Plaudits from the Geographic
In the first year of its life, Circle of Fire, although highly acclaimed wherever shown, was less successful than Finland Waters or Lapland Adventure. Japan, Java, Singapore, and the Philippines were far away, inaccessible to tourists because of backlash from the European conflict. Wake and Midway had scarcely been heard of by most persons and this even applied to Pearl Harbor.
Ed Ainsworth devoted his full Los Angeles Times column, Along El Camino Real to our Pacific film, which served as excellent publicity in Southern California.
I had arranged for the New York Feakins Lecture Agency to handle bookings for me in the Midwest and East but they were unsuccessful in obtaining many showings for our new film.
We dealt with the National Geographic Society largely on our own and they decided to present our Circle of Fire rather than either of the two which we had personally previewed for them the year before.
After Barbara’s passing, it was decided that Helen and I would take Adrienne—not yet old enough for school—and drive east together. In addition to our luggage, two projectors and a large public address system, we carried the heavy reels of our five color motion picture programs in the car.
In my head, I had to carry the commentary for each of these one-hour-twenty-minute films. Sometimes we would present all five of them in as many days, and it required a bit of mental gymnastics to remember correctly every fact and detail. I began to appreciate the skills of concert and opera artists who carry the music and lyrics of half a dozen pieces in their memories.
It was good to have Helen in the audience at Constitution Hall, in Washington. She had never attended one of our shows in an auditorium that large. Despite horrendous weather, the huge hall was packed. Over 3500 people were there. Mason Sutherland and Jack Rideout, two of Melville Bell Grosvenor’s chief lieutenants, told me scores of people in the audience were in high government positions and knew the Pacific area well—generals and admirals, state department executives, ambassadors and personnel from the foreign embassies.
National Geographic programs start precisely on time—not two seconds early or two seconds late. Melville Grosvenor is a rigid disciplinarian and taskmaster. A liveried chauffeur had been sent to transport Helen and me to the hall. The early April weather had—unseasonably—suddenly turned fierce; a snowstorm was biting the air, windblown drifts were two feet high, and streets were slick with ice. We were staying with friends three miles outside Washington. So carefully did the chauffeur have to negotiate his limousine to avoid accidents that we reached the stage door at Constitution Hall just moments before the deadline established by Grosvenor.
I was led at once into my dressing room although I had changed into tuxedo back at our friends. That afternoon I had tried out the podium, the microphone, and the electric signal by which I could make contact with the projectionist.
National Geographic speakers are not introduced; that was another of Grosvenor’s innovations, with results both good and bad. The printed program, put in the hands of the audience as they take their seats, gives a sketch of the speaker’s life. That is adequate, says Grosvenor.
Sutherland and Rideout, who handle the myriad of details in connection with the program, confided to me that the lack of an introduction is hard; it helps to “break the ice.” Rideout told me that some speakers, even seasoned lecturers on occasion, were so frightened at the prospect of walking out on the stageunintroduced—before that huge and prestigious Constitution Hall audience, that they almost froze. Several times, so he said, he and Sutherland had to open the door and physically push the speaker onto the stage.
It was one minute until 8:30 P.M. Sutherland had a watch in his hand; Rideout had the doorknob in his. 8:30. Rideout opened the door. I didn’t need a push; stage fright is one thing which has never concerned me, and an audience of thousands is ten times easier to address than a small gathering of thirty or forty. This audience began to applaud—deafeningly so, it seemed to me.
Walking across the huge stage, I stepped up onto the temporary low stool which had been placed behind the podium.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of the National Geographic Society,” I began. Those were the words with which—again according to Melville Grosvenor’s directions—every speaker must commence.
With that salutation out of the way, I forgot Grosvenor and was on my own. “This afternoon I came here to try out this podium and I couldn’t see over it,” I began. “So the custodian and I rummaged around in the basement until we found a small stool. That’s what I’m standing on now.”
The audience broke into hearty applause and laughter.
“Those of you who are historically minded,” I continued, “may be interested to know that your present speaker is just five feet, two inches tall. That is exactly the same height as was Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Again, 7000 hands applauded, and 3500 throats emitted spontaneous laughter.
“And they do say,” I added, “that Napoleon was good too.”
The applause became as wild as the storm outside, which all these people had braved to get here. Applause is psychologically important to anyone who is standing on a stage, whether to speak, or sing, or perform. Audiences, if they only realized it, can do as much to make an evening successful as the person up front.
This audience apparently realized that fact. When I signaled the projectionist far up in his booth, and the huge color pictures—twenty-four feet wide—started flowing onto the screen, the audience began applauding every minute or so, as some particularly fine scene appeared, or even one which had cost me enormous effort to obtain. The entire one-hour-twenty-minute presentation was punctuated with spontaneous handclapping. A skilled National Geographic secretary (this was long before the age of recording tapes) took down in shorthand every word I said, indicating each time there was either laughter, applause, or both. A typed copy of this, given to us by Melville Grosvenor, became extremely valuable, since it enabled us to study the exact parts of the frselm and commentary which brought significant audience reaction.
As soon as the program was over, dozens of those from the audience, including Helen, streamed backstage to my dressing room. My great regret was that so many crowded around me to talk I could not even catch the names of all who were there. More than once I heard the words “congressman” and “ambassador.”
One person, however, made all the others stand back—Gilbert Grosvenor, venerable editor of the Geographic, and its ruling voice. He introduced me to his wife, who was the daughter of Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. As their special guest, the Grosvenors had invited a woman whose husband had once been governor general of the Philippines, and who knew the whole Pacific area well. Mrs. Grosvenor introduced me to her—Mrs. William Howard Taft. She was a gracious lady. I had even shown Manila’s Taft Avenue in my motion picture; she spared no words in telling me how much our film had meant to her—carrying her memories back to scenes she had loved, before the time that her husband became president of the United States.
On behalf of The National Geographic Society, Melville Bell Grosvenor wrote me a lauditory letter praising my showing of Circle of Fire.
A Date with Destiny
December 7, 1941. We had been showing our Pacific film for over a year before that December 7th date when Japan made its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing America into World War II. In that instant, Circle of Fire became an entirely new program, in the truest sense of the word. No longer did the Pacific area remain abstract. No longer did people, as formerly, have only confused ideas of what and where Pearl Harbor was. The terrible eruption had taken place. The figurative volcanoes were belching steam. Circle of Fire came alive.
Our engagement calendar also came to life as it never had before. The day after the Pearl Harbor attack, audiences across the land wanted to see our film, in order to get some idea of what the potential war area was all about. As the Japanese Pacific invasion swept southward, through the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, the East Indies, those same audiences, plus dozens more, wanted to view the film again. As American troops finally began gaining the upper hand, pushing the Japanese back through this same chain of islands and outposts, the audiences needed to observe it once more. Wives, parents, children and friends of servicemen came up to me after the programs to express their thanks at being able to see pictures of the places where their loved ones were serving.
With each new phase of the Pacific conflict, Circle of Fire became a new film. When the war was over and the boys came home, they wanted to get a look at some of the places where they had been. Two, three, four, and even five times, I gave repeat showings—season after season—in halls across the land. It became difficult to find time for new engagements.
Then there was the military. George Pierrot of the Detroit World Adventure Series, with my permission, had arranged a courtesy showing for, as he said, “some army people” in Detroit.
The showing was to be in a spacious hotel lounge. Upon my arrival there, I found the place littered with generals and admirals. In those days America’s War Department had no satisfactory films, either motion pictures or stills, of many of those places included in our documentary, which were so important in war strategy planning. Later, I presented the film before other groups of the military and eventually furnished them with a copy of its strategic portions, so they could study it at leisure.
Most gratifying of all my Circle of Fire showings—perhaps next only to the National Geographic appearance—was the film’s reception at Pierrot’s World Adventure Series in Detroit, the world’s largest, in point of national reputation and the number of noted speakers and illustrated lecture personalities presented each year. The film definitely sparked enormous spontaneous audience reaction. Although I didn’t know it at the time, that showing resulted in something even more significant. Each year Pierrot conducts an audience poll, asking all his regular ticket subscribers to list the five programs, in order of preference, that they considered best, of the twenty presented throughout that season. Circle of Fire, in competition with them all, took frserst place.
This film on the Pacific became my passport to every major illustrated lecture course in America, with presentations at Town Hall, Columbia University, the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Carnegie Hall in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia Geographic Society, the Taft Theater in Cincinnati, Orchestra Hall and the Field Museum in Chicago, Kiel Auditorium in St. Louis, the Denver Museum of Natural History, Pasadena’s Civic Auditorium, Los Angeles’s Ebell Theater, Shrine Auditorium, Royce Hall—and hundreds of places in between.
The timeliness of Circle of Fire had been slow to assert itself, but that timeliness was also slow to wear off; it remained a vigorous part of our lecture repertoire for nearly a decade Thinking back on my bittersweet journey through all those countries of volcanic upheaval, I was glad that my camera and I had made it.
“This is Your America”
is a Cameraman’s Report to the Nation
America is at war today, not alone with guns but with every aspect of her national life. Here is the first film to give full portrayal to this all-out effort which our country is making. It is c war film without the horrors of war. It shows CONstruction, not DEstruction. Much of it was made with special War Department permits; it contains defense scenes never before filmed in color It is as vital as America itself.
FOOD Line spent the spring of 1943 in Arizona, filming the great ’roundups of beef cattle. He portrays young boys and girls leaving school and “riding the range” to help produce the nation’s meat supply. Also great wheat combines on the western plains, full granaries, bulging elevators, are pictured here.
TIMBER Men topping trees at dizzy heights. Great Douglas firs crashing earthward. Lumbermen shown in their leisure hours after work. From lumber comes plywood for planes. It’s vital. You see it made; you see its uses. It may largely replace aluminum, which is scarce.
MINING Tungsten from Idaho; lead from the Coeur d’ Alenes, copper from Arizona. Line has worked in mines himself; he knows the life. This film shows a colorful phase of America which is of life-and-death importance to our war effort. Without minerals we lose.
INDIANS The film portrays the unusual patriotism of the Southwest Indians and shows the important contribution which these redskinned brothers of ours are making to the war effort. This is one of the most colorful and dramatic sections of the entire picture. There are also sections revealing much of America’s folk lore and folk music and these portions have special musical accompaniments.
DETROIT Detroit’s conversion to War is symbolic of the nation. It is an American epic. This film pictures it. You see jeeps turned out by Ford; planes manufactured on the assembly lines of Willow Run. The great factories and the War Department both co-operated with Line in the making of this Detroit sequence.