As an aspiring actor, Bill Bixby worked as a lifeguard at a Los Angeles hotel in 1959 when, as the story goes, a Detroit advertising executive spotted him and offered him a chance to appear in an industrial film. It led to enough work that Bixby called the films “motion picture summer stock,” drawing a comparison to the theatrical standby that kept actors going year-round in repertory productions throughout the country.
Bixby went on to star in several TV series such as “My Favorite Martian” and “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father,” making his name known far and wide. He’s perhaps the most notable crossover between Detroit and Hollywood. The Motor City and Tinseltown were both on a torrid pace of filmmaking through the mid-20th century, when automakers and their ad agencies produced thousands of films that promoted products, educated dealers, and instructed mechanics.
Ford Motor Co. kicked things off in 1914 by having its advertising department acquire a movie camera. The Photographic Department allotted 24 employees to the production of motion pictures and still photos at the company’s Highland Park headquarters. In the 1920s, the department moved to the Rouge works, and in 1956 it was relocated to Ford’s World Headquarters in Dearborn.
“Their motion picture department was one of the largest studios outside of Hollywood,” says a blog on the National Archives website. Releasing new films every week, Ford reached up to 12 million viewers in theaters across the United States and in France, Mexico, and Japan. At first the films documented company products and processes, but they soon covered topics of general interest. A charming 1920 feature, “Playthings of Childhood: The Doll’s House,” leads viewers through the assembly of wooden dolls.
It wasn’t long before others exploited the power of the medium. Founded in 1926, Ross Roy Communications in Detroit enjoyed an enduring relationship with Chrysler, providing marketing services. Its signature training films relied on “Tech,” an animated figure.
“The film’s plotline would nearly always run the same way,” writes a collector on an enthusiasts’ website. “It would start out with a shop manager seeing a junior mechanic puzzled over something. The senior tech would begin instructing him, and then Tech would appear, seated on a Plymouth’s fat fender and butting into the conversation.”
General Motors turned to the Jam Handy Organization located a few blocks east of the automaker’s then headquarters in Detroit’s New Center for the 1936 classic, “Master Hands,” presented by Chevrolet. Cinematographer Gordon Avil —who already had Hollywood credits on “Billy the Kid” and “The Champ” — documented foundrymen and patternmakers at work. For music, the Detroit Philharmonic Orchestra performed Samuel Benavie’s vigorous original score.
Packard Motor Car Co., meanwhile, kept producing films until its demise in 1956. “Demonstrate with a Plan,” a filmstrip by Wilding Picture Productions, used professional voice talent to compare buying a car without taking a test drive to going on a blind date. “A prospect may have to live with a blind-date car for a long time and risk a large investment,” the narrator concludes.
By the 1960s, Detroit’s film output was winding down, due in part to the growing popularity of television. In 1963, Ford donated its films from 1914 to 1945 to the National Archives. Today we can view them online. Films on behalf of other automakers are also available, serving as a testament to the ambition and technical expertise that put Detroit on celluloid strips as well as getting us down the road.