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2.1: The American Cornucopia

Context: In the post-war era, industrial filmmakers begin their campaign to present the highway as a pathway to prosperity.

Published onMar 25, 2021
2.1: The American Cornucopia

The American Cornucopia

Selling the Superhighway

Lady Liberty and her cornucopia of consumer goods. Highway Transportation Re-makes America. National Highways Users Conference, 1939. Prelinger Archives.

Interrupted by World War II and then the project of European reconstruction, the “Interregional Highways” imagined so compellingly in the Futurama ride did not come into existence until 1956 when Congress passed legislation to begin work on the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Despite the delay, however, Norman Bel Geddes’ vision of a safer, streamlined future had already become deeply entrenched in the American cultural imagination. In Highway Transportation Re-makes America, a 1939 publication of a coalition of truck operators called the National Highways Users Conference, the proposed Interstate system was personified as a beautiful and bounteous Lady Liberty holding a cornucopia spilling over with consumer products while an eager American public clamored for these luxuries of the future:

The new highway transportation is leading the American people on a new avenue of progress. It is adding to the sum of human happiness. It is lowering the cost of transportation of commodities, thereby tending to reduce living costs. It is assisting materially in raising our standards of living. It is creating opportunity. It is providing jobs for millions. (Highway Transportation Re-makes America. National Highways Users Conference, 1939, 31)

The Interstate had come to be imagined as the safer, cleaner, faster mode of transportation that would save drivers time and allow for rapid transportation of goods across the country. Though Geddes’ radio-control transceivers would not become a reality, the multi-lane, divided highways with their curved entrance ramps promised to eliminate collisions caused by oncoming cars and to speed the flow of ever-increasing traffic. The streamlined “jet-age” automobiles of the period, with their wings, fins, and other aeronautical design features, owed their excessive styling to a retro-deco sensibility that promised a return to the technologically optimistic days from before the war; in the cities, stylized overpasses were built, reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Anticipating the 1956 congressional mandate to fund the construction of the Interstate with tax dollars, automotive companies began a media campaign of so-called “educational” films aimed at selling Americans on the Interstate. Automotive companies and many other manufacturers had much to gain. As Tom Lewis reports, lobbyists from “the Association of General Contractors; the National Asphalt Pavement Association; the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association; the American Concrete Paving Association; and the American Road Builders Association” all had a stake in the planning, construction, paving, and driving of tomorrow’s highways (110).

The films of this period, unlike To New Horizons, rely much more on personal narratives to convey their promises of a better future. Many feature individual characters played by professional actors and relate hypothetical circumstances in which these characters would find themselves in the years ahead as they take more and more to the open road. The rhetoric of manifest destiny and appeals to the collective good have been replaced by the allure of individualism, presented in the form of the “average American”—typically white, middle class, and hailing from the heartland rather than the city.  At the same time, the Futurama’s aerial views of sweeping highways, its romantic views of the countryside, and the metaphor of an American public driving into the future on tomorrow’s roads remain regular features in these cinematic descendants of Geddes’ original vision.

The rhetorical aims of these films are clear: to encourage grassroots support for the highway system and, perhaps more importantly, to encourage people to buy stuff, especially cars. These were not educational but rather “industrial” films, what Rick Prelinger has called “ephemeral” films: sponsored advertisements coupled with fictional story lines, characters, and entertaining song-and-dance routines.  A number of film companies sprang up around the industrial film genre—notably the Jam Handy Organization, MPO, and the Coleman Company. Industrial films were sponsored, predictably enough, by the same companies that had so heavily invested in the World’s Fair of 1939: General Motors, Ford, Dupont, and Westinghouse.

While the narrative voices vary widely in these films, the message remains consistent: the automobile and the highway promise to transform the American landscape and with it the fortunes of her citizens. 1951’s Your Permit to Drive (produced in-house by GM Photographic), features a talking drivers’ permit: “I am your permit to drive an automobile. I bring wings to your feet.” Much of the permit’s story revolves around themes similar to Futurama: the collapse of space and time and increases in both leisure activity (in the form of automobile tourism from coast to coast) and, more importantly, commerce made possible by the new accessibility provided by the highway. But rather than a vision of the future, as in the earlier To New Horizons, by the 1950s these sentiments are matter-of-fact statements of the now.

“Our whole way of living has been geared to the automobile.” Your Permit to Drive. 1951. Prod. GM Photographic for General Motors/National Educational Association. Prelinger Archives.

Although, much like its predecessors, Your Permit to Drive begins with a bombastic celebration of freedom and opportunity offered by the open road, the film quickly turns from opportunity to obligation, from the open road to deadly collisions, traffic jams, and impatient, frustrated drivers taking shortcuts on unmarked, unpaved gravel shoulders. Citing the “milling throng” of people in the city streets and its similarity to the traffic jam, the film already begins to create the conditions for an industry-sponsored dissatisfaction with the lack of infrastructure to support the disorderly “throng” of automobiles.

1952’s Key to Our Horizons, created by Jam Handy for GM’s Chevrolet brand, begins where Your Permit to Drive implicitly leaves off—with the population explosion of cars. The number of cars is put into perspective with animations featuring cars driving bumper-to-bumper seven times around the equator. Echoing 1939’s To New Horizons, the film pronounces that the car has “opened up new horizons in our way of living,” and proceeds to show some of the beneficiaries of this explosive new automotive industry—not just those using cars, but those producing them as well. The film claims that, at the time, one in seven U.S. workers was involved in car manufacturing, from those producing raw materials to such comical new professions as the “toot tester,” men who make sure car horns are tuned to the right musical key. Key to Our Horizons also plays on (and perhaps tries to allay the public’s fears of) the connection between the new manufacturing base of the American economy and the older agricultural base, praising the farmer who “grows automobiles” and the miner who “mines automobiles” by harvesting raw materials for their use in auto manufacturing.

Key to Our Horizons. 1952. Handy (Jam) Organization for Chevrolet Division, General Motors Corp. Prelinger Archives.

In addition to encouraging the development of suburbs and extended commutes (since “being able to drive out into the country makes people want to live in the country”), the film markets cars as essential for facilitating all kinds of businesses working at the intersection between commerce and the natural world: from little Jimmy’s roadside vegetable stand to the traveling tree trimmer. The pioneer narrative, conquering the empty landscape, was even harnessed as an information graphic: in a somewhat comical attempt at expressing the number of jobs created by the automobile, the film shows an animated sequence of all those people driving west to fill up virtually every state (the largest and most sparsely populated, of course) west of the Mississippi.

Key to Our Horizons. 1952. Handy (Jam) Organization for Chevrolet Division, General Motors Corp. Prelinger Archives.

Despite its overwhelmingly optimistic depiction of the current state of automobile economics and infrastructure, the film ends with both a promise and an implicit caution: “[all] of us share in the responsibility of safeguarding the benefits it has brought. If we plan for the future, if we look ahead to clear all obstacles and roadblocks, if we recognize the importance of this great individual freedom of movement, the motorcar will be the key to our ever widening horizons of tomorrow.” The “key to our horizons” may be automobiles, but it is crucial, the film suggests, that there must be nothing standing in the way of America’s prosperity and freedom.

Appealing to the Citizen

While Key to Our Horizons referred obliquely to “clearing all obstacles and roadblocks” from the path of progress and prosperity, films created to sell taxpayers on the idea of the superhighway were not always so subtle. 1954’s Give Yourself the Green Light opens with a sweeping view of busy freeways. But, explains the narrator, “[t]hese wide lanes of reality actually measure out to just a few miles scattered far apart across the friendly face of our land.” 

“We didn’t dream big enough!” Give Yourself the Green Light. 1954. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

In order to create a groundswell of demand for more, wider, and better roads, Give Yourself the Green Light aims to balance a fine line: people must be convinced both that cars are our future, making America great, and at the same time that they are increasingly crowding the highways. The structuring metaphor of the film was the red traffic light, bringing to mind Key to Our Horizons’ “obstacles and roadblocks.” Somewhat bemusedly, as if taken by surprise, the announcer says, “We’re running out of roads!” This pronouncement is followed by the tragic realization: “We didn’t dream big enough.”

Highways and roads are unfinished, out of date, too narrow, and too crowded. They are also, the film warns, unsafe. Like Key to Our Horizons, Give Yourself the Green Light features “interviews” with working- and middle-class people, this time testifying not to the economic benefits of the automobile but to the sad lack of infrastructure needed to support our increasing dependence on it. An engineer bemoans the state of the highways, saying “[w]hat we need is to invest more money in good new roads.”

Stills: Stuck on Agony Alley. Give Yourself the Green Light. 1954. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

More actors appear, the school bus driver and small merchant, who claim that people would bypass the town if they couldn’t find a place to park; thus the best investment a town could make is more parking lots. “Ask Mrs. America,” the film suggests, who finds the town too crowded to shop because there is insufficient parking. In this segment a perfect Mom and her housewife-in-training daughter search in vain for a place to park. In addition to the red light and the red flag of the roadway engineer we now have red “no parking” signs and red fire hydrants. Frustrated commercial drivers exchange words: “Hey buddy, what’s the deal?!” “Just keep loading and unloading, buddy.” The traveling salesman is late for every appointment.  The morning rush is labeled “agony alley.” Anxious drivers stuck in traffic long for the green fields and peaceful suburban environments promised by the Futurama narrative.

Robert Moses wins GM’s “Better Highways Award.” Give Yourself the Green Light. 1954. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

Unlike Key to Our Horizons, Give Yourself the Green Light is notable for its concrete call to citizen action, charging viewers to “give yourself the green light” rather than waiting for someone else to do it. The film makes use of the GM-sponsored national “Better Highways Awards Contest” to suggest that public demand and public ideas are crucial to the building of a national highway system. The winner of the contest was Robert Moses, sponsor of the 1939-1940 World’s Fair and engineer (often to the detriment of inner-city residents) of the much-lauded New York system of parkways. The compelling visual and rhetorical tropes first displayed in the Futurama continued to be effective for capturing the American imagination in film. The narrator of Give Yourself the Green Light muses of engineers who can “pour miracles of concrete through the air” and the “fabulous futuristic forms” of the Hollywood freeway, combining a streamlined aesthetic vision with a new understanding of democratic citizenship.

“Miracles of concrete.” Give Yourself the Green Light. 1954. Handy (Jam) Organization for General Motors. Prelinger Archives.

But the power of the Futurama narrative as a primary way to motivate people was slowly taking a back seat to “civic duty.” In 1939, according to one historian, Geddes attempted to enlist the support of Robert Moses at an annual meeting of civil engineers, but Moses rejected Geddes’ plan, describing the vision laid out by Futurama as “bunk” and a “work of the imagination” (Meikle 208).

Whereas Geddes’ plan for the superhighway aimed to allow Americans to travel smoothly and swiftly on cross-country journeys, Moses held firmly to the belief that the primary purpose of expressways should be to support commerce and to make internal traffic run more smoothly. Moses’ comment prompted a series of contentious public exchanges, marking a turf war between the two men who today are regarded as the primary visionaries of tomorrow’s highways. In the end, as Moses garnered more and more support from corporations and local governments for his aggressive approach to urban planning, Geddes’ futuristic vision lost ground.

Moses, insisting that expressways were needed to ease traffic in cities rather than between them, concentrated on the engineering and economic challenges facing the development of a national highway system rather than the grander narratives of technological progress and conquering the landscape. His sly comment in his acceptance speech that “no magic will suddenly produce roads commensurate with cars” expressed his ongoing wish for gradual weaning the American public off of the misty dreams of the Futurama’s pastoral landscapes in favor of a more practical system of expressways and parking lots. The visual elements of the Futurama—aerial views of highways, happy countryside drivers—remained, as did rhetorical appeals to “the future” and the wonders of modern technology, but economic growth and individual consumer satisfaction took on new emphasis as the cost-intensive Interstate System that Moses and others were proposing began to be debated in Congress.

Media Within Media: Documentary and the Highway Hearing

Give Yourself the Green Light’s call to the citizenry and Moses’ call for an “aroused American people” were echoed in1955’s Freedom of the American Road (MPO for the Ford Motor Company), which appealed to Americans’ sense of grassroots community and individual action. Prefaced awkwardly by Henry Ford II, Freedom of the American Road focuses on a pseudo-scientific “study” of American roads. Like Give Yourself the Green Light, the film appeals to “the people,” private citizens tired of heavy traffic, car wrecks, and rural isolation. The film claims to narrate “democracy in action” in the shape of grassroots movements in Pittsburgh, Palo Alto, Boston, and rural North Carolina. In the film’s reenactments of community action, private citizens write letters to newspapers and create petitions, and local government responds to their concerns by widening and updating roads and highways.

Film within a film. Freedom of the American Road. 1955. MPO for the Ford Motor Company. Prelinger Archives.

In more rural communities, the film promises, roads will connect “the life of the farm with the life of the town,” and facilitate going to football matches, riding safely to new “modern schools” and shopping centers, and driving on safe, low-traffic roadways.

Freedom of the American Road. 1955. MPO for the Ford Motor Company. Prelinger Archives.

Although the film’s narrative was familiar, the form of the industrial film was becoming more sophisticated as filmmakers took advantage of the media saturation experienced by Americans in the 1950s. Freedom of the American Road is a highly structured “documentary” based on a “study” of the same name commissioned by Ford. The film makes full use of multiple media formats: film, poster boards, animated maps, newspapers, radio communication, reenactments, and photographs. Rather than sticking to a single story line narrated by a hidden voice like its predecessors, Freedom of the American Road jumps through several on-camera narrators who address the audience directly. Henry Ford II, who provides the introduction, passes off the film to Westbrook Van Voorhis, a prominent voice actor of the period. Van Voorhis reports from the “traffic safety and highway improvement department” and uses maps to segue into film footage of San Francisco and the Bay Bridge.

Within the film footage, Van Voorhis introduces “the managing editor of the Palo Alto Times, Gene Paulson,” who also addresses the camera, showing photographs and starting to read an editorial on the dangers of the Bayshore Freeway. This film-within-film and narration-within-narration structure continues, with another segue in which the editorial is now being read aloud by a woman at home to her husband. A letter written to the newspaper is spoken by an off-camera voice purporting to be the writer himself, while Paulson sits at his desk reading the letter and Van Voorhis narrates over the top.

Following a more conventional voice-over discussion of two cities and their need for freeway improvements, the film continues with the story of a typical rural town and the benefits that new highways have brought. It ends with Van Voorhis discussing the actions of community groups lobbying for better roads, and promoting a book, also called Freedom of the American Road, leading us to wonder whether the film is based on the book, or whether the book was invented to give credence to the film.

This layered, multimedia technique represents an intensification of media technologies. Gone is the omniscient, distant figure of the anonymous narrator presenting a singular vision of the future to a mass public; instead, dialogic voices in multiple layers of media engage audience members, addressing each as a discrete individual with a civic obligation to defend this new freedom. Rather than “the future” being something that will inevitably happen with the help of a few all-knowing engineers, it is now something that citizens must “make happen” by having their individual voices heard. Depictions of a manifest destiny of an entire people have been replaced by a vision of the atomic individual: a single person driving in the family car. Nowhere is there mention of public transportation, and the highway is, fundamentally, designed to serve the individual.

While many of the road lobbying films of the period were often simplistic and jingoistic advertising messages, 1956’s Highway Hearing (producer, Dow Chemical Company) represents a significant departure from its precursors.  It continues to rely on the visual and narrative tropes of To New Horizons (progress, prosperity, etc.), and like Key to Our Horizons, Give Yourself the Green Light, and Freedom of the American Road, the film calls for individual and community action. 

Highway Hearing. 1956. Dow Chemical Company. Prelinger Archives.

However, unlike these earlier films, Highway Hearing uses a completely fictional narrative to provide the framework for its message. Citizens of the quaint American town of Connorsville attend the opening of its newest stretch of highway, reflecting back on the contentious town hall meetings that made the highway happen.

Rather unconventionally, the film features skeptical characters voicing often-spoken doubts and suspicions about the impact of superhighways on small communities.  In this way, the film dramatizes a community conflict that was happening all over the country as people were waking up to the unintended consequences of superhighways that bypassed small towns, plowed through urban communities, and replaced rows of crops with lanes of asphalt.

The film employs two narratives, one embedded within the other, to frame its inspirational tale of community conflict giving way to progress. Retrospective scenes mark the beginning and end of the film in which townspeople watch the celebratory opening of a new section of the Interstate passing through their town, and reminisce over the way their community came together to debate and eventually approve the project. Using this framing technique, Highway Hearing presents the construction of the superhighway as a fait accompli, showing (mostly) satisfied citizens well before the film suggests that there was any community opposition during the initial planning phase of the highway. By structuring the film’s narrative in this way, any concerns the fictional citizens might voice later in the film have already been preempted by the clean and happy outcome of the highway’s opening day parade. As one disgruntled opponent of the project observes, now that the “majority will” has been followed and the highway has been built, citizens must accept the new road system and hope for success rather than root for failure.

Another noteworthy framing device employed by Highway Hearing is the film-within-a-film. Unlike Freedom of the American Road, in which the viewer is passed seamlessly from section to section and from film fragment to film fragment, Highway Hearing features an engineer showing a complete film reel to townspeople, and then documenting their response. The film the engineer shows, “Highway Challenge,” bears an uncanny resemblance to industrial propaganda films that viewers were likely to have already seen. It argues that the highway creates jobs, saves time, reduces accidents, and collapses space and time for farmers who now have access to new markets and can enjoy faster driving times that prevent the spoilage of crops.

“Highway Challenge” (the film within the film). Highway Hearing. 1956. Dow Chemical Company. Prelinger Archives.

However, within the context of the fictional town hall meeting in which skeptical townspeople argue against the highway, “Highway Challenge” seems overly optimistic and even jingoistic. Far from undermining the film’s message, however, this embedding strategy works because it provides a counterpoint to the “realistic” civic debate that follows. The hearing shows a supposedly fair, democratic consultation of the people, the illusion of a considered response to highway building wherein skeptics are given their time on the stand, and then a discussion in which a majority of the townspeople are “convinced” by the film and the engineer.

A happy ending for the residents of Connorsville? Highway Hearing. 1956. Dow Chemical Company. Prelinger Archives.

Thus Highway Hearing is not only significant for its meta-use of film and its appeal to community involvement, but also for the way it recuperates dissent by creating the illusion that, at least in one small town, the will of the people has won out.

This recuperative strategy is all the more significant given that such a seemingly earnest celebration of civic discourse and democracy falls flat when considered against the hard politics and political strife that went into getting the 1956 legislation passed, as well as the actual community efforts already heating up in cities across the United States to block highway construction (Mohl).

Fittingly, Freedom of the American Road and Highway Hearing represent a kind of end to the future-forward optimism of Geddes’ Futurama. The engineer’s film in Highway Hearing, with its enthusiastic portrayal of the wonders of the road, has been subsumed by the more complicated narrative of community and individual action, in large part because, by 1956, the moment when American tax payers must “pay their way” had finally arrived.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Highway Hearing

Funded by Dow Chemical Company in 1956, Highway Hearing is an industry-sponsored film like those that preceded it—To New Horizons, Your Permit to Drive, and Give Yourself the Green Light. But unlike these earlier films, Highway Hearing moves much closer to the popular film genre with its sizable cast, fictional plot, and discernibly higher production values.

Made for the purpose of gaining public support of the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, the film was created not by a production company such as Jam Handy for whom industry and educational films were stock and trade, but by Universal International (now Universal Studios), best known at the time for its westerns, science fiction films, and big-budget melodramas. Another mark of the film’s sophistication was its cast of notable actors. James Chandler, who later performed on screen with Paul Newman and Doris Day, portrayed the handsome and trustworthy highway engineer. Diane Brewster played Miss Helen Rathburn. Brewster reproduced this role as the lovable and attractive schoolteacher when she played Miss Canfield, in Leave It to Beaver only a year later.

In Highway Hearing the bombastic voice-overs and jingoistic claims of a better future have disappeared from the slick narrative, though such techniques still haunt the film; they reappear, perhaps ironically, as the industry sponsored “Highway Challenge,” a film that is screened by the residents of the fictional community of Connorsville at a town hall meeting. This film-within-a-film strategy signals a significant shift in the expectations of a skeptical American audience who have by now grown wary of as-of-yet unfulfilled promises of a better, more prosperous future to be ushered in by the superhighway, an audience that, instead, has already witnessed the unintended consequences of becoming a nation on wheels: congestion, air pollution, and small towns that languish as drivers bypass main streets on their way to somewhere else. In this respect, Highway Hearing marks the end of the optimistic era of Futurama even as it boldly announces (complete with marching band) the arrival of a generation that would, for better or worse, make a version of Geddes’ “highway of tomorrow” a reality.

Image Credit

Highway Hearing. Dir. Jack Daniels and Larry Kostroff. Prod. Charles E. Skinner and Universal-International Pictures. Dow Chemical Company, 1956. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Freedom of the American Road

Freedom of the American Road, produced in 1955 by MPO for Ford, is a documentary-style film supposedly based on a “study” of the same title that was conducted by Ford Motor Company to investigate our “highway situation.” The very stiff Henry Ford II introduces the film, calling for “public understanding and support” for our “experienced highway and traffic safety experts.” This call to citizen action is the central aim of the film, and yet it is also presented to the audience as a fait accompli as the film goes on to highlight four “success” stories of community initiatives that, according to Ford, demonstrate “real democracy in action.”

With its newsreel aesthetic, appeals to safety and progress for future generations, and especially its praise for civic engagement in the form of petitions, voting, and letter writing, the film conflates consumer choice (the choice, in this case, to own and travel by automobile) with democratic freedom: “Freedom to travel safely, and quickly, and comfortably on our highways is not a little freedom but a big one.” No longer is automotive travel presented as part of a comprehensive system that includes public transportation or even pedestrian traffic (jaywalkers are singled out in the film as especially menacing). Rather, auto-mobility is regarded by this time as a well-established way of life and a fundamental American right.

The film repeatedly presents anecdotes of citizens demanding more and better roads, thus insisting that highway planners are merely responding to the will of the people. This effort to recuperate dissent before it has even begun is notable given that, as early as 1954, highway builders had already anticipated the freeway revolts that would reach a fever pitch a few years later. In 1954, one year prior to the release of Freedom of the American Road, Robert Moses reported to the President’s Committee on a National Highway Program that urban expressways would be “the hardest to locate, the most difficult to clear, the most expensive to acquire and build, and the most controversial from the point of view of selfish and shortsighted opposition” (qtd. in Mohl 678). By 1955, San Francisco residents were mobilizing forces to oppose a highway project that would cut along the Embarcadero waterfront (Klemek 133). This example of “real democracy in action,” of course, never makes it into the film.


Klemek, Christopher. The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal: Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Mohl, Raymond A. “Stop the Road: Freeway Revolts in American Cities.” Journal of Urban History 30.5 (July 2004): 674-706.

Image Credit

Freedom of the American Road. Prod. MPO Productions, Inc. Perf. Henry Ford II, Westbrook Van Voorhis. Ford Motor Co., 1956. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Better Highways Awards Contest

In 1952, GM announced its plan to host the “Better Highways Contest” as a way to educate the public and, more importantly, to stimulate public interest in investing in U.S. highway infrastructure (“GM’s Better Highways”). The contest invited Americans to submit essays that would address the question, “How to plan and pay for the safe and adequate highways we need.” A grand prize of $25,000 was awarded to the author of the winning essay, Robert Moses. At the time, Moses was at the height of his authority, sitting in a number of prominent positions, including Construction Coordinator and Commissioner of Parks for New York City, and Chairman of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority (“GM’s Better Highways”).

The main emphasis of Moses’ essay was not just that we need more and bigger highways, but that the overall infrastructure required to support the increasing number of automobiles, which had already exceeded fifty million, would need to be over- hauled. Moses’ essay went on to focus on the three practical realities of roadway con- struction: politics, time, and cost. His proposal of a ten-year, fifty billion dollar plan, he argued, would require the support of government officials at every level, as well as increases in local and federal gas taxes and changes to policy to allow for the creation of “self-liquidating” toll roads (“GM’s Better Highways”).

During hearings of the Subcommittee on Roads, Committee on Public Works, House of Representatives, 83rd. Congress in April and May of 1953, Moses’ winning essay was included in the public record.

Robert Moses’ winning essay of the GM better highways contest was inserted into the record. Moses advocated a 10-year program; Better research; For development of standards for plans, surveys, urban studies, education of engineers; He was very eloquent in support of BPR [Bureau of Public Roads] and a greater allocation of resources to urban areas; He debunked trust funds, pay as you go, and anti-diversion; He felt that all avenues of fiscal management should be prudently utilized to reach the ten-year goal; The Federal Government toll policy should be re-examined because tolls could help build parts of the Interstate; Excess condemnation should not be considered because there would be too much opportunity for skulduggery; Raise gas taxes in some states, raise truck taxes, raise the Federal gas tax 1 cent and stop diversion; Don’t relinquish the Federal gas tax; These initiatives would allow doubling the highway program to provide $50 billion in ten years and increase the urban program because that was where the problem was; Pay for railroad grade crossing eliminations because it was the car that was causing the problem, not the trains: Parking was essential; He advocated a 60 mph speed limit and uniformity of size and weight; Billboard control and a good publicity program was necessary and the highway community must pull together instead of being divisive. (“Hearings,” Note 37)

Further Reading

“GM’s Better Highways Award.” U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. FHWA.

Hearings of the Subcommittee on Roads, Committee on Public Works, House of Representatives, 83rd. Congress. April and May, 1953. FHWA.

Image Credit

“Harlow H. Curtice left, president of General Motors, congratulates Robert Moses, New York City construction Coordinator and Commissioner of Parks, and presents him with a certificate and $25,000 check as the first national award in GM’s Better Highways Awards contest.” U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. FHWA.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Give Yourself the Green Light

Produced by the Jam Handy Organization for General Motors, Give Yourself the Green Light (1954) demonstrates that GM is no longer concerned only with selling Americans on the automobile, but on the roads required to support “the American dream of freedom on wheels.” With more than fifty million cars already on the road, America’s commitment to the automobile was obvious. So, in this promotional film, GM turns its attention to convincing the American citizenry of the need for large-scale investments in highways.

The film expertly juxtaposes visionary images of the superhighways of the future, for which they reach back to Norman Bel Geddes’ 1939 “Futurama’s free-flowing channels of concrete and steel,” with chaotic images of an “obsolete,” worn out, and “inadequate” roadway system. The film suggests that America’s progress toward the future is stymied by an infrastructure that is “dying of old age.” The narrator mourns, “Sure, these were good roads thirty years ago when they were laid out, but nothing lasts forever.” To drive home this claim, the film relies on tight, jumpy footage of cars jammed in traffic or rattling over rough, pot-holed gravel roads while the musical soundtrack is relentless and frantic to suggest the urgency of the current dilemma.

These claustrophobic images of anxious drivers stuck in traffic jams are contrasted with wide, long shots of cars zooming smoothly along elevated expressways. Once the film has established this preferred future driving condition, it ramps up the rhetoric for the hard sell: increased taxes. “Our American dream of Futurama on wheels can come true. Our highway engineers know the way. It’s ours for the asking if we’ll ask and pay our way.”

Image Credit

Give Yourself the Green Light. Prod. Handy (Jam) Organization. General Motors Corporation Department of Public Relations, 1954. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Key to Our Horizons

Produced in 1952 by the Jam Handy Organization for the Chevrolet brand of GM, Key to Our Horizons offers a primarily economic argument. Rather than tout the merits of auto-mobility for the millions of American drivers and passengers, the film aims to sell viewers on the economic benefits of the automotive industry, what the film refers to as “the motorcar’s vast potential for good,” from the creation of manufacturing and construction jobs to retail and tourism industries.

One notable feature of the film is its implicit assumption that all workers—the farmer, the salesperson, and even “little Jimmy,” the entrepreneurial young vegetable vendor—are men. The only working woman in the film is a waitress at a drive-in restaurant. As a postwar film, Key to Our Horizons seems to participate in the mid-century conservatism that reversed much of the economic progress made by women during World War II. This inherent view would change again later in the 1950s and 1960s as corporations became increasingly aware of women as consumers making up a substantial part of annual sales.

Image Credit

Cars wrapping around the globe. Key to Our Horizons. Prod. Handy (Jam) Organization. Chevrolet Division, General Motors Corp., 1952. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Your Permit to Drive

Your Permit To Drive (1951), produced and sponsored by General Motors in consultation with the National Educational Association, is an early example of a driving safety film, and features a talking driver’s permit delivered in the folksy vocal stylings of the now legendary radio commentator Paul Harvey.

Aimed at young drivers, the film combines promises of freedom and opportunity—“I unroll before your eyes a magic carpet, the millions of miles of highways and by-ways that crisscross the nation. I am your roundtrip travel ticket, your passport to pleasure”—with a stern warning about responsibility and safety on increasingly congested streets: “I urge you to guard what I stand for, for I permit you to drive.” This rhetoric of cautious optimism about America’s automotive future is reflected, as well, in images of smooth, orderly cars driven on busy streets by drivers who use “common sense” and “abide by the rules of driving” juxtaposed to a disorderly, “milling throng of automobiles” getting into accidents or stuck in traffic jams.

Image Credit

Your Permit to Drive. Prod. GM Photographic. General Motors Corp./National Educational Association, 1951. Film still. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

Jam Handy Organization

The Jam Handy Organization, a film production and distribution company, was founded in Detroit by Henry Jamison Handy in 1911. Regarded for its contribution to the evolution of visual media in early twentieth-century America, the Jam Handy Organization made thousands of educational and promotional films, newsreels, and animations. Included among the company’s clients were the United States Armed Forces, Coca-Cola, and Reynolds Metals (Lippe). Jam Handy is probably best known for the production of the “Direct Mass Selling Series” for the Chevrolet Brand of General Motors. Over a hundred of these “soft-sell” advertising shorts, disguised as informational documentaries, served to embed the Chevy brand within the larger social context of American patriotism and progress (Tohline 7).

Company founder Jamison (Jam) Handy (1886-1983) was considered a rather eccentric character. He refused to have an office at the production company in Detroit, and had his suits custom tailored with no outer pockets, which he saw as a source of temptation and distraction from effective communication: “When I had a pocket there I was inclined to put things in it” (“Profile: Jam Handy” Part II). An avid swimmer who won two Olympic bronze medals two decades apart, Handy developed a reputation for being an effective promoter of ideas and a master of visual rhetorics. His visual style in promotional film-making was, according to Dan Lippe, “simple and direct, though sometimes to the point of eccentricity.” In fact, in a 1961 inter- view for WWJ-TV (Detroit) with Bob Leslie, Handy claimed to have gained much of his insight into visual communication from the Bible. In summarizing his professional contribution, Handy stated, rather modestly, “I steal neglected ideas and help pro- mote them. Our ideas are nearly all ideas for helping other people get their good ideas across” (“Profile: Jamison Handy” Part III).

Further Reading

Lippe, Dan. “They Didn’t Run Company, but Execs Left Their Mark.” Advertising Age 79 (15 Sept. 2008): 34.

“Profile: Jamison Handy (Part II).” An interview with Jam Handy WWJ-TV (Detroit). 26 Dec. 1961. Prelinger Archives.

“Profile: Jamison Handy (Part III).” An interview with Jam Handy WWJ-TV (Detroit). 26 Dec. 1961. Prelinger Archives.

Tohline, Andrew M. “‘Around the Corner’: How Jam Handy’s Films Reflected and Shaped the 1930s and Beyond” (Thesis) Ohio University, 2009.

Image Credit

“Profile: Jamison Handy.” 1961. Movie still. An interview with Jam Handy WWJ-TV (Detroit), 26 Dec. 1961. Prelinger Archives.

Notes from the Polyrhetor:

National Highways Users Conference

Now called the American Highway Users Alliance, the National Highways Users Conference (NHUC), started in 1932 by General Motors and others, was the original name of an American lobbyist group representing automotive, trucking, oil, and construction interests. The NHUC, dominated by GM, expanded and eventually led to the creation of a larger organization that called itself the “Road Gang” (Hayden 4).

The AHUA continues to advocate for increased investment in highway systems on behalf of businesses associated with the automotive and road construction industries. According to its website, “[t]he American Highway Users Alliance is a nonprofit advocacy organization serving as the united voice of the transportation community promoting safe, uncongested highways and enhanced freedom of mobility” ( Relying on the combined rhetoric of democracy and progress, AHUA’s advocacy currently includes issues such as energy policy (lobbying for a continuous and dependable supply of fuel), environment (lobbying for more and wider roads to reduce congestion and therefore air pollution), and highway safety.

Further Reading

American Highway Users Alliance. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

Hayden, Dolores. “‘I Have Seen the Future’: Selling the Unsustainable City.” Journal of Urban History. 38.1 (Jan. 2012): 3-15.