Monday, August 26, 2013

Willkie in China - the Intersection of Film and Politics

One of the joys of working at the Academy Film Archive is coming across an obscure, possibly unique film in the collection which turns out not only to be historically significant, but reveals all sorts of connections going in many directions. I'm a big fan of historical connections, threads and parallels, and find them endlessly fascinating - sometimes these threads seem to go on forever.  I'm not sure exactly when I came across WILLKIE IN CHINA, an unfinished silent newsreel in the Academy's War Film Collection, but it probably coincided with preparations for one of my two Academy-sponsored trips to China, the first in 2007, the second in 2009.

Willkie shakes hands with General Chiang Kai-Shek

I didn't know much about Wendell Willkie (1892-1944), but learned a lot more when I began to research this unique piece of film.  Though it's "only" an unedited newsreel, it's terrifically shot and composed, as these frame grabs demonstrate. And full of historical information. In the Academy War Film files in Special Collections at the Margaret Herrick Library, a folder contains a full "dope sheet" rundown of the film's content.

In 1942, FDR sent Willkie, whom he had defeated in the 1940 Presidential election, on a 49 day goodwill and fact finding mission around the world, with stops in South America, Egypt, England, Iraq, the Soviet Union, and China.  He flew in a converted B-24 Liberator aircraft, and left New York on August 26th, 71 years ago to the day as I write this. In the course of his journey, he discussed the problems of the war with King Farouk of Egypt, British General Bernard ("Monty") Montgomery, General Charles de Gaulle, Joseph Stalin and General Chiang Kai-shek.

A pilot in the clearly antiquated Chinese air force.

At the time, there was still doubt in parts of the world as to the sincerity of the American people in the support of  FDR's prosecution of the war. Who would be better prepared to dissipate doubts regarding the unity of the American people in carrying the war to an Allied victory than the leader of the loyal opposition in the United States? 

Willkie (on the left) at a United China Relief dinner, with Madame Chiang Kai-Shek (to the right of Willkie)

In China, he traveled to Chungking (now Chongqing) Lanchow (now Lanzhou) Sian (now Xi’an), and Chengtu (now Chengdu). At a time when the Chinese people were exhausted after their  resistance to the Japanese invasion for over ten years and their belief that the United States did not fully understand their plight, the visit was timely, to say the least.

Crowds at a Willkie speech

One of the members of the Willkie party in China, Hollington K. Tong (Vice-Minister of Information; graduate of Columbia University, 1913), has an Academy connection. In 1943, the Academy’s Board of Governors invited Tong to become a member of the Documentary Awards Nomination Committee. Mr. Tong declined the invitation, but suggested another person, Dr. H. L. Shia of the Chinese News Service, headquartered in New York City (at 30 Rockefeller Center). which provided the Academy with this Willkie in China newsreel.

Folk performances

When he returned to the US, he wrote of his travels in “One World,” which became a huge best seller. He sold the films rights to Darryl Zanuck and 20th Century-Fox (Willkie had become chairman of the board of Fox in 1942), and there was talk of Spencer Tracy portraying Willkie. In September of 1943 Zanuck asked the Academy if they had any Willkie footage, and a copy of a letter in the Academy files from Margaret Herrick (signed "Mrs. Donald Gledhill") to Zanuck informs him of this newsreel. A handwritten note of the letter notes that Zanuck's secretary called the next day to express his great interest in looking at it.

Six months before his "One World" trip, Willkie spoke for 20 minutes as a special invited guest at the 14th Academy Awards on February 26, 1942. He came on after the Documentary Awards presentation and before the Short Subject Awards. He talked generally about the state of the country and the world, as well as the role of the film industry in the war (remember this was less than three months after Pearl Harbor). Dr. Hu Shih, China's ambassador to United States, spoke at the Show as well.

Willkie with Madame Chiang and the General

It's interesting to note another China connection with the 14th Awards. As you'll know if you read my earlier posts, KUKAN received an honorary Academy Award at this ceremony. Too bad KUKAN's filmmaker, Rey Scott, couldn't attend the Awards Show, because he and Willkie would have had a lot to discuss concerning China.

Chinese officer meets with General Joseph Stillwell

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