World War II: The Movie
When the U.S. Army Air Forces needed 100,000 men to volunteer, General Hap Arnold recruited Hollywood.
- By Mark Betancourt
- Air & Space magazine, March 2012
Margaret Herrick Library/Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences
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Several movie stars joined the unit as well: Clark Gable, Lee J. Cobb, William Holden, Arthur Kennedy, Van Heflin, Joseph Cotten, DeForest Kelley, Alan Ladd, and others. Westerns star George Montgomery drove the bus from the barracks to the post. Actor and future president Ronald Reagan, who was already a second lieutenant in the Cavalry Reserve, transferred to the Air Forces to join Crump’s outfit. He was well liked in the movie industry, so Crump made him the unit’s personnel officer and put him in charge of processing incoming recruits.
On July 1, 1942, the outfit was officially named the Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit. But Vitagraph was underequipped for full production, and Crump struggled at first just to supply the post with the basics. Luckily, his men were used to improvising. “Motion picture fellows, a lot of them, are very, very good at that,” said Crump, remembering how the men brought whatever was needed from their own homes. “These are the things I’m so proud of, the way the thing got started.”
But the unit still needed a proper studio. As Crump drove past Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, where the Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang films were made, he noticed the lot was out of use (Roach had been conscripted into the Signal Corps in Astoria, New York, forcing him to put his studio’s lineup on hold). The studio had everything the motion picture unit needed: six warehouse-size sound stages, prop rooms, editing bays, costume and makeup departments, even an outdoor set made to look like a city street. Crump called Arnold, and within 11 days the Air Forces had leased the studio and made production manager Sidney Van Keuren a major. Jack Warner, feeling he’d done his part getting the outfit off the ground, went back to running Warner Brothers.
Crump moved his unit from Vitagraph to Hal Roach Studios, which they dubbed Fort Roach. The lot comprised 14 acres and dozens of buildings, most of them windowless to provide the controlled-lighting environments necessary for filming. The exception was a long, narrow two-story building in the front of the lot that contained the post’s production department. Crump moved into Hal Roach’s old office, which was decorated with chandeliers, dark wood paneling, and ornate molding and which, in the studio’s early days, had contained a polar bear pelt.
Aside from the military motor pool in the back of the lot and the fact that everyone was in uniform, Fort Roach looked and functioned like a conventional movie studio. The only thing it didn’t have was a mess hall, so the Army built one. The barracks, which housed the men who didn’t have homes in Los Angeles, were located two miles away, at Page Military Academy.
In addition to their filmmaking work, the men shared KP duty in the mess hall and took turns guarding the studio’s front gate. Each morning they would march in groups down Washington Boulevard to perform calisthenics in the parking lot of the Casa Mañana nightclub. People began to call them the Hollywood Commandos, and the men adopted the motto “We kill ’em with fil’m.”
The unit’s first official project was a training film called Learn and Live. It is set in “Pilot’s Heaven,” where uniformed fliers wearing white angel wings mill around in the afterlife while their instructor tells St. Peter what flying errors they made to end up there.
Not all of the unit’s work was so fanciful. Many of its projects demanded the distillation of complicated details so they could be learned quickly, like the movies the unit made on how to identify enemy aircraft. This training was among the most vital that American airmen received.