Handy Man

Olympian, ad genius, and tech innovator Jam Handy made Detroit industry his cinematic subject.
The Jam Handy
Roll ‘em, In addition to creating automotive commericals, The Jam Handy Organization, in 1948, produced the first animated version of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.”

After four years at Vassar College in the early 1930s, Mary Jane Clark fell in love with Jack Wade, a Chevrolet salesman. “Honey, that young man couldn’t sell rain in the drought area,” says her imperious father in a mini-film created for Chevrolet that ran in hundreds of movie theaters. 

In the film, Wade was on trial for going 70 mph, but his attorney argued, “All laws must be interpreted in the light of progress” — namely, Chevy’s new-for-1935 Knee-Action front suspension and all-steel Turret Top body. “Case dismissed,” says the judge, who then orders a car from Wade.   

So ends “Wreckless,” a Jam Handy opus for General Motors. The Jam Handy Organization — specialists in industrial, training, and promotional films, as well as filmstrips — employed as many as 700 people and occupied more than a dozen buildings on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit, just a few blocks from GM’s then headquarters at West Grand Boulevard and Second Avenue. Handy had moved to Detroit from Chicago before the Great Depression. 

“He had a lot to do with the success of GM and other companies, too,” says Robert Hendricks, a researcher in West Bloomfield Township whose grandfather and father worked as electricians on Jam Handy soundstages.   

Henry Jamison “Jam” Handy grew up in Chicago, where his parents were journalists. In 1902, he enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, but he was expelled for a student-correspondent report that appeared in the Chicago Tribune. In elocution class, Prof. Thomas Trueblood had demonstrated how to propose marriage on bended knee, which Handy captured in his report. But his editors sensationalized the story, and a cartoonist at another paper changed Trueblood’s name to Foxy Truesport. After Handy’s story went national, not even the Tribune’s editor, Medill McCormick, could persuade U-M President James Angell to reinstate him.

Going to work for the Tribune, Handy presided over a subsidiary that placed early newsreel footage in theaters, and started to form his credo, “Learning should be a pleasure and not a pain in the head.” During this period, he also became a competitive swimmer and participated in the 1904 Summer Olympics in St. Louis, earning the bronze in the 440-yard backstroke. 

When McCormick left the Tribune, Handy and writer Herbert Kaufman became partners in an ad agency. Before long, Kaufman departed to write essays and war poetry, and the company became known as the Jam Handy Organization. Perfecting techniques for motivational sales films in its work for National Cash Register led to accounts with DELCO, and then GM. 

Promoting Chevys commanded a big budget. “Wreckless” went off in standard Hollywood style: fine costumes, elaborate sets, and even a motorcycle stunt. Meanwhile, in the late 1930s, Handy created a phenomenal series of Technicolor cartoons starring Nicky Nome, one of the best salesmen ever. 

Handy made a plethora of training films during World War II, as well. Part One of a series on dive-bombing blends the Jam Handy Orchestra’s brassy soundtrack with terse narration: “In dive-bombing, the airplane is the gun. The bomb is the bullet.” In the film, viewers learn how air resistance impedes a bomb dropped in level flight, a factor known as “trail.” The better technique puts the plane into a shallow dive and releases the ordnance. 

When Detroit observed Jam Handy Day on Nov. 27, 1961, the honoree was 75 years old. Handy kept going, even producing a film in the city’s bid for the 1968 Summer Olympics. But by 1971, he had sold key divisions, and set up about 70 employees with other JHO accounts for the new Bill Sandy Co.  

Handy lived in a downtown apartment and swam daily until just before his 1983 death. The Jam Handy Building at 2900 E. Grand Blvd. is his best relic. Last year, three JHO classics screened there as part of a broader festival. Easily found on YouTube, Jam Handy films provide a captivating reminder of how corporate messages were imparted before television, and how artfully it was done.