- (Photo: YouTube/MakeMagazine)
American Maker is a short film Chevrolet produced in 1960 as a tribute to the nation's creativity and I was entranced recently as I watched parts of the old video along with many others from decades past. I discovered it thanks to a tweet from Brain Pickings' Maria Popova, who had written about the film back in February and had herself discovered it, apparently, due to a 2008 write-up in Make Magazine.
The video comes from 100-year-old Chevrolet, a division of General Motors. Auto manufacturers always enjoy big budgets for their productions, but in modern times we tend to associate these budgets with flashy car commercials and not thoughtful documentary looks at American life. I love old transportation videos from the early 20th century in large part to see just how people responded to their issues of traffic and safety and to get a sense of what things once resembled. In July, I glanced back at a traffic safety video featuring the actor Jimmy Stewart, another General Motors effort. The PSAs and video features were once far longer than what we imagine today and captivated audiences in quite different ways.
See Chevrolet's vision at work in selected clips from American Maker, assembled by Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archives, among other maker-oriented clips from the time period (Note: I initially attributed the following video as American Maker and regret the error):
Even a few seconds of watching show what a different time we're observing, as the narrator utters phrases like "Hey, skinny!" and "fella." Many fascinating transportation moments come up in the course of the compilation, from Miami roadways to balloons strapped onto the rear end of a car. The film shows us a California man's vehicle that is "half bug and half buggy" with a periscope over the driver's head: "He may call it streamlining," the narrator says of the contraption as zany music plays, "but it looks like a turtle to us!" Make Magazine reported that the movie was booked with Hitchcock's Psycho in at least one city, which shows just how different times were and the significance of the film's release. I can't imagine any auto-sponsored film that would be paired with a film today.
The American Maker production was not the only short film efforts from Chevy and GM. In 1958, as Popova has always talked about, the Jam Handy Organization folks behind American Maker had produced another 23 minutes of footage in American Look, a documentary that examines the culture of the U.S. in these half-century-gone times. Jam Handy had created Chevy films for years (see 1937's offering about how Chevrolet helps fight forest fires, for a fun example) but few contained quite the vision of these later short pieces of cinematic history. What largely accounts for these films is the international cultural context of the 1950s and '60s. What inspired these films?
The Cold War, of course, as well as the prosperity Americans experienced in the two decades after World War II.
Here's what The Atlantic had to say on American Look earlier this year:
As a perfectly coiffed blond woman moves about her sparkling kitchen, pulling down a fold up-range (yes, a fold-up range) presumably to begin cooking, the narrator delivers the Cold War-winning line, "By the way things look as well as the way they perform, our homes acquire new grace, new glamor, new accommodations, expressing not only the American love of beauty but also the basic freedom of the American people, which is the freedom of individual choice." Then, we see a series of shots of cooking gadgets: A green machine mixer fluffing the air in a bubblegum-colored bowl, a mini-oven in which little chickens spin on a rotisserie spit, a toaster with storage for multiple slices of bread, a bright yellow pitcher for juice, an electric can opener mounted on a blue tile wall, and an ice maker beside a smoky blue display with hors d'oeuvres.
This is ideological war by convenience and good looks! Two implicit contrasts for all the wonderful goods spring to mind: one, Soviet Russia with its state-produced utilitarian goods and two, the Great Depression, just a couple decades prior, when plenty of the sort on display would have seemed implausible if not downright immoral. Both the Soviets and the Great Depression challenged the desirability of the American system.
True enough ... and how fitting and extraordinary and strange to recall that one of America's big car companies played such a key role in articulating how desirable and worthwhile that American system was. Here's an instance where our transportation history is intrinsically linked to our Cold War history. These nationalistic motivations run through American Maker two years later (and now you understand more fully the implications of beginning each title with "American" — there's a clear underlying statement at work).
Yet despite everything, these short films provide a gorgeous testament to their age. You see what the roads were like, how people perceived this delicate work, and how they lived. They're worth a glance for any fan of transportation, and I wanted to share these with you for the weekend to come. Watch parts American Maker in the Prelinger compilation above and check out American Look and some Jam Handy-produced Chevrolet ads from the '50s below to see a drastically different, innocent, and fascinating vision of what American life used to be for many people.