This is Your America
On the thousands of miles of train travel, back and forth and up and down across America which it was necessary for me to make each year to arrive at my illustrated lecture engagements, I often carried motion picture camera and tripod—in addition to all the required projection paraphernalia. We were beginning the process of filming episodes for a new program, and I would obtain parts of it while traveling to lecture engagements.
The nation was at war. Factory workers across the land were bending every effort toward production of materials with which to help win that war. Farmers were producing foods and grains in record quantities, not alone for American consumption, but for our allies and our servicemen overseas.
Unsung men and women, in out-of-the-way and little-known areas of the country, were working heroically at essential jobs. The native American Indians on the western reservations were helping; the Navajos, with their indecipherable language, were becoming valuable members of the Signal Corps.
Some of the pictorial and historic spots of the nation were taking on new significance—or at least they could, if properly heralded. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, and what its deep meaning was to the country; the carved faces of the presidents on Mt. Rushmore, in South Dakota; the folklore and folk music of isolated pockets of our population, tucked away where few knew they existed.
We decided to try to film all of that, in a production which we would call This Is Your America.
Filming in wartime is hard, hard, hard—in ways we’d never even dreamed of At frserst, Helen and I did some traveling by car to obtain shots we needed. In the remote and isolated town of Jerome, Arizona we wanted to film some of the mines that had come back into operation because of war needs. Jerome had been a ghost town until new life had been breathed into these mines. For an establishing shot I set up my tripod at the edge of the main street, to obtain an overall view.
“Stop. Wait. What are you doing there?”
It was the town’s only police officer.
“What are you up to?” the angry voice continued. “Don’t you know we’re at war? This city is strategic. Photography is forbidden.”
Helen and I were both put under technical arrest. Providently, I had a wallet full of special recommendations and we were soon released—though rather reluctantly—on the part of the police chief This had perhaps been the only “spy” case in his entire career.
Up in the remote High Sierra we were filming scenes of a mountain river, roaring and tumbling down through a great stand of timber. Some of that timber would be cut for war use.
“Stop. What are you doing?” The voice we heard calling out was almost the echo of that Jerome officer’s raspy warning.
A patrolman, apparently following us, had seen our car stop. As I set up my tripod, he accosted us. It seems that farther down that roaring mountain stream a dam was converting the plunging waters into electric power. Power for the war. Pictures were forbidden.
It had never even remotely occurred to us that the former ghost town of Jerome, Arizona, or a few wilderness scenes in California’s High Sierra, would be off limits for photography. Where there was any question at all about restrictions, we always spared no effort to get official permits.
In order to film bomber production at the Willow Run plant near Detroit, I spent months seeking permission from the War Department. (Their name was later changed to the Department of Defense.) The plant manager grinned a bit wistfully when, camera and tripod in hand, I entered the factory for the filming and handed him the permit.
“Look’s like we don’t have any say about what happens in our own plant,” he complained. “Everything is up to Washington. But go ahead,” he added. “If you don’t interrupt the workers, it’s OK by me. “
Those workers were important, especially some of the petite women who had been hired because they were small enough to crawl, with their riveting machines, into the cramped tail sections of the planes.
Some of the largest bombers were constructed of plywood, made from Washington State Douglas firs.
The Willow Run permit worked wonders. With similar documents issued by the War Department, I gathered footage of other vital industrial production, in Wichita, Kansas and at the Ford Motor Company River Rouge plant.
In pursuit of other important materials for our new film, Helen and I went to the Intertribal Indian ceremonies in Gallup, New Mexico, traveling there by train. I hitchhiked (from a distant lecture date) to Mt. Rushmore, in South Dakota. We frselmed California’s central valley fruit pickers, and migrants picking and hauling tons of tomatoes and other produce in the Coachella Valley near the Salton Sea.
In the grain belt of the Midwest I depicted the harvesting, the storage, and the shipping of wheat—golden scenes which would eventually constitute the opening sequence of this new film production. In my commentary accompanying these scenes, as I lectured with them later, I made statements and prophecies which foretold the Marshall Plan:
“After this war is won—and we may as well become used to the idea now—America must feed the world. The products of our factories are today going to every continent of the globe to help put down tyranny. The results of that tyranny have been, and will be, starvation for millions.
“America’s grain bins must not only be filled but they must stay full. The armies of the allied nations will need millions of bushels of wheat in this war. When the war is over we must have an immediate supply on hand to rush to a dozen nations where people are already starving. The social and economic safety of the world is dependent on it. America is the only country which can do it. Furthermore, we must broadcast this fact to the world now. The hungry of France, the starving of Greece and Yugoslavia, knowing that we intend not only to liberate them, but to feed them after the war as well, will be all the more ready to rise against their oppressors when the first sign of help arrives. Full granaries in America today, through proper use of propaganda, can be actual and effective weapons to help us win the war.”
“Give Me Men to Match My Mountains”
Making sweeping reference to millions of bushels of wheat is dealing in abstractions. To personalize my message, I went out into the field of J J Ridder, on his farm a few miles from Wichita, Kansas. His was not a large spread, and he had none of the huge combines or threshers which I had photographed elsewhere. But he had six sturdy sons and daughters, ranging in age from six to sixteen. With the father as the kindly generalissimo of this family army, the harvest was accomplished.
I visited the tiny mining town of Burke, Idaho, high in the Coeur d’Alenes, where—between high school and college—my brother and I had worked for three months mining silver and lead, far below ground, during our year’s hiking trip to the forty-eight states of the Union. Mining was important in the war effort.
Across the facade of a government office building next to California’s capitol building in Sacramento is inscribed in stone the motto: “Give me men to match my mountains.” We filmed that statement, which became an introduction to the grandeur of the High Sierra, Yosemite, and the Sequoias.
We tried to be pragmatic, and included sequences of “What’s wrong with America” —a cheapening of our nation’s beauty through misplaced billboards and gaudy advertising, needless slaughter on the highways, unwarranted strife between management and labor, pockets of poverty and poor housing.
Journeying to Washington state, I captured in my camera the scenic story of America’s lumber industry. Weeks had been required to obtain permits and clearances but, with that behind me, cooperation was the watchword as I visited the great timber operation of the Tacoma and St. Paul Lumber Company, on the foothill slopes of Mt. Rainier.
Ninety-five miles of their private railroads penetrate to all sections of their timber holdings and a speeder was made available to me for the rail trip into the camps.
Later, I transferred to an even tinier speeder which was handier for getting about in a hurry.
Most dramatic scene of all—and one of the highlights of the finished film—was high-climber Hewitt’s ascent of a Douglas fir, as high as a twenty-story building, to cut off the top so that the tree might be used as a spar for further lumber operations. I held my breath as I filmed it, and the audiences to whom I showed it held theirs as they watched Hewitt at his precarious task.
With the vital but hazardous activities of the lumber operations transferred to film, I needed a change of pace. It came with the termination of the day’s labors.
At suppertime, back in the camp, several hundred hardy lumbermen filed into the huge tin-roofed mess hall and filled every seat on the wood benches at the twenty long tables, which were smothered with bowls and dishes of food, and pots and pitchers of coffee and milk.
As each man sat down he started helping himself from the bowl nearest him, and reaching for those farther away. Those men were hungry! They ate! At the rate they were going I feared there would not be time to obtain adequate shots of the scene.
Trying to get good angles from the end of a table, I realized I was not tall enough. Unceremoniously pushing several bowls and dishes aside on the tabletop itself, I stepped up onto the cleared space, set up my tripod in the midst of their eating, and began grinding the film through the camera.
The men paid me almost no heed whatever. To have done so would have meant they’d have missed part of their supper. Those men were really hungry! They really ate! It made a sparkling human interest sequence.
On some of these American safaris, particularly if we would travel by train, Helen accompanied me. On one such occasion, an event occurred which helped greatly to overcome a fear which she had always had of high places. When we had ascended the Eifel Tower in Paris she had trembled with concern, at the top. When we had ascended a series of narrow stairs to explore the intricate details of architecture on the expansive roof of the Milan Cathedral in Italy, she had had touches of fear.
It was understandable, then, that she said “No” when I asked if she wanted to ride with me out over the whirlpool rapids, just below Niagara Falls. A large metal “cage” transported passengers on suspended cables out over the rapids, the metal straps forming the floor of the conveyance were separated from each other enough that I could project the lens of my camera straight down between them and get excellent shots of the foaming river below.
I went up to pay my dollar. The day was cold and windy; no other passengers were on board.
“Isn’t the lady going?” asked the ticket-taker. Helen answered firmly in the negative.
For a moment the man hesitated. Then: “She can go along for the same price,” he added.
Helen’s thriftiness got the upper hand. She went with me. So interested was she in helping me obtain those unusual shots of the tumbling water down below, she did not have time to be afraid.
Ever since, she has been less concerned about heights.
Sheep Help Win the War
Helen accompanied me to Phoenix, Arizona for some lecture engagements, and we visited her cousin in nearby Chandler. The annual sheep drive was just beginning—moving the herds from the unbearable summer heat of the Salt River Valley up to cool summer pasture in northern mountains. Those sheep meant mutton and wool for America’s war effort. Helen’s cousin, owner of two of the herds, described to us the dangers and grueling hardships of the forty-day trek.
“That Heber-Reno sheep trail is really wicked, ” he said. “Those sheep go through some of the wildest country in America.”
“Yes,” agreed his wife, “and those Mexican herders are heroes in the truest sense.”
Helen and I exchanged deep glances. It would be a week before my next lecture, back in California. We spent six days chronicling some of the hazards—and also the rare desert beauty—of the first portions of the Arizona sheep trek.
To get the sheep pictures, we walked. When it was necessary, back home, to drive our car for filming, we employed every possible effort to conserve scarce gasoline. Someone, however, reported us to our local gas rationing board and, in a stern letter, I was called before them, to explain what someone had reported was “unnecessary driving.”
Carefully I outlined the problem, and even showed them unedited scenes of the story of America’s war effort, which we were attempting to catch on film. After reviewing and listening attentively, the board adjourned. Next day I was summoned to return. What would be their verdict? Instead of punishing us, I soon discovered that they had voted unanimously to grant us a “C” ration card, nearly doubling our allotment of gas. Even though only half finished, and still unedited, This Is Your America had passed its first test.
Some of the scenes we needed were far too distant for driving, even with a “C” card, and were not near any of the lecture engagements to which I traveled by train. With camera and tripod I began hitchhiking to reach such required places. Accumulating scenes and episodes through a two-year period, with Helen editing it all, as only she could, our production on America’s war effort was at last completed.
We called it “A war film without the horrors of war, showing construction rather than destruction.” It became one more film which I carried with me—this time by train—on my eastern lecture trips, and one more hour-and-twenty-minute commentary which needed to be stored in my memory.
Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh is an ideal spot for the premiere of any film. The auditorium is large, the projection—with a carbon-arc machine casting a crisp colorful image on the huge twenty-foot screen—is professional, and the audience, sponsored by the Pittsburgh Academy of Arts, is receptive to programs of quality.
This Is Your America, in its initial presentation at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall, was applauded more than I could even remotely have imagined. People swarmed around me backstage when the show was over. After most of them had finally departed, the head usher came back to see me.
“Line,” he said, “if you want to get an evaluation of a film you only need to ask me.”
The usher explained himself “If a show’s no good, people start leaving, and I hear what they say. When a show is good, I catch all the comments as the people are on the way out, after it’s all over.”
He paused, then continued, “Tonight, after I’d heard what the people said, I knew you had given us the best film that Carnegie Hall has ever had.”
I was going to write Helen at once for I knew she would be as interested as I, in the program’s reception. She had helped in parts of the filming and had done all the editing, which can be responsible for much of a motion picture’s success or failure.
“But no,” I thought to myself “Three more important shows are coming up in the next two days. Perhaps the Carnegie Hall audience was not typical. I better give the film a couple more tryouts.”
Members of the Nomad Club, next night in Dayton, Ohio, were as enthusiastic as the Pittsburghers had been. My only disappointment was that Wilbur Wright, coinventor of the airplane, who had planned to attend, could not do so because of last minute illness.
Time was lacking to write Helen after the Nomad show; I had to get up to Detroit to make ready for two huge presentations of our new film for George Pierrot’s World Adventure Series. As mentioned before, this was the world’s largest illustrated lecture course.
There was an afternoon and an evening showing. Late that night, after the evening show was completed, I wrote my letter to Helen:
“It was another of those applauding audiences,” I began, “or else this is an applauding film. They started clapping at the first scene, applauded five shots in the opening sequence, then kept it up quite regularly throughout the film.”
This Is Your America, it became clear as my tour continued, was indeed “an applauding film” Two fellow lecturers who made a semiprofessional business of evaluating illustrated lecture programs, rated it on their score sheets as the best film in America. The Pittsburgh Academy, as a result of the showing there, selected me, out of all they had presented during the year, to give their bonus or “dividend” extra film lecture. Of greater significance, the Detroit World Adventure Series audience—as I learned much later—in their balloting for best program of the year, gave our new America film first place. If a film did well at the World Adventure Series—so great was that organization’s reputation—program chairpersons across the country would book it, sight unseen.
This Is Your America was on its way.