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By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th of 1941, Gregg Toland had already won an Oscar for the cinematography of Wuthering Heights and created the distinctive look of Citizen Kane that is still discussed in introductory film classes today. But Toland wanted more than to be the most famous cinematographer of his day: Toland dreamed of becoming a director. Unfortunately, Toland’s one and only directing project, the unreleased long version of the United States Navy’s December 7th, is nothing short of a disaster.

After the United States entered the war, Toland answered the call to join the United States Navy and John Ford’s Field Photo Unit. Toland’s first assignment was to make a film about Pearl Harbor. The film would be the first major government film production of the war and was intended to reassure the American public that we would be soon be back on our feet. This was Toland’s chance to shine.


The US Navy’s first major film project, December 7th was intended to reassure the American public that we would swiftly recover from the Pearl Harbor attack. (Still from film.)

Toland arrived in Honolulu in January of 1942, a month after the attack. Six weeks later, John Ford was sent to check on the production. While there, Ford shot footage of ships being rebuilt and troops working together and then, in April, left Toland to complete the film. Production stretched on. Over the course of months, Toland returned to Hollywood to shoot dramatic scenes and recreations of the attack to fill in the incomplete film record. Finally, in December of 1942, Toland was ready to show his first cut, an 85 minute feature.

Lowell Mellet, a liaison between Hollywood and the War Department, was the first to see the final product. He was horrified.

Remember, the criteria for successful completion of Toland’s assignment were simple: the film should be turned around quickly and should make the public feel that the naval fleet was recovered and prepared for battle. The film that Toland screened took nearly a year to complete and can only be described as bananas. (Really, it’s difficult to overstate this one. If you have a chance, you really need to watch it.)

Toland’s December 7th includes long sequences of Uncle Sam (played by the legendary Walter Huston) being admonished by his “conscience” (played by character actor Harry Davenport) for vacationing too much and not taking seriously the “hyphenated” threat of Japanese-Americans. The overt racism far surpasses even the propaganda films that were shown only to the troops and intended to instill scorn for the enemy (that would be our actual enemy, the Japanese nationals that the US military was fighting in the Pacific). The film depicts everyday Japanese-Americans as lying in wait to collect information from unsuspecting tongue-flappers. Viewers are reminded over and over that there are 150,000 Japanese-Americans in Hawaii. By the logic of the film, that would equal 150,000 spies and saboteurs. Even the children.

The film concludes with the ghost of an American soldier strolling through a military cemetery and explicating an extremely unwieldy baseball metaphor to demonstrate his belief in the American cause. On the positive side, since this is Gregg Toland’s film, it’s all very beautifully shot.


In Gregg Toland’s version of the film, Uncle Sam’s conscience chastises him not being too trusting of Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii. (Still from film.)

After viewing the film, Mellet scrambled to make sure that it would not be released to the public.  In addition to Toland’s December 7th just being a really bad film, Mellet was concerned about the scope of the re-enactments. Much of the Pearl Harbor attack depicted in the film was created in a special effects studios at Fox, which made it little more than a fictional account of the battle.

And then there was the problematic anti-Japanese-American sentiment. In a recent talk at the National Archives’ McGowan Theater, author Mark Harris explained that it wasn’t so much the racism itself that was the problem (after all, the American government was paranoid enough to intern Japanese-Americans in camps), it was the level of suspicion that it cast on Japanese living in the United States. The U.S. government’s plan was to “redistribute” the Japanese-American population throughout the country to keep them from amassing sizable communities. If Toland’s film were to be released, it might cause every small town in America to reject the families that were expected to resettle there. It’s a distasteful distinction to make, but it ultimately led to Toland’s December 7th being heavily cut.

The task of fixing the December 7th went to John Ford. As the head of the Field Photo Unit, Ford was responsible for Gregg Toland, and the debacle reflected poorly on his command. Ford and editor Robert Parrish quickly re-cut the film, hacking out over 50 minutes so that the final version was just over half an hour. The film was still too long to play as an opening short in public movie theaters, and was too late to serve its original purpose anyway. Ford’s cut was approved for troops and munitions workers and released in early 1943.

Despite its troubled history and limited release, December 7th won the 1944 Academy Award for best documentary short. Gregg Toland never directed another film, but his failure did nothing to tarnish his reputation as one of the best and most influential cinematographers in film history.

All of the information about the production of December 7th comes from Mark Harris’s excellent book Five Came Back, a history of five Hollywood directors who served in World War II. You can view his talk about the book on our YouTube channel

This post was written by Heidi Holmstrom. Heidi works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.

In past blog posts, we’ve highlighted some of the favorite films of Motion Picture Preservation Lab staff. Because the motion picture holdings at the National Archives and Records Administration are so voluminous, we are always encountering new films that jockey for the top spot on our list of favorite things. One Time Too Often, a 1969 crime drama featuring Treasury Agents chasing down moonshine bootleggers and an appearance by Raymond Burr, is the latest of these.

When a man turns up dead, ATF agents take down a moonshine still.
(Stills from One Time Too Often)

One Time Too Often, presented by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF, now in the Department of Justice), tells the story of a man who gambles his health one too many times by consuming illegal moonshine whiskey. His death due to lead salts poisoning launches an ATF investigation, which tracks the moonshine to its source: a sketchy backwoods still. The ATF agents raid the still, resulting in a gun battle and car chase as a saxophone wails on the soundtrack.

Although the film is shot like a stylized television show, lead salts poisoning from carelessly-produced illegal moonshine has long been a real problem. As it distills, moonshine can leach lead from the still components, which sometimes include lead-soldered pipes and automobile radiators in place of copper condensers. There is also a risk that the moonshine may be contaminated by toxic levels of methanol. Even today, government continues to target illegal moonshine production, as seen in this May 2014 news article from Alabama.

There’s no question that One Time Too Often is a highly entertaining film—especially for those nostalgic for television programs of the 1960s and 1970s—but how was it originally used by the ATF and Treasury Department? In so many cases we lack the documentation that would give us these answers. Fortunately, we know one way that One Time Too Often was used. A 1976 press release on the United States Mint website reveals that it was to be presented daily, along with other Treasury-produced films, as part of a new display in the Department of the Treasury’s exhibit hall. Other items on display included currency presses, half a ton of gold bars, and a moonshine still.

One Time Too Often came through the lab as part of the preparation for Spirited Republic, an upcoming exhibit at the National Archives Museum. Another film digitized by our Lab is 1973’s America on the Rocks. Featuring narration by Robert Mitchum, the film addresses the issue of alcohol abuse, using a creepy carousel as a visual metaphor for alcoholism. After the creation of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1970, educators produced many films about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. The Institute cooperated with Airlie Productions on this film, which was a CINE Golden Eagle winner.

Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History will open March 2015 at the National Archives in Washington, DC. We hope to see you there!

This post was written by Harry Snodgrass. Harry is working on a project to preserve and digitize World War I and World War II films and photographs.

As we remember and applaud our veterans for their service on Veterans Day, I wanted to bring attention to a lesser-known film in the collection at the National Archives. Earlier this year, I had the honor of being hired to work on a special project focusing on preserving WWI and WWII films and stills. Since starting my work, I have come across many interesting, thought-provoking, and unusual films. This week’s film highlights various technologies and munitions designed for anti-aircraft use during World War I, a war that was fought before the development of radar.

111-H-1132Anti-Aircraft Materiel, U.S. Army Signal Corps, 1918

Without radar to assist with firing control systems, other technology was utilized to locate enemy aircraft and control anti-aircraft guns. In Anti-Aircraft Materiel, we see specific demonstrations of sound locators, range finders, height finders, and data computers to detect enemy aircraft and control the firing of anti-aircraft guns. Although the complete operation of these systems is not clear, our best guess is that the sound location system in tandem with searchlights were used to initially locate a target. Through the use of field chronographs, range-finders, and anti-aircraft height finders, the operators could better zero in on the target and provide final coordinates of distance and altitude to anti-aircraft gun operators. These operators were using early firing control computers to guide the guns. We might also assume that these systems were used independently of each other but we have not found any information to confirm this.¹

The slideshow below shows the components of the system in action:

A World War I system used to locate aircraft: sound locator, the Barr and Stroud anti-aircraft height finder, and the field chronograph.
(Stills from 111-H-1132)

The first component demonstrated in the slideshow is the sound or acoustic locator. The four large megaphone/horn devices, configured in an array, act as the sound collector or microphones. Using a device similar to a stethoscope, the output of these horns was fed to the operator, who wore a set of headphones or earphones.  The resulting information was used to initially triangulate the location of an enemy aircraft.

This next image shows the complete setup being used to locate the aircraft:

Final setup being used to locate the aircraft

Notice that the equipment is different than what was demonstrated earlier. According to our research, the item on the left could be a Barr and Stroud range finder model F.T. 23, but it is not clear what the two pieces of equipment are to the right. In the film (seen at 4:25), a demonstration follows achieving the end result of shooting down an enemy aircraft.

The next section of the film shows the operation of a three-inch anti-aircraft gun controlled by the ordnance data computer T-1. Yes, they used the word computer. The “computer” here is not what we recognize as a computer today– it is a mechanical control system that assisted in the operation of the anti-aircraft guns. The ordnance computers had torque amplifiers controlling the distance and direction settings of the gun. In the film, you can see the two operators turn controls as the gun(s) responds to their movements. This three inch anti-aircraft gun fired up to 22 shots a minute and had a range of four miles.

This three inch A.A. gun fired up to 22 shots a minute and had a range of four miles.

Shown below is an experimental glider target developed by the Army Air Service. It appears that the glider had a built-in control system so a specific course could be set, simulating manned flight and providing a more realistic target for practice. The glider was attached to the top of a plane and released when the plane made a steep bank.The glider then assumed the specified course.


Another mechanical computer demonstrated in this film is the Vickers control computer. The Vickers computer directed the firing of a bank of .30 caliber machine guns. This computer was known as a firing control computer. It controlled the height and lateral movement of the bank of guns as operators fired the guns.

The Vickers computer up close. Click through the slideshow to see the Vickers in action. (Stills from 111-H-1132)

The film concludes with a demonstration of the sound locator electronically controlling searchlights (starting at 14:45).

In this slideshow, stills from the film show the sound locator, an operator wearing the sound locator earphones, and the searchlights that were then directed at the enemy aircraft.

This film is a great example of how the U.S. Army Signal Corps documented World War I. Anti-Aircraft Materiel is just one title of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Historical Collection held at the National Archives. Currently the entire collection of 473 unique titles (871 reels) is being assessed, digitized and uploaded to the National Archives YouTube channel. View the films digitized as part of this project on this playlist.

¹According to a technical report written by Allan G. Bromley of the University of Sydney, mechanical gunnery computers were used during combat but with very limited success. It is unclear if any of the technology shown in this film was actually used during combat by the United States armed forces as the references in the Bromley paper refer to the British military.

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

Home movies aren’t usually thought of as a rarity – especially these days as we happily capture our kids, friends, families, and pets on our smartphones– but home movies taken during war on the front lines are few and far between. In 1981, NARA was fortunate to receive Lt. Col. Ken Gerrish’s home movie of the time he spent on Papua New Guinea between 1942 and 1944. As the Engineering Officer, Mr. Gerrish had a unique vantage point from which to observe preparations for being stationed on the contested Pacific territory, outfitting men and equipment for battle, as well as being able to get to know the men and interact with the indigenous people of the island. Mr. Gerrish was responsible for maintaining P-39s for the 36th Fighter Squadron and P-38s for the Eighth Fighter Group of the Fifth Air Force Division.

Lt. Col. Ken Gerrish shot 16mm color home movies of his World War II experience and later added music and narration to create this film.

While there’s not a historic focus on Papua New Guinea like there is on the Pacific islands of Midway, Iwo Jima, or Tarawa, it was an incredibly important strategic location. With only about 100 miles of ocean between the southern coast of Papua New Guinea and the northeastern tip of Australia, it was a vital stronghold for the Japanese after they captured the town of Rabaul on the northeastern island on January 23rd, 1942. The Allies – Australian and American – held Port Moresby on the southeastern edge of the territory. The climate and the terrain were almost as brutal as their foes. Over the course of two and a half years the soldiers were plagued by dysentery, dengue fever, malaria, daily rains, monsoons, swamps, punishing topography, and irregular shipments of supplies.

Wanting to secure a foothold on mainland Papua New Guinea the Japanese dug in along the northern side of the main island on July 21st, 1942. Though the Gona Buna airstrip, held by the Japanese, was just 120 miles from Port Moresby, the Owen Stanley Range stood between the armies and the only way to cross between was over the treacherous Kokoda track. Both air offensives and land maneuvers were aimed at Japanese targets with the Allied Forces finally prevailing on August 31st, 1944. Over the course of the New Guinea campaign, approximately 14,000 Allied soldiers died and over 202,000 Japanese died.

Mr. Gerrish’s home movie shows little of these conditions aside from the rains and mention of the mosquitoes, malaria, and dengue fever during a ceremony where everyone is wearing long sleeves despite the heat. What Mr. Gerrish does focus on are particular individuals including Gen. George Kenney, commander of the Allied Air Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, and WWII flying ace, Lt. George Welch. Other scenes focus on the men as they prepared equipment, enjoyed leisure time, and interacted with their Australian comrades. The films also contain quite a bit of footage of the native people of Papua New Guinea. A young child is given cigarettes in exchange for cutting down coconuts, a hospital built for the natives is shown, and Gerrish captures the reactions of a tribe when they see photos of themselves for the first time. According to the narration, some of the native people also helped to rescue a downed pilot and were enlisted to help kill the Japanese on the island.


Gerrish’s home movies show the lighter side of living on the front lines as officers play against enlisted men in a 1943 baseball game.

Perhaps what interests me the most about these reels is how Mr. Gerrish was able to make them. According to Gerrish, the raw film stock came from the Army Air Corps supply for which he traded a bottle of gin, or whisky, for four rolls of film. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t regulation! The films may have been developed on the island (we see a “photo lab” sign), while on leave in Australia, or they may have remained sealed until his return to the States. We do know that the narration was added sometime after 1954 as Gerrish references Lt. Welch’s death, which occurred that year. We’re also not sure whether or not Mr. Gerrish compiled the A&B rolls on his own, or worked with someone else to edit them.

The original reels are 16mm Kodachrome and perhaps because of the time the reels spent in hot and humid conditions in the jungle the film exhibited a high level of shrinkage and was warped. There was also perforation damage, deterioration, and heavy scratches which are most noticeable in the second reel. Luckily, we were able to preserve these films despite their poor condition. We created a protection preservation copy as well as a new print and digital copy for access.

Ken Gerrish passed away in 2002; we are indebted to him, not only for his service, but for the unique record that he created and donated to the National Archives.

October 29 marks the 85th anniversary of Wall Street’s most infamous day, Black Tuesday. While the crash alone did not cause the Great Depression, the sharp drop in stock prices symbolized the end of the Roaring Twenties and the beginning of a decade of hardship. As prices plummeted, many lost their life savings. Many more lost faith in American financial institutions. The photographs below reflect the chaos and sorrow that emanated from the stock market crash and run on the banks. These photos are from the New York Times Paris Bureau, and now part of the holdings in the Still Picture department at NARA.

Wall Street in panic due to heavy trading. October, 1929.  306-NT-157.062C

Wall Street in panic due to heavy trading. October, 1929.

Unemployed men queued outside a depression kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone. Feb. 1931. 306-NT-165.319C

Unemployed men queued outside a depression kitchen opened in Chicago by Al Capone. Feb. 1931. 
stand guard at the entrance to the World Exchange Bank at 174 Second Avenue, New York City.  It had been closed down today due to a run on it. March 20, 1931. 306-NT-443-J-1

Police stand guard at the entrance to the World Exchange Bank at 174 Second Avenue, New York City. It had been closed down today due to a run on it. March 20, 1931.

Crowd gathers in front of the doors of the Bank of the United States on Freeman Street, New York.  April, 1931. 306-NT-166.153C

Crowd gathers in front of the doors of the Bank of the United States on Freeman Street, New York. April, 1931.

Groups of depositors in front of the closed American Union Bank, New York City.  April 26, 1932. 306-NT-677-B-177.476C

Groups of depositors in front of the closed American Union Bank, New York City. April 26, 1932.

Crowds gather as hundreds of thousands of dollars in “Scrip Money” are burned.  The notes were issued after the bank had closed.  April, 1933. 306-NT-177.567CCrowds gather as hundreds of thousands of dollars in “Scrip Money” are burned. The notes were issued after the bank had closed. April, 1933.