Friday, September 8, 2017

Film Propaganda in the U.S.A.

At the outbreak of war in 1914 the United States soon became an important target for foreign propaganda. Both the Entente and the Central Powers tried to influence public opinion in America. The years of neutrality between 1914 and 1917 in fact turned into a 'battleground' which also included the American movie theaters. For the first time in film history movies were used in a professional way by various agencies and governments for wartime propaganda purposes. Sometimes this even resulted in riots in the film theaters between pro-Allied and pro-German Americans.



Albert Dawson, war photographer. Copied from Deutsch-Amerika, 15 September 1917


Case study

As a case study for one of the earliest attempts to use motion pictures for this purpose, authors Cooper C. Graham and Ron van Dopperen in 2013 published Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company. In this book we described the workings of a secret film campaign that was financed and set up by German officials in Berlin in 1914, and how the German authorities tried to use cinematographer Albert K. Dawson as a front man to make pro-German movies for release in the American theaters. Based on records from the German Foreign Office, the Austro-Hungarian military press office as well as personal information on Dawson's life and work, we offer the reader a unique opportunity to follow this American cameraman into the trenches of the First World War and witness his adventures at the front. The book also explains how Dawson's films were used as propaganda.



Scenes from one of Dawson's war films (1915)


A fifth edition of the book appeared in January 2015 and can be ordered on Amazon.com

For some fascinating background information on film propaganda in America during World War I, which also mentions Dawson and his film company, here is a link to another weblog.

Our book on Dawson has also been reviewed recently in this article online.

Monday, September 4, 2017

How the American Newsreel Men Invaded Mexico (1916)

In a previous weblog we mentioned how in 1916 newsreel cameraman Tracy Mathewson followed the U.S. Army into Mexico during the Punitive Expedition against Pancho Villa. The war in Mexico was an important training ground for a number of cinematographers who soon after went to Europe and filmed on the battlefields of France.




American film reporters in Chihuahua, Spring 1916. Copied from International Photographer, October 1933


Ignoring official regulations Mexico was invaded by many American cameramen, as this picture shows that we recently found in a 1933 edition of International Photographer. The U.S. Army had agreed on allowing only one official photographer to accompany the military expedition. But in the spring of 1916 - when Pancho Villa's border raid into the U.S.A. was making headlines across America - all the newsreels were represented. A false report had come in that Villa was assassinated at Chihuahua City and all the cameramen immediately grabbed a freight train and went down there.

The Men Behind the Movie Camera

It was on this occasion that this picture was taken. The cameramen from right to left in the back row are: Tracy Mathewson of the Hearst newsreels, Dick Burrud of Gaumont News, next to him Gilbert Warrenton working for the Universal Animated Weekly. The man cranking Warrenton's movie camera is United States consul Letcher. Next to Letcher we have Beverly Griffith of Universal and next to him behind the Universal camera is Nicholas McDonald of the Selig-Tribune Weekly. The Mexican cranking McDonald's camera is the general of the Chihuahua district. The men in the front row are all American newspaper reporters.



Nicholas McDonald (left) with the First Division, American Expeditionary Army, 1919. U.S. Signal Corps photograph from the National Archives. Courtesy Harry B. Kidd


Nicholas McDonald

Nicholas McDonald featured before in an earlier weblog. In February 1917, he got in a plane and with permission of General Pershing filmed the American operations in Mexico.

Here are some interesting contemporary newspaper stories on his film work in Mexico.

After the American entry into the First World War McDonald was attached to the 1st Division as a Lieutenant of the U.S. Signal Corps photographic unit. Later General Pershing promoted him to Captain and assigned him to GHQ of the American Expeditionary Force. McDonald filmed at Chateau-Thierry, St. Mihiel and the Argonne offensive and twice received citations for bravery. President PoincarĂ© awarded him with the Croix de Guerre. He reportedly did most of the principal photography for Pershing's Crusaders (1918), America's first official war film that was produced by the Committee on Public Information (CPI). After the war, McDonald worked for Walter Niebuhr's American Cinema Corporation. His photographic career came to a sudden end in February 1923 when his flashlight set off a huge explosion. As a result, McDonald lost his right arm.



McDonald (right) filming on the Western Front, October 1918. Signal Corps picture from William Moore's book U.S. Offficial Photographs of the World War (1920)



This news story in the Oregon Daily Journal of September 21, 1919, has more on McDonald's film work during World War I.