An Update on Kodacolor Decoded

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

You might remember a fun little post last summer about the Yellowstone Kodacolor discovered within a National Park Accession deposited with NARA in 2012.

The Yellowstone Kodacolor is one 453’ reel of 16mm “reversal.”  An early reversal color home movie format produced by Kodak, Kodacolor only existed for a handful of years, beginning in 1928, until it was replaced by the much more successful Kodachrome in 1935. Kodacolor appears to the human eye as black and white images, but the base side of the film is embossed with hundreds of tiny lenses (called lenticules) that look like minuscule ridges on the surface of the film base. The lenticules captured the color information from the scene while it was filmed through a color filter with red, green, and blue-violet stripes. In order to see the color the film then had to be projected back through a similar color filter. In the case of the “Yellowstone Kodacolor” we believe it may be the first color home movie footage of Yellowstone National Park.


Kodacolor is black and white to the eye, but is color when projected through the proper filter. This Kodacolor film  was converted via software with a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The National Archives worked with Video Film Solutions using a software program that was able to decode the color information hidden within Kodacolor.  The software that was developed at VFS specifically to decode the color from Kodacolor has amazing registration and reflects the scene as it was originally photographed.  Tests completed with the process showed improved results in saturation and color channel registration over traditional photochemical methods.  Now that the final rendering has been delivered we see that the results are astounding.  The colors are vibrant and the characteristics of the original Kodacolor, such as the vertical lenticular lines and slight ghosting of residual colors, within film is also retained.

You can see the fully restored film here as well as a side by side clip comparison of the before/ after.

79-HFC-16 Complete Film

Side by side comparison original and restored color.


Once again, NARA would like to thank the National Film Preservation Foundation for awarding NARA a grant for the preservation of this film.  We would also like to thank Tommy Aschenbach of Video Film Solutions for developing the software and putting in all of the time and effort to preserve the content of this film.

Posted in Motion Pictures, Preservation, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Lost Paintings – The Schloss Art Collection

A few years ago the Still Picture Branch accessioned two 19th century French gold tooled albums that contain photographs of a portion of the Schloss art collection. Regarded as one of the last great Dutch art collections to be assembled in 19th century France, the Schloss Collection was curated by internationally renowned French art collector, Adolphe Schloss and contained many paintings from Dutch and Flemish masters including Rubens, Rembrandt, and Ruysdael. It also became known as one of the best examples of acquisition for Hitler’s Führermuseum by forced sale during World War II.

After his death in 1911, the painting collection was bequeathed to Schloss’s widow, Lucie, and upon her death the 333 piece collection was jointly inherited by their four sons. At the outbreak of WWII in 1939, the family relocated the paintings to the Château de Chambon in Corrèze, France for fear of bombing. This was the last time the collection was intact before it was looted by German and French officials.

The collection was so significant that German units began searching for the collection immediately after the invasion of France, but it wasn’t until 1943 that the French Vichy officials in collaboration with German SS officers located and seized the collection. Of the 333 paintings, 262 were selected for the  Führermuseum, 49 paintings went to the Louvre, and the remaining were, unfortunately, disposed of. The Schloss heirs never received payment for the collection. To date, there are approximately 171 paintings that remain lost.

The bound volumes (the bindings were also looted) only contain photographs of the Northern Renaissance paintings that were selected for Hitler as well as those that were chosen for the Louvre. The division and list of painters can be found at the end of the second album. These albums are an example of the deluxe presentation albums that were prepared for Hitler during World War II and subsequently provide an excellent reference point for research on Dutch and Flemish painters.

The reproduction slides are available for request in the Still Picture Research Room at College Park, MD and show the 308 black-and-white images from the albums.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Spotlight on Veterans: Navy Women in Parachute Rigger Training

There aren’t many schools that include jumping out of an airplane as part of your final exam, but that’s just what these women parachute riggers had to do in 1951. Women sailors in the Navy went through the same training as men at the Parachute Materials School at Naval Air Station Lakehurst in New Jersey.

Women sailors prepare for a parachute jump at the end of their parachute rigger training.

Women sailors prepare for a parachute jump at the end of their Navy parachute rigger training.

These graduates of the program were responsible for preparing parachutes to be used during the Korean War. Though the newsreel below refers to the women as “WAVES,” they were not members of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, but permanent regular members of the United States Navy, thanks to the 1948 Women’s Armed Services Integration Act.

120,000 women served in the United States Military during the course of the Korean War, with 1,000 in theater. You can learn more about our women veterans from the website of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial and this 2011 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Posted in Films, Military, Motion Pictures, Universal News Collection | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Before They Were Famous: Actors Who Appeared in Government Films

Robert Mitchum

To the People of the United States (1943)

More than a decade before he terrorized children as creepy preacher Harry Powell in Night of the Hunter (1955), and two years prior to his Oscar-nominated role as Lieutenant Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), Robert Mitchum played a grounded bomber crew mechanic in To the People of the United States (scene starts at 1:20 and ends at 1:59).


Noah Beery, Jr. and Robert Mitchum watch as other bomber crews depart on their missions. (Still from 90.13)

In To the People, Mitchum’s character regretfully watches as other bomber crews depart on their missions. Despite working hard to get his plane, Baby Face, ready, his crew will have to wait until a new pilot can be found because theirs has “picked up some germ.” Viewers soon learn that the “germ” in question is syphilis.

The United States Public Health Service made To the People of the United States in an effort to destigmatize syphilis testing and encourage “every man, woman, and child” to be tested. The film was intended to be shown in commercial theaters across the country. While it may seem surprising that a film dealing with such a delicate subject was made to be shown along with features such as Casablanca and Lassie Come Home, it’s important to remember that venereal diseases are historically a serious problem in times of war. During World War II, having or contracting syphilis put troops out of service. With To the People, the Public Health Service was trying to get ahead of the problem by testing and treating the general population so there would be less of the disease out there for troops to contract.

To the People of the United States didn’t make it to general audiences in 1943, however. The Catholic League of Decency protested the film’s release, warning that it would lead to pornographic material being shown in theaters. The film was ultimately distributed to state and local health departments in mid-1944.

Jack Lemmon

Once Too Often (1950)

Today, Jack Lemmon is known for his eight Oscar nominations and a decades-long film career, but years before true fame materialized, the Hollywood legend starred in a military training film. While not Lemmon’s very first film job—that honor goes to an uncredited appearance as a plasterer in The Lady Takes a SailorOnce Too Often was his first starring role. Lemmon played Mike, a Private Snafu-like catastrophe of a soldier who has ten days leave and demonstrates ten different ways to be careless with one’s safety, from accepting rides from drunk drivers to falling asleep with a lit cigarette.

The Army first proposed the film in early 1949, in response to startling statistics that showed that, in the previous calendar year, one-third of lost time accidents and fully two-thirds of fatal accidents involving military personnel occurred while in off-duty activities. The film was intended to be shown to all military personnel and was later cleared for public release.

The Army Signal Corps paid Lemmon $155 a week ($1530.35 in 2015 dollars) for his work on the picture. Production took six weeks, well beyond the 26 days originally planned. The job was a major one for the struggling actor. Lemmon commented on the film in a 1993 New York Times article, saying, “Somehow I got a reading, and to my amazement I got the part. It was the first thing of substance I got, outside of small parts in summer stock.”

We might hypothesize that the wide use of Once Too Often contributed to making Jack Lemmon a familiar face, so that when he turned up a few years later in the charming It Should Happen to You (1954), audiences were ready to accept him as a star. Of course, a lot of that was likely due to Jack Lemmon being Jack Lemmon.

Mike Farrell

The Year of 53 Weeks (1966)

Before he joined television’s M*A*S*H as Captain B.J. Hunnicutt, Mike Farrell appeared as Captain Kendall in The Year of 53 Weeks. The film follows Air Force ROTC graduate Lieutenant Bob Blake as he completes a year-long supersonic pilot training program. Farrell’s Capt. Kendall monitors Bob’s progress throughout, keeping an eye on Bob while he completes his training assignments.

The Year of 53 Weeks serves as an introduction to the Vietnam-era Undergraduate Pilot Training program. The program consisted of a rigorous slate of study and training that was designed to retain only the best of the best. As the war went on, the program was condensed to 48 weeks.

We recently contacted Mike Farrell to ask about his experience working on the Air Force training film. Like Jack Lemmon, at the time he made The Year of 53 Weeks, Farrell was a young actor who “was still looking for any kind of work and it was a big deal to get the job.” Further, Farrell said that working on the film gave him “valuable experience; there were nice people attached who were very complimentary about the work we did. For a guy trying to make his way in a very tough business it was a terrific experience.”

Farrell said that he made a contact on the set and believes he may have worked on another government film as a result. That film may have been KC-135 Cargo Loading. We have been unable to locate the film in our holdings, but we will keep looking!

Many thanks to Mike Farrell, who graciously answered our questions about the production of The Year of 53 Weeks. Thanks also to Tanya Goldman, who gave us the tip about Jack Lemmon’s appearance in Once Too Often. Production files for Once Too Often and The Year of 53 Weeks are available at Archives II in College Park, Maryland. Records of the Public Health Service and To the People of the United States are held at the National Archives at Atlanta. Details for this post came from John Parascandola’s article “Syphilis at the Cinema: Medicine and Morals in VD Films of the U.S. Public Health Service in World War II,” found in Medicine’s Moving Pictures: Medicine, Health, and Bodies in American Film and Television.

Posted in Motion Pictures | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Circus Clowns and Masks: 13 Images from the Stacks

This post was written in collaboration with Beth Fortson.

We are approaching the end of October and fall is in full bloom.  Trees are changing colors, pumpkin-flavored foods are on the shelves, and people are swapping their short-sleeves for winter coats.  But amidst this lovely season, a more frightening day is lurking around the corner. This day, of course, is Halloween.

The Still Picture Branch has many images of cute animals, lovely families, and festive celebrations.  This post, however,  highlights some of our more peculiar records; photos that are a little less gleeful, and a bit more ghoulish.

The first group of photographs comes from the Works Progress Administration’s, Federal Theatre Project (FTP).  Founded in 1935, this New Deal program intended to improve unemployment in the entertainment industry.  Actors, dancers, writers, and costume designers all benefited from the FTP.  As you’ll see below, another group of performers benefited as well. Clowns. The WPA Federal Theatre Circus Unit in New York City employed 65 well-loved clowns.

Of course, those were not the only hidden faces we found within our Hollinger boxes! In addition to clowns, two of the images below show individuals wearing hand-carved masks that were used to drive out evil spirits and winter weather. The masks continue to be used during traditional Carnival celebrations that take place in southern Bavaria signaling the arrival of spring.

The next group of photos comes from the Paris Bureau of the New York Times.  This series covers a considerable amount of political, military, and cultural events in the first half of the 20th century.  It is one of our most widely used series, and possibly one of our spookiest.

With their origins as pranksters, clowns attempt to be silly and fun, but today many folks see clowns as odd, dark, or downright scary. So, which side of the fence are you on? Do you have a soft spot for clowns or do they make your skin crawl? Let us know in the comments!

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

WWI Artist – Wallace Morgan

Guest blogger Jan Hodges became interested in World War I combat art as a result of her involvement as a volunteer in a holdings maintenance project for American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) documents at the National Archives at College Park. This article is part six of the series about World War I Art and Artists.

Captain Wallace Morgan reported for duty in France at the end of March 191. A few days later, he along with fellow combat artists Peixotto and J. Andre Smith received permission to scout out buildings that could be a suitable studio for the artists to complete their work. The three men searched Paris and Fontainebleau (a few miles outside Paris) but eventually selected Neufchateau where they located a studio that would suit their needs.  Having taken care of that need,  they turned their attention to sketching.


Local Identifier: 111 SC 86625: Captain Wallace Morgan, one of the eight official artists appointed by the War Department. April 1918

 111SC -33276

 Local Identifier 111 SC 33276/ 14393: The Alert.  Badonviller, France. Drawn by Captain Wallace Morgan. June 10, 1918

Morgan and the other artists received permission to start visiting divisions in the American sector.  In late April, Morgan witnessed life in the trenches and drew this sketch of soldiers scanning the sky after receiving an alert to expect enemy action. Denuded and broken trees feature prominently in the sketch, evidence of the destruction that been going on since 1914. To get this perspective, he may have entered the trench.


Local Identifier 111 SC 57067:  U.S. Medical Officers Attending Wounded German Prisoners near Montilly. Drawings by American Military Artists. Captain Wallace Morgan

Captain Morgan visited a first aid station during the battle for St. Mihiel. Almost as soon as the American Army entered the war, they captured German prisoners and gave first aid to those who were in need.


Local Identifier 111 SC 57068:  Machine Gun Outfit Moving Forward near Esnes during Artillery Attack. Drawings by American Military Artists. Captain Wallace Morgan

The greatest American effort of the Great War was launched almost as soon as St. Mihiel was wrapped up in late September.  On September 26 the mass of American strength was deployed in  an all-out offensive to rid the region of the Germans.  The combat artists followed the army divisions through the Meuse-Argonne area. Morgan sketched this during the early part of the offensive.


 Local Identifier 111 SC 31704/ 31091: Americans Mopping up in Cierges. Drawing by Captain Morgan Wallace, E. R. C. Signal Corps Photo Laboratory, Vincennes, Seine, France.

The Meuse Argonne offensive was brutal, bloody and laborious. Even when the Germans withdrew from a town, it was not always abandoned.  Some towns, such as Cierges could only be considered an allied victory after every house and building was searched.  Snipers were evicted by grenades or hand to hand combat.  Morgan sketched this picture of American doughboys cautiously clearing the way through Cierges.

The next combat artist to be featured in this series will be Ernest Peixotto.


National Archives. Still Pictures. Record Group 111-SC Army Signal Corps, WWI Combat Artists, by name.

National Archives, Textual Records, Record Group120, Records of the American Expeditionary Forces (World War 1), Entry 224, Correspondence Relating to the eight Official Artists of the AEF, 1917-19

Krass, Peter. Portrait of War: The U. S. Army’s Combat Artists and the Doughboys Experience in World War I. John Wiley and Sons.  New York. 2006.

Posted in Photographs | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Play Ball!

This post was written in collaboration with Carla Simms.

In honor of the Major League Baseball playoffs, the Cartographic and Architectural Branch has pulled together a few records featuring the national past-time.  We hope you enjoy this small tribute.

First up, an aerial view dated July 17, 1941, showing the original Busch Stadium, formerly known as Sportsmans Park, along North Grand Boulevard in St. Louis, MO.  The St. Louis Cardinals played here, just south of Fairground Park, until 1966 when they moved to a new Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis.  The original stadium shown here has since been demolished, but there is now a baseball field right next to the stadium’s​ old location.

RG 145 Aerial Photographs NAID 305870

Whether professional or amateur, the game leaves an unmistakable footprint on the landscape, as in this 1927 photograph of  Washington DC.  Calvin and Grace Coolidge would have passed no fewer than 11 ball fields on an evening stroll from the White House to the Washington Monument!

RG 328 DC 1927 199 print

RG 328 Aerial Photography of Washington DC 1927, print 199 NAID 305955

Baseball is everywhere in aerial photography covering the U.S. In this 1949 coverage of Nobles County Minnesota, you can even see the lights around the ball park in the town of Wilmont, population just 473 in the 1950 federal census.

RG 145 Aerial Photography of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, 1934 – 1954 NAID 305870

Of course, there are also times when you can’t play out of doors, and a spin through the patent drawings shows that baseball loving inventors had plenty of ideas on how to fill that time.

RG 241 Drawing for a “Base Ball Game Apparatus,” Utility patent 863758, NAID 305888

We only hold the drawings here in the Cartographic Branch, but the rules of play can be found in the US Patent & Trademark Office, Patent Full Text and Image Database.

Patent drawings also document the desire to improve the game, and perhaps gain fame and fortune in the process. In this quest, some inventors were more successful than others.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

RG 241 Utility Patent Drawings, 1837 – 1911 NAID 305888

Finally, we’ll go out on one last Major League Park for tonight’s game at Wrigley Field, pictured here in 1952, in a scan downloaded from the US Geological Survey’s EarthExplorer website.

RG 57 Aerial Photography, 1935 – 1966 NAID 305471

World Series Post Script

By popular demand, we offer these two additional photos, downloaded from the US Geological Survey’s EarthExplorer website: Municipal Stadium in 1955 and Shea Stadium in 1966. It’s closing time Friday here at the Archives, so no fancy close-ups this time– click the image to view and download full size files and enjoy!

For more information on how to research aerial photography, see the earlier post Snapshots in Time of the American Landscape or contact reference staff at :

Posted in Aerial Photography, Cartographic Records | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Playing Fetch with Pilot Whales: The Navy’s Project Deep Ops

Back in June, we published a post about animals in the military. It featured war dogs, bat and pigeon bombs, and monkey saboteurs. We thought we’d covered everything, but almost as soon as that post was published, we digitized a film for our research room that highlights torpedo-retrieving whales.

One of these whales is Ahab.

Ahab, a 5,500-pound killer whale, recovers a piece of inert ordnance using an acoustic pinger to guide him during the Deep Ops project. The whale is also equipped with a grabber device and a hydrazine system to allow the object to float easily to the surface.

Ahab, a 5,500-pound killer whale, recovers a piece of inert ordnance using an acoustic pinger to guide him during the Deep Ops project. The whale is also equipped with a grabber device and a hydrazine system to allow the object to float easily to the surface. NAID 6394385.

Ahab, along with another orca named Ishmael and two pilot whales named Pip* and Morgan, was part of the US Navy’s Project Deep Ops. In 1969 the Naval Undersea Center in Hawaii carried out this research program “designed to determine first, the maximum deep dive capabilities of trained whales wearing harnesses and carrying hardware and, second, the feasibility of using these animals to mark and recover pingered objects from the open ocean.”

The Navy was looking for more reliable ways to recover lost experimental and exercise ordnance from its ocean test ranges. Objects at a depth less than 300 feet could sometimes be recovered by human divers, while unmanned submersibles could reach depths of 2,500 feet. However, the use of humans or submersibles depended on mild sea and weather conditions. It was believed that whales might be able to dive up to 3,000 feet to retrieve objects in much rougher conditions.

NAID 6394387 and NAID 6394386

Project Deep Ops concluded that whales could be trained to assist in Naval retrieval tasks, even in the open ocean (although Ishmael did escape during an open ocean exercise and was never seen again). Some of the whales were successfully able “to carry and deploy a hydrazine lift recovery system to a 1000-ft depth.” The report recommends continuing the project with a focus on pilot whales, rather than orcas.

The Navy completed A Technical Film Report on Project Deep Ops in 1972 to provide an overview of the project activities. The pilot whale Morgan is the star of the film, demonstrating his training activities and open ocean retrieval of objects.

*Pip died of a lung infection in 1970 after ten months of training.

Image | Posted on by | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The True Story of a Blind Electrician: “Born a Man” as a Document of Disability Rights

This week we’re happy to welcome guest blogger Brian Real to The Unwritten RecordBrian recently received his PhD in Information Studies from the University of Maryland. Brian regularly visits the research room in College Park so we’re used to seeing his name on order sheets for reference requests. We asked him to tell us more about some of the USIA films we’ve been transferring, and in honor of White Cane Safety Day, Brian has written this essay about Born a Man.

In 1964, the United States Information Agency (USIA) hired educational filmmaker Gary Goldsmith to make a documentary about how blind persons were treated within the United States. The Soviets portrayed Americans as uncaring when it came to disabled individuals, so a simple, straightforward film showing American organizations caring for the blind would counteract this negative messaging. The film would be made for and distributed to foreign audiences through the USIA’s information centers in more than a hundred nations.

The project changed as Goldsmith conducted research. Instead of providing a broad look at the treatment of the blind in the United States, the resulting product, Born a Man, told the remarkable story of Jack Polston. Polston had recovered from an accident that blinded him and resumed his previous career as an electrician. Despite seemingly focusing on one person, Polston’s rehabilitation and life is representative of a larger movement supported by the National Federation of the Blind to promote legislative actions, training programs, and other efforts that would give blind persons greater mobility and more socioeconomic opportunities. I met with Gary Goldsmith in his Los Angeles home in May 2014 to discuss Born a Man. What follows is a brief history of the creation of this remarkable motion picture.

The Motion Picture Service of the USIA

During World War II, the United States government founded several programs to disseminate pro-American information and counter enemy propaganda abroad, such as the Office of War Information and the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs. These programs were dissolved after the war, but the Cold War made it necessary for the government to continue coordinated foreign messaging and counter communist propaganda. These public diplomacy activities were overseen by the Department of State until they were spun off and put under the purview of the newly created USIA in 1952.

The USIA countered foreign propaganda by making its own messaging seem trustworthy by showing both sides of the story, including clear flaws in the American system. An example of this is the well-respected reporting of the Voice of America Radio Network, which was one of the USIA’s flagship efforts. The Agency’s early motion picture efforts were often artistically uneven, but this output improved after George Stevens Jr. took over the Motion Picture Service in 1963. His tenure is marked by his recruitment of talented filmmakers to produce short documentaries under contract. The attempts at truthful reporting remained, with films like the 1964 classic The March optimistically showing Civil Rights activists’ efforts to better the nation, while not obscuring the reasons why such change was necessary.

The Motion Picture Service also purchased copies of many existing educational, government, and other nontheatrical films that fit their mission for foreign distribution. The USIA found filmmakers through these acquisitions, as was the case with Born a Man director Gary Goldsmith.

A straight-forward shot of Larry providing orientation and mobility instruction to Jack cuts to a blurred shot with the white cane in slightly better focus, representing Polston’s disorientation. Further shots reinforce this difficulty. Blurry, quick moving close-ups of the tip of the cane show that while Jack can gain some information from it, the cane cannot yet substitute for his sight when travelling.

Gary Goldsmith: Educational Filmmaker

Gary Goldsmith began his career as an educational filmmaker in 1956, after finishing a degree in film production from UCLA. After making several films for companies such as Churchill/Wexler and Film Associates, he and fellow filmmaker Ed Schuman started their own company, Dimension Films, in 1962.

Most educational films at that time were short, ten-to-fifteen minute works created by teachers rather than filmmakers. Goldsmith believed there was a market for longer form, more artistic works. The first project he wrote, directed, and edited as his own executive producer was True Story of an Election. The film followed two candidates, Democrat Richard T. Hanna and Republican Bob Geier, as they challenged each other for control of California’s newly created 34th Congressional district. Goldsmith had a high level of access, as the only campaign activities the candidates barred Goldsmith from filming were meetings with donors. Activities filmed included moments when former Vice President Nixon and former President Truman made campaign appearances for their respective party candidates. The result was a little known, forty-eight minute masterpiece of educational cinema, which provided secondary school students with an intimate look at the campaign process.

As Jack tries to think through what went wrong when crossing the street, a shot of the previous scene shows it from a high angle that shows the entire intersection and possible hazards. For Jack to be able to orient himself and travel alone, he will need to mentally construct spaces in a similar manner.

As Jack tries to think through what went wrong when crossing the street, a shot of the previous scene shows it from a high angle that shows the entire intersection and possible hazards. For Jack to be able to orient himself and travel alone, he will need to mentally construct spaces in a similar manner.

Recruitment by USIA

True Story of an Election was one of many films the USIA purchased for distribution to its cultural centers, since it could show foreign audiences the benefits of democracy without shying away from some of the less pleasant aspects of the campaign process. Goldsmith recalls that when he was recruited, a USIA employee called, explained what the Agency did, and stated, “We’ve seen your film about the election, and we have a project to do a film about rehabilitation of the blind. If you’d like to do that film, we’ll go ahead, and if you don’t want to do it, we won’t call you again.” Goldsmith accepted the commission.

The USIA recruiter explained they wanted a film about the treatment of the blind “to counteract Soviet propaganda portraying the United States as a heartless society that exploited the weak and had no support for people in need. They wanted to show that people with disabilities had government support.” The contract was for a ten minute documentary on American organizations that helped blind persons. As Goldsmith conducted research into this area, though, the project became far more interesting.

As Jack waits for Larry to arrive and assist him, a woman approaches him and forces a coin into his hand before he has time to react. In anger over the assumption that he must be needy and dependent on others, he throws the coin in the direction the woman went. This action motivates him to defy expectations and rely on himself.

Jack Polston, Jacobus tenBroek, and Born a Man

Goldsmith met Jack Polston in 1964 during his pre-filming research. Polston had been an electrician before he was blinded in an accident years before. After completing training at the State of California Department of Rehabilitation Orientation Center for the Blind in Oakland, he resumed his former trade. He criticized most other available rehabilitation programs because the organizations running them, whether they were nonprofits or run by state and local governments, were led by sighted individuals who gave blind persons little input into their own assistance. The end result was limited mobility training and the placement of blind persons in “sheltered” workshops, where they performed simple tasks in protected environments in exchange for remuneration that was usually below the minimum wage. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) was the leading advocacy organization against such treatment and for greater independence, with affiliated institutions like the Oakland Orientation Center providing training needed to enable blind Americans.

Polston suggested that Goldsmith speak to NFB founder Jacobus tenBroek, a Professor of Speech and Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley who, like most of the leadership of the NFB, was blind himself. He was also an influential advocate for civil rights. Thurgood Marshall used tenBroek’s writings on the fourteenth amendment when crafting his successful arguments in Brown v. Board, and other research argued against the constitutionality of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. In a minor coincidence, Goldsmith had taken a course that tenBroek taught on Constitutional Law when he was a sophomore.

tenBroek discussed the needs of blind Americans and flaws with what he saw as paternalistic, oppressive rehabilitation systems in his 1959 book Hope Deferred: Public Welfare and the Blind. He instead advocated for greater federal support for sight impaired individuals that would protect them from the risk of poverty, coupled with employment protections and government funding for training programs to enable them to achieve greater personal and financial independence. Federal legislation based on these ideals failed to pass Congress in 1959, despite Senator John F. Kennedy sponsoring his chamber’s version of the bill and Jack Polston testifying before Congress as an exemplar of what a blind individual could achieve with proper orientation and mobility training. However, this laid the groundwork for similar laws in numerous states and future Civil Rights efforts led by disabled Americans.

Learning of the NFB and tenBroek’s positions, combined with witnessing his and Polston’s own autonomy and high level of personal and professional success, led Goldsmith to shift the focus of his film from traditional organizations that took a paternalistic stance with the blind to instead reflect the NFB’s philosophy. To tell this story, Jack Polston agreed to reenact his own rehabilitation. Goldsmith also received the USIA’s approval to make this change with no resistance whatsoever. It is because of this shift that the resulting film, Born a Man, is a stirring document of the early stages of the drive for civil rights for disabled persons, showing their desire for independence and societal value.

Realizing that Larry isn’t coming and he must depend on himself, Jack begins to cross the street alone. A low-angle shot of the tip of the cane shows nearby traffic clearly, with the lack of blurring from previous cane shots demonstrating the Jack can now use the instrument to adequately perceive his surroundings. After an edit to another angle, Jack is wearing a different shirt. This is not a continuity error, but instead it is a different day and travelling alone has become routine. Jack smiles as his self-confidence returns and continues to grow.

Some Notes on the Film

Goldsmith used fictional elements in Born a Man, but the end result is a film that is emotionally truthful. Polston was not married at the time of his accident. Instead, he met his wife, who was also blind, after he lost his sight. The couple made national news when his wife gave birth to twins in 1964, the same year Born a Man was produced. Knowing this does not make the casting of an actress to play a fictional, sighted wife who is pregnant feel manipulative. Instead, seeing her care for and guide Polston demonstrates his initial sense of helplessness, while his concerns about how he will provide for her and his impending first child emphasizes his fears about how he will be able to fulfill traditional masculine roles and maintain a sense of purpose. Externalizing these fears through his relationships with family allows Polston’s reenactment to efficiently convey emotional truths he internalized after his accident.

Other details are true to the events Polston had experienced years before, including having the social worker and the orientation and mobility instructor who assisted him play themselves. Likewise, the two street crossing scenes – the dramatic highlights of the film – accurately show how the Oakland Orientation Center operated. When Goldsmith visited the Center on a research trip before shooting, a representative told him trainees were not informed upon entering that, once they reached a certain level of ability and confidence, they would be left alone in a public place to fend for themselves. Polstron’s anger and sense of betrayal at being forced to put his new abilities to use without supervision were accurate representations of his experiences, as was the satisfaction that came with reclaiming his autonomy and ability to resume his former trade.

Completion and Subsequent Work

When Goldsmith completed a rough cut of the film, he flew to Washington, DC to show it to George Stevens Jr. and other USIA staffers. He had been told to expect suggestions for how to cut it from twenty minutes to the ten minutes stipulated in the contract. Knowing this, Goldsmith screened the film and read narration aloud himself, since this had not yet been recorded. When the lights went up he was informed the film merited its length. No cuts were requested. To further lift the prestige of an excellent work, the USIA sought out Edward G. Robinson as the narrator for prints distributed in English language territories.

After his rehabilitation training, Jack Polston returned to his job as an electrician.

Following Stevens’ departure and due to the fact that he was better able to earn a living from making his own educational films, Goldsmith ceased contract work with the USIA. He continued his educational film work work into the 1990s, when he shifted to multimedia projects. From 1997 through 2009 he worked with the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, teaching filmmaking, coordinating the beginning production courses, and contributing to the program curriculum. He still lives in Los Angeles where he continues to work on various interactive media projects.

Brian Real completed his PhD in Information Studies from the University of Maryland in summer 2015. His dissertation focused on the historical intersection of film preservation and public policy from the 1960s to the present. He is working on several academic journal articles on the United States Information Agency film program, one of which will be an extended version of this blog post.

Posted in Motion Pictures | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Aviator, the Explorer, and the Radio Man: The 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition

A Little-Known Expedition

If you know anything about Admiral Richard E. Byrd, you probably know that he was the first to fly over the North and South Poles, and that he led several expeditions in Antarctica. However, you probably don’t know the story of his first Arctic expedition. In fact, most accounts muddy the details and depend solely on Byrd’s account, which leaves out the best part: the story of how three men, one Navy pilot (Byrd), one experienced Arctic explorer (Donald B. MacMillan), and one the founder of Zenith Radio (Eugene MacDonald), ushered in a modern era of polar exploration that included airplanes and successful radio communication.

Clips of six reels of footage from the 1925 expedition. Donated by Richard E. Byrd in 1938, along with films of his other polar expeditions. You can see the complete reels on our YouTube channel.

Before we can talk about Byrd’s 1925 expedition, we have to talk a little about Donald B. MacMillan. Accounts of the expedition frequently cast MacMillan as a rival of sorts who stole Byrd’s plan to take fixed-wing aircraft (basically an airplane rather than a gas-filled dirigible) to the Arctic and then wouldn’t let Byrd do his aviation work once they arrived in the Arctic. The glaring error in that narrative is, of course, that it’s not totally true. Letters and other textual evidence show that MacMillan’s plans to use planes for the 1925 expedition pre-date Byrd’s by months; Byrd seems to have changed his story when funding for his dirigible plan fell through (all of this is detailed in John H. Bryant and Harold N Cones’ book Dangerous Crossings). MacMillan probably did keep Byrd from making an attempt on the pole, but the weather had a lot to do with that, too.

The Explorer and the Aviator

So who was Donald MacMillan? In 1925, MacMillan was a somewhat famous Arctic explorer. With several Arctic expeditions to his name, MacMillan had spent more time in the region than any other living non-native. MacMillan accompanied Robert Peary on his 1908-09 (possibly) successful North Pole expedition, and spent four years stranded in Northwest Greenland while searching for an Arctic land mass called Crocker Land. It turned out Crocker Land didn’t exist, but MacMillan had other achievements on the expedition, including gathering scientific data about the region, shooting the first film in Greenland and compiling a dictionary of the native language of the Inuit. Since commissioning the schooner Bowdoin in 1921, MacMillan had also completed other journeys to the Arctic, always with scientists on board conducting experiments and collecting flora and fauna to advance knowledge of the region. In short, Donald MacMillan was someone the United States Navy could trust to safely lead an Arctic expedition.

The Schooner Bowdoin was built in 1921 and designed for navigating Arctic waters. She has journeyed north of the Arctic Circle 28 times and currently serves as the official sailing vessel of the state of Maine. Still from BYRD-BYRD-84.

The Schooner Bowdoin was built in 1921 and designed for navigating Arctic waters. She has journeyed north of the Arctic Circle 28 times and currently serves as the official sailing vessel of the state of Maine. Still from BYRD-BYRD-84.

Richard Byrd may have the more recognizable name today, but in 1925, Byrd was an underdog of sorts. Certainly, he came from a prominent and influential Virginia family (one of the First Families of Virginia, in fact), had a solid naval career, and had invented some important tools for aerial navigation. The problem was he had yet to make a major mark on the world. Being the first to fly over the North Pole would bring acclaim to the Navy, and it would also put Byrd’s name in history books. Byrd was up against some stiff competition for the title, though, with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen also planning an attempt in the summer of 1925.

Dashed Hopes and Dangerous Waters

In the months leading up to the summer of 1925, Byrd pursued a plan to acquire a dirigible and fly it over the North Pole. MacMillan, along with Eugene MacDonald, founder of Zenith Radio, planned to take the Bowdoin to Northwest Greenland and test radio communications. The two also held meetings with Navy officials to ask about acquiring an amphibious plane to look for land in the ice-covered Polar Sea. Any land discovered could be claimed for the United States, which would be a strategic coup for national defense. Clearly, the two men had very different goals; conflict was probably inevitable.

The 1925 MacMillan Arctic Expedition left Wiscasset, Maine on July 20. MacMillan was reactivated as a naval officer and put in command of the expedition while Byrd took charge of the aviation unit. MacDonald was given command of a ship that he had purchased for the expedition and renamed the Peary. The party traveled north through unseasonably icy waters, eventually arriving in Etah, the community in Northwest Greenland where Donald MacMillan had previously been stranded for four years.

Travel was slower than Byrd would have liked, and he saw precious time slipping away. In his diary, Byrd griped that MacMillan was overcautious and unwilling to move forward; he even seemed to ascribe an ulterior motive to MacMillan’s decisions, as if MacMillan were intentionally trying to thwart Byrd. The loss of time and unexpected environmental conditions were fatal to Byrd’s plans. With no place to land, the aviation unit had difficulty establishing a base camp from which to launch exploratory flights over the Polar Sea. By the time conditions improved, it was time to start back home. There was certainly no extra time to attempt a flight over the North Pole.

Stills from Richard Byrd’s unedited footage of the 1925 expedition (BYRD-BYRD-84)

MacMillan’s caution was not unwarranted, however–the summer was the coldest in living memory and ice clogging the waterways could have crushed the Peary or the Bowdoin. Other ships were destroyed that summer in those waters. In fact, there were many times that members of the expedition escaped death through a combination of luck and extreme skill. With no open water to land the amphibious planes, pilots that ran into engine trouble either had to climb out while in flight and hope they could fix it quickly, or anticipate a crash landing on the pressure ridges of the Arctic ice. Because of extreme cold, engine trouble was not uncommon. Even the journey home was complicated by the remnants of an active hurricane season, but the Peary and the Bowdoin made it to safe harbor and every man made it home alive.

Talking to the North Pole

Right now you might be asking yourself if anything was actually accomplished by the time the expedition’s crew returned in October. It’s true–Richard Byrd was not able to make an attempt to fly over the North Pole, and the naval aviation unit never explored the Polar Sea, but the flights were valuable in the experimental sense. Future aviation efforts built on the experiences of the 1925 expedition. Further, making a flight over the North Pole may have been Byrd’s personal goal, but it was not actually a primary concern of the expedition.

In addition, really important advances were made in radio communications, the kind that are so fundamental that we just take them for granted today. Today we just assume that with the right technology we can talk to anyone anywhere, but even as recently as the 1920s, this was not the case. Donald MacMillan began his working relationship with Eugene MacDonald after he stated that the worst thing about being in the Arctic was not the cold or darkness, but the isolation. MacMillan knew about isolation: when a ship finally came to take MacMillan home after his four year Crocker Land expedition, he did not even know that the First World War was happening. He tried taking a radio on a later expedition, but discovered that it was useless in the Arctic. Eugene MacDonald stepped in and provided shortwave radios (medium wave by today’s classification) for MacMillan’s 1924 expedition, and the Arctic silence was broken.

For the 1925 expedition, Eugene MacDonald further tested the usefulness of shortwave radios in the Arctic, sending out messages to and from the States, and holding a concert of Inuit music that was received as far as New Zealand. MacDonald even conducted business with his Chicago office while on the Peary, possibly making him the first long-distance telecommuter.

The 1925 expedition, while not a source of glory for Richard Byrd, was by no means a failure.

About the records and sources:

The National Archives holds a large amount of motion picture material relating to the career of Admiral Richard E. Byrd. The films are found mainly in the Navy’s records, but are also in other military record groups, various newsreel series, in the Ford Motor Company collection, and, of course, in the films that Byrd gave to the Archives in 1938. MacMillan’s films of the 1925 expedition are held at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum (where, in the interest of full disclosure, I was once a staff member).

Most of the information about the 1925 expedition came from John H. Bryant and Harold N. Cones deeply researched book Dangerous Crossings: The First Modern Polar Expedition, 1925. In addition to the papers of Byrd, MacMillan, and MacDonald, Bryant and Cones consulted textual records held at NARA to complete the picture of the 1925 expedition.

Posted in Motion Pictures | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments