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Making “They Were Expendable” at MGM during World War II
October 28, 2019 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
Senior Fellow (2018-2022)
Communication Arts, UW-Madison
They Were Expendable was one of a series of semi-documentary war films produced by the Hollywood studios based upon first-person accounts of specific battles or military exploits. W.L. White’s book They Were Expendable described the gradual destruction of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron 3 and the evacuation of its remaining officers in the context of the surrender of US forces in the Philippines in April-May 1942. MGM acquired the rights to the book in August 1942 and embarked upon an adaptation process that eventually stretched until the end of 1944 (production began in February 1945). The process of preparing the final screenplay was far from smooth – there were disputes between producer Sidney Franklin and screenwriter Frank Wead about how to focalize the plot, how to handle the historical context, and how to end the film. Both Wead and director John Ford were on active duty in the Navy in this period and Wead’s efforts to have Ford brought in as director ultimately precipitated high-level negotiations between the head of production at MGM, Louis B. Mayer, and the Secretary of the Navy. This presentation is based upon an examination of over twenty script drafts as well as studio and personal correspondence. It aims to analyze the film in light of the multiple and competing interests that were brought to bear in the production process.
Lea Jacobs has published on the history of the American studio system, performance in film and theater, melodrama and the woman’s picture, and film music. She is the author of The Wages of Sin: Censorship and the Fallen Woman Film, Theatre to Cinema (written with Ben Brewster), The Decline of Sentiment: American Film in the 1920s, and Film Rhythm After Sound: Technology, Music and Performance. Her current research project is entitled John Ford at Work: the Films in their Production Context, 1935-1946.