An Unknown Ally: Hollywood's Role in World War II

During World War II, Hollywood's efforts gave an unprecedented boost to the morale and recruitment levels of the American armed forces, making cinema the most important form of popular media produced during the war. This importance is demonstrated by the extensive use of films in propaganda, recruitment, training, and morale-boosting.

Hollywood as a whole was recruited during World War II by the Office of War Information (OWI) and expected to put its production forces into the war effort.(1) I delved into a combination of scholarly journal articles and primary sources such as letters, films, and journal articles to understand why Hollywood was such an important asset. A fair amount of research has been done on this topic, but most sources focused on one or two aspects of Hollywood’s role. I sought to gather and condense the most important and commonly agreed upon aspects, as well as to investigate how these aspects played out in the life of Howard Sarty, whose WWII letters are preserved in this digital archive.


Films acted as propaganda and, due to the audio-visual nature of the medium, had the ability to be even more effective at motivating people than other forms of propaganda such as posters. With their combination of audio and visual elements, as well as their ability to tell stories, films were (and still are) able to really affect people on both intellectual and emotional levels, making the medium a very effective instrument of propaganda. In an article in the journal Film & History, researcher David Meerse said, "To a nation that had been "enlightened" about the role of propaganda in whipping up wartime emotion by the congressional investigations led by Senator Gerald P. Nye and others, the movies were expected to have a tremendous impact on public morale and motivation in wartime."(2)

Along the same vein, Meerse also briefly mentioned the Hollywood's pre-Pearl Harbor history as propaganda. He drew from a 1973 book entitled The Films of World War II and said, "One evidence of the importance attached to Hollywood's role was a pre-Pearl Harbor investigation of the industry by a U.S. Senate subcommittee, chaired by Senator D. Worth Clark, to determine if "warmongers" among movie producers were attempting to drag the nation into another "needless war.""(3)

Studios were expected to communicate with the OWI about every script. According to an article in Cinema Journal by researcher Rick Worland, “submission, evaluation, and sometimes bargaining between the bureaucrats and studios occurred on a case-by-case basis."(4) This level of communication was important, as studios were held to a strict set of standards known as production codes. As discussed in a Cinema Journal article by William Friedman Fagelson, people were aware of the limitations imposed on Hollywood studios.(5) The popular publication Yank discussed this censorship of films several times. At one point, the magazine published a photograph that had been taken by Paramount photographer Whitey Schafer. Shown in Figure 1, this contained in one image a vast majority of the types of imagery studios were not allowed to use, in either films or stills.

Even though people were aware that movies were not always allowed to accurately portray reality, Hollywood still managed to churn out films that held remarkable sway over soldiers and civilians alike.

Recruitment and Training

While a majority of films created in the early 1940s were set against a backdrop of the war, films that dealt directly with things such as the war, soldiers, etc. greatly boosted voluntary military recruitment. Hollywood was also responsible for the production of many military training films. In general, the expectations people had when enlisting in the military during World War II were very often shaped by movies they had seen, though those expectations were not always correct. For a specific example, there was an entire sub-genre of films known as submarine films. These submarine films, obviously, focused on the role of submarines in warfare and the people involved in that particular field. These films contributed to a rise in enlistment in the navy, particularly the submarine service.(6)

Once they were recruited, Hollywood also played a large role in the training of the new members of the military. Author Thomas Doherty states, “The production of training films for servicemen (also known as pedagogical or “nuts and bolts” films) called for the closest cooperation between the War Department and the studios.”(7) Though certainly not the most exciting genre of film produced, training films made up a large chunk of the work Hollywood did in World War II, especially when including animated ventures such as Private Snafu, seen in Figure 2.

In many ways, animation was actually equally important to the war effort as live-action films. Private Snafu is an excellent example of this. The title character's name is taken from the military acronym "SNAFU," the family-friendly meaning of which is "Situation Normal, All Fouled Up."(8) These cartoons were shown to soldiers as an easy and fun way to explain some of the important concepts of being a soldier. For example, one Private Snafu cartoon demonstrated the impotrtance of keeping a tight hold on information and another encouraged soldiers to appreciate the efforts of those on the home front. In most cases, Private Snafu would demonstrate incorrect behavior and then either be punished or in some other way learn his lesson. The intention was that soldiers would learn the same lessons as Private Snafu without making his mistakes.


Attending film screenings with one another bolstered soldier morale and helped to foster feelings of brotherhood and togetherness, along with providing them temporary escape from the harsh realities faced in their day-to-day lives and a connection to the world back home. Figure 3 shows a group of soldiers enjoying a film together. Active-duty soldiers treated movie screenings as social outings and, one might go so far as to say, interactive experiences. Apart from socializing and being rowdy with each other, the soldiers engaged in a practice that has become known as “call and response” in which soldiers would shout out things and in other ways “interact with” the characters and the happenings onscreen, both with films they had already seen multiple times and with brand new ones.(9) Though he makes no direct mention of it in his letters, it is very possible that Howard Sarty may have seen films and interacted with his fellow soldiers in this way.

Figure 4. A letter from Howard Sarty to his wife, Yvette, written on May 24, 1945.

"Gee darling I miss you so much I’ve just got to get home soon. I went to the show and saw Lana Turner in (Marriage is a serious thing) [actual title:  Marriage Is a Private Affair] which I thought was very good but it made me miss you all the more! The part where she got out of bed in the morning and woke him up and made him get up and then she gets back in bed again. Kind of a dirty trick isn’t it?”

This quote is taken from the letter seen in Figure 4, written from Howard Sarty to his wife Yvette.(10) Throughout his letters to Yvette, Howard often mentioned watching films. It seems that both he and Yvette would make recommendations for each other and use the films as a talking point. Sometimes Howard liked the films, sometimes they irritated him, and sometimes, as seen in the quote above, he would use the movie he had most recently seen as another way of letting Yvette know how much he loved and missed her.

Howard was certainly not the only soldier to do this. Another example of this comes from the collection of Dole family letters preserved by the University of Kansas.(11) Both Bob Dole and his brother Kenny made similar mentions in their letters, though they were much more factual and straightforward where Howard was more sentimental. Soldiers often used the films they had seen as a way of connecting with those back home in the letters they wrote. It was not unusual for soldiers to talk about movies in their letters – what “shows” they saw, who they went with, what they thought about it, and even give recommendations for movies their letter recipients back in the States should try to go see.


Today, Hollywood is often dismissed as a conglomeration of corporate studios creating hardly anything but terrible sequels and remakes. However, our country once relied heavily on the films produced there. During World War II, Hollywood produced films that acted as propaganda, increased military recruitment rates, assisted in military training, and boosted the morale of American soldiers and civilians alike, easily making cinema the most important form of popular media in the war effort.

Author:  Maria Tommerdahl


1. Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (New York: The Free Press, 1987), 682.

2. David E. Meerse, “To Reassure a Nation: Hollywood Presents World War II,” Film & History 6 (1976): 79.

3. Meerse, “To Reassure a Nation,” 91.

4. Rick Worland, “OWI Meets the Monsters: Hollywood Horror Films and War Propaganda, 1942 to 1945,” Cinema Journal 37 (1997): 51.

5. William Friedman Fagelson, “Fighting Films: The Everyday Tactics of World War II Soldiers,” Cinema Journal 40 (2001): 106.

6. Michael Sturma, “Movies under the Sea: Film, Morale, and US Submarines during World War II,” Journal of Popular Culture 47 (2014): 1213.

7. Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993): 63.

8. Christopher Dow, "Private Snafu's Hidden War: Historical Survey and Analytical Perspective," Bright Lights Film Journal, October 31, 2003,

9. Fagelson, “Fighting Films,” 94-112.

10. Howard Sarty. Howard Sarty to Yvette Sarty, May 24, 1945. Letter. From Concordia College Archives (Moorhead, Minn.), Sarty Letter Collection.

11. Bob Dole and Kenny Dole. Bob or Kenny Dole to Members of the Dole Family. From Robert J. Dole Archives and Special Collections (Lawrence, Kans.), Dole Family WWII Letters.

Image Sources

Figure 1. Whitey Schafer, Thou Shalt Not, retrieved from Yank magazine, Vol. 4, No. 3,

Figure 2. Chuck Jones, Private Snafu, retrieved from Wikimedia Commons,

Figure 3. World War II soldiers watching a film..., unidentified photographer, retrieved from the digitized Manuscripts and Pictorial Collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library,

Figure 4. Howard Sarty. Howard Sarty to Yvette Sarty, May 24, 1945. Letter. From Concordia College Archives (Moorhead, Minn.), Sarty Letter Collection.