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.
Highway Hearing. Dir. Jack Daniels and Larry Kostroff. Prod. Charles E. Skinner and Universal-International Pictures. Dow Chemical Company, 1956. Film still. Prelinger Archives.
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.
Freedom of the American Road. Prod. MPO Productions, Inc. Perf. Henry Ford II, Westbrook Van Voorhis. Ford Motor Co., 1956. Film still. Prelinger Archives.
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)
“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.
“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.
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.”
Give Yourself the Green Light. Prod. Handy (Jam) Organization. General Motors Corporation Department of Public Relations, 1954. Film still. Prelinger Archives.
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.
Cars wrapping around the globe. Key to Our Horizons. Prod. Handy (Jam) Organization. Chevrolet Division, General Motors Corp., 1952. Film still. Prelinger Archives.
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.
Your Permit to Drive. Prod. GM Photographic. General Motors Corp./National Educational Association, 1951. Film still. Prelinger Archives.
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).
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.
“Profile: Jamison Handy.” 1961. Movie still. An interview with Jam Handy WWJ-TV (Detroit), 26 Dec. 1961. Prelinger Archives.
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” (highways.org). 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.
American Highway Users Alliance. Web. 25 Jan. 2012. http://www.highways.org
Hayden, Dolores. “‘I Have Seen the Future’: Selling the Unsustainable City.” Journal of Urban History. 38.1 (Jan. 2012): 3-15.