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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.

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.

Favorite Film Finds of 2014

by on December 11, 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!

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 not 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

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!