THE COMMITTEE ON PUBLIC INFORMATION: A Triumph of American AV Propaganda in WW I

One of the feature films produced and distributed by the Commission for Public Information

In researching an essay on the emergence of the movie trailer in the 1910’s for a special edition of the cinema journal Frames devoted to film promotion, (scheduled for Spring 2013 publication), I’ve been reading some of the foundational texts of modern propaganda, public relations and the manufacture of political consent by managing public opinion.

Longtime readers of my blog will, perhaps, recognize my enduring interest in the coincidence of modern theories and practices of social control with the emergence of the most powerful and effective tool for its implementation: audio-visual storytelling and persuasion.

In today’s post, I wanted to share excerpts from George Creel’s, “How We Advertised America,” a triumphal account of the massive propaganda effort that he organized and led at the behest of President Wilson, in order to mobilize hearts and minds for the entry into and prosecution of World War I. By way of context, in 1917/18, the film industry, while young, was established and thriving; 5-7 reel feature films had won out over the old one-reel short subjects and movie marketing was extensive and sophisticated. The first recognizable trailer, from 1912, had already developed into a form that we would recognize today and Paramount, in 1916, had decided that all its most significant releases would be heralded by a “coming attractions” preview.

Creel’s marketing campaign on behalf of the US war effort proceeded on several fronts and established practices and approaches for generations of marketing and public relations professionals who came after. For obvious reasons, I am most interested in his use of audio-visual narrative to entertain, persuade and inspire his fellow citizens and influence audiences around the world.

Below, I’ve quoted passages from Chapters 9, 10 and 11 of HOW WE ADVERTISED AMERICA, by George Creel.

“Pershing’s Crusader’s,” “America’s Answer,” and “Under Four Flags” are feature films that will live long in the memory of the world, for they reached every country, and were not only the last word in photographic art, but epitomized in thrilling, dramatic sequence the war effort of America. Yet these pictures, important as they were, represented only a small portion of the work of the Division of Films, a work that played a vital part in the world-fight for public opinion. A steady output, ranging from one-reel subjects to seven-reel features, and covering every detail of American life, endeavor, and purpose, carried the call of the country to every community in the land, and then, captioned in all the various languages, went over the seas to inform and enthuse the peoples of Allied and neutral nations. At the very outset, it was obvious that the motion picture had to be placed on the same plane of importance as the written and spoken word.”

[Creel recognized and exploited the power of the moving image. Here he describes the feature films and educational short subjects that constituted the entertaining and appealing propaganda that the commission produced and distributed.]

“..the Committee on Public Information was recognized by the War Department as the one authorized medium for the distribution of Signal Corps photographs, still pictures as well as ‘movies.’
The negatives of still and motion pictures taken in France and in the United States by the uniformed photographers of the Signal Corps were delivered, undeveloped, to the Chief of Staff for transmission to the War College division. The material was “combed” and such part as was decided to be proper for public exhibition was then turned over to the Committee on Public Information in the form of duplicate negatives. The Committee, out of its own funds, made prints from these negatives….”

[The Commission was not a film producer in the sense that it shot its own material. Rather, it operated as an editor and distributor, a veritable clearinghouse for the massive output of the War Department’s photographers and cinematographers.]

“One of Mr. Hart’s (head of the Army’s photographic Signal Corps] first determinations was to take the cream of the material received from the Signal Corps, put it into great seven-reel features designed to set before the people a comprehensive record of war progress both in the United States and in France, and to have the government itself present the pictures. In plain, the Committee on Public Information went into the motion-picture business as a producer and exhibitor.”

[This speaks for itself]

“Our first feature-film was “Pershing’s Crusaders,” and at intervals of six weeks we produced “America’s Answer” and “Under Four Flags.” The policy decided upon was this : first, direct exhibition of the feature by the Committee itself in the larger cities in order to establish value and create demand; second, sale, lease, or rental of the feature to the local exhibitors.”

[By showing the feature for free with maximum publicity in the big cities, the commission was then able to approach commercial distributors who would show the feature throughout the rest of the country, to the widest possible audience. The presentation of the feature, with elected officials and public personalities in attendance– its “news making” premiere– functioned as a trailer for the wider release of the film.]

“The result of these efforts to obtain the widest possible showing for govern- ment films was amazingly successful, and the showing of “America’s Answer” broke all records for range of distribution of any feature of any description ever marketed.”

[The biggest grossing film to that time, according to Creel, was government propaganda. Now, I don’t mean to say that that is always or everywhere a bad/negative thing. The word itself is fraught with enormous historical baggage. But in the most literal sense of the word, its accurate.]

“On June 1, 1918, the Division of Films formed a scenario department to experiment with an interesting theory. The departments at Washington had been in the habit of contracting for the production of films on propaganda subjects and then making additional contracts to secure a more or less limited circulation of the pictures when produced. The general attitude of motion-picture exhibitors was that propaganda pictures were uninteresting to audi- ences and could have no regular place in their theaters. The theory of the Division of Films was that the fault lay in the fact that propaganda pictures had never been properly made, and that if skill and care were employed in the preparation of the scenarios the resultant pictures could secure place in regular motion-picture programs.

[Creel here distinguishes, and I think rightly, between quality propaganda and the ham-fisted, crude varieties. Although his own work at the CPI was criticized for just such failings of subtlety, his point is well taken. Propaganda works best when it is disguised or sugar coated as art, craft and entertainment.]

“In the year of existence the Department of Slides distributed a total of 200,000 slides….
As a consequence, America had more posters than any other belligerent, and, what is more to the point, they were the best. They called to our own people from every hoarding like great clarions, and they went through the world, captioned in every language, carrying a message that thrilled and inspired. Even in the rush of the first days, when we were calling writers and speakers and photographers into service, I had the conviction that the poster must play a great part in the fight for public opinion. The printed word might not be read, people might not choose to attend meetings or to watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.”

[Creel here discusses the value and power of what we call key art, or the print element of the campaign.]

“What we wanted to get into foreign countries were pictures that presented the wholesome life of America, giv- ing fair ideas of our people and our institutions. What we wanted to keep out of world circulation were the ‘thrill- ers,’ that gave entirely false impressions of American life and morals. Film dramas portraying the exploits of ‘Gyp the Blood,’ or ‘Jesse James,’ were bound to prejudice our figbt for the good opinion of neutral nations. Our arrangements with the War Trade Board gave us power and we exercised it.”

[Let’s not call it censorship, a word which Creel deprecates as “old fashioned and ineffectual. Perhaps discretion is a better way of describing the selection of better subjects with which to present America and its ideals to the larger world.]

“‘Educational’ in our sense of the word meant film that showed our schools, our industrial life, our war preparations, our natural resources, and our social progress. The spirit of co-operation reduced the element of friction to a minimum. Oftentimes it was the case that a picture could be made helpful by a change in title or the elimination of a scene, and in no instance did a producer fail to make the alterations suggested. During its existence, according to the report of Lieutenant Tuerk, more than eight thousand motion pictures were reviewed, the greater percentage of which went forward into foreign countries with the true message from America.”

[Creel is grateful for the compliance of his commercial collaborators. It’s not censorship, he would insist, but patriotic cooperation at work.]

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movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About Frederick Greene

Entertainment Copywriter & Visiting Assistant Professor, UCLA Dept. of Theater, Film & Television. I teach a graduate seminar in new movie marketing, which focuses on the history, contemporary practice and likely future of a/v advertising for motion picture entertainment.
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