For the past couple of days, I have been trying to track down a film made in 1915: The Three Mile Picture Show.
Directed by Henry Ostermann, the film was produced in the course of a transcontinental journey along the Lincoln Highway, which was at that time the only automobile route across the country. It is thought to be the first motion picture made of an automobile trip.
It was a big, ambitious first step. Traveling from Times Square in New York City to San Francisco, the film crew shot 16,000 feet of film. Three miles of film! The Picture Show is, at the very least, a fantastic artifact of Manifest Destiny, a gargantuan movie, made on a grand scale to stir a growing, already restless nation.
The film was shown at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and then in cities across the country as it traveled east, back along the very road it documented. A mechanical traveling circus, the film played the country back to itself.
Until this morning, I had not been able to find a trace of the Three Mile Picture Show – not a frame, not a few feet of film, nothing. Now it appears that a copy of the film may have been among the materials donated to the University of Michigan by Gael Hoag and Henry Ostermann, in 1937. (But Ostermann had died in June of 1920, when his Packard slid off the road and rolled, crushing him.)
This, at least, is the most intriguing vestige of the film I have found: a reference in the University of Michigan archives to correspondence between Walt Disney Productions and the University of Michigan library “regarding several reels of film about the Lincoln Highway.” The correspondence runs from 1957-1958.
I’ve written to the library and I’m waiting for more details about the correspondence. Until I know more, I am working from the assumption that from 1957-1958 Disney was trying to acquire the University’s copy of the film, or rights to it.
Why? At this point I can only speculate. A few points deserve some further investigation and consideration:
The Interstate Highway System was on its way to completion by 1957; maybe Disney planned a movie or a theme park exhibition celebrating the new automobile nation, and wanted to use parts of the Three Mile Picture Show as a back story or foil.
In the late 50s, Disney had a number of projects in the works where this 1915 footage might have found a place. Consider for instance the almost unwatchable propaganda film called America the Beautiful Disney showed at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. Parts 1 and 2 are both on YouTube. Sponsored by the Ford Motor Company Fund, the “18 minute spectacle” showed throughout the day in the Circarama Theater – a continuous 360 degree “movie in the round.”
Finally, it’s intriguing to consider that in 1957-58, the President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, had in 1919 traveled the same route as the Three Mile Picture Show, as part of a military motor convoy. (Ostermann led the caravan on that occasion, too.) The Three Mile Picture Show would have played back the President’s youthful itinerary to a nation transformed by Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System.
The real question of course is: What ever happened to that footage? Does it still exist? Where is it? Are all those reels sitting on a shelf at Disney?