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“Keep ’em Flying!”: Films of the U.S. Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit

November 9, 2007 - November 11, 2007

A soldier winds film on reels at the editorial department of the FMPU, 1944. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

If you think military training films are boring ephemera that only a drill sergeant could love, this series will prompt you to think again. Over Veterans’ Day weekend, we celebrate the extensive corpus of World War II work, largely unseen since that time, produced by the U.S. Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU). Hundreds of Hollywood studio personnel donned Army Air Force uniforms for this unique military-Tinseltown collaboration, choosing to exercise their talents in the service of Uncle Sam.

In the summer of 1942, newly minted Army Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jack L. Warner, executive in charge of production at Warner Bros., established the FMPU in Los Angeles at the behest of his friend, Lieutenant General “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the U.S. Army Air Forces. Before long, names once found in marquee lights answered to the FMPU’s morning roll call, among them Clark Gable, Alan Ladd, and Ronald Reagan. Additionally, the unit’s rosters boasted top-notch behind-the-camera talents plucked from the studio stages—cameramen, composers, editors, animators, and Oscar-winning writers and directors such as Norman Krasna and William Wyler. Ranging from detailed documentations of wartime procedures to hallucinatory cautionary tales, these films helped to shape the mass identity of an Army Air Force seeking to emerge from beneath the protective wing of its U.S. Army parent and establish itself as an independent United States Air Force after the war.

Viewing these films from the perspective of 2007, the sixtieth anniversary of the United States Air Force, we can analyze both the inscription of war in images (à la Harun Farocki) and wartime imaginings of the ideal military man, ideas further explored in a panel on Saturday, November 10. Featuring many new prints provided by the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), this first-ever series honoring the FMPU will leave you flying high.

Doug Cunningham
Guest Curator

Doug Cunningham is a doctoral student in Film Studies at UC Berkeley. He is writing his dissertation on representations of masculinity in the films of the FMPU.

Friday, November 9, 2007
7:30 p.m. Hollywood Commandos
Gregory Orr and Eugene Marks in Person. Orr’s documentary is an essential overview of the work of the U.S. Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit. With FMPU shorts Cadet Classification (narrated by Ronald Reagan) and Learn and Live.

Saturday, November 10, 2007
2:00 p.m. Panel Discussion (Admission Free)
A discussion of issues of masculinity and identity in the films of the FMPU.

Saturday, November 10, 2007
6:30 p.m. Resisting Enemy Interrogation
Introduced by Thomas Doherty. This instructional gem pits Nazi intelligence officers against five loose-lipped American POWs. With animated short Position Firing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007
8:45 p.m. The Memphis Belle: Story of a Flying Fortress
Introduced by Doug Cunningham. William Wyler’s still-powerful documentary of a B-17 bomber crew’s final mission over Germany. With shorts Photographic Intelligence in Bombardment Aviation and Preparation of Special Briefing Films.

Sunday, November 11, 2007
3:00 p.m. Land and Live in the Jungle
Introduced by Daniel Rooney. With Van Heflin as a bomber pilot downed behind enemy lines, this survival short offers up competing views of masculinity. With shorts Camouflage Cartoon and First Motion Picture Unit.

Sunday, November 11, 2007
5:30 p.m. God Is My Co-Pilot
Introduced by Robert Eberwein. Robert Florey’s portrait of Colonel Robert L. Scott details the spiritual awakening of a rugged individualist. With short Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter.

Curated by Doug Cunningham, with the assistance of Lucy Laird and Patricia O’Neill. Keep ’em Flying! is a project of the UC Berkeley graduate course in film curating taught by PFA curators Kathy Geritz, Edith Kramer, Susan Oxtoby, and Steve Seid. Cosponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities at UC Berkeley, and National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). Brochure funded by UC Berkeley Student Opportunity Funds. With thanks to Leslie Waffen, chief, Motion Picture, Sound & Video Branch, and Daniel Rooney, archivist, Special Media Archives Services Division, NARA; Maxine Fleckner Ducey, Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research; Roger Smither, Imperial War Museum; and Marilee Womack, Warner Bros., without all of whom this series would not have been possible. Special thanks, too, to Daniel Cahn, Stanley Frazen, Arnold Laven, Eugene Marks, Malvin Wald, and other veterans of the FMPU for their cooperation with background research and for their contributions to film history.

The views expressed in these notes are those of the authors and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Air Force, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.