“Don’t Be a Sucker” is on YouTube.
Still as relevant today as when it was first produced over 70 years ago, the United States Army Signal Corps’ short “Don’t Be a Sucker” describes the founding principles of the United States’ Declaration of Independence and Constitution, that all people are created equal and should share in the bounties and freedom that they and all parts of our melting pot have created. From its beginnings, our country has welcomed people from around the world, blending voices and lives to create a wonderful smorgasbord of culture. Without all those beautiful grace notes, America would not be the country it is.
The Signal Corps created all types of films for the Army during World War II: training and instructional films, propaganda, rallying, and patriotic pieces, all aimed to get soldiers to devote their all in fighting our enemies to preserve our way of life. Most were never intended to be viewed by the general public, aimed strictly at the boys going overseas, both during the fight and then to prepare them for returning home and demonstrating these honorable values to others.
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In 1945, the Army began preparing films to educate veterans before they returned home, helping them remember the strength found in the diversity and differences of their units. The April 3, 1945, Variety reported that the Signal Corps was starting production on a short entitled “Don’t Be a Sucker” on the Twentieth Century-Fox lot under the directors Lewis Seiler and Clyde DeVinna. Edmund H. North produced and wrote the short, which he began taking credit for in 1947 press releases promoting the film “Dishonored Lady,” based on his script. (He later won an Oscar for writing the “Patton” screenplay). On April 6 Variety stated that Kurt Krueger would appear in the film. By July 23 the trade reported the conclusion of filming the previous weekend, perhaps implying that the two- reeler shot on weekends when major productions were closed.
The Business Screen magazine gave a one paragraph review in its December 30, 1945, Army Pictorial Inc. issue. “Don’t Be a Sucker” shows the soldier awaiting discharge how prejudice against racial and minority groups can be used as tools for destroying a nation…the same thing can happen here if Americans are suckers.”
Executives at Paramount obviously admired and respected the film, as the studio arranged a deal in which they would distribute the short free of cost across the country in the summer of 1946, possibly including it in the can with features shipped to theatres. Entertainment trades began reviewing it in May. Motion Picture Daily called “Don’t Be a Sucker” an 18-minute tolerance documentary in their May 6, 1946 issue. “Powerful in its appeal for watchfulness against elements which would divide and conquer.”
In Oklahoma City, a theater used gold bricks to promote “Don’t Be a Sucker.”
Variety praised “Don’t Be a Sucker” May 8, stating, “It is an exceptional short putting across the tolerance message without being too heavyhanded.” Showman’s Trade Review in their May 11 review noted that Paul Lukas’ acting and narration emphasized “that the strength of America lies in the respect of all its citizens for one another.” Film Daily approved as well, with their May 18 review calling it a “well made, impressive reel, pulling no punches in the constructive message it imparts.” The June-July National Board of Review magazine described “Don’t Be a Sucker” as a “forceful film..well written and organized to get its point across and intelligently acted by a good cast headed by Paul Lukas.” The short’s cast featured large parts for Lukas, Felix Bressart, and narrator Lloyd Nolan, and smaller parts for Krueger, Ivan Triesault, Richard Lane, George E. Stone, George Chandler, and Martin Kosleck, all uncredited and possibly donating their services.
Leaders and government officials praised it as well. Stories emphasized that Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall applauded it, as did FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace. The June 14 New York Evening Post quoted Wallace as saying, “This picture proves more graphically than articles or speeches that the people of the United States are and should continue to be, neighbors and friends and not members of antagonistic groups.”
July 3, 1946: “Don’t Be a Sucker” is shown with “A Stolen Life.”
To help spread word of mouth in May and June, 1946, Paramount held screenings, with the War Department hosting a presentation for 200 important cultural, social, welfare, civic and religious leaders in Washington and Paramount sponsoring one in New York, with studio chairman Barney Balaban praising the film before the screening. New York mayor William O’Dwyer sent a statement exclaiming how the film demonstrated how “to work together to build a better life for all.”
The studio opened the short on July 4, 1946, a time of unity and celebration on which to honor the country’s values. Paramount released it in 250 first-run theatres that day along with “The Blue Dahlia,” including nine Los Angeles and Hollywood houses, including the Wiltern, Warner Hollywood, Warners downtown, and the Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, and Hollywood Music Hall Theatres. The Paramount News reported in their July 15 issue that the two-reeler “established the record for short subjects of its kind, when it opened at 15 first-run houses on New York’s Broadway the same day.” “Don’t Be a Sucker” played with major titles like “A Stolen Life,” “Moonrise,” and “Night and Day” that summer.
July 12, 1946: “Don’t Be a Sucker” is advertised in the Kingston (N.Y.) Daily Freeman.
Local newspapers praised it as well, with the July 3 Brooklyn Daily Eagle calling “Don’t Be a Sucker” “A terse, blunt army movie” warning against demagogues. “It’s not yet too late for films of this kind to be valuable. The haranguers are still with us, spreading their hate… .” The New York Times’ Bosley Crowther saluted the “anti-bias film’s” power in his July 7 review, stating that it “reminds us that rabble-rousers here would like to use race and religion for dividing the peoples of our land,” praising how strong stories like this could enlighten and educate the moviegoing public. He also reported that many in the South were reluctant to show a film promoting tolerance and equality, quoting one review from the South stating, “There is no need for this short in the South, as we’ll have no such problems here.”
Sept. 2, 1946: “Don’t Be a Sucker” is billed with “Night and Day” in the Frederick (Md.) Post.
“Don’t Be a Sucker” received positive reviews wherever it played, with many papers like the Los Angeles Times noting the timeliness of its message. Its strong filmmaking led to excellent theatre receipts, with the November 9, 1946 Box Office calling it number one out of the Ten Best Shorts for the year.
Groups as diverse as the Rotary Club, churches, schools women’s study groups, the American Legion, arts organizations, and the army itself playing it at meetings and special screenings through the 1950s. The National Conference of Christians and Jews showcased “Don’t Be a Sucker” at its April 1947 national convention in Chicago.
The film once again struck a chord with audiences who began watching it on YouTube over the past couple of years, becoming popular and timely yet again just in the past couple of months. “Don’t Be a Sucker’s excellent and concise writing still moves audiences with its powerful and needed message. To paraphrase George Santayana’s words, “Those who do not learn history are bound to repeat it.”