American women writers in World War I.

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National Geographic‘s Harriet Chalmers Adams

Over on Women Writers, Women Books I write on “Minding the Gap: American Women Writers and World War I,” highlighting some of the female journalists (such as Nellie Bly) and authors (such as Mary Roberts Rinehart) who reported on the war or took some other role (such as playwright Elizabeth Robins).

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Where is the film American Women in the War?

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Frances Marion in uniform

Note: This post was updated on 4 Dec. 2016, primarily with additional information from the National Archives and the USC Cinematic Arts Library (host of the Frances Marion Collection). I am grateful to the National Archives’ Carol Swain and USC Cinematic Arts Library’s Edward Sykes Comstock for their assistance.

A puzzling question is the fate of the 1918–19 film American Women in the War, which sought to document U.S. women’s participation in World War I. Under the aegis of the Committee on Public Information (CPI), it featured longtime Mary Pickford collaborator Frances Marion as screenwriter,  according to this Jan-Feb 1919 article from Motion Picture World (emphasizing that Marion left her $50,000/year Hollywood screenwriting position for the assignment).

A draft of Marion’s autobiography in the USC Cinematic Arts Library indicates that she was receiving letters from actress-singer Elsie Janis (an old friend of Pickford) who was entertaining the troops overseas and urging her to come to France; it quotes Janis as writing, “Get out of that artificial Hollywood atmosphere and into life that is real, ghastly, forbidding, terrifying and magnificent” (129). Author and war correspondent Mary Roberts Rinehart endorsed Marion’s application to the CPI to become a war correspondent, and Marion was commissioned as a second lieutenant. Her 21 Aug. 1918 passport application indicates a departure date of 1 Sept. 1918, and the draft autobiography notes that she, along with black soldiers destined for engineering units, endured a perilous crossing to Brest on the Rochambeau, which she dubbed “an old tub” (130). Wrote Marion in her draft autobiography, “With my steel helmet, gas mask, Sam Browne belt and C [for Correspondent] insignia I started forth to record the activities of the Allied Women behind the lines” (133). Echoing Janis’s experience, she wrote, “In the weeks that followed I knew what it meant to be under almost constant fire, to suffer during the late autumn nights from cold that gnawed on our bones and to endure hunger when temporarily we were cut off by the enemy from food supplies” (133).

The draft autobiography also describes her unexpected encounter at Verdun with a Hollywood friend, Wesley Ruggles (then a lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps and later the director of Cimarron, 1931). In piecing together information from the draft autobiography and the 1919 article, it seems that Ruggles and Douglas Fairbanks cameraman Harris “Harry” Thorpe filmed in Europe with Marion from October through at least November 1918. In the 1919 article, Marion stated that they obtained “50 percent of what we wanted and needed to make the picture complete.” The ship manifests housed at the Ellis Island Foundation indicate that Marion boarded the Baltic in Liverpool on 29 Jan. 1919 and docked in New York on 8 Feb. 1919.

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Item from the Milwaukee Sentinel, 29 May 1919

Cari Beauchamp indicates in Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women in Early Hollywood that the film was released in April 1919 “as a fifteen-part serial” (445). But a Moving Picture World item of April 1919 indicates that Marion was in Los Angeles “last week” filming female war workers for adding to the footage shot in Europe. CPI publications are ambiguous about the film. The February 1918 CPI bulletin refers to Woman’s Part in the War as a film in development, but it is unclear whether this means the eventual Marion-Ruggles-Thorpe project or a film called Uncle Sam Says: A Girl’s a Man for A’That—The Story of Women in War Work that was produced by Paramount-Bray Pictograph. The 1920 official report of CPI chair George Creel refers to Woman’s Part in the War as an “early picture[],” and this certainly is not the case for the Marion-Ruggles-Thorpe film. His 1920 book on CPI, How We Advertised America, only mentions Woman’s Part in the War (again referred to as an “early feature[ ]”). The Uncle Sam Says film cannot be the same project, as this film is a one-reeler, and the footage shot in Europe for the Marion-Ruggles-Thorpe project was at least six reels. The 1919 Motion Picture World piece refers to the film under the title Woman’s War Activities.

Charles Hart, head of the CPI’s division of films, indicates in a Jan/Feb 1919 piece in Moving Picture World that he expected CPI operations to wrap up “within a period of two months,” and Creel’s letter to the president that prefaces the 1920 report is dated 1 June 1919. The Marion-Ruggles-Thorpe film does not appear in the National Archives catalog under the record groups for the Signal Corps, the CPI, or the Council of National Defense (the CPI’s successor). There is no listing for the film in the credits for Marion or Ruggles in the Library of Congress Copyright Office’s Motion Pictures 1912 to 1939. I have not found an announcement about the release of the film or any catalog record on the film, but the uncertainty about the exact title of the film complicates the matter.

An email exchange with the National Archives confirms that the film is not in its CPI collections but might be part of unedited Signal Corps footage. The National Archives is in the process of scanning these 500 titles and posting them on its YouTube channel.

Locating a print of the film and showing it in time for April 2017—the centenary of official U.S. entry into World War I—should be a major priority for the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or any of the state entities established to commemorate the war’s centenary.