The End of the Three Mile Picture Show

With the very kind assistance of Kathleen Dow at the University of Michigan Library’s Transportation History Collection, I’ve gained new clarity since my last post about the fate of The Three Mile Picture Show, the 1915 film documenting H.C. Ostermann’s transcontinental journey on the Lincoln Highway.

In October of 1957, F. E. Sheldon, Head Film Librarian at Walt Disney Productions, wrote to Leo Natanson, Librarian at the University of Michigan Transportation Institute, to request “the Lincoln Highway material.” Walt Disney Productions was making a film called – at the time – The American Highway.

The film would air six months later, on May 14th, 1958, under a different title: Magic Highway, USA.

That film, of course, is still extant, and it includes a few scenes from the Ostermann film; like most early footage in Magic Highway, USA, the Lincoln Highway material is colored and sepia-tinted, and comes in for comic treatment. The past in Magic Highway, USA is a series of blunders and advances, comical mishaps and lucky accidents, a happy but confused world of exploration and invention, a time when things looked odd and ran at different speeds to funny music.

But the film had a serious intent. Magic Highway, USA celebrated “the freedom of the American road,” and connected the highway to the American “pursuit of happiness.” It also looked ahead, to the future. As Sheldon explained to Natanson,”because of the congestion of today’s highways, we need planning, preparation, and equipment well in advance to build the proposed dream highways of the future.” Cartoon segments show a future of atomic reactors tunneling through mountains, elevator parking lots built around office buildings, and so on. This is the dream (though looking at it now, it seems a nightmare); the archival motion-picture footage describes the comic prelude.

Walt Disney Productions offered and the University accepted two dollars “per screen foot for material used in our film, with a guarantee of at least fifty feet.” One hundred dollars, total: this was in lieu of screen credit, which Natanson twice requested – apprehensively, one imagines; he was twice refused.

Natanson and staff packed the film reels in a large case, declared the value of The Three Mile Picture Show at one-thousand dollars, and shipped it Express Collect to Disney. On October 30th, Sheldon wired with this news:

four reels of film… have deteriorated to powder and bubbled condition. Extreme explosion or fire hazard. Strongly suggest you grant permission to destroy this material here or will return immediately at your responsibility. Four small rolls of negative in can appear to be alright.

On that same day, Natanson wired back: “You may destroy runined [sic] film.” And so they did.

Reading the correspondence, I see no reason to suspect anything sinister or even a lack of effort to save the film. The Three Mile Picture Show had become hazmat. Sheldon cited Burbank fire laws, prohibiting “the transportation of this type of material over city streets by waste film collectors unless it is immersed in a barrel of water.” Even the notes packed with the film had been so “contaminated” that the paper on which they were printed was “poisonous to breathe.” “It is regrettable,” writes Sheldon, in a December 13th letter, “that time had taken its toll of the four rolls that had to be destroyed. I feel there must have been valuable historical material in these rolls, but their decomposed condition made it impossible to examine.”

As for the small rolls of negative that remained, Sheldon recommended duplicating them immediately; their “rate of decomposition may be accelerated,” he feared, by exposure to the other film.

On December 18, 1957, that negative film made its way back to the University via Railway Express. 1000 feet of negative was all that was left of the original three miles of motion picture film from 1915. Natanson informs Sheldon he has no facilities available on campus for making duplicates, and wonders “if you people could do this for us or could recommend someone.” Sheldon helpfully suggests Jam Handy in Detroit, and offers to loan the University the 900-foot fine grain Disney made from the Transportation Institute’s negative rolls.

A duplicate negative and print at the going rate (in Sheldon’s estimate) of 20 cents per foot would have cost the Transportation Institute 80 dollars more than it had collected from Disney for the footage used in Magic Highway, USA. Here the correspondence trails off. Perhaps Natanson was confused about what to do, or just decided to cut his losses.

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