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The Moving Image 5.1 (2005) 95-124

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Imaging/Imagining Air Force Identity:

"Hap" Arnold, Warner Bros., and the Formation of the USAAF First Motion Picture Unit

[End Page 95]

On Sunday, March 8, 1942, Jack L. Warner, vice president in charge of production at Warner Bros., and Owen Crump, a rising star in the Warner Bros. short subjects department, met with Lieutenant General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Chief, United States Army Air Forces in Washington, DC.1 The meeting would mark the conception of the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU)—an official U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) organization charged with the production of documentary, training, and orientation films targeted specifically for a worldwide Air Force audience.2 Comprising Hollywood directors, actors, editors, writers, cameramen, and other artisan talents who had traded studio overalls and tailored suits for the khaki Army Air Force uniform, the FMPU would ultimately produce more than three hundred films in support of the war effort.3 Its formation also marked an important moment in Hollywood history; after all, its establishment set a precedent for a new type of cooperation between Hollywood and the U.S. government.

While countless articles and books have explored the historical and social significance of films produced during World War II (most notably Thomas Doherty's Projections of War and Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black's Hollywood Goes to War), none has yet devoted proper attention to the history or influence of the FMPU. This fact is even more ironic considering that the unit included so much creative talent, particularly writers. Granted, some of these individuals have discussed their personal FMPU experiences in articles or larger memoirs about their Hollywood lives, as Richard Bare does in his book, Memoirs of a Hollywood Director; in such cases, however, the men often followed their military service with such successful careers that their FMPU days get eclipsed by their later achievements (Ronald Reagan, of course, being the most obvious example). Even comprehensive studies of combat camera operations or massive treatises on U.S. military cooperation with Hollywood make only scant mention of this unique filmmaking organization. The FMPU films represented some of the first USAAF attempts to mediate its own image for its own personnel. Indeed, these films provided a sense of group identity to advocates and members of the USAAF—a sub-branch of the War Department then continuing a decades-long struggle to secure operational autonomy from its military "parent," the U.S Army.

The cinematic battle for that group identity and operational autonomy—and for the hearts and minds of airmen and their families—began months before the FMPU was finally activated on July 1, 1942; indeed, we can find the very roots of FMPU filmmaking in the USAAF–Warner Bros. short subjects written, produced, and (at least in some cases) released during the four months Warner, Arnold, Crump, and others spent planning and forming the new film unit. Each of these films also involved personnel actively working to form and activate the FMPU, and the eventual service of these men as uniformed members [End Page 96] of the FMPU significantly influenced the resulting training, orientation, and documentation films produced during the following three years. In addition, the aviation-specific images of masculinity presented in these short films helped to reify the USAAF's growing sense of identity and separateness.

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Figure 1
Jack L. Warner, right, vice president in charge of production at Warner Bros. with Lieutenant General Henry H. "Hap" Arnold, Chief, United States Army Air Forces in Washington, DC, at a Warner Bros. dinner party, May 1, 1942. Courtesy Jack L. Warner Collection.

Within the limited scope of this essay, then, I seek to accomplish two goals. First, I will explore the ways in which the ongoing political struggle for Air Force autonomy during the prewar years resulted in the formation of the FMPU between March and June of 1942. Second, while chronicling this formation, I will also examine...


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