Performing the Past: Archives Specialist Mark Meader Makes History Come Alive

This post was written by Heidi Holmstrom. Heidi works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.

It’s no surprise that history is a passion for many of the employees at the National Archives and Records Administration. But even in this environment, there are people whose dedication to interpreting the past stands out. For over forty years, Mark Meader, an Archives Specialist in NARA’s Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Branch, has participated in living history reenactments spanning the time from the 17th Century through the First World War. Several of his early performances with the 1st Maryland Regiment reenactment group were captured in National Park Service films now held at NARA. Mark recently told me about his living history activities and the experience of making some of those films.


Archives Specialist Mark Meader as Gun Captain aboard the USS Constellation in Baltimore. (Photo courtesy of Mark Meader)

During the Civil War Centennial in the 1960s, Mark and his family lived in the Western United States, far from the battlefields where large-scale reenactments were taking place, and he was unable to see them or participate. When he moved to the mid-Atlantic, he was finally able to become a part of the living history and reenactment community. In 1974, the same year he began working for the Federal government, Mark joined the 1st Maryland Regiment.

The 1st Maryland, led by the late William Brown III, reenacted Revolutionary War life and battles, and was named after a historic regiment praised by General George Washington. (Historians cite the 1st Maryland as the source of the state’s nickname—the “Old Line State”.) Brown was dedicated to creating a group that was authentic in all ways, from the hairstyles to the weaponry. Brown, also an employee of the National Park Service, volunteered the 1st Maryland Regiment to participate in the creation of historical films for several Revolutionary War-era historic sites. One of these, Victory at Yorktown (released 1975, filmed in October 1974), ended up being the first time Mark would perform in uniform.

Rather than focusing on the siege and battle of Yorktown, Victory at Yorktown depicts the formal ceremony of surrender as the British march between columns of American and French soldiers and lay down their arms. The British, led by Lieutenant General Charles Cornwallis, had surrendered after almost three weeks of siege and bombardment by the combined American and French forces, led by General Washington and the Comte de Rochambeau. After the British surrender on October 19, 1781, Great Britain and the United States began peace negotiations that resulted in the Treaty of Paris in 1783 and the formal end of the War of Independence.

Slideshow: Stills from Victory at Yorktown.

Mark recalls that in addition to William Brown’s 1st Maryland Regiment, other reenactment groups involved in the production were the 9th Virginia Regiment and the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment, which notably was able to play the part of either American or British soldiers. Reenactors in possession of French muskets (used by both French and American soldiers during the Revolution) were tapped to don French uniforms. The men portraying the British marched between the columns as their musicians, wearing reverse regimental colors, played “The World Turned Upside Down”. The camera travels along unbroken columns of soldiers that never seem to end, but it turns out that this was a form of cinematic wizardry. In order to make the number of French and American troops look larger, Mark says that as soon as a soldier was out of frame, he would run around behind the camera and step back in line.

Another film that Mark participated in is A Few Men Well Conducted (1978), made for the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana. The title comes from a letter that Clark wrote to Virginia Governor Patrick Henry proposing a campaign to retake the British Fort Sackville in Vincennes. (“Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted.”) The film depicts Clark’s February 1779 trek from Kaskaskia to Vincennes as he and 170 volunteer frontiersmen marched across the cold, flooded plains of Illinois to surprise the British with a winter attack. Clark was able to deceive the British into thinking they were surrounded by a much larger American force and after less than two days of siege the British surrendered. Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton, reviled for the bounties he was said to have paid for American scalps, was among those captured. This victory has been credited with greatly enlarging the size of the young United States, as Great Britain relinquished claims to the Northwest Territory (including Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin) in the Treaty of Paris.

Fortunately, Mark and the 1st Maryland Regiment did not have to cross flooded plains in the middle of February during filming. Instead, those scenes were filmed in March 1977 at Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, but the water was still cold enough that the participants wore wetsuits under their period uniforms while they stumbled over hidden rocks and roots. Other scenes, notably that of Clark’s men shivering around campfires, were filmed in August. Standing in for Fort Sackville was Prickett’s Fort State Park in West Virginia, which is now a site of regular living history demonstrations.

Slideshow: Stills from A Few Men Well Conducted. Mark Meader is wearing the green hat.

In addition to appearing in these and other government films, the 1st Maryland Regiment also regularly performed a half hour show called “Music and Musketry of the Revolution”. Mark also marched with the regiment in the 1976 American Bicentennial parades in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. One of his favorite memories is from a 1983 trip to Paris as part of the Expedition Liberté for the bicentennial of the signing of the Treaty of Paris. As the group marched down the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, many French spectators came up and thanked the Americans for helping liberate Paris in 1944.

The original 1st Maryland Regiment was disbanded in 1984, but Mark also participated in the New 1st Maryland Regiment until 1996. He currently performs living history demonstrations as Senior Leftenant of the St. Mary’s City Militia (circa 1634) at Historic St. Mary’s City in Southern Maryland, and as Gun Captain aboard the U.S.S. Constellation in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with Ship’s Company. He enjoys taking part in an activity that is a way to learn how our ancestors lived, “but without the death and disease” he notes with humor.


Mark Meader (R) serves as Senior Leftenant of the St. Mary’s City Militia at the 400th Jamestown VA Celebration in 2007.
(Photo courtesy of Mark Meader.)

If you are interested in learning more about living history, look for groups like Ship’s Company online or attend an event like the annual Military Through the Ages at Jamestown, Virginia. Please tell us about your living history experiences in the comments!

Posted in Motion Pictures | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Happy Birthday, Rocky Mountain National Park

On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a law that established Rocky Mountain National Park.  That legislation laid out the coordinates of the park, and set aside the land for the “benefit and enjoyment of the people of the United States.” In recognition of the centennial anniversary, the National Archives’ Special Media Division has gathered records related to the iconic landscape.


Ansel Adams, Long’s Peak from the North, Rocky Mountain National Park, 1942. Local ID: 79-AAM-16

The National Archives is fortunate to have a substantial collection of photos by Ansel Adams.  In 1941 Adams was recruited by the Secretary of the Interior, Harold Ickes, to photograph the national parks.  Ickes intended to select a number of these photos to be printed as murals and hung around the Department of Interior building.  Adams would later claim this was “one of the best ideas ever to come out of Washington.”


Ansel Adams, Rocky Mountain National Park, 1942. Local ID: 79-AAM-14

Adams had first met Harold Ickes while lobbying for the creation of Kings Canyon National Park in 1936.  Both Adams and Ickes hoped to increase traction within the environmentalist movement.  Ickes later showed Adams’ book, The Sierra Nevada and the John Muir Trail, to President Roosevelt.  FDR kept the book for himself, and subsequently joined Ickes and Adams in their crusade to pass the Kings River National Park bill in 1940.

Adams’ project for the Department of the Interior began in October 1941. Adams was granted the maximum annual salary for any position not subject to congressional approval, twenty-two dollars and twenty cents a day.  In the nine months that followed, Adams traveled between parks, capturing photos of the Rocky Mountains, Yellowstone, Boulder Dam, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and many others.  Unfortunately, the project was terminated on July 1, 1942 due to pressures of World War II.  These photos are now public records and available at the National Archives.


Ansel Adams, Rocky Mountain National Park, Never Summer Range, 1942.  Local ID: 79-AAM-7

In addition to the Ansel Adams collection, the Cartographic division at the National Archives maintains the master plans for parks and monuments.  These plans are often original pen-and-ink, crayon, wash, and watercolor drawings of area plans.  The maps often show potential roads, trail plans, fire-control plans, vegetation maps, and utility areas.  An excerpt from the Rocky Mountain National Park plan can be viewed in the slideshow below. Click on the images to view larger versions in a new window. Select “view full size” to zoom in.

Rocky Mountain National Park, 7th Edition 1938, selected pages RG 79 Master Plans of Parks and Monuments, 1931 – 1941 NAID 591991

To study the last one hundred years of the Rocky Mountains’ history neglects the vast majority of the land’s past.  Geologists study the land to interpret how North America has changed over tens of millions of years.  Sea fossils at the top of the peaks indicate the mountains were once under water, and remnants from glacial slides lead many to suspect that the mountains were once twice the size they are today.  The Rockies have been inhabited by Native American tribes for more than 10,000 years, and by wildlife for even longer.  They were explored by Lewis and Clark in the early 19th century, and continue to be explored by climbers today.

These topics and more are explored in a film produced by the National Park Service in 1984, Fountain of Life: Rocky Mountain National Park.   The film is now preserved within the National Archives’ Motion Picture holdings, and has been recently digitized in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Rocky Mountain National Park.

The Fountain of Life: Rocky Mountain National Park, Local ID: 79-HFC-103

The Rocky Mountains are an American treasure. The legislation passed one hundred years ago ensured that future generations will always have access to this majestic land.  It is with great pleasure that we wish Rocky Mountain National Park a happy 100th Birthday!

Posted in Digitization, Electronic Records, Maps, Motion Pictures, Photographs, Reference | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

World War I Combat Artists – Walter Duncan

Guest bloggers Jan Hodges and Gene Burkett became interested in World War I combat art as a result of their volunteer work in a holdings maintenance project for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) documents at the National Archives at College Park. This is part three in the series about World War I Art and Artists.

duncan, walter jack

Capt. Walter J. Duncan, Engineers, G.H.Q. G-2-D. Official A.E.F. Artists, Vincennes, Seine, France. Photographer LT. C.C. Mayhew, S.C. Local Identifier: 111 SC 153118

While the Great War raged far away in Europe, popular opinion in the United States was that the country should remain neutral, but events propelled the nation to war. President Wilson had warned Germany in 1916 that killing Americans aboard merchant ships would be considered an act of war against the United States, and Germany stopped the practice. However early in 1917, Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare and sank three ships with Americans on board. About the same time, an intercepted telegram revealed that Germany was trying to create an alliance with Mexico while urging it to declare war on the United States. As a result, Congress formally declared war on Germany on April 6th.

Going to war presented the country with some challenges. First was to increase the army from a force of approximately 130,000 Regulars and 70,000 National Guard to one million soldiers. Second was to expand industry to support a war, to turn out arms and clothing and support equipment. Third was to house and train the raw recruits. Lastly, the country had to transport everything from America to Europe: men, arms, and equipment.

The United Stated instituted a draft to induct thousands of young men into the army. Military camps sprang up across the United States from New York to Kansas. Housing at the camps varied from basic to almost primitive. The new soldiers were trained in the camps and received more training (especially in trench warfare) after they landed in France.

The eight artists, including Captain Duncan, were sent to record the war and received little military training. They went overseas armed with easels and sketch pads, pencils and pastels. They shared cars to travel to the front lines, where they hoped to catch the moments when ordinary soldiers became heroes and when Germans surrendered to Americans. Their sketches would not only record history, but also provide fuel for the propaganda fire at home, images that would stir patriotism and support for the war.

The novice American soldiers were packed into troop ships for the voyage from the East Coast to Europe. Having crossed the Atlantic as the rest of the army did, Duncan was familiar with the crowded conditions aboard ship. He captured the moments of the arrival of the American soldiers in France in his sketch “Newly Arrived Soldiers Debarking at Brest.” In the drawing, it’s clear that the ship was crammed. As they stepped onto French soil, the soldiers were met by a cadre of officers and sergeants whose job was to sort them into manageable units and see that they were marched to their first lodgings (billets) in the Old World.

31080 Newly Arrived Soldiers Debarking at Brest

Newly Arrived Soldiers Debarking at Brest. As many as 30,000 men have landed at this port in one day. Drawing by Capt. W. J. Duncan, E.R.C., S.C. Photo Laboratory, Vincennes, Seine, France Local Identifier: 111 SC 31080

The new troops arrived in Europe fresh and optimistic about their role in the war. Some were undoubtedly afraid, but general attitude of Americans was “can-do”. The next eighteen to twenty –four months were to dampen their enthusiasm and take away their innocence. By war’s end, more than 80,000 lost their lives on French soil.

37863 Cold Nights Coming On

Cold Nights Coming On. Drawing by Official American Military Artist – [W.] J Duncan Local Identifier: 111 SC 37863

When they weren’t in the trenches, the doughboys’ billets were often in barns or fields and sometimes in the bombed out remains of towns and farmhouses. As summer staggered to an end, Captain Duncan found a group of soldiers huddled in the remains of what may have been a farmhouse. They had found some firewood and kindled a fire close to the remnants of a chimney. A horse, still saddled, stands patiently on the left, waiting for his next assignment. Duncan captured the scene in his “Cold Nights Coming On”.

37858 A Quiet Game in Essey (1)

A Quiet Game in Essey, during the St. Mihiel Drive Sept. 15, 1918. Drawing by Official American Military Artist – [W.] J Duncan Local Identifier: 111 SC 37858

In “A Quiet Game in Essey”, Duncan sketched war weary soldiers entertaining themselves by playing card games. Gone was the naivety of the doughboys, overtaken by the reality of war. The soldiers remained determined and certain of the American ability to conquer the enemy.

37860 Barber Shop and First Aid Station

Barber Shop and First Aid Station of the Red Cross at Essey Sept, 17, 1918, Meurthe et Moselle, France. Drawing by Official American Military Artist – [W.] J. Duncan. Local Identifier: 111 SC 37860:

Blacksmiths, dentists, and barbers set up their equipment in any available space. Haircuts and shaves were often administered in open fields or in the remnants of shelled out buildings. Duncan sketched an impromptu barber shop and first aid station at Essey.
Small villages that once dotted the landscape along the front, were victims of the war. Villages were turned into piles of rubble as artillery from both sides of the conflict inflicted damage. In somewhat of an irony, the rubble was used by the warring forces to build roads to carry their men and munitions and to fortify their positions.

15400 German Prisoners Under Guard

German Prisoners Under Guard on their Way to Work. Official Drawing by American Army Artists in France. From Captain W. J. Duncan. Local Identifier: 111 SC 15400

Buildings that remained standing, even in ruins, were commandeered to billet troops. Eventually, as Duncan found, the Allies used them to house German prisoners. In this sketch, “German Prisoners Under Guard,” the prisoners seem to be nonchalant about walking through a village filled with enemy civilians. The American guard doesn’t seem to be too concerned that the prisoners might try to escape. Even the villagers who watch the small parade of men through the street appear to be only mildly interested.

15401 French Auto Trucks

French auto Trucks and Ambulances Parked in the Place Garriere, Neufcahteau, Awaiting a Call from the Front. Official Drawings by American Army Artists. From Captain W. J. Duncan. Local Identifier: 111 SC 15401:

In “French Auto Trucks,” Duncan shows a village turned into a truck storage and repair facility. Horses and mules were used frequently to move equipment and materiel over the rough country side. The roads along the front were not numerous. Many of them were little more than packed dirt paths that turned to quagmires in the rain. Nor could they withstand the wear and tear that artillery and engineering equipment and even tanks caused.

162225 Blacksmith and Wagon Repair Shop

Blacksmith and Wagon Repair Shop on the road to Boucq, Meurthe et Moselle. The dark figure in the center is Louis Raemaekers, famous Dutch cartoonist. Drawn by W.J. Duncan. Copied by Private Messeth, S.C. Photo Laboratory, Paris, Seine, France. Local Identifier: 111 SC 162225

Duncan paid tribute to the contributions of Louis Raemaekers by including him in his sketch of a blacksmith and wagon repair shop. Most people today are unaware of Louis Raemaekers, but he was a celebrity in World War I. He was a political cartoonist in Holland when the war began and depicted Germans as barbarians and the Kaiser as being in league with the devil. The German government offered a reward of 12,000 guilders for Raemaekers, dead or alive. The cartoonist fled to England in 1916 where he continued to draw anti-German cartoons. Raemaekers cartoons were even published in America in an effort to persuade the nation to help with the war.

Captain Duncan continued to draw and submit his art monthly to Army Headquarters. He, like most of the artists, stayed in France past the end of the war. He used the time to refine his sketches and returned to the sites of several battles to fill in the details that movement and pressures of the war had prevented him from recording.

The next Combat Artist in the series will be Harvey Dunn, a man who saw soldiers as heroes and immersed himself in the grime and grimness of the battlefield.

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

Eisenhower, John S. D. Yanks: The Epic Story of the American Army in World War I. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2001

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

Declassified Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings – 1st Quarter

In an effort to provide information on recently declassified motion pictures and sound recordings the Motion Picture, Sound and Video Branch will publish a quarterly list of newly declassified records.

This quarter’s list includes two films documenting post-WWII Europe. Die Erste Schritte [The First Steps] shows the buildup of West German armed forces and the creation of the Bundeswehr.

Die Erste Schritte [The First Steps] (Local Identifier: 319-GENERAL-1 / National Archives Identifier: 61134)


The second film documents the show of power by the Soviet Union through a Cold War military parade in Poland in 1956.

Poland (Local Identifier: 319-GENERAL-3 / National Archives Identifier: 61136)


Both films (319-GENERAL-1, 319-GENERAL-3) are in foreign languages, so we are asking for your help translating them! They are available on NARA’s Amara page if you are interested in helping.


From October 1, 2014 through December 31, 2014 the following records were declassified.

Motion Pictures:

Local Identifier                      Title

111-MPF-205 4th Anniversary Cuban Revolution Parade
156-GENERAL-12 M-103 Fuse in 24
156-GENERAL-13 AN-M103 Bomb Fuses
319-GENERAL-1 Die Erste Schritte [The First Steps]
319-GENERAL-3 Poland
342-SFP-387 Operation of System 119-L
342-TF-6133 SAC [Strategic Air Command] Bombing Procedures
342-USAF-26819 Taiwan Alert, September 1958
342-USAF-33164 The Power of Skybolt


Sound Recordings:

Local Identifier           Title

No sound recordings were declassified during this quarter.


Descriptive information for declassified records can be accessed by searching for the item number, ex. “341-IR-38-56”, in NARA’s Catalog . You may also search on the Declassification Project Number (NND), if you know one. For example, searching on the declassification number “NND 64803” returns entries that are part of Declassification Project 64803. A list of declassified textual records can be found on the National Declassification Center’s web page.

Check out the post “From Top Secret Vault to Open Stacks: Declassification of Moving Images” to learn more about the declassification process. Lists of other recently declassified moving images and sound recordings can be located by clicking on the Declassification Quarterly Reports category on the left side of the blog.

Posted in Declassification Quarterly Reports, Motion Pictures | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Louis Zamperini: The Story of a True American Hero

For forty-seven days Louis Zamperini drifted idly in the Pacific Ocean.  Armed with a few small tins of drinking water, a flare gun, some fishing line, and a couple of Hershey D-Ration candy bars, Zamperini and two other soldiers struggled to stay alive.  Their struggle was exacerbated by vicious sharks, blistering heat, treacherous swells, and Japanese fighter pilots.  For most people, this experience would undoubtedly be the most challenging of their lives.  For Zamperini, it was not even the most difficult of the war.


Lt. Louis Zamperini, bombardier, examining the damage a Japanese cannon shell did to his Liberator over Nauru. The plane still managed to fly back, 1943.  Local ID: 342-FH-3A-42817.

Louis Zamperini was always exceptional.  After getting into trouble as a child, Zamperini found an outlet in track and field.  In a time when the four-minute mile was one of the most elusive goals in sports, Zamperini pushed the limits.  Zamperini set the national high school record for the mile in 1934 with a time of 4:21.3.  He was offered a scholarship to the University of Southern California and began training for the 1936 Olympics.  At the Berlin Olympics, Zamperini finished eighth in the 5000-meter race, but ran the fastest final lap of all the competitors in an unprecedented 56 seconds.  His final push even grabbed the attention of Adolf Hitler who personally congratulated Zamperini after the race.  Zamperini turned his attention to the 1940 Olympics.


Olympic Stadium, Berlin 1936.  Runners in the foreground. Local ID: 242-HD-150A1

By early 1940, Zamperini had dropped his mile time to 4:07.9.  Yet as Zamperini came closer to the four-minute mile, the United States came closer to war.  There would be no Olympics in 1940.  Zamperini was forced to forego running for a career in the military.   He joined the Army Air Corps in November 1941 and was trained as a bombardier.   Zamperini flew in B-24s in the Pacific War Theater and went on a number of bombing raids.  In May 1943, Zamperini went out on a mission to search for a missing plane when his plane had trouble of its own.  Zamperini and the crew went down; eight men died on impact, three survived.


Lt. Louis Zamperini, bombardier on Lt. Russell A. Phillips’ plane, examining a shell hole in the side of the fuselage, 1943. Local ID: 342-FH-3A-42819

Zamperini and the surviving crewmembers, Francis “Mac” MacNamara and Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, were in dire straits.  They quickly ran out of food and drinkable water.  They passed the time by telling stories and pretending to cook meals.  About thirty-three days into their survival, Mac passed away.  The two surviving crew members faced typhoon sized waves, angry sharks, and were shot at by Japanese pilots.  Their bullet-riddled raft, faded from the blistering sun, barely supported their emaciated bodies.  Finally, on July 15, the two men were picked up by Japanese soldiers.  To say they were saved would be inaccurate.


Six men conducting tests of rubber life rafts and survival accessories off Cape Fear, North Carolina. This raft is similar to the one that Zamperini and company were stranded on although the black contraption on the left is a water distiller, an item noticeably absent from Zamperini’s raft.  Local ID: 80-G-42014

Zamperini and Phillips were modestly nursed back to health before they were transferred to a prisoner of war camp.  The Japanese POW camps were notoriously cruel.  Over one-third of all allied POWs died in the camps and the Japanese had plans to kill all POWs by the war’s end.  Zamperini was separated from Phillips and transferred to a number of different camps throughout the war.  Always on the brink of starvation, Zamperini was treated especially cruelly because of his running fame.  Zamperini was forced to clean up the latrines, shovel coal, and was beaten relentlessly.  Due to the harsh treatment, cold weather, and severe malnutrition, Zamperini developed beriberi, a deadly disease caused by vitamin deficiency. He was on the brink of death.

On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.  Less than a month later Japan surrendered.  Allied planes began dropping food, cigarettes, and news of victory to the famished POWs.  Zamperini gradually regained his health and celebrated with his peers.  He was officially released on September 5, 1945, more than two years after his plane crash.  By that time the United States had declared Zamperini dead and his parents had received his Purple Heart “posthumously.”  Most of his family and friends had long assumed he had died.  The few that held out hope were still amazed to see Zamperini walk through the door on October 5, 1945.


Allied POWs celebrate their liberation at the Aomori camp.  One of the POW camps where Zamperini was held captive. August 29, 1945. Local ID: 80-G-490445

Throughout his life Zamperini physically pushed his body to the limit.  Yet it is truly his passion for life and mental vitality that continues to impress people around the world.  His story is the inspiration for the bestselling book, Unbroken and now a major motion picture by the same name.  Zamperini passed away in July of 2014; he was 97 years old.


Capt. Louis Zamperini (left) makes broadcast to the United States after spending 28 months in a Japanese Prison Camp.  Local ID: 111-SC-215498

The pictures above are all from NARA’s Still Pictures Division.  Much of this blog was based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.

Posted in Digitization, Photographs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Christmas in the Ford Collection: A Merry Christmas to All, 1926

Christmas movies are a staple of the holidays, with cable channels producing and airing so many that the season now seems to start sometime in November. Holiday films are nothing new, of course. The earliest known adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was made over a hundred years ago, in 1901. Even the Ford Motion Picture Department got in on the action, making A Merry Christmas to All in 1926.

A Merry Christmas to All is a somewhat odd mish-mash of Christmas traditions, holiday poetry, (both famous and forgotten) and a smattering of the industrial film for which the Ford collection is so well-known (see Playthings of Childhood for a classic example of a Ford industrial film).

The film begins with what looks like a school field trip: a group of children are joined by three women in a tromp through the woods. The party arrives at a small cottage, is greeted by Santa Claus, and leaves with toys. Santa then prepares for his yearly journey, carving wood and using a lathe to make toys, filling a sack, and taking out his reindeer (just the one) so that he can deliver toys to sleeping children who then enjoy them on Christmas morning.

A Merry Christmas to All is significant within the Ford Historical Film Collection for being one of only a handful of titles that are classified as dramatic rather than explicitly educational. (The others are a screen version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and footage of an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet.)

The silent film’s intertitles contain a number of familiar verses from “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” although they have been adapted so that they do not always exactly match the original work:


A little digging turned up verses that were adapted from less well-known holiday poems, including this, which originates in “A Christmas Carol” by Christian Burke:


And this, which is borrowed from “Sly Santa Claus” by Mrs. S.C. Stone:

christmas-3It’s possible that most of the verses in this film actually come from lesser-known works that have been changed enough that they are hard to find with a search engine. Do you recognize any other borrowed lines?

A Merry Christmas to All is part of the Ford Historical Film Collection, which was donated to the National Archives in 1963. Ford Motor Company began producing films in 1914, making educational films, newsreels, industrials, and promotional works. Ford’s motion picture department was one of the largest American film studios outside Hollywood. The collection consists of 1.5 million feet of film and is fully preserved and available for research. An overview of the collection can be found in a guide published by the National Archives in 1970.

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

The Enemy Strikes: The Battle of the Bulge, 1944

Seventy years ago, on December 16, 1944, Allied Forces in Europe were taken by surprise when the Germans launched an attack in the Ardennes region, pushing into France, Luxembourg, and Belgium. The offensive came six months after D-Day and the successful invasion of Normandy, on a misty day when the skies did not permit the use of airplanes. The resulting “bulge” in the front line gave the battle the name by which it is best known. The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest the United States would fight in World War II, with 19,000 American soldiers dead by the time the Allies had fought back the Germans and regained their lost ground.

This week’s featured film, The Enemy Strikes, was made by the U.S. Army Signal Corps and distributed to the American public to tell the story of the battle. The film’s message is simple: the war is not over yet. Our enemy will always want to kill us and our soldiers are still paying the ultimate sacrifice. Americans are exhorted to remember that it is too soon to celebrate and that they should continue doing their part on the home front. The film ends with two title cards: “If you have a war job–stick to it!” and then “If you haven’t–get one!”

The Battle of the Bulge proved to be Germany’s last gasp. Allied victory was declared in Europe five months later.

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

Favorite Film Finds of 2014

In the motion picture lab, we work on thousands of reels of film a year: tens of thousands of feet of unedited footage of Vietnam, PSAs for the Census Bureau, dozens of early NASA films, and much, much more. Over the course of months, some of it can start to become a blur. Since we work on the physical film itself, it’s possible that we’ll remember how many days we spent repairing damage even when we no longer have any idea what the film was about. That said, films come to us every day, for any number of reasons, and quite often, one sticks out (we write about many of them on this blog). This week’s post features a handful of films that came to us in 2014 and found their way to our list of favorites.

Careless Killers (Smokey Bear TV Spot), 1963 (16-P-4643)

Last summer, we re-processed a number of Smokey Bear PSAs. In many cases, black and white and 16mm versions were retained even when NARA had the original 35mm color negative. By going back through and selecting only the best elements for preservation, we freed up a good deal of space in the film stacks. Smokey PSAs are almost always delightful, but this one stuck out as a bit better than the rest. Careless Killers features Rod Serling in the midst of the Twilight Zone’s original run, and plays almost like a mini-episode of the classic television series, complete with a final ironic twist.

After the Applause, 1970 (235-WRS-2)

One way that films come to the lab is when researchers request a transfer when all we have is single film copy. Unlike paper records, we do not serve our only copy in the research room—there’s just too much that can go wrong when running a piece of film on equipment. We did an HD transfer of After the Applause when a researcher requested it last spring. The film tells the story of a retired circus performer and a very sad clown learning how to apply for Social Security. It’s just as awesome as it sounds.

Training During Combat, 1944 (18-CS-2583

Late last year, we published a post about a Christmas party in Corsica and were delighted when Burton Blume contacted us to tell us that his father, Wilbur Blume, had shot the footage. We were intrigued when Blume told us that he believed his father had also made a military training film starring Catch-22 author Joseph Heller. We tracked down the unedited footage for Training During Combat and identified Heller in the footage, but, unfortunately, we were never able to find a final version of the film. It’s possible that the film was never completed. We edited this video from the raw footage to give a sense of the original story and highlight Heller’s appearance. You may view the complete reels in this playlist. Read more about Wilbur Blume and Joseph Heller in Burton Blume’s series of posts.

One Time Too Often, 1969 (36-7)

Occasionally, films come to the lab because the exhibits staff need moving image material for a new exhibit. This film arrived with a group of titles related to alcohol consumption in America intended for use in the exhibit, Spirited Republic, which will open in March 2015. We’ve heard that this film didn’t make the cut, but we think you should watch it anyway. In One Time Too Often, ATF agents track down illegal moonshiners, complete with car chases and an appearance from Raymond Burr, who at that time starred in the police drama Ironside. Read more about the film in Heidi’s recent blog post.

D-Day to Germany, 1944 (LIEB-JL-1)

Just because we just found something ourselves certainly doesn’t mean that it wasn’t well-known to others before. Late last spring, when I went to the research room to talk to Jim about newsreels that we might feature for D-Day, a professional researcher told me about the Jack Lieb D-Day film. Lieb was a cameraman for News of the Day, and landed on Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion. He was a talented cameraman and shot his own 16mm Kodachrome home movies of his experiences so that he could show them to his family back home in the States when he returned. Later, he edited the film into a lecture and recorded his narration. Lieb’s family donated the film to the National Archives in the 1980s, providing us with an alternative view to the hundreds of thousands of feet of 35mm black and white footage shot by military cameramen. You can read more about the Jack Lieb footage in our blog post.

Do you have a favorite historical film of 2014? Tell us in the comments!

Posted in Motion Pictures | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s No Citizen Kane: Legendary Cinematographer Gregg Toland Directs December 7th

By the time the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th of 1941, Gregg Toland had already won an Oscar for the cinematography of Wuthering Heights and created the distinctive look of Citizen Kane that is still discussed in introductory film classes today. But Toland wanted more than to be the most famous cinematographer of his day: Toland dreamed of becoming a director. Unfortunately, Toland’s one and only directing project, the unreleased long version of the United States Navy’s December 7th, is nothing short of a disaster.

After the United States entered the war, Toland answered the call to join the United States Navy and John Ford’s Field Photo Unit. Toland’s first assignment was to make a film about Pearl Harbor. The film would be the first major government film production of the war and was intended to reassure the American public that we would be soon be back on our feet. This was Toland’s chance to shine.


The US Navy’s first major film project, December 7th was intended to reassure the American public that we would swiftly recover from the Pearl Harbor attack. (Still from film.)

Toland arrived in Honolulu in January of 1942, a month after the attack. Six weeks later, John Ford was sent to check on the production. While there, Ford shot footage of ships being rebuilt and troops working together and then, in April, left Toland to complete the film. Production stretched on. Over the course of months, Toland returned to Hollywood to shoot dramatic scenes and recreations of the attack to fill in the incomplete film record. Finally, in December of 1942, Toland was ready to show his first cut, an 85 minute feature.

Lowell Mellet, a liaison between Hollywood and the War Department, was the first to see the final product. He was horrified.

Remember, the criteria for successful completion of Toland’s assignment were simple: the film should be turned around quickly and should make the public feel that the naval fleet was recovered and prepared for battle. The film that Toland screened took nearly a year to complete and can only be described as bananas. (Really, it’s difficult to overstate this one. If you have a chance, you really need to watch it.)

Toland’s December 7th includes long sequences of Uncle Sam (played by the legendary Walter Huston) being admonished by his “conscience” (played by character actor Harry Davenport) for vacationing too much and not taking seriously the “hyphenated” threat of Japanese-Americans. The overt racism far surpasses even the propaganda films that were shown only to the troops and intended to instill scorn for the enemy (that would be our actual enemy, the Japanese nationals that the US military was fighting in the Pacific). The film depicts everyday Japanese-Americans as lying in wait to collect information from unsuspecting tongue-flappers. Viewers are reminded over and over that there are 150,000 Japanese-Americans in Hawaii. By the logic of the film, that would equal 150,000 spies and saboteurs. Even the children.

The film concludes with the ghost of an American soldier strolling through a military cemetery and explicating an extremely unwieldy baseball metaphor to demonstrate his belief in the American cause. On the positive side, since this is Gregg Toland’s film, it’s all very beautifully shot.


In Gregg Toland’s version of the film, Uncle Sam’s conscience chastises him for being too trusting of Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii. (Still from film.)

After viewing the film, Mellet scrambled to make sure that it would not be released to the public.  In addition to Toland’s December 7th just being a really bad film, Mellet was concerned about the scope of the re-enactments. Much of the Pearl Harbor attack depicted in the film was created in a special effects studios at Fox, which made it little more than a fictional account of the battle.

And then there was the problematic anti-Japanese-American sentiment. In a recent talk at the National Archives’ McGowan Theater, author Mark Harris explained that it wasn’t so much the racism itself that was the problem (after all, the American government was paranoid enough to intern Japanese-Americans in camps), it was the level of suspicion that it cast on Japanese living in the United States. The U.S. government’s plan was to “redistribute” the Japanese-American population throughout the country to keep them from amassing sizable communities. If Toland’s film were to be released, it might cause every small town in America to reject the families that were expected to resettle there. It’s a distasteful distinction to make, but it ultimately led to Toland’s December 7th being heavily cut.

The task of fixing the December 7th went to John Ford. As the head of the Field Photo Unit, Ford was responsible for Gregg Toland, and the debacle reflected poorly on his command. Ford and editor Robert Parrish quickly re-cut the film, hacking out over 50 minutes so that the final version was just over half an hour. The film was still too long to play as an opening short in public movie theaters, and was too late to serve its original purpose anyway. Ford’s cut was approved for troops and munitions workers and released in early 1943.

Despite its troubled history and limited release, December 7th won the 1944 Academy Award for best documentary short. Gregg Toland never directed another film, but his failure did nothing to tarnish his reputation as one of the best and most influential cinematographers in film history.

All of the information about the production of December 7th comes from Mark Harris’s excellent book Five Came Back, a history of five Hollywood directors who served in World War II. You can view his talk about the book on our YouTube channel

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

Mortal Moonshine: Treasury Agents Take On Backwoods Bootleggers

This post was written by Heidi Holmstrom. Heidi works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.

In past blog posts, we’ve highlighted some of the favorite films of Motion Picture Preservation Lab staff. Because the motion picture holdings at the National Archives and Records Administration are so voluminous, we are always encountering new films that jockey for the top spot on our list of favorite things. One Time Too Often, a 1969 crime drama featuring Treasury Agents chasing down moonshine bootleggers and an appearance by Raymond Burr, is the latest of these.

When a man turns up dead, ATF agents take down a moonshine still.
(Stills from One Time Too Often)

One Time Too Often, presented by the Treasury Department’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF, now in the Department of Justice), tells the story of a man who gambles his health one too many times by consuming illegal moonshine whiskey. His death due to lead salts poisoning launches an ATF investigation, which tracks the moonshine to its source: a sketchy backwoods still. The ATF agents raid the still, resulting in a gun battle and car chase as a saxophone wails on the soundtrack.

Although the film is shot like a stylized television show, lead salts poisoning from carelessly-produced illegal moonshine has long been a real problem. As it distills, moonshine can leach lead from the still components, which sometimes include lead-soldered pipes and automobile radiators in place of copper condensers. There is also a risk that the moonshine may be contaminated by toxic levels of methanol. Even today, government continues to target illegal moonshine production, as seen in this May 2014 news article from Alabama.

There’s no question that One Time Too Often is a highly entertaining film—especially for those nostalgic for television programs of the 1960s and 1970s—but how was it originally used by the ATF and Treasury Department? In so many cases we lack the documentation that would give us these answers. Fortunately, we know one way that One Time Too Often was used. A 1976 press release on the United States Mint website reveals that it was to be presented daily, along with other Treasury-produced films, as part of a new display in the Department of the Treasury’s exhibit hall. Other items on display included currency presses, half a ton of gold bars, and a moonshine still.

One Time Too Often came through the lab as part of the preparation for Spirited Republic, an upcoming exhibit at the National Archives Museum. Another film digitized by our Lab is 1973’s America on the Rocks. Featuring narration by Robert Mitchum, the film addresses the issue of alcohol abuse, using a creepy carousel as a visual metaphor for alcoholism. After the creation of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in 1970, educators produced many films about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption. The Institute cooperated with Airlie Productions on this film, which was a CINE Golden Eagle winner.

Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History will open March 2015 at the National Archives in Washington, DC. We hope to see you there!

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