Hollywood Reacts to the Attack on Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor

Much of what The Old Hollywood Times chronicles is the way Hollywood reacted to, and was affected by, the second World War. Whether one is considering the Nazi-fleeing immigrants who came to work in Hollywood, the censorship of antifascist films before America joined the war, or the established Hollywood talents who joined up to fight and make propaganda, there are a million different fascinating angles from which to examine Hollywood and the war. As an introduction to the mindset of the time, we’ve collected a selection of quotes from individuals recounting where they were when they first heard Pearl Harbor was attacked and that America would be joining the war.

Director Alfred Hitchcock (SuspicionSaboteur)

This anecdote comes from an oral history with Robert Boyle, who was working as the art director for Alfred Hitchcock on Saboteur at the time of the attack.

“[This man] threw open this door and we looked up and he said ‘What are you doing here?’ And neither Hitch nor I could answer… and he said ‘Don’t you know? The Japs just bombed Pearl Harbor!’ And I didn’t say anything… then he turned and ran out and slammed the door. Hitch looked at me and he said ‘What was he doing in that funny-looking hat?’ And we went right on working. It was just too much to take in, and there wasn’t anything we could do about it anyway.”1

Actress Michèle Morgan (Joan of Paris)

This excerpt comes from Michèle Morgan’s autobiography, With Those Eyes

“I, too, remember 7 December, 1941, very vividly. I was in my kitchen, getting myself an orange-juice. The radio was putting out music, a pleasant background noise, which suddenly broke off, to be replaced by a very serious announcer’s voice informing the country of the Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet with heavy losses for the American Navy in ships and men.”2

Orson Welles
Orson Welles during his famous “War of the Worlds” broadcast in 1938.

Director Orson Welles (Citizen KaneThe Magnificent Ambersons)

The night after the attack, Orson Welles addressed the nation during his regular radio slot.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as we all know, our country has answered a vicious and unprovoked attack by declaring war on Japan. This is a time for energetic and unashamed patriotism on the part of all of us. I know we all agree to that because I know that none of us will be satisfied with anything but complete victory.”3

Writers Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett (Ball of Fire, The Major and the Minor)

This is an excerpt from the personal diary of Charles Brackett, who was, at the time, working with writing partner Billy Wilder on the script for Wilder’s directorial debut The Major and the Minor.

“December 7 : Billy and I had planned on working today but as I was at breakfast he telephoned to say he had been out until 6 in the morning, could not work. Rather pleased, I settled down to [his unpublished novel] Alms for Oblivion, doing a few pages. At about 12 Billy was on the telephone again: Japan had air raided [sic] Pearl Harbor, a hundred dead, some three hundred wounded— Manila bombed. The startling belligerence of the country became monotonous, the shocked references to the treachery and surprise…”4

Actress Ginger Rogers (Roxie HartThe Major and the Minor)

This excerpt comes from Ginger Rogers’ autobiography, Ginger: My Story.

“I was working on Roxie Hart when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, and the United States entered World War II. With our country now at war, whether we wanted to be or not, the sound stages were filled with radios giving out fresh information. The sound booth had to block out the squeaking from midget radios in the middle of a take, and much film was wasted during the time because we were so eager to hear the news.”5

Major Capra
Major Frank Capra at his desk

Director Frank Capra (Meet John DoeWhy We Fight)

Capra had already planned to enter the army before America even joined the war, and when the attack hit, he was finishing filming Arsenic and Old Lace. The film did not hit theaters until 1944, as Capra spent the years between the wrap date and that time making the Why We Fight propaganda films for the Signal Corps. This excerpt is from his autobiography, The Name Above the Title.

“Next day, Monday morning, December 8, two Signal Corps officers came to the studio stage to swear me in. I was in the Army. I asked for, and was granted, six week’s leave of absence to finish, edit, and preview Arsenic. Nights, a tailor fitted me for uniforms. A little frightened by it all, I entered an Army-Navy store to try on caps and buy some major’s leaves and Signal Corps crossed-flags insignia. I had no idea how to put them on, and neither did the tailor.”6

Writer Salka Viertel (Two-Faced Woman)

This quote comes from The Kindness of Strangers, the autobiography of writer Salka Viertel, whose new Greta Garbo film Two-Faced Woman had just been pulled from theaters amidst controversy.

“I took my mother for a drive in the open car along the Pacific and we listened to the Sunday concert from New York, which came over the radio. It was a combination of two of the Mama’s great pleasures. Arthur Rubinstein was just finishing the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto no. 1, when the broadcast was interrupted and the announcer said that early in the morning Japanese airplanes and submarines had attacked and sunk the American fleet in Pearl Harbor.”7

Producer Gottfried Reinhardt (Two-Faced Woman)

This excerpt comes from producer Gottfried Reinhardt’s autobiography. At the time, Reinhardt’s latest project, Two-Faced Woman, had just opened. Having been pulled from theaters after protests from church groups, he was tasked with recutting it on that Sunday.

“On the morning of December 7, 1941, I sat in a dubbing room at MGM, mixing sound tracks into a composite that Heaven’s deputy would, hopefully, reward with his blessing. Between reels, I listened, as I did every Sunday morning, to the weekly New York Philharmonic’s broadcast. When soloist Arthur Rubinstein struck up the second Brahms piano concerto I thought, to hell with Heaven’s deputy, here is Heaven itself! Short-lived bliss: the concert was abruptly cut off by an emotion-choked voice announcing that Japanese planes had just bombed Pearl Harbor and destroyed three-quarters of the United States fleet. Every last one of us in the room, as everyone in America listening to the radio, realized instinctually [sic] that life and its pursuits had been radically changed. Everyone save New York’s Prince of the Church who undeflected by earthly cataclysm, fought on to redeem the soul of MGM’s evil daughter.”8

Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and John Huston on the set of "Across the Pacific"
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and John Huston on the set of “Across the Pacific”

Actress Mary Astor (The Maltese FalconAcross the Pacific)

At the time of Pearl Harbor, Astor was in production for Across the Pacific, which—as you’ll read below—had to be shut down after the attack. Look for more about this film in September.

Across the Pacific was an idea of the studio to cash in on the success of the Falcon with a quick follow-up of almost the same cast together again—at least Bogie, Greenstreet and me. They forgot one thing: a story. It was, as I said, too timely. We began filming about a week or ten days before Pearl Harbor. Since much of the plot concerned a ship sailing for Honolulu and thwarting the plans of the Japs to blow up Pearl, there was a considerable rewriting to do, so we had to close the picture down. It was kind of a creepy feeling, to have been talking about ‘the plans of the Japanese’ in the picture, and to have the practically blueprint our script. There was even some talk about shelving the picture, but we reopened late in March, and then ran into more difficulty when the government started shipping out our Nisei cast. A little indignation and some wire-pulling held them at least until the picture was finished. A world-shaking tragedy comes into our lives, and characteristically all anybody was thinking of was, ‘How will it affect the picture?’”9

Actor Bob Hope (Louisiana Purchase, Road to Morocco)

The following is an excerpt from Hope’s radio broadcast after the attack on December 16.

“Good evening ladies and gentlemen… This is Bob Hope, and I just want to take a moment to say that last Tuesday night at this time I was sitting out there with you listening to our President as he asked all Americans to stand together in this emergency. We feel that in times like these—more than ever before, we need a moment of relaxation. All of us on the Pepsodent show will do our best to bring it to you. We think this is not a question of keeping up morale… To most Americans, morale is taken for granted. There is no need to tell a nation to keep smiling when it’s never stopped. It’s that ability to laugh that makes us the great people that we are—Americans! All of us in this studio feel that if we can bring into your homes a little of this laughter each Tuesday night we are helping to do our part.”10

References   [ + ]

1. Robert F. Boyle, An Oral History with Robert F. Boyle (Los Angeles: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Oral History Program, 1998), 55.
2. Michèle Morgan, With Those Eyes (London: W.H. Allen, 1978), 155.
3. Barbara Leaming, Orson Welles: A Biography (Winona: Limelight Editions, 2004), 231.
4. Anthony Slide, editor, “It’s the Pictures That Got Small”: Charles Brackett on Billy Wilder and Hollywood’s Golden Age (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 168.
5. Ginger Rogers, Ginger: My Story (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 241.
6. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (Cambridge: De Capro Press, 1997), 311-312.
7. Salka Viertel, The Kindness of Strangers (New York: Hold, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 260.
8. Gottfried Reinhardt, The Genius: A Memoir of Max Reinhardt (New York: Knopf, 1979), 104.
9. Mary Astor, A Life on Film (New York: Doubleday, 1972), 167-168.
10. William Robert Faith, Bob Hope: A Life in Comedy (Cambridge: De Capro Press, 2003), 130.