where the unit made most of its 300 training and propaganda films -- understood the power of movies as only those who made them could.

Desperate in 1942 for 100,000 more fliers, the Army Air Corps asked Warner to make a short film called "Winning Your Wings," starring actor-aviator Jimmy Stewart. When the movie was screened, 150,000 would-be airmen signed up. A few of the unit's films were memorable in their own right, among them "Three Cadets," the "Gone With the Wind" of venereal-disease prevention movies. In a 1991 interview, now in the research collection of the Motion Picture Academy, writer-director Richard Goldstone explained why the Air Force felt it had to make its own VD film.

Air cadets who contracted a sexually transmitted disease were supposed to report to sick bay for treatment. But if they did, they were yanked out of training and couldn't graduate with their classes.

As a result, cadets who thought they were infected would use sulfa drugs to treat themselves. The catch was that pilots who had sulfa in their bloodstreams and flew higher than 10,000 feet often lost their hand-eye coordination and crashed their planes. The movie shows the fates of a cadet who used a condom, one who didn't but goes to sick bay, and one who takes sulfa on the sly and crashes his plane.

The chaplain general wanted the movie shelved because none of the cadets was punished. But First Motion Picture Unit founder Gen. Henry H. "Hap" Arnold pointed out that the Air Force saved $30,000 for every plane that didn't crash.

Frazen worked on one of the unit's best films, "Resisting Enemy Interrogation." Nominated for an Academy Award in 1944, the movie is described this way in an online film catalog: "crackling with razor-sharp dialogue and noirish atmosphere, [the film] shows what happens when American airmen, their plane shot down over Germany, are handed over to an ace Nazi interrogation unit."

In an oral history in the Motion Picture Academy's collection, Owen Crump, who ran the military film studio, said that the movie was realistic because two advisors had been captured by the Germans. The Celluloid Commandos meticulously dressed the set to look like the chateau where the fliers had been questioned.

After the war, Crump met two young men who had seen "Resisting Enemy Interrogation" as part of their training. The fliers told Crump that they too had been shot down and taken to the chateau to be grilled, only to look at one another and realize that they had seen this movie.

The men who made the film received letters of thanks from President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Later, stunned members of the unit were among the first to see footage of the Nazi death camps.

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