When Hollywood descended on the sprawling, bustling Kaiser Richmond shipyards during World War II it was sure to cause a buzz. Beside the standard patriotic Home Front promotion films of shipbuilding, such as the classic documentary “We Build Tankers,” the entertainment industry also tapped into the natural energy of the yards for two major motion pictures.
The first was “Man from Frisco.” It was based on the script “Man from Brooklyn,” written by George Carleton Brown and directed by Robert Florey (1900–1979). Brown would later write screenplays for the 1960s TV comedy series McHale’s Navy.
The second major wartime film shot in the Kaiser shipyards was “Since You Went Away,” released June 1944. It was written and directed by David O. Selznick and starred Jennifer Jones, Claudette Colbert, Joseph Cotton, Shirley Temple, and Lionel Barrymore.
“Man from Frisco” was a fictional story based on the iconic industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, named Matt Braddock in the film and played by actor Michael O’Shea. Other leading roles were played by Gene Lockhart, Dan Duryea, and Anne Shirley.
The plot involved upstart Kaiser and his innovative shipbuilding practices locking horns with a veteran local competitor. The first clues of the film surfaced December 7, 1942, when Republic Studios announced their most ambitious motion picture, initially titled “Victory Fleet.” News accounts noted that “It is with ships, and more ships, that Uncle Sam will avenge the Japanese sneak on our fleet at Pearl Harbor. Certainly, no man stands out in our defense effort more colorfully than Kaiser, who believes in getting ships out first and talking about it later.”
Alas, the film did not do well with many critics. The New York Times reviewer Bosley Crowther sniffed “…Some of the shipyard scenes are vibrant, and the documentation of building is good. But you can't expect much from a picture that is so obviously propped up on clichés.” The Hollywood Reporter reviewer termed the picture "disappointing" due to its "melodramatic Hollywood treatment," despite it containing "numerous absorbing shots of the great shipyards at Richmond, Calif., and along the line a fund of extremely interesting information is given concerning the high-speed operation and how they evolved."
Some reviews were more positive, focusing on the patriotic message of home front workers:
There are thousands of "extras" in Republic's dramatic new picture who receive no screen credit. These "extras" are the Americans who are employees of a shipyard in Richmond, where much of the background material for the screen plays was filmed. Those men and women are the people about whom the story is concerned. Working twenty-four hours each day, they keep American ships sliding down the ways to the sea to take food, men, and equipment to the battlefronts of the war.
Filming in the Richmond shipyards (and nearby Point Richmond) caused quite a buzz. The weekly Kaiser shipyard newspaper Fore ‘n’ Aft wrote about it November 19, 1943, with photos [above, right]:
Republic's Director Robert Florey points the camera at a bit of Yard One. The film — "Man from Frisco" — is about the guy who brings prefabrication to shipbuilding. Naturally, you'll want to see it. Paramount gets Yard One's main drag and home-bound workers. So, you're in pictures!
When it opened May 18, 1944, in Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco, Fore ‘n’ Aft carried this commentary:
If this is the way we look to Hollywood — and it apparently is, since Stephanie Bachelor ploys a woman shipbuilder in Republic Pictures' "Man from Frisco'' — then all we can say is, "Gosh!" Background shots for this movie of the life and loves of a shipbuilding executive were obtained in our own yards. That dazed look in Stephanie's eyes is the result of not wearing flash goggles.
“Man from Frisco” got a rousing revival in the summer of 2010 when it was shown at the recently refurbished S.S. Red Oak Victory ship at Kaiser Richmond shipyard #3 with historical context provided by Kaiser Permanente Heritage Resources consultant Steve Gilford.
In "Since You Went Away,” the shipyards were merely a backdrop to the poignant home front story about a housewife who struggles to care for their two daughters and a pair of lodgers while her husband is off in the war. NYT’s critic Crowther bemoaned its almost 3-hour length and thin plot. But at the 1945 Oscars it won Best Music, Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture.
Again, Hollywood stars in the shipyards were a welcome bonus during the grueling frenzy of war production. Fore 'n' Aft, September 8, 1944, published a photo [right] with the caption:
Wearing a becoming backdrop of 5,000 Yard Three workers, movie star Jennifer Jones visited Richmond last week. Inset, Anita Colby of Selznick Studios, who caused the Big Wind of 1944 hereabouts when she appeared with Jennifer. You know, whistles.