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  • "It Is Entertainment, and It Will Sell Bonds!":16mm Film and the World War II War Bond Campaign
  • Kathryn Cramer Brownell (bio)

In winter 1943, J. E. Morton—an autoworker and the father of an American soldier—turned his love for his son and country into financial support for the war eff ort. Determined to reveal to his local community in Muskegon, Michigan, "exactly what our boys have to go through in actual combat with the enemy," Morton petitioned his local war activities board to rent nontheatrical 16mm combat films—cut, edited, and distributed by the Office of War Information (OWI)—that depicted the sacrifice, valor, and struggles of soldiers fighting abroad.1 Armed with only films and a projector, Morton traveled to schools, churches, and open parks throughout and beyond Muskegon, showing over twenty-six thousand people footage of the war that intermixed battle scenes with the government's appeal for individual war bond purchases. Morton soon found that projecting these nontheatrical war bond films in [End Page 61] small towns and rural areas in open, public structures significantly enhanced bond sales while simultaneously motivating community action for the war effort.2 Eventually buying another 16mm projector to reach even more people in the last year of the war, Morton showed nontheatrical war bond films to small groups of 150 in churches and to large crowds of 10,000 on open beaches.3

The head of the 16mm film division in the OWI, C. R. Reagan—a former road show 16mm operator and president of the Texas Visual Education company that the OWI recently recruited to sell the war effort with nontheatrical films—read Morton's testimony about the impact of these films in uniting local communities and agreed with Morton's conclusion that 16mm war bond films motivated a new type of participatory patriotism during World War II. During the last two years of the war, Reagan and the 16mm film wing of the OWI joined Hollywood and the Department of the Treasury to use the flexibility and affordability of 16mm films to unify towns, rural areas, and small cities with the national war bond campaigns.

Scholarship on World War II 16mm films has focused on the documentary footage captured by soldiers and journalists to bring images of the battlefield home to the American people and to document atrocities committed by Germans in concentration camps.4 Yet this literature overlooks the government's decisions to implement 16mm films to spur war loan campaigns on the home front and how these films motivated extensive community activity. An unexplored aspect of the World War II propaganda effort and media mobilization, the 16mm war effort began with amateur operators like Morton, who understood the potential benefits and accessibility of 16mm film and convinced the OWI of the ability of this overlooked format to generate community patriotism and participation. By 1944, the Department of the Treasury saw the concrete financial benefits that a national 16mm industry could produce in the war bond campaigns. That fall, the War Finance Division director, Theodore "Ted" Gamble, declared the 16mm industry "on an equal footing with all other media" in the war loan drives.5

Initially, as the experience of J. E. Morton demonstrated, 16mm screenings allowed for a seemingly direct conversation between government and the people without interference from or reliance on Hollywood's system of production, distribution, and exhibition. However, as the government cultivated a national network of 16mm distributors and operators, publicity experts from Hollywood studios joined the OWI and the war bond campaigns to teach the 16mm industry the advertising style, publicity language, and entertainment tactics used by corporate movie studios. As a result, a complex relationship between government, the independent 16mm film industry, and Hollywood formed during World War II. The 16mm industry, strengthened by the war bond campaign, helped challenge the studios' vertical control of film exhibition, which would continue in the [End Page 62] postwar years when 16mm film aided in the development and success of television and documentary films. And yet the national success of 16mm films in motivating community activism relied on using entertainment principles integral to theatrical Hollywood's success. By teaching both the government and...


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