Before They Were Famous: Actors Who Appeared in Government Films

Robert Mitchum

To the People of the United States (1943)

More than a decade before he terrorized children as creepy preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955), and two years prior to his Oscar-nominated role as Lieutenant Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Robert Mitchum played a grounded bomber crew mechanic in To the People of the United States (scene starts at 1:20 and ends at 1:59).

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Noah Beery, Jr. and Robert Mitchum watch as other bomber crews depart on their missions. (Still from 90.13)

In To the People, Mitchum’s character regretfully watches as other bomber crews depart on their missions. Despite working hard to get his plane, Baby Face, ready, his crew will have to wait until a new pilot can be found because theirs has “picked up some germ.” Viewers soon learn that the “germ” in question is syphilis.

The United States Public Health Service made To the People of the United States in an effort to destigmatize syphilis testing and encourage “every man, woman, and child” to be tested. The film was intended to be shown in commercial theaters across the country. While it may seem surprising that a film dealing with such a delicate subject was made to be shown along with features such as Casablanca and Lassie Come Home, it’s important to remember that venereal diseases are historically a serious problem in times of war. During World War II, having or contracting syphilis put troops out of service. With To the People, the Public Health Service was trying to get ahead of the problem by testing and treating the general population so there would be less of the disease out there for troops to contract.

To the People of the United States didn’t make it to general audiences in 1943, however. The Catholic League of Decency protested the film’s release, warning that it would lead to pornographic material being shown in theaters. The film was ultimately distributed to state and local health departments in mid-1944.

Jack Lemmon

Once Too Often (1950)

Today, Jack Lemmon is known for his eight Oscar nominations and a decades-long film career, but years before true fame materialized, the Hollywood legend starred in a military training film. While not Lemmon’s very first film job—that honor goes to an uncredited appearance as a plasterer in The Lady Takes a SailorOnce Too Often was his first starring role. Lemmon played Mike, a Private Snafu-like catastrophe of a soldier who has ten days leave and demonstrates ten different ways to be careless with one’s safety, from accepting rides from drunk drivers to falling asleep with a lit cigarette.

The Army first proposed the film in early 1949, in response to startling statistics that showed that, in the previous calendar year, one-third of lost time accidents and fully two-thirds of fatal accidents involving military personnel occurred while in off-duty activities. The film was intended to be shown to all military personnel and was later cleared for public release.

The Army Signal Corps paid Lemmon $155 a week ($1530.35 in 2015 dollars) for his work on the picture. Production took six weeks, well beyond the 26 days originally planned. The job was a major one for the struggling actor. Lemmon commented on the film in a 1993 New York Times article, saying, “Somehow I got a reading, and to my amazement I got the part. It was the first thing of substance I got, outside of small parts in summer stock.”

We might hypothesize that the wide use of Once Too Often contributed to making Jack Lemmon a familiar face, so that when he turned up a few years later in the charming It Should Happen to You (1954), audiences were ready to accept him as a star. Of course, a lot of that was likely due to Jack Lemmon being Jack Lemmon.

Mike Farrell

The Year of 53 Weeks (1966)

Before he joined television’s M*A*S*H as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, Mike Farrell appeared as Captain Kendall in The Year of 53 Weeks. The film follows Air Force ROTC graduate Lieutenant Bob Blake as he completes a year-long supersonic pilot training program. Farrell’s Capt. Kendall monitors Bob’s progress throughout, keeping an eye on Bob while he completes his training assignments.

The Year of 53 Weeks serves as an introduction to the Vietnam-era Undergraduate Pilot Training program. The program consisted of a rigorous slate of study and training that was designed to retain only the best of the best. As the war went on, the program was condensed to 48 weeks.

We recently contacted Mike Farrell to ask about his experience working on the Air Force training film. Like Jack Lemmon, at the time he made The Year of 53 Weeks, Farrell was a young actor who “was still looking for any kind of work and it was a big deal to get the job.” Further, Farrell said that working on the film gave him “valuable experience; there were nice people attached who were very complimentary about the work we did. For a guy trying to make his way in a very tough business it was a terrific experience.”

Farrell said that he made a contact on the set and believes he may have worked on another government film as a result. That film may have been KC-135 Cargo Loading. We have been unable to locate the film in our holdings, but we will keep looking!

Many thanks to Mike Farrell, who graciously answered our questions about the production of The Year of 53 Weeks. Thanks also to Tanya Goldman, who gave us the tip about Jack Lemmon’s appearance in Once Too Often. Production files for Once Too Often and The Year of 53 Weeks are available at Archives II in College Park, Maryland. Records of the Public Health Service and To the People of the United States are held at the National Archives at Atlanta. Details for this post came from John Parascandola’s article “Syphilis at the Cinema: Medicine and Morals in VD Films of the U.S. Public Health Service in World War II,” found in Medicine’s Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television.

About Audrey Amidon

Audrey works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
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One Response to Before They Were Famous: Actors Who Appeared in Government Films

  1. Daria Labinsky says:

    I think I saw clips from Once Too Often when I toured Astoria Studios in Queens, where the Army Pictorial Center was located

    Liked by 1 person

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