Rare Footage Unearthed Online

One of the great film collections that has yet to be fully explored belongs to the citizens of the United States. The National Archives in Washington houses an enormous quantity of footage generated by the government, including all branches of the armed services over the years. It is also home to the vast library generated by the Universal Newsreel, which ran from the silent era through the late 1960s.

Lauren Bacall matches noses with Jimmy Durante as Humphrey Bogart looks on, during a rehearsal for Armed Forces Radio Service during World War Two.

Because there is no copyright on any of this material—and Universal relinquished its rights years ago—anyone producing a documentary or in need of stock footage can copy footage without paying a license fee. That’s how many now-familiar gems, like the Private Snafu cartoons, have come into wide circulation.

I’ve always had particular interest in the Hollywood-oriented segments that were produced for the Army-Navy Screen Magazine during World War Two, including episodes of such popular Armed Forces Radio Services programs as—

Command Performance, Mail Call, G.I. Journal, and the all-black Jubilee. Top performers donated their services to these shows, and leading radio writers prepared the scripts. Because these films were widely circulated in 16mm, many collectors have acquired prints over the years. But I know there’s even more “out there.”

This callboard gives you some idea of what a rigorous schedule the AFRS maintained just in Hollywood in the early 1940s.

My pal Jerry Beck, of Cartoon Brew, recently sent me a link to a sequence I’d never encountered before, which streams on a site called Critical Past. It features a gaggle of comedians and character actors singing “Down by the Old Mill Stream,” in exaggerated fashion, before a live audience in Hollywood. The Armed Forces Radio Services’ hostess G.I. Jill introduces the segment, which features Jimmy Durante, Allen Jenkins, Sterling Holloway, Hugh Herbert (identified on the site as “U Herbert”), William Gargan, Ed Brophy, Andy Devine, Alan Hale, Robert Benchley, and Arthur Treacher. I don’t recognize the bandleader behind them. The gags that punctuate the song are mostly war-related and only mildly funny, but just seeing these people together on one stage is fun. Click HERE.

Lena Horne and Count Basie strike a happy pose during a rehearsal for Jubilee on the AFRS.

On those occasions when the Army-Navy Screen Magazine took the trouble to shoot, and properly light, a radio performance, the director and cameraman usually shot multiple takes, from various angles, to enable an editor to put together a slick finished product. HERE is announcer Don Wilson introducing Carole Landis for a brief appearance, with all the raw footage intact.

The sexy Landis also appeared in two installments of a series called “Sing with the Stars” that offered our fighting men a glimpse of beautiful starlets in provocative (but not too provocative) numbers. Here’s her rendition of “Pin-Up Girl” and here’s “Shine On, Harvest Moon.”

The series also featured performers who weren’t selling sex appeal, like Bob “Bazooka” Burns and his frequent radio costar Shirley Ross. Click HERE.

A film series called Strictly G.I. filmed at least one episode of the popular all-black Armed Forces Radio Service show Jubilee, hosted by Ernest “Bubbles” Whitman. This one features Lena Horne, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and Timmy Rogers.

There are many other segments that come from unidentified sources, like this one of Jimmy Durante singing “I’ll Do the Strut-Away in My Cut-Away.”

Virtually every star in town appeared on such shows as Command Performance, including Margaret O’Brien, Bob Hope (a frequent host) and Clark Gable.

HERE are The Andrews Sisters recording a V-disc of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” including multiple angles and “coverage” for the editor.

This footage of Glenn Miller and his Army Air Force Band at a bond rally in England in 1944 has been mined for a number of documentaries.

Once you start searching this site you can stumble onto all sorts of random material, like a Universal newsreel segment (without sound) of Deanna Durbin arriving in Miami, Florida for the premiere of Universal’s Back Street in 1941.

Audiences lined up for popular, star-studded Armed Forces Radio Service shows at CBS on Sunset Boulevard just as they did for commercial programs.

And in 1960, an unnamed newsreel looked back twenty-five years to 1935, when a number of stars and their doubles helped Max Factor open his grand salon on Highland Avenue in Hollywood.

Like many other people, I have my gripes with the Internet, but there is no question that it has opened doors to some extraordinary collections of research materials—including film footage like this. Keep it coming!

Incidentally, the rare photos that accompany this article were taken by radio actor Jerry Hausner, an avid shutterbug who covered the AFRS in Hollywood during the 1940s. Most of them have never been published since that time, to my knowledge.

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May 2024