Watching Movies on the Mess Deck

Posted on: June 20, 2019


I speak from experience.


USS Enterprise (CVA-65) (Wikipedia)

In the late 1960s, the Viet Nam (presently referred to as “Vietnam”) war was going full blast and I worked at a television station, first as a film editor and then technical director.  Each day, I looked in my mailbox dreading a letter from the Selective Service ordering me to appear for induction.  Tried to get into the Navy Reserve, which would make me a non-target for the Viet Cong, but I wasn’t the only one — there was an 18 month waiting list.  Eventually a letter arrived, but not from the Army, it was the Navy – I’d been accepted!  Never figured out why…maybe did well on some long forgotten test.

I survived basic training in San Diego with a designation to become “JO”*, the Navy abbreviation for the “Journalist” rating.   Odd on one hand because I never made more than a “C” in English, but ultimately made sense because JOs also operated ships’ entertainment radio and television stations, my expertise.  There weren’t many JOs in the Navy and most were stationed at Navy bases or on large ships like aircraft carriers under the aegis of the Public Affairs Office.  Among other duties, JOs churned out press releases, produced daily newspapers, monthly magazines, sent stories to hometown newspapers and radio stations letting let the folks back home know what their boys were (supposedly) doing.


The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (CVA-65) was the pride of the fleet; 90,000 pounds, a flight deck of two and a half football fields and a population of 5,500.  That’s where I was ordered to report for a two year (1969-71) ordeal.


Fortunately, because of my JO rating, I was assigned to manage the entertainment TV and radio stations, but we were in dry dock most of the time and that meant the stations did not operate.  Ended up writing articles and doing other public affairs duties, which I wasn’t very qualified to do.


One of my few good memories as a sailor aboard the Enterprise, were the nightly movies – feature films, not training films warning us about what not to do on shore leave, but actual current feature films.  Side note:  Venereal disease prevention films (one going back to WWII) were supposed to instill that we had thirteen chances to say “no.” (Uniforms had thirteen buttons in the front — get it?)


The movies, as in feature films, were distributed by the Navy Motion Picture Service (NMPS), which started in 1936 and continues to this day providing filmed entertainment movies to the fleet.  It isn’t controlled by the Navy, but by civilian employees of the Navy Exchange Service (equivalent of an Army PX).  NES funds NMPS with the profits from its retail stores.  During my tour of duty, its headquarters were located at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.  The story goes that the surrounding area was so dangerous that it was safer in Vietnam.


During WWII, studios provided free prints to the armed forces.  Movies are still occasionally released to the military before their theatrical release.  “The Big Sleep” (1946) is a notable example of when the military received an earlier/longer cut than eventually released to theaters.  (Both versions are available on Blu-ray)


Later on, studios started charging NMPS and its Army/Air Force equivalent, the Army and Air Force Motion Picture Service (AAFMPS) licensing fees.  The studios submitted titles subsequently categorized them as “A,” “B,” “C” or “Classics,” and priced them accordingly.  In 1970 “Patton” was an “A,” “Soldier Blue” a “B” and “Hercules in New York” a “C.”  “Classics” weren’t always classics per se, but anything older than 10 years.  “Broken Lance” (1954) and “The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw” (1958) (liked ‘em both) come to mind.


NMPS bought at least 365 full length, uncut movies a year.  16mm prints came in reinforced olive drab shipping cases with the title stenciled on the side, a designation “a” or “p” for Atlantic or Pacific, and “std” or “cs” – Standard or CinemaScope (fortunately NMPS never bought “pan and scan” prints).  Placed between the case straps was a rectangular book with a waterproof cover identifying the movie.  Its lined pages allowed a chronological list of users and the projectionists giving their opinions of the condition, “New,” “Very Good,” “Good,” “Fair” and “Poor – OOS” (out of service).   (Prints were discontinued years ago and today encrypted DVDs are supplied which only operate on NMPS players.)


(Ghost of the NMPS HQ — Atlas Obscura)


The Navy Motion Picture Exchanges (NMPX) were located all around the world.  They had racks of films and a row of automatic inspection machines designed to stop on defects, giving the civilian inspectors an opportunity to repair torn sprocket holes, breaks, etc.  They were sleek and modern looking, around $6,000 each, which would be over $39,000 now.  Kit Parker Films had six in its heyday.   Splicers, on the other hand, were workhorses made by Griswold identical to the ones made in the 1930s, which was a memorable contrast to someone like me who enjoyed handling films.


Each reel was affixed with hold-down tape in a different color depending on which reel, e.g. “NMPX Reel 1,” “NMPX Reel 2,” down the line, and “Short Subject.”  No identification as to the name of the movie or reel number was written on the leader…only the tape.  You’d think placing the wrong tapes on leaders would be a given, but it seldom happened.   (AAFMPS used paper reel bands) Shorts accompanied features running under 90 minutes, but the operators seldom showed them as they were normally on a separate reel.  I only saw one, a lackluster travelogue, and only because it was spliced onto the first reel of the feature, “Day of the Badman.”  Both were black and white prints of color films.


By and large, prints were good, although the main titles were sometimes scratched due to the tradition among projectionists to pull the leader down and thread right on the title.    No matter where I traveled, they always did that.   If the end title was damaged, it was replaced with a WWII vintage black and white fourth-generation dupe, with a scene of a cottage and tree in the background.   Saw one on “You’re a Big Boy Now.”


(JAN Projector – 16mm Film Forums)


The military used heavy metal JAN (Joint Army-Navy) projectors manufactured by DeVry. that withstood being dropped down steel steps and still operate.  Saw it happen.  They were good machines although would sometimes get out of alignment and scratch the sound tracks, which sounded like motorboats.  Most JAN’s had the option of placing a special cable between units allowing for professional changeovers, but were only utilized on infrequent occasions when an Admiral was on board.  His stateroom could be converted into a quasi theatre.  The only time an Admiral was on board, he took it upon himself to ban all showings of “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968).   I recently told two retired Admirals that story and got amazed looks from both.


On shore, we had three movies at a time and unlimited sports programs (no interest to me) and TV shows like “Mannix.”    “Dailies” were heavy demand titles, usually with sexy scenes, which had to be brought back to the exchange the next day.  I sat through “The Night they Raided Minsky’s” beside a sailor who constantly jabbed me with his elbow telling me to watch for a “big surprise,” which turned out to be an abrupt splice followed by an audience groan.  Thought about that incident years later when watching “Cinema Paradiso.”   The most popular movie by far was “Barbarella.”   A distant second was “Cool Hand Luke.”


If smaller ships were at sea for a long time they could exchange prints with others by way of a high line.  The Enterprise was much too high to do that, but fortunately, we had room to store a lot of prints.  (Submarines had a maximum of 40 – 45 prints, resulting in repeat showings during long deployments)


Navy tradition called for the Officer of the Day (OOD) to select which movies went to which group:  Officers, Chiefs and Crew.  This was sometimes a problem as the OOD had bigger fish to fry than select movies.   Instead of a logical rotation allowing each group to see all three movies, the OOD often picked the best ones for the officers each night.  One time they watched “M*A*S*H” three times in a row, the Chiefs saw “Kelly’s Heroes,” and the sailors were stuck with “Macbeth” with Nicol Williamson.  (On aircraft carriers, it was much too dangerous to sit on the flight deck, so Officers saw movies in their wardroom, Chief Petty Officers in the Chief’s Mess and the crew either near or in the crews mess…occasionally on the hangar deck.   Smaller ships operated in a similar way, sans hangar deck.  I was on a 20 man minesweeper for a couple of weeks, and we all watched movies in the one, small, common area.


WWII and Korea vets told me that movies would sometimes be shown on deck, occasionally using portable 35mm projectors with incandescent lamps.


The guys who worked on the flight deck had the hardest jobs, and tended to be crude; used the F-word as a noun, verb, adverb and adjective in a single sentence, and prided themselves on being macho.   That said, I went to see Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” and when the lights came on a bunch of these guys sat there looking uncharacteristically sad.  One finally said something: “That was a pretty f—– good movie.”


The overall experience of watching movies on shipboard was somewhat noisy and the benches uncomfortable, but there were enough of them to go around, except for “Barbarella.”



Movies Kit Parker Films Licensed to NMPS —

My one and only relationship with NMPS was 25 years ago when I licensed several classics to them:  “The Fighting Seabees,” “Little Big Man,” “The Enforcer” (1951), “The Quiet Man,” “Monterey Pop,” and a few others.  The Admiral who banned “Rosemary’s Baby” in 1970 would have been apoplectic over “Monterey Pop.”


Navy Shore Theatres —

The NMPS continues to serve traditional Navy movie theatres around the world.  The only one I frequented the Basilone Theatre located at Treasure Island on San Francisco Bay.  35mm — super wide screen – Tom and Jerry Cartoons — families’ present, so no raucous behavior.  Nice!  A scratchy old National Anthem trailer always preceded the show with the last note cut off from repeated use.


(Long-abandoned Basilone Theatre — Cinema Treasures)


See what’s available on DVD/Blu-ray — – and don’t forget to Like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube Channel.


© 2019 Kit Parker Films


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