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Serving their country in wartime -- by making films

September 27, 2005|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

During World War II, hundreds of actors (including Ronald Reagan), directors, producers, writers, editors, cameramen, makeup artists and even musicians enlisted in the Army Air Force found themselves stationed not in the European front or the Pacific theater but at the old Hal Roach Studios in Culver City.

As members of the First Motion Picture Unit, these soldiers contributed to the war effort by making more than 400 training films and documentaries.

Friday at Warner Bros., 19 surviving members of the FMPU gathered for a lunch to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and to celebrate Fort Roach, their nickname for the studio, Because their ranks are dwindling -- members range in age from the early 80s to 95 -- this lunch was probably the last "official" time the men would congregate.

Dann Cahn, the editor of "I Love Lucy," hosted the nostalgic event and even provided a short film he made on Fort Roach.

"Our first anniversary [gathering] was on June 26, 1943," says Cahn, 19 when he enlisted. "I was an editor in the unit and two of us were sent to the Pentagon for a year and we made newsreels. We were all in for 3 1/2 years, and most of us got a world of experience. Somehow through the decades we all managed to not only know each other, like [producer] Stanley Rubin, who won the first Emmy for the first dramatic show, he gave me my first chance to be an editor after the war. We all knew each other afterwards."

Though most of the films were shown to the armed forces, a few made it to theaters, including the 1942 "Winning Your Wings," written and directed by Owen Crump, which is considered the most successful recruiting film. Starring then-Lt. James Stewart, the film was responsible for 150,000 enlistment volunteers.

"Resisting Enemy Interrogation," starring Arthur Kennedy, was also released in theaters and received an Oscar nomination for feature documentary.

Warner Bros. studio head Jack Warner created the unit in 1942 after being asked by the U.S. government to produce eight short films to help the U.S. Army Air Force with recruitment efforts.

And Warner brought many of his studio's best and brightest to Fort Roach. Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Montgomery, William Holden and Alan Ladd all made movies for the unit.

Cahn recalls the time Clark Gable came to Culver City to do looping on one of the unit's films. "Clark Gable was a star when I was a little kid, and there I was standing next to him on the dubbing stage," he recalled.

Most of the unit's members were allowed to stay at their own homes for the duration of their service.

"One fellow who became a very successful director, Don Weis, he didn't answer at roll call one morning," says Cahn, laughing. "Someone stepped forward and said, 'this is a note from his mother' and it said, 'Don can't come to the Army today, he has a bad cold.' "

Among the other veterans at the lunch were editor Stanley Frazen, who began his career in the mailroom at Warner Bros. as a teenager in 1937 and went on to edit the TV shows "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Get Smart"; Malvin Wald, who began his writing career at the studio in 1939 and received an Oscar nomination for 1948's "The Naked City"; producer and assistant director Joel Freeman; director Arnold Laven ("Mannix," "The Rifleman"), producer Stanley Rubin ("The President's Analyst"); producer Arthur Gardner ("The Scalphunters"), who at a robust 95 is the oldest of the group; and director Harry Harris, who frequently helms "7th Heaven."

Because Cahn's wife found the original program and menu from the first-anniversary dinner, that meal was replicated for this last gathering -- a bottle of Coke, cole slaw and barbecued chicken and beef.

After lunch, several members got up and reminisced about their days at Fort Roach.

"I wish there were more of us," said Cahn, looking around at his friends of more than six decades.

And for the last time, the First Motion Picture Unit lifted their glasses in salute.

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