As Allied forces liberated Western Europe, they were accompanied by a vast propaganda effort. At its center were the Projections of America films – twenty-six short documentaries whose mission was to introduce America to millions of people throughout the world. But seventy years later, the Projections of America films have disappeared.
The films were produced by the Office of War Information’s Overseas Motion Picture Bureau between 1942 and 1945. The project was headed up by the Academy Award-winning Hollywood screenwriter Robert Riskin, who had written many of Frank Capra’s greatest films (“It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”). Riskin’s personal and political journey is the dramatic heart of the documentary, including his passionate romance with the beautiful movie actress, Fay Wray (star of “King Kong”). Teaming up with an improbable collection of brilliant filmmakers – from Hollywood veterans Josef von Sternberg, John Houseman and Philip Dunne, to documentary giants Willard Van Dyke, Alexander Hammid and Henwar Rodakiewicz – the filmmakers created some of the most indelible images of America ever put to film.
The spirit of the Projections of America series originates from a question raised by Riskin: “With what kind of films shall we follow our troops to Berlin? Shall we concentrate on the evils of Nazism or on the virtues of democracy? What is the best way to get to the German people?” Unlike Capra’s hard-hitting Why We Fight films, made to motivate American forces, the message of Riskin’s Projections films was more subtle. As production chief Dunne explained, “In advertising terms we used the technique of the ‘soft sell,’ deliberately deglamorizing Hollywood’s America of penthouses, swimming pools, gangsters, straight-shooting cowboys, and under-clad bathing beauties to show the country as it really was. ‘We’re in truth very much like you,’ we said to the rest of the world. ‘In fact we basically are you.’”
On the surface, the movies were intended to make friends for America. But in the process, the filmmakers created something much deeper: a complex, nuanced, and at times utopian depiction of how America – and the world – might reshape itself in the wake of a devastating war. The Projections of America films espoused international cooperation, New Deal policies, and a racially and ethnically integrated America. As historian Ian Scott notes in the documentary, “That mixture of idealism and realism was a kind of recognition that the world could become a better place. And if this wasn’t the moment to confront that idea, when was?”
Projections of America – a selection
THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF A JEEP was as effective as it is simple: a film in which the ubiquitous, utilitarian American military vehicle tells its own story with charm and self-deprecating humor. The JEEP film accompanied Allied troops after D-Day and was a hit with audiences throughout the world.
A JOURNEY chronicles how ordinary American citizens adapt to the disruptions of war manufacturing in cities and towns from Alabama to the Rocky Mountains.
CITY HARVEST introduces Americans who conserve resources for the military by growing food in Victory Gardens.
COWBOY puts a young British schoolchild into the West and shows him what being a real cowboy is all about. In the process, he also learns a little bit about what it is to be an American.
THE CUMMINGTON STORY is a complex portrait of a small town that at first refuses to welcome refugees from war-torn Europe, but over time learns to recognize their humanity.
HYMN OF THE NATIONS was intended for newly liberated Italian audiences, to show how America welcomed the brilliant conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had refused to collaborate with the Italian fascist regime. Built around a dazzling performance of a classic work by Verdi updated to include the anthems of the WWII Allies, the film moved audiences in dozens of other countries as well.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS is a lyrical tribute to one of America’s great public institutions, and the diverse cultures that make up the American population.
OSWEGO introduces a small town in upstate New York, to which members of Allied forces are invited to see America firsthand.
TUESDAY IN NOVEMBER is a candid look at the challenges of holding democratic elections in the midst of global war.
WINDOW CLEANER is a portrait of an irrepressible New Yorker who washes the windows of the Empire State Building, a jazz-laced reminder of the individual Americans who are as much a part of the American scene as its gleaming skyscrapers.