Motor City Movies Pt. 2: The Jam Handy Organization

Henry Jamison “Jam” Handy Burton Historical Collection - Detroit Public Library

As mentioned in the first half of this series, filmmakers based in Detroit working for the car companies located there had facilities that rivaled those of the big motion picture studios in Hollywood. They had soundstages, full orchestras, and even casting calls. I know about that last bit because as a child, I lined up with hundreds of other redheaded boys outside a building overlooking the Lodge freeway, waiting for an audition at the Jam Handy Organization. They were trying to cast a family of redheads. My own family lore says that U.S. Senator Patrick McNamara, who lived down the street from us in northwest Detroit, took my older sister and I with him when he went campaigning in Irish neighborhoods, so my hair was red enough to make the first cut at the audition, but apparently I didn’t have enough freckles to match the other redheads already chosen for the film.

By the time I auditioned for his company, Henry Jamison Handy, better known as Jam, was at retirement age. Over the course of an exceptionally long career, he helped mold the way people buy and sell automobiles and other consumer products as well as influencing how we see the world and ourselves. Handy also had a seminal role in the development of business and industrial training  as well as more traditional classroom education. The name Jam Handy isn’t particularly well known outside of the Detroit area and since his firm went out of business almost a half century ago, even many longtime Detroiters don’t recognize his name. That being said, Handy and his studio have been the subject of serious study by academics in marketing as well as cultural and film studies. His influence on American culture is so deep that his firm’s films have even been spoofed by both the Simpsons and Mystery Science Theater 3000 tv shows. Millions of American schoolchildren have sat through countless examples of JHO’s “Imagine a World Without X” school of educational cinema.

MST3K tries to imagine a world without springs.

A precocious child, Jam Handy was born in 1886 in Philadelphia. His father was a newspaperman and in 1891 he took a job promoting the Columbia Exposition of 1893, to be staged in Chicago, so the family moved there. The Exposition was a seminal event in American industrial history and because of his father, Handy pretty much had free reign on the site as that world’s fair was built. Back then five-year-olds were a bit more free-range than they are today. For his entire life, Handy said that the three years that he spent watching the exposition being built and then exploring its exhibits was the best education he could possibly get. It must have been so because by the time he was 17 years old he was already at the University of Michigan, where he was a star athlete. He won a bronze medal for the U.S.A. in swimming at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis, Missouri. Swimmers credit him with popularizing the Australian crawl stroke and he was a notable enough athlete to have been honored with a trading card. A dedicated swimmer his entire life, Handy would return to the Olympics 20 years later, where he won a bronze in team water polo. If business required him to fly from coast to coast, he’d use that opportunity to swim in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on the same day.


With his father’s connections in the newspaper business, Handy was able to get a part-time job as a college stringer for the Chicago Tribune. He submitted a funny story allegedly about his elocution professor giving a lesson in lovemaking. The story appealed to his editor, Medill McCormick, but upon publication, the elocution professor in question and University president James Angell were less pleased. Not only was Handy suspended from Michigan, Angell pretty much had him blacklisted at every college where he applied.

With his academic career over shortly after it began, Handy needed a job. Fortunately, McCormick felt a bit guilty about Handy’s suspension and offered him a job working at the Tribune. Rotating between jobs, he quickly learned how the news media operated in general but took a particular interest in advertising, an industry that was then centered in America’s second city. This was decades before New York’s Madison Avenue would become the locus of the advertising industry.

The ad industry was an early adopter of new communications technology, using slide shows accompanied by phonograph records for internal and customer presentations, and silent motion pictures advertising products in movie theaters. Around the same time Henry Ford recognized the value of movies to inform and promote, Jam Handy was learning the same thing.

Realizing that the growing automotive industry needed training and promotional films, in 1911 Handy established the Jam Handy Organization in Detroit and found a ready market. While the Ford Motion Picture Laboratories grew to produce military-themed newsreel shorts during World War I, Handy went a step further, establishing relationships with the U.S. armed forces and getting contracts to produce training films for the military directly.

After the Great War, the Roaring 20s were very good to the Detroit automakers and the Jam Handy Organization grew even more. Even during the Great Depression, Handy’s studio continued to expand and by 1935 the company employed over 400 directors, writers, and tradecraft workers. At its largest, the studio employed two full-size orchestras, full time, for recording just the incidental music used in its films. Animation pioneer Max Fleischer, who introduced Betty Boop and Popeye to movie audiences, worked for the Handy Organization in the 1940s and ’50s, directing the first animated film based on Johnny Mark’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer song. Cartoonist Rube Goldberg also worked for the JHO.

While Handy’s studio made training and promotional films for a variety of blue-chip American companies and a number of government agencies, he moved to Detroit for a reason, and his work for the automotive industry is the heart of his studio’s productions. The JHO did some work for Ford, mostly concerning light trucks but its films are most closely associated with General Motors’ divisions, particularly Chevrolet, for which they produced both promotional and training films.

Just as Ford produced weekly newsreels for theatrical release, by the late 1930s the Handy organization had made over 100 newsreels, cartoons, instructional and informational films for Chevy, in what Chevy called its “Direct Mass Selling Series”, including The Chevrolet Leader News newsreels. As with the early Ford productions, the films were distributed free of charge to theater operators. Although they were more overtly promotional than the Ford weekly newsreels, the Handy style meant a soft sell with a light hand. Features of Chevy automobiles were integrated with general interest items, so a film about a tourist attraction would show people arriving in Chevrolets. Today filmmakers call that “product placement.” The Handy organization even produced training films for retail salesmen, instructing them on how to use the theatrical releases to sell cars.

Just as Ford used Goldwyn to distribute its theatrical films, the films Handy made for Chevy were distributed by Paramount as shorts to run between feature films at no charge to the theater operators.

Some even credit Jam Handy with saving the Chevrolet brand. Although the success of the early Chevrolet company gave William “Billy” Durant the resources to reassert control of General Motors in 1916, by the 1920s the brand was in trouble. The Jam Handy Organization was hired to produce training materials for Chevy dealers, but with his background in advertising Handy expanded Chevrolet’s Quality Dealer Program films and slide shows by also producing films for public display in traveling caravans. The campaign was so successful that not only did it turn around Chevy’s fortunes, it established a relationship between the brand and the Handy organization that lasted more than a half-century. In time, JHO would also work for Pontiac, Buick, Cadillac, and the GMC truck division but Chevy was Handy’s bread and butter. JHO’s work for Chevrolet was perhaps only exceeded by its work for the government making military training materials.

In addition to promoting particular models or makes, Handy films also polished corporate images, developing a cinematic style that some have characterized as “capitalist realism”. Less charitable types call it corporate propaganda. A year after the National Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1935, the Handy studio produced Master Hands for Chevrolet touting the GM division’s manufacturing prowess and praising its workers, perhaps in an effort to dissuade them from organizing unions. The half-hour film was an important project for the studio. So much so that although the Handy studio had many in-house musicians it decided to use the Detroit Symphony Orchestra for the soundtrack to Master Hands. Propaganda or just publicity, it’s an artfully made motion picture that is fully enjoyable today. In the 1950s, the JHO produced a series of American-themed films like American Look and American Harvest about life in America, an America where everyone apparently drove Chevys.

The Handy studio also operated a full-service advertising agency, writing and producing long-form commercials like the ones with Dinah Shore singing Chevy’s famous See The USA In Your Chevrolet jingle.

Burton Historical Collection - Detroit Public Library

As his company did in its early days, during the Second World War Handy’s firm worked with the U.S. military and its suppliers, producing over 7,000 instructional films. They also pioneered the use of motivational films, for wartime production workers, along with wartime propaganda films for theatrical release. A patriot, Handy charged the government just a 1% profit margin, essentially making those films at cost, rather than 7% that the contract permitted. For some military training, JHO even created special audio-visual training aids, like simulated anti-aircraft guns, that worked with the film projectors. You might consider them early versions of what today we call video games. though JHO called them “Student Participation Devices.”

Though the Jam Handy Organization thrived into the 1960s, like many automotive suppliers the company declined along with the domestic auto industry’s fortunes in the last quarter of the 20th century. The seeds of the JHO’s decline may have been planted in the late 1960s when Chevy switched some ad accounts assigned to JHO over to the GM division’s longtime agency, the Campbell-Ewald firm. According to Jonathan Boschen, a documentarian producing a film about Jam Handy and his company, in 1969, the reduced revenue forced JHO to sell its historic Gothic-revival studio on Detroit’s East Grand Blvd, to a New York based company named Teletape that was to operate it as Jam Handy Productions. However, in 1971 the operation was renamed to Teletape-Detroit. It operated for a few years doing film/video production but for a variety of reasons the firm moved out of the building and sold it to a church, which is what the building was when Jam Handy bought it in 1935.

In the 1950s, JHO had built a much larger facility in the near Detroit suburb of Southfield, just across Eight Mile Rd. Most sources indicate that the Jam Handy Organization ceased operations there sometime in the 1970s, though official records say the corporation lasted until 1988. That building now houses AT&T offices and the East Grand Blvd building is now a venue for weddings and other special events.

Jam Handy died in 1983 at the age of 97. Despite the demise of his company, fortunately, there is an extensively documented history of the firm and many of its films and educational materials still exist. The films explaining mechanics, physics, and other sciences could still be used by today’s students.

Jamison Handy’s personal papers and the company’s corporate records were donated to the Detroit Public Library’s Burton Historical Collection. Of even greater historical significance is the fact that while thousands have been lost to history, many JHO films have been preserved. The fact that most of those have passed into the public domain made it possible for archivists like Rick Prelinger  to collect, digitize, and preserve hundreds of JHO films. They provide a deep look into how car companies have crafted the images of their products and themselves. Prelinger’s Jam Handy Organization archive is a rich vein to mine for a look at automobiles and their role in American culture during much of the 20th century, as well as more general themes about 20th century America.

Additionally, the AACA Library & Research Center has curated a collection of Jam Handy films here. Stanford University also has a large archive of music and sound effects recorded by the Handy Organization, but it has not yet been digitized.

Do you have a favorite training video or ad from the JHO era of Detroit advertisement?




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