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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

The unit had a superb animation department headed by Rudolf Ising, co-creator of Warner Bros.' "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies." The department included Frank Thomas, later one of Disney's legendary Nine Old Men, and independent animator John Hubley.

They dreamed up characters like Mr. Chameleon to teach the principles of camouflage and used animation to instill key points in viewers' minds. When the narrator of "Identification of the Japanese Zero" says the plane's fuselage looks like a big cigar, the fuselage turns into a giant animated stogie.

The unit's special effects men made models of Japan that were used to secretly brief the men who bombed the islands at the end of the war. They "flew" cameras over the meticulously researched models, giving the B-29 crews a bird's-eye view of what their targets looked like from 30,000 feet. Reagan ended the filmed briefings with "Bombs away!"

"Most of us realized how lucky we were to be in the unit," Frazen said.

Another unit veteran, Arnold Laven, 80, started at Warner Bros. as a messenger and became a unit script supervisor. Laven credits his experience with launching his career as a film and television director.

"I don't think any school in America could match the education I got in three years in the unit," said Laven, who lives in Encino.

"There was no facet of the business that wasn't available." Steve Hanson, who heads the USC Cinema-Television Library, interviewed several First Motion Picture Unit veterans in 1989. He said they were stung by the perception that they had done little during the war but get their spiffy uniforms made to order.

Hanson said he believes the unit made a contribution by preparing airmen for all that the war threw at them: "I think it probably saved a lot of lives."

The unit also trained combat cameramen, many of whom died shooting footage. That filmmakers helped win the war was acknowledged by an unlikely source, German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel.

At the surrender, he said: "We had everything calculated perfectly except the speed with which the Allies were able to train their people for war. Our major miscalculation was in underestimating their quick and complete mastery of film education."

The First Motion Picture Unit also helped document the epic story of the "Greatest Generation."

Historian John Langellier, assistant director and chief curator of the Reagan library, said of the unit: "Every time you flip on the History Channel or the Discovery Channel, and you see World War II from an American perspective, you're watching the work of one of these gentlemen. That's their legacy."

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