And now a free excerpt from my new e-book, Hollywood Bomb: The Unmaking of the 'The Most Important Movie' Ever Made. This is how it opens.
The atomic age was barely three days old, thousands of Japanese were still dying in Hiroshima, and the leading Hollywood studio, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, was already trying to sew up exclusive rights to make the ﬁrst celluloid epic about The Bomb.
On August 9, 1945, just hours after the second atomic attack, on Nagasaki, MGM’s Washington representative, Carter Barron, phoned the chief of the Pentagon’s Feature Film Division to discuss the possibility of the studio rushing ahead with an exclusive movie about the still top-secret bomb project. Five days later, Barron wrote Maj. Stuart Palmer to inform him that MGM was “now working” on a movie tentatively titled Atomic Bomb, and would appreciate any useful “information or material.” The heroine would be the famed female physicist associated with the bomb project, Dr. Lise Meitner
But that was before the making, and unmaking, of The Beginning or the End ended that chance, thanks in large part to intervention by the U.S. military and President Harry S. Truman. It what must be a first for Hollywood, actors slated to play two presidents in the same movie were fired after protests—from a former First Lady and from the sitting President. Also intimately involved was a colorful cast of supporting players, including Ayn Rand, Archbishop Francis Spellman, Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, producer Hal Wallis, and actors Donna Reed, Hume Cronyn and Brian Donlevy, among others.
In the days after VJ Day, Americans were relieved that the war was over but extremely nervous about nuclear energy. Scientists, political figures and poets alike were sounding a similar theme—splitting the atom could bring wonderful advances, if used wisely, or destroy the world, if developed for military purposes. Atomic dreams, and nightmares, ran wild. Limiting the atom to peaceful uses was very much a possibility. “Seldom, if ever, has a war ended leaving the victors with such a sense of uncertainty and fear,” warned radio commentator Edward R. Murrow, with “survival not assured.”
While exploding the new weapon over two large cities drew wide support when Japan surrendered a few days later, criticism was now growing, with liberals such as James Agee and Dwight Macdonald joined by the National Council of Churches and conservatives John Foster Douglas and magazine editor David Lawrence. Their protests were centered not only on the specific attacks on Japan, which may have killed over 200,000 (mainly women and children), but any use of such a weapon in the future that would sizzle countless civilians. The New York Herald-Tribune charged that the American bomber crews “had produced what must without doubt be the greatest simultaneous slaughter in the whole history of mankind.” This challenged any further development of nuclear weaponry.
MGM wasn’t the only studio looking to dramatize (or just cash in) on public interest in all things nuclear. Over at Paramount, Hal Wallis ordered research for a movie he was calling Manhattan Project, with a screenplay by Jerome Beatty. The first “arms race” of the postwar era was on.
At MGM, about a month after the Hiroshima attack, Sam Marx, fabled story editor during the heyday of Irving Thalberg and now a producer (Lassie Come Home) at the studio, received a call from Tony Owen, a Hollywood agent. Owen was married to actress Donna Reed, who at the age of twenty-four had already appeared in a dozen films but was a year away from her breakthrough role as Jimmy Stewart’s wife in It’s a Wonderful Life.
Owen told Marx that his wife had received several fascinating letters from Dr. Edward Tomkins, her high school chemistry teacher back in Denison, Iowa, who was now at one of the Manhattan Project’s key sites, the massive complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which produced extracted uranium and other materials for the atomic bomb. Tomkins had expressed surprise that Hollywood did not (as far as he knew) already have an atomic bomb feature in the works and wondered if the ﬁlm industry wanted to “tell the people of the world some inherent facts about the bomb they should know.”
When Owen met with Marx at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles, he showed him letters from Tomkins to his wife. Together they then pitched the idea directly to Louis B. Mayer, who had been spinning his wheels on the Meitner bomb project (there were questions about whether she would cooperate). Mayer also wondered about military and White House approval.
Marx, who had supervised some of the most famous writers in America (such as William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald) at MGM during the 1930s, knew an epic yarn when he saw one. But before proceeding, he planned to visit Oak Ridge. Dr. Tomkins, he knew, was already discussing the idea with other scientists. They would assist the studio only if it was a top-ﬂight production, clearly warned of the misuses of atomic energy, and drew approval from General Leslie Groves, the military head of the Manhattan Project. Some of the scientists had started sketching ﬁlm scenarios. One depicted civilization reverting to the Stone Age after an all-out nuclear war.
After the Pentagon endorsed the visit (with the caveat that it had to approve any publicity surrounding it), Marx and Owen landed at Oak Ridge on the blustery morning of November 4, 1945. “We are very happy you are here,” Tomkins told them. He urged them to "tell the people of the world some inherent facts about the bomb they should know.... We hope you can soon tell the world the meaning of this bomb, because we are scared to death!"