Today’s post is written by Daniel Dancis, an Archivist in the Textual Processing Branch at the National Archives, College Park.
Americans and cinema enthusiasts the world over will be tuning in this weekend to watch who will receive the Academy Awards at the 90th Oscars ceremony. Someone from the Pentagon may also be paying attention to the broadcast beaming out of Hollywood. This is because the Department of Defense (DoD) has maintained a staff dedicated to working with the movie and television industry since 1949. Their records, which attest to a long and enduring relationship between filmmakers and the armed forces, can be found in the National Archives. And among the documents, the researcher will notice that the name Donald E. Baruch appears again and again. For four decades, Baruch served as the Pentagon’s primary liaison with the motion picture industry.
Don Baruch came from a well-known family: his father and three uncles were the famous Baruch brothers from South Carolina. The Baruchs were known for their roles in finance, statesmanship, and diplomacy, although a streak for show business ran in the family. Sailing Baruch, Donald’s father, was a financier who, according to his obituary in the New York Times, had many friends on Broadway; was credited with bringing the first jazz band to New York in 1910; introduced the fox-trot to Broadway; and was a promotor of dancing in many forms in the early 1900s. True to his name, he enjoyed sailing and yachting. The eldest brother, Hartwig, started out as a stage actor in the 1890’s under the name Nathaniel Hartwig but later joined his brothers as a financier and member of the New York Stock Exchange. Herman, a physician, served as the United States Ambassador to Portugal and the Netherlands after World War II. Last but not least, Bernard M. Baruch, the most prominent member of the family, was a famous financier and presidential advisor. The four brothers were the children of Simon Baruch who immigrated to South Carolina from Prussia in 1855 and went on to earn his medical degree and then serve as a surgeon in the Confederate Army. On their maternal side, they were descended from Isaac Rodriguez Marques, a Sephardic Jewish shipowner, Danish citizen, purported pirate, and possible slave trader, who settled in New York in the 1690’s.
Pursuing his own career path, Don Baruch found himself at the Pentagon by way of Broadway and Hollywood. In the 1930’s he produced four Off Broadway plays and then worked in Los Angeles for Hal Roach Studios and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and later for Paramount in New York. During World War II he served in Washington as an officer in the Army/Air Force office of Public Information producing training films. He continued working in this office until the formation of the Department of Defense in 1949, at which point, until his retirement in 1989, Baruch served as Chief of the Motion Picture Production Branch, and its various iterations under the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs (OASD/PA). In this role, Baruch reviewed movie and television scripts to make recommendations on whether or not the DoD should agree to cooperate with proposed films and television programs that sought military assistance for their production.
When Baruch’s office was created in 1949 it was stepping into an already established relationship that had been in existence between Hollywood and the U. S. Military from the time of some of the earliest movies.
Possibly the first instance of military assistance on a commercial film took place at an air show in Long Island, New York in 1911. Army Lt. Henry “Hap” Arnold (who would go on to create the Army Air Corps and command the Army Air Force during World War II), agreed to be filmed flying stunts in his army plane at the show which appeared in The Military Air-Scout, a romance movie and aviation film.
In 1915, D.W. Griffith, the pioneering filmmaker, received technical advice and vintage artillery pieces from the U.S. Military Academy for the making of The Birth of a Nation, the first feature-length film at 186 minutes and the first blockbuster, attracting long lines of movie goers. The film stirred up controversy as well. Based on Thomas Dixon Jr’s book The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation portrays the Ku Klux Klan as the heroes of the South during the Civil War and Reconstruction, leading many to boycott and protest its release in theaters. Nine years later, for the filming of America in 1924, Griffith turned to the military again, and with approval from Secretary of War John Weeks received the loan of more than one thousand cavalrymen to recreate a revolutionary war battle scene.