Sea Power Goes Celluloid: Lessons from Interwar-Era Naval Publicity

By Ryan Wadle

Around the same time, the Newport Scandal­—which involved enlisted men entrapping other sailors and private citizens in homosexual acts—and a series of feuds between Secretary Daniels and prominent naval officers, including Admiral William S. Sims, created a significant amount of bad press for the Navy. Brigadier General William “Billy” Mitchell sought to replace the Navy as the “nation’s first line of defense” with a fleet of bombers, and successfully (and dramatically) used such aircraft to sink the surrendered German battleship Ostfriesland off the Virginia Capes in July 1921. The surface fleet was on the brink of publicly being seen as obsolete. The Naval Act of 1916 promised a fleet of 16 capital ships “second to none,” but this prompted wartime allies in Britain and Japan to announce their own building programs in response. 2 The possibility of an arms race brought intense domestic and international attention to the Navy, which so far had not faced serious questions about its desire to assume maritime supremacy.

Beginning in December 1920, the New York World newspaper published a series of articles by Senator William Borah proposing disarmament. Nearly every segment of the American public, including church groups, students, organized labor, and business leaders, soon voiced their support for Borah’s proposed naval arms limitations, and in July 1921 the pressure eventually forced President Warren Harding to call for an international conference to be held in Washington that November. Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes boldly used his opening address to propose a series of drastic cuts to the attendees’ fleets, and those terms served as the basis for a series of agreements reached by the conference’s end in February 1922. Of the treaties signed, the Five-Power Pact most directly addressed the naval arms race by constraining the growth of the signatories’ navies, including the U.S. Navy. 3

As the conference wore on, many prominent naval officers believed the Navy had lost a war of information waged in the hearts and minds of the American people. This led Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby to create a new Information Section within the Office of Naval Intelligence just before the end of the conference, tasked with collecting and disseminating naval information to the public. But drastic reductions in personnel meant Denby could staff the office with fewer than half a dozen people, both civilian and military. This nucleus of personnel bore responsibility for rebuilding the Navy’s standing among the public. 4

This small office allowed the Navy to confront a cultural problem: For most of its existence, the Navy had remained a virtually unknown institution outside some of the United States’ port cities, and its officer corps so disdained public engagement that they labeled their own institution the “silent service.” The public sea power evangelism of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Stephen Luce in the late 19th century helped transform the Navy into a national institution, but they were exceptional figures whose fame and respect transcended the silent service culture. 5

The first several years of the Information Section’s existence were rocky. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt Jr. partially alleviated the problem by convincing the Navy League to “sponsor” Navy Day on 27 October 1922, and the celebration was successful enough that it became an annual event. 6 This achievement aside, the Navy had no formally trained public-relations personnel, thus forcing the Information Section to learn on the job. This led to, among other things, slow responses to public-relations crises. In September 1923, it took the office more than a week to reveal that nine destroyers had run aground in an accident that claimed 23 lives off Point Honda, California. The press castigated the Navy for such a confused and slothful response to the tragedy.

The Navy virtually was absent from American movie screens throughout the 1920s, save a few recruitment films. Secretary Daniels forbade cooperation on films during World War I out of concern for secrecy, and lingering effects of this ban and the public’s disinterest in naval films meant that the Navy virtually disappeared from screens, with the Harold Lloyd comedy A Sailor-Made Man (1921) constituting a rare exception. Concurrently, the film industry consolidated into eight vertically integrated studios that controlled film production and distribution. These studios sought to increase their prestige by increasing the quality of films to capture respectable middle-class audiences and change the perceptions of movies as working-class entertainment. The studios needed an incredible amount of new content, so they often mimicked one another’s successes. With the modest success of The Midshipman (1925) combined with the acclaim for military films such as The Big Parade (1925), What Price Glory? (1926), and Wings (1927), the studios began viewing naval life as a financially viable setting for film projects. 7

By the late 1920s, upward of 80 million people attended movies every week. Seeking an inroad, in December 1928 the head of the Bureau of Navigation, Rear Admiral Richard H. Leigh, suggested to the Chief of Naval Operations that a permanent board be created to review motion picture scenarios and determine the appropriate level of cooperation. Secretary of the Navy Curtis Wilbur approved of the proposal and created a standing Navy Department Motion Picture Board in January 1929. The board was composed of four permanent members: the morale officer within the Bureau of Navigation; the head of the Navy Recruiting Bureau; the officer in charge of Censorship and Domestic Intelligence within the Office of Naval Intelligence, who monitored attempts at foreign subversion within the United States; and the head of the Information Section. In 1931, the board added members from the Office of Ship Movements, the Bureau of Aeronautics, and the Marine Corps to better account for the views of possible stakeholders. 8

The board’s orders directed that film studios send all requests for cooperation to the Motion Picture Board, and between 1929 and 1939 the studios submitted approximately 60 requests. The panel’s members reviewed the submitted scripts and made recommendations to the Chief of Naval Operations. After accepting a script and cooperating with the subsequent production, the board viewed the completed film prior to its release to ensure compliance with the Navy’s publicity goals. The system outlined in 1929 remained in place for the rest of the interwar period. 9

The board provided a remarkable amount of control over film content produced by the studios. By formulating a solid relationship with the studios and the industry’s lobbying organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, the Navy was able to ensure that films communicated the correct policies and procedures with respect to manpower and materiel. These standards shifted from time to time depending on the composition of the Motion Picture Board because each officer rotated into a new position every two to three years. Similar film content would be approved by one board but found objectionable by a different board. Still, the panel provided for a relatively uniform system of governance. 10

With the advent of cooperation with Hollywood, the Navy could rely on the increasingly powerful and influential film industry to propagate friendly messages instead of releasing basic, factual press releases to the right outlets in an attempt to solve the service’s public-relations woes. One of the best sources for Navy publicity in Hollywood was a retired naval officer: Lieutenant Commander Frank “Spig” Wead. An aviator and air racer, Wead suffered a freak accident in his home in 1926 that left him paralyzed. While still in the service, he had written several insightful articles about naval aviation and, following his rehabilitation, he capitalized on this skill as an author for a new career. He initially devoted himself to writing fiction for print outlets, but he soon turned his attention to screenplays. In 1928, Wead served—at the suggestion of a future Chief of Naval Operations, Lieutenant Commander Arthur Radford—as the technical adviser for the MGM film The Flying Fleet (1929) and contributed enough to the writing of the film that he received the first of many screenplay credits. 11

One his earliest screenplays, MGM’s Hell Divers (1931), showcased the possibilities for publicity and messaging that could come from the Navy-Hollywood collaboration. The film depicted the air arms of the Navy’s newest carriers, the USS Lexington (CV-2) and Saratoga (CV-3), testing their offensive and defensive capabilities through mock attacks against enemy dirigibles and the sinking of a radio-controlled battleship by a flight of dive bombers. The board and the studio reached compromises on both the portrayal of the film’s central character—a senior chief whose personal foibles matched his devotion to duty—and also concerns over how much to show about the procedures for launching and recovering aircraft. The former led to several dialog changes, while the latter was solved by the placement of a black bar on screen that blocked views of the tailhooks catching arresting wires on the Saratoga’s flight deck. 12 These compromises proved critical because the film became a box office hit, and its aviation sequences stunned both audiences and critics so much that they gave the film standing ovations. 13 One critic wrote that the Navy had not put on a “first class” show since the Great White Fleet until the release of Hell Divers . 14 Naval leaders worried for years afterward that Hell Divers had given the Germans and Japanese a road map to building their own carrier fleets, but the growing public interest and enthusiasm for the Navy’s carrier fleet outweighed this overblown concern. 15

Even as the Navy enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Hollywood, it still struggled to control its message, especially during peacetime. In the years after the Point Honda disaster, the Navy endured the loss of its three largest airships—including the 1933 crash of the Akron (ZRS-4) that killed Rear Admiral William A. Moffett, head of the Bureau of Aeronautics— and two submarines with almost all hands. While the crashes elicited some sympathy in the press for the Navy, the service did itself no favors by slowly releasing information or not doing enough to prevent these accidents. In one exceptional case, crews at the site of the S-4 sinking in 1927 reportedly trained a firehose on a boat carrying several reporters. 16 Such actions did not engender confidence in the Navy’s ability to effectively manage its men and materiel.

Following the S-4 disaster, the Navy worked to garner press and newsreel coverage of tests of a new rescue device, the Momsen Lung, which allowed men to escape sunken submarines from a depth of 300 feet. Newsreels enjoyed a wide audience, but showcasing these innovations in a feature film was more likely to prove their efficacy to the American public. The Motion Picture Board disliked the 1937 Columbia Pictures film The Devil’s Playground for what it saw as an inaccurate depiction of the Momsen Lung, but it had already thrown its support behind a Warner Brothers film, Submarine D-1 . 17

Wead again wrote the screenplay, while Lloyd Bacon—himself a Navy veteran of World War I—directed the film. Wead worked with members of the Motion Picture Board throughout the summer of 1936 to craft a favorable script, which showcased the development and use of the other new submarine rescue device, the McCann Rescue Chamber, which could dock with a downed submarine’s hull and bring up eight men at a time. The Navy assigned a technical adviser to the production—a relatively rare phenomenon to that point—who could ensure the accuracy of the film. The adviser also helped the Navy’s leaders overcome security concerns, since they had granted Warner Brothers unprecedented permission to film on board a submarine rather than force the studio to rely solely on models and sets. 18 This access proved essential for the film’s financial success, and reviewers claimed the film’s accuracy and effects “held the attention of the preview audience in a vise-like grip.”

The Navy collaborated on more than 40 films between 1929 and 1941, communicating a number of critical issues to the American public. The films highlighted new and emerging technologies, portrayed the Navy as a learning institution, and helped make the service a household name. The films portrayed the Navy as an extraordinary organization and one that was both normal and accessible to the American public.

The most successful of the Navy-Hollywood collaborations of the interwar era went viral by drawing in audiences and remaining in circulation for many months and years after their release. Their success allowed studios to turn handsome profits while simultaneously accomplishing the Navy’s public relations goals. Even though these films often proudly displayed words of thanks for the cooperation their producers received, or played “Anchors Aweigh” over their credits, the Navy had relative distance and did not appear overly eager to promote itself. Hollywood endorsed the Navy as politically and socially acceptable, and through popular entertainment the Navy could hope to provide at least some basic education and knowledge about the service to the public.

Today’s Navy (and Hollywood studios) experience a vastly different media landscape, with an emphasis on blockbusters and a reliance on foreign markets (mainly Chinese). 19 The 2012 film Battleship incorporated some information about the workings of modern sea power, but its poor reviews and middling financial success made it a less-than-ideal vehicle. The Navy has instead found success with popular television shows such as CBS’s NCIS (a spinoff of the long-running JAG ) and TNT’s The Last Ship . 20 Unfortunately, while these shows help normalize the service at a time when the all-volunteer force has shrunk the number of naval veterans, they are not especially effective conduits for conveying the Navy’s needs to the public.

The Navy-Hollywood relationship during the interwar period offers insights into how to reach an apathetic or ignorant public to communicate the service needs and importance for national security. The modern Navy is grappling with technology that promises to transform naval warfare just as Americans’ consumption of news and entertainment undergoes a dramatic upheaval. The interwar films went viral and filled a critical knowledge gap as the international order destabilized. In today’s challenging media environment, the Navy must find ways to transcend the self-selecting usage that defines modern media. Gaining public support for this transformation may make the difference between maintaining the maritime superiority on which the United States’ military and economic success was built and losing it.



1. F. Donald Scovel, “Helm’s a Lee: A History of the Development of the Public Affairs Function in the United States Navy, 1861-1941” (masters’ thesis, University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1968), 79.

2. Lawrence R. Murphy, Perverts by Official Order: The Campaign Against Homosexuals by the United States Navy (New York: The Haworth Press, 1988); Mary Klachko, “William Shepherd Benson,” (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987); “Congress Inquiry Into Navy Awards,” Washington Post, 24 December 1919; Elting Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942); “Sims Arraigns Navy Department,” New York Times, 18 January 1920; Paolo E. Coletta, Admiral Bradley Fiske and the American Navy (Lawrence: Regents Press of Kansas, 1979); Thomas Wildenberg, Billy Mitchell’s War With the Navy: The Interwar Rivalry Over Air Power (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2013); “2,000 Pound Bombs From Army Planes Sink Ostfriesland,” New York Times, 22 July 1921; John R. Ferris, “The Symbol and the Substance of Sea Power: Great Britain, the United States, and the One-Power Standard, 1919–1922,” in B.J.C. McKercher, ed., Anglo-American Relations in the 1920s: The Struggle for Supremacy (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1990); Lawrence Sondhaus, Navies of Europe, 1815-2002 (New York: Longman, 2002); In October 1921, on the eve of the Washington Conference, the British ordered four “super-Hood” fast battleships. See Stephen Roskill, The Period of Anglo-American Antagonism, 1919–1929, vol. I of Naval Policy Between the Wars, (New York: Walker, 1968), 227; George F. Baer, One Hundred Years of American Sea Power: The U.S. Navy 1890–1990 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993).

3. “Borah Offers Plan to Reduce Navies,” New York Times , 15 December 1920; Lawrence C. Hoag, Preface to Preparedness: The Washington Disarmament Conference and Public Opinion (Washington, DC: American Council on Public Affairs, 1941); Joyce Blackwell, No Peace Without Freedom: Race and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, 1915–1975 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2004); Roskill, Naval Policy; Baer, American Sea Power.

4. Director, War Plans Division to the Chief of Naval Operations, “Press Relations,” 12 January 1922, Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy, Records of the Navy Department, 1798–1947, National Archives, Washington, DC (hereafter NARA); SecNav to All Bureaus and Offices, “Navy Department Information Section under the Office of Naval Intelligence,” 21 February 1922, NARA; Scovel, “Helm’s a Lee;” R. Dale Klinkerman, “From Blackout at Pearl Harbor to Spotlight on Tokyo Bay: A Study of the Evolution in U.S. Naval Public Relations Policies and Practices During World War II” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin at Madison, 1972).

5. Peter Karsten, The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (New York: Free Press, 1972); William O. Stevens, “The Naval Officer and the Civilian,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 47, no. 11 (November 1921).

6. Theodore Roosevelt Jr., 6 July 1922, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.; Memorandum for Colonel Roosevelt from Rear Admiral William Veazie Pratt, “Notes on a Naval Day and Naval Clubs,” 15 July 1922, Papers of Admiral William V. Pratt, Naval History and Heritage Command (hereafter NHHC), Washington, DC; Captain Luke McNamee to William Howard Gardiner, 28 July 1922, William Howard Gardiner Papers, 1875–1952, Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA; Captain Ralph A. Koch, Officer Bio File, NHHC; Charles Lockwood and Hans Christian Adamson, Tragedy at Honda (New York: Chilton Company, 1960).

7. Douglas Gomery, The Hollywood Studio System: A History (London: British Film Institute, 2005); Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, 1907 - 1915 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Lawrence Suid, Guts and Glory: the Making of the American Military Image in Film; (Lexington, Kentucky: University of Kentucky Press, 2002).

8. Tino Balio, “A Mature Oligopoly, 1930 - 1948,” in The American Film Industry; Garth Jowett, James M. Linton, Movies as Mass Communication. 2nd ed. (New York: Sage, 1989), 116 - 8; Memo for the CNO from the Chief of the BuNav, 18 December 1928, General Correspondence, 1926 - 1940, NARA; SecNav to the CNO and the BuNav, “Motion Picture Plays of Naval Subjects,” 15 January 1929, NARA; SecNav to All Bureaus and Offices, “Review of Motion Picture Scenarios and Screenplays,” 5 August 1931, NARA.

9. Lawrence Suid, Sailing on the Silver Screen: Hollywood and the Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).

10. Ibid., 18.

11. Nick Roddick, A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930s (London: British Film Institute, 1983); Harvey M. Beigel, “‘Spig’ Wead: Naval Aviator and Screenwriter,” Journal, American Aviation Historical Society (Winter 1997).

12. William A. Orr to Comdr. Mark L. Hersey, 20 June 1931, Classified General Correspondence, 1929–1942, Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, NARA; CNO to William A. Orr, 22 July 1931, NARA; Orr to ADM Wyatt R. Sexton, 4 August 1931, NARA; Senior Member, Navy Standing Motion Picture Board (Gearing) to CNO via DNI, “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Photoplay ‘Sea Eagles,’” 5 August 1931, NARA; Senior Member, Navy Standing Motion Picture Board (Gearing) to CNO via DNI, “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Photoplay ‘Sea Eagles,’” 5 August 1931, NARA; Hersey to Orr, 6 August 1931, NARA; Memorandum for the DNI from Hersey, “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer photoplay ‘Hell Divers,’” 12 April 1932, NARA; Orr to CNO, 26 December 1931, NARA; William A. Orr to CNO, 31 December 1931, NARA.

13. Mordaunt Hall, “The Screen: Fun and Thrills are Interwoven in Picture of Amazing Flying Feats by Uncle Sam’s Air Sailors. Love vs. Tradition,” New York Times, 23 December 1931.

14. Memorandum for Captain Neyes, 13 January 1932, General Correspondence, 1925 - 1940, Records of the Bureau of Naval Personnel, NARA.

15. Hugh Byas, “Film Notes from Tokyo,” New York Times, 2 October 1932; Chief of Naval Operations to the Chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, “M.G.M. Picture ‘Hell Divers,’” 21 August 1934, NARA; CINCUS (Reeves) to CNO, “Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., request cooperation preparation scenario, present day Submarine Force activities,” 22 November 1935, NARA.

16. The Reminiscences of Vice Admiral Bernard L. Austin, U.S. Navy, Retired (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1971).

17. LT AJ Bolton to Spig Wead, 23 February 1937, NARA.

18. Frank Wead, “Submarine Story, Revised Temporary Script,” 28 July 1936, NARA; Frank Wead to CDR FG Reinicke, 24 November 1936, NARA; Memorandum for Lieutenant Bolton from F. T. Leighton, “Manuscript––‘Submarine Story,’” 13 November 1936, NARA; GWD Dashiell to CDR FG Reinicke, 12 March 1937, NARA.

19. Hannah Beach, “How China is Remaking the Global Film Industry,” Time, 26 January 2017, time.com/4649913/china-remaking-global-film-industry/.

20. Brooks Barnes, “Hollywood Moves Away from Middlebrow,” New York Times, 26 December 2010.

Dr. Wadle is an associate professor of comparative military studies at the Air Command and Staff College’s School of Graduate Professional Military Education. He is currently working on a book-length manuscript titled The Fourth Dimension of Naval Tactics: The U.S. Navy and Public Relations, 1919–1939, University of Oklahoma Press).
 

 
 

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