Motor City Movies, Pt. 1: How Henry Ford’s 1914 vanity project birthed a national treasure

Ford motion-picture cameramen with Ford Model T in front of Ford Motor Company’s Highland Park Plant, March 20, 1916. Ford Motor Co.

Detroit is rightly known as the Motor City. Less well-known is that, for much of the 20th century, Detroit was a major locus of motion-picture production, with sound stages and facilities that rivaled anything in Hollywood. In fact, in an era when Hollywood was scrambling to establish itself as the global center of the film industry, the largest motion-picture production and distribution operation in the world was based in Michigan, not California. While their films rarely made headlines, Detroit-based filmmakers had a significant impact on American culture and consumers.

The American motion-picture industry got its start in New York, with studios established on Long Island. They soon moved across the continent to Hollywood. Some say the move was prompted by a desire to create some distance from Thomas Edison, based in nearby New Jersey. In an early example of a tech baron trying to control content created with their technology, it seems that Edison, who made the motion-picture system used by those early filmmakers, wasn’t happy with what he considered unsavory and salacious content in New York’s films.

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D.W. Griffith shot his first film in Hollywood in 1910 and the following year the city’s first movie studio was opened on Sunset Blvd.

A worker in a soap factory. From: Bubbles, I’m Forever Using Soap, 1919. National Archives

Just a couple of years after that, in the summer of 1913, Henry Ford allowed a newsreel production crew to film operations at his Model T factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Being in one of the scenes gave Ford a close look at the filmmaking process and he immediately grasped the potential of the new communications medium. He could use movies to train his workers, a serious challenge at a time when he was hiring tens of thousands of men a year just to keep a fraction of that number working the mind- and body-numbing jobs on his assembly lines. He could also promote Ford vehicles and his own public image. Perhaps the purpose nearest to Henry Ford’s heart, though—even before he took over the Dearborn Independent newspaper—was educating and informing the public about the world as he saw it.

Ever the tinkerer, Ford bought a movie camera, shooting scenes of his family and his factory. As he planned his entry into commercial film production, he had the advantage of being a personal friend and former employee of Thomas Edison himself. In the spring of 1914, Ford directed Ambrose Jewett, who headed Ford Motor Company’s advertising department, to establish a motion-picture department, what became known as the Ford Motion Picture Laboratories. Jewett bought modern 35-mm cameras and hired a two-man crew, which quickly grew to a couple dozen technicians. Ford funded the construction of state-of-the-art film processing and editing labs at the Highland Park facility that matched or exceeded the capabilities of any contemporary studio in Hollywood.

Helen Keller, Henry Ford, and Anne Sullivan. From Helen Keller Visits with Henry Ford, 1914. National Archives

The first film Ford produced, a newsreel titled How Henry Ford Makes One Thousand Cars a Day, was released in mid-1914, followed by the Ford Animated Weekly, which was produced regularly for two years. These ten-to-fifteen-minute newsreels featured three-to-five news items, stories of general interest, and the occasional Ford Motor Company announcement. Although the newsreel generally featured no explicit advertising, the readily identifiable outline of a Model T radiator grille was used as a background to the silent films’ title cards. Using independent film distributors, the Ford studios made the newsreels available to theater operators at no charge. The enthusiastic public response to the series meant that movie houses couldn’t refuse the deal, and by July 1916 Ford claimed that every week four million people in over 2000 theaters viewed the Ford Animated Weekly.

A Ford truck used in the California date harvest, from Date Palms–Los Angeles, California, 1920. National Archives

As the films were distributed at no cost to the theaters, Ford absorbed all the production costs along with the fees for processing and printing the movies. Soon, however, Henry decided to reduce the complexity of the operation and in 1916 many of the Animated Weekly films were replaced with single topic shorts called the Ford Educational Weekly, also provided to theaters for free. While theater operators thought the topics might be boring, a year later Ford’s movie audience had grown to as many as five million people in over 3500 theaters in the U.S. alone, with additional distribution in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Title cards and subtitles were translated into 11 different languages. By 1918, Ford Motor Company was budgeting $600,000 a year on film production and distribution, making it the largest film distributor in the world.

National Archives

With the entry of the United States into World War I, film crews were tasked with promoting the company’s military production, including the construction of the River Rouge complex (which built submarine chaser boats before it built cars), the making of Liberty airplane engines, and testing the three-ton tank FoMoCo designed for the U.S. Army.

After the end of hostilities, Ford hired the Goldwyn Distribution Corporation to distribute the Educational Weekly and by the end of 1919, it was being screened at over 5200 theaters a week. That was the peak for the Ford Motion Picture Laboratories. To subsidize production costs, Ford started to charge operators one dollar a week as a rental fee. Theater owners objected and some stopped showing the Ford films entirely. Then, in May 1920, Henry Ford’s Dearborn Independent started publication of a series titled The International Jew, a rewriting of the notorious Jew-hating Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Many theater operators boycotted Ford’s movies in protest. Less than a year after that per-week peak of 5200, the number of screens showing the Educational Weekly had plunged to around 1300.

In 1920 the Ford Motion Picture Laboratories was folded into the newly established Ford Photographic Department, which included both still photography and motion-picture operations. The Educational Weekly was discontinued at the end of 1921. Instead the Ford Educational Library series was developed, starting in 1920. Offered to K-12 schools, colleges, churches and other educational organizations at a price of a half-dollar-a-day rental per reel or for purchase at five cents per foot of film, topics covered included transportation, agriculture, geology, medicine, safety, and civics. Subjects were chosen by a committee of college professors. Though the Ford Educational Library was heavily promoted, it failed to find an audience and was discontinued in 1925.

While theatrical releases waned at Ford, the Photographic Department was still busy making promotional films for Ford dealers and regional sales branches. In addition to being shown at dealers, the promotional films were shown just about wherever Ford could find an audience—at county fairs, fraternal lodges, schools, recreation facilities, and even on the sides of buildings if there were no screens available. Though the audiences for the Ford theatrical releases were fading, by the mid-1920s, the Ford company estimated that its promotional films were viewed by about two and a half million people a month, in both rural and urban areas. Remember, Ford had a thriving tractor business besides selling Model Ts. In some rural regions, the promotional Ford films were the first motion pictures some people had ever seen.

In 1963, the United States National Archives received a donation of more than 1,500,000 feet of motion-picture film produced between 1914 and the early 1940s by the Ford Motion Picture Laboratories and the subsequent Photographic Department. They are a valuable documentation of American life and industry in the first half of the 20th century.

Physicists have taught us that you can’t observe something without affecting it, and the Ford filmmakers had a similar influence. At a time when the automobile was drastically changing that way of life, from the mid-teens to the mid-1920s, in addition to documenting Ford Motor Company and how it built cars, the Ford films depict almost every aspect of the American experience: urban life, rural life, farming, business, industry, news, recreation sports, transportation, and even celebrities. It is estimated that between 1915 and 1925, fully one-seventh of the American motion picture audience viewed movies made by Ford Motor Company. The historical Ford films didn’t just document American life, they affected the way Americans saw themselves and the world.

What began as a bit of a vanity and promotional project for Henry Ford is now a historical treasure. You can check out over 2000 historic Ford films at the National Archives. Using source footage from the Ford Collection, the National Archives produced a documentary about Henry Ford’s motion pictures, titled Henry Ford’s Mirror of America.

In the second part of this series, we’ll take a look at the Jam Handy Organization, which may have had an even deeper impact on American culture with the movies it made in the Motor City.

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