Filming the Reconstruction Effort

Anne Morgan's War: Rebuilding Devastated France, 1917–1924
September 3 through November 21, 2010


Film compilation courtesy of the Franco-American Museum, Château de Blérancourt.

The film excerpts on view here have been selected from the many reels that were shot to document the work of the American Committee for Devastated France during and after the First World War. The moving image was a central tool in the committee's publicity campaign, which was designed to convey to Americans the enormous need for relief in the form of monetary support, donations in kind, and volunteerism. While the earliest films were produced in cooperation with the French army's well-established cinema unit, the American Committee later formed its own dedicated filmmaking team. Compilations of the committee's documentary vignettes were shown in theaters across America, introduced by Anne Morgan or a celebrity host. Special fund-raising screenings were also arranged in schools such as Spence, Brearley, Groton, and St. Paul's.

As early as 1914, Anne Morgan had recognized the fund-raising potential of film, hosting the first New York screening (an invitation-only affair) of the Chicago Tribune's groundbreaking war newsreels by staff photographer Edwin F. Weigle. Over the next few years, millions of Americans crowded into theaters to watch similar footage, a portion of box office proceeds often benefiting organizations such as the Red Cross. By 1915, The New York Times reported that "every little theatre has a war film all its own." Even J. P. Morgan & Co.—the firm headed by Anne Morgan's brother, Jack—used film to raise funds for the American Field Ambulance Service and the British War Relief Fund. Several of the firm's partners organized a corporation, Official Government Pictures, Inc., that organized screenings of the British army's official war films.

In 1919, Anne Morgan's American Committee for Devastated France built on its documentary program by commissioning a feature-length film, Heritage of France, to dramatize the plight of French refugees. The filmmakers, who included American landscape painter Harry B. Lachman and French theater director Firmin Gémier, cast local amateur actors in a fictional depiction of one family's saga of displacement and renewal. "The film is convincing beyond words," Anne Morgan told her colleague Anne Murray Dike after the earliest screenings took place in New York.

In a 1922 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the American Committee's cinema coordinator, volunteer Jessie Parlton Tyree, joked about the value placed on the committee's precious photographic equipment. "We have to be very economical in doing our work," she explained, "2 1/2 francs for every turn of the crank—and we are most careful of our camera. We call it the Bijou, and whatever happens, we look after the Bijou. I was carrying the camera one day when we were out in the fields and I tripped over an old telephone wire concealed in the grass on the edge of a trench. I stumbled and fell. I went over into the trench, but the camera man grabbed the camera and saved that, and he hardly gave me a second thought."