Memories of Robert Riskin

By Victoria Riskin

Until the recent documentary PROJECTIONS OF AMERICA, I had no idea of the scope and enormity of the project my father undertook during World War II, as head of The Overseas Film Division of the Office of War Information (OWI). Only after helping with research for the film do I have a grasp of the history and my father’s contribution.

It began in 1941 when President Roosevelt was eager to win the hearts and minds of the public for the war he was anticipating would soon involve America. Pearl Harbor did bring us in and he turned to his close advisor and speechwriter, Robert E. Sherwood, a widely-admired author and playwright, to create a filmmaking division for overseas audiences. The goal was to make good, truthful movies to appeal to people who had been living under fascism, and tell true stories of America. In this way the hoped to counter the lies and distortions that had fueled the Nazi propaganda machine for years – the anti-American pamphlets, the ubiquitous Hitler and Goebbels radio broadcasts, the potency of doctored and slanted newsreels. To run the division, they wanted an experienced movie-maker, an accomplished story-teller, one whose past work had demonstrated his understanding and sympathy for the work and the cause.

Enter my father, Robert Riskin.

Like so many men and women in Hollywood, my father was eager to help the war effort. He was 45 at the time, too old to become a fighting man, in truth, he was hardly the picture of a fighting man anyway; a short, dapper dresser with a wry wit and great personal warmth. Fellow writer Sidney Buchman described him as: “a very cultivated, nonchalant playboy.” He was one of the highest paid, most successful screenwriters in Hollywood, with credits including It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can’t Take it With You, American Madness, Lady for a Day, Lost Horizon and Meet John Doe. He and his films had won numerous Oscars and other awards. With the sponsorship of a friend, Wild Bill Donovan, my father took the train to Washington DC to meet with Sherwood who knew at once he had found the right man to be in charge of the OWI’s Overseas Film Branch.

On the first day, my father had a thousand discussions to make. How should he portray America? What stories should he tell that would be both honest and entertaining? There are many Americas and many Americans. Where to begin…?

He devised a slate of films about American individualism and pioneer spirit, ingenuity, culture, community life and democratic processes. He wrote a memo, “Projection of America,” that began: “Purpose: To dramatize America for the people of allied, neutral and occupied countries. To give the ‘why’ and the ‘how come’ of the more important trends in American culture, and therefore to demonstrate Democracy as it is understood and practiced in the Western Hemisphere.”

A good beginning. He spent the next several months assembling a team of men and women of exceptional intelligence and creativity, experienced and consummate storytellers who were paid virtually nothing but were eager to serve their country. Some, like writer Philip Dunne, producer John Houseman, and director Josef von Sternberg, came directly from great careers in Hollywood; others were legendary in the documentary filmmaking world-men like Willard Van Dyke, Irving Lerner, Alexander Hammid and Roger Barlow. Ralph Rosenblum, later became of Hollywood’s top film editors, said, “the bulk of the country’s documentary film talent, people who had developed as artists and craftsmen during the last years of the Depression… found their battle stations. It was the first and last time American documentarists were brought together in a massive collective effort and it was an historic effort in filmmaking.”

With such disparate cultures as the Hollywood studio system and reality-based documentaries, this adventure in film production was not guaranteed to be smooth sailing. My father faced the task of forging an alliance between men and women from very different worlds: the traditional entertainment industry provided his good friend Phil Dunne, whom my father made chief of production, and the high-minded documentary filmmakers, who in their professional lives had looked down on Hollywood and all things commercial. The gulf between them was revealed early when the documentarians had serious misgivings about my father’s decision to appoint Hollywood great Josef von Sternberg to make a film called The Town, about a small community in the Midwest. The documentary team mocked the film as “another one of those stories from East Toilet, Ohio, about folks from nowheresville…heavy on the schmaltz and light on the content.” The documentarians, who captured life as they found it, were outraged that von Sternberg altered the reality they loved, going so far as to paint trees silver to capture the light. In the end Sternberg turned in what everybody in the unit agreed was a remarkable and beautiful film about a small Indiana town. More importantly, the two camps began to work well together – brilliantly, in fact, as prejudices and contentiousness between the two camps faded.

They worked non-stop and devotedly. Over an intense three years the Overseas Film Branch of the OWI produced 26 films and dozens of newsreels which would be translated into 22 languages. The two New York offices, which my father set up and administered were beehives of activity. Film crews crisscrossed the United States. My father attracted some of America’s greatest talent in music, acting, writing and directing to tell the American story: John O’Hara, Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett, Ralph Bellamy, Burgess Meredith, Garson Kanin, Jean Renoir, Aaron Copland. The list of contributors, all working for next to nothing, and glad for the chance, was remarkable, unprecedented and never to be duplicated.

My father’s theory seems to have been that if you liked people, people would like you. His OWI films, just like those he made in the 1930’s, were on a human, personal scale, about the virtues of America and Americans. Their unifying theme was that we were a country in which people could lead their lives as they chose and be the happier for it. Some films were straight-forward documentaries, some were inspirational, others charming or whimsical. All reflected his belief in the basic goodness of people.

Swedes In America, narrated by Ingrid Bergman, portrayed the immigrant experience and was nominated for an Academy Award for best short subject. Cowboy gave audiences the sense of what life was really like on a western ranch, in contrast to the shoot -‘em-up cowboy and Indian movies from Hollywood. Steeltown highlighted a proud American worker and captured the dramatic workings of a steel mill. The Window Cleaner featured the man who each day scaled the Empire State Building with Buster Keaton-like agility to wash the windows. The Cummington Story, based on a factual situation, recreated the tensions in a small Massachusetts town when war refugees arrive as outsiders who speak no English. Aaron Copland’s evocative score captured the emotional journey of the townspeople as they grew to understand, accept and admire the refugees they initially rejected.

Allied forces fought their way across North Africa and Europe, my father oversaw the distribution of his OWI films. His teams carried hundreds of OWI film cans and projectors on Jeeps and trucks, first to Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, then into Sicily, Italy, France, Belgium and finally Germany. They would go places where only days before there had been military battles. At times my mother had no idea where he was and feared the worst. As they went, the OWI teams reopened thousands of theaters; if theaters were in rubble, they would project the films onto bed sheets, all to reintroduce America. The war-weary public loved the films and for a moment felt joy in an otherwise bleak and grim existence.

After the war my father returned to Hollywood, still infused with the passion of his experience at the OWI. He promoted the idea of an on-going collaboration between government and Hollywood, to tell the story of America. But the postwar relationship between Hollywood and the government was deteriorating. The House Un-American Activities Committee rekindled its anti-Communist campaign to root out the subversives they believed had infiltrated the movie business. While some of my father’s Hollywood colleagues supported his vision for a nonprofit organization, others feared government intrusion. As his dream faded, he resumed his career, writing and producing films like Magic Town and Mister 880.

His OWI films were never shown in America. I was introduced to them because a few were stored in a closet in our home. On rainy days when my brother and I were stuck inside, we begged my mother to pull out the projector and let us watch them. We had two favorites we watched over and over again. The first starred the seventy-eight year old Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Giuseppe Verdi’s patriotic “Hymn of the Nations.” The film opened with the maestro in his living room saying why he left his beloved Italy and had come to America in his search for freedom and moved on to the performance recorded with the maestro leading the NBC Orchestra. The Westminster College Choir sang the choral passages and Jan Peerce, the great tenor, performed a solo passage. Toscanini had added “The Internationale,” the Russian anthem, and for a rousing finale, he provided the “Star Spangled Banner.” The great maestro waived his baton and sang along and, at five-years old, I felt proud to be an American.

The other film we loved was The Autobiography of a Jeep, created out of stock footage, with the Jeep telling its own story as an ugly duckling determined to prove its worth. We thought it was hysterically funny, as apparently did children in France. When the film was shown in French cinemas soon after D-Day, the audience, especially the children, burst into yells and applause, shouting, “Viva la Jeep!!”

Why was this amazing collection of films forgotten?

In the anti-Communist postwar fervor of the late 1940s, these warm-hearted, gentle-natured films may have seemed old-fashioned or irrelevant. The collective focus of America was increasingly on the Soviet Union.

Perhaps, too, there was no longer a spokesperson to trumpet their values. In 1950 my father suffered a severe stroke and remained incapacitated until his death in 1955.

The films have come to light again because a German documentary filmmaking company remembered the affection people felt for America after the war, this despite the fact that America had and Allied forces had bombarded and destroyed major cities throughout Europe. They saw the Autobiography of the Jeep and the Toscanini film, or learned about the immigrants experience in America, and began to think those Yanks over there don’t seem so bad.
My father had succeeded in his mission.

Written for the Santa Barbara Independent during the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.