Back in July I discussed Rhapsody In Steel, a 1934 atmospheric and animated industrial film that I consider to be just as iconic as several early sound cartoons. Now I would like to discuss another industrial steel rhapsody, this one a rhapsody of steel that was made in 1959.
The film Rhapsody Of Steel is an animated Technicolor masterpiece sponsored by U.S. Steel and produced by John Sutherland Productions, that chronicles steel’s contribution to human history from the early years of civilization, to the ‘fabulous twentieth century’ and to the promising space age future. The film can be easily labeled as one of the greatest documentary films ever made, and also as the second most spectacular use of stylized modern animation; the first of course being Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty also released the same year.
Everything about Rhapsody Of Steel from it’s artwork, musical score, high production values, vast story, to it’s world premier event and promotional Press kit was grand in scale. The film was highly applauded by critics and the general public, and received numerous awards and honors at various film festivals. And unfortunately like the earlier Rhapsody In Steel, it’s another forgotten relic that deserves the same appreciation given to highly applauded films of 1959 such as Sleeping Beauty, Donald In Mathmagic Land and even North By Northwest and Ben-Hur.
Rhapsody Of Steel appears to have gone into production in early 1959, and was created for two different reasons: The first, to retire U.S. Steel’s flagship film Men Make Steel aka Steel: Man’s Servant, which was a spectacular but dated 1938 Technicolor live action industrial documentary on steel production and it’s contributions to society. The second and most important reason, to subliminally promote careers in the steel industry to help construct large scale national projects such as the Eisenhower Interstate System. Three years prior to the production of Rhapsody Of Steel, construction of the Interstate Highway System began and U.S. Steel, one of the contractors for the project, saw a need to recruit more workers. To address this, U.S. Steel created the highly successful Keep Our Roads On The Go film program which consisted of two live action films that subliminally promoted careers within the steel industry through highlighting the contributions of steel to the interstate system.
These two live action films that were created for short term use and only for exhibition in movie theaters, consisted of a John Sutherland production Jonah And The Highway (1957) and a Lowell Thomas’ documentary produced by the Jam Handy Organization called The Five Mile Dream (1958). Both films were affective in entertaining audiences and promoting steel construction jobs, and thus inspired U.S. Steel to sponsor a third film with similar intentions but could instead be used for a much longer term and also update their now out-dated 1938 flagship documentary. While Rhapsody Of Steel would be the third film created to assist in recruiting workers, it was not officially part of the Keep Our Roads On The Go program and instead focused more on the importance of Steel (and steel related careers) to the building of society and it’s involvement in the newly born space age.
While Men Make Steel was a spectacular and highly praised production when completed in 1938, by the mid-1950s the film’s production style was frequently used by many industrial film companies and thus nothing overly unique. Instead, U.S. Steel wisely decided to have a large scale Disney-ish styled Technicolor animated documentary as it’s replacement and contracted the highly respected John Sutherland Productions to make it, with a budget of $350,000 (which in 2018 would be around $3,000,000). By the mid-1950’s Sutherland’s studio was mass producing very successful sponsored films, both live action and animated, ranging from sales training films, television commercials, and short subjects for both theatrical and non-theatrical exhibition for a variety of clients. Many of the studio’s highly received animated films were written and produced by John Sutherland and directed by Carl Urbano. While Rhapsody Of Steel would feature Sutherland and Urbano overseeing the production, several other talents worked on Rhapsody who provided the grandeur that U.S. Steel envisioned for their film, most notably former Disney artist Eyvind Earle, Maurice Noble, and four time Oscar winner Dimitri Tiomkin.
The involvement of these three talented men would result in a film far more spectacular than Sutherland’s usual already outstanding output, and also one of the most visually stunning and inspiring animated films to be made following World War II. Eyvind Earle who recently joined the Sutherland studios, was brought on as Rhapsody’s art director and was responsible for the film’s Imaginative and spectacular look. Prior to being hired by Sutherland, Earle was a background artist for Walt Disney Productions and amongst one of his most recent projects were the spectacular backgrounds for Sleeping Beauty. In addition to Earle, Maurice Noble who joined John Sutherland Productions a few years earlier after working for Warner Brothers Cartoons, was Rhapsody’s Production Designer. Noble, who provided amazing background art to numerous Chuck Jones’ Warner Brothers cartoons, such as What’s Opera Doc? (1957), provided Rhapsody with additional triumphant visuals.The music score to the Rhapsody Of Steel was composed by notable composer Dimitri Tiomkin, who had quite an impressive resume which consisted of musical scores for numerous Frank Capra films and westerns, and academy awards for best musical scores for High Noon (1952), The High And The Mighty (1954) and The Old Man and The Sea (1959). Rhapsody Of Steel would be the only animated film Tiomkin would ever compose, however it would be one of hist best works as it’s an extremely powerful, inspiring score that captures the excitement of steel’s involvement to the progress of human history. To narrate the Rhapsody Of Steel, Sutherland hired screen and television actor Gary Merrill who’s voice appropriately accommodates the chronicling of ‘the metal from heaven’.
Rhapsody Of Steel was completed by November of 1959 (as it was registered for copyright on November 17, 1959) and was given it’s “world premiere” by U.S. Steel and it’s distributor the Jam Handy Organization (who handled distribution for all of U.S. Steel’s motion pictures) on the evening of December 4th, 1959 at the Pittsburgh PA Stanley Theater (now the beautifully restored Benedum Center for the Performing Arts). It’s highly attended premiere was quite unusual for an animated short subject or even an industrial film, as the event was the equivalent of a premier for a large scale Hollywood feature film. (Interestingly Jam Handy promoted the film as being the “first short subject to have a World Premiere”). Guests from all over the country were invited to the December 4th premiere and consisted of Dimitri Tiomkin, representatives from U.S. Steel, the Jam Handy Organization, and John Sutherland Productions, along with employees of U.S. Steel, respected businessmen such as Conrad Hilton, celebrities such as Sid Caeser, Robert Cummings, Audrey Meadows, and also numerous film and music critics.
The premiere, which Business Screen Magazine described as the best film premiere in years, focused solely on the “Rhapsody Of Steel” with no feature presentation and consisted of:
1. A welcome address by U.S. Steel president Leslie B. Worthington.
2. Dimitri Tiomkin conducting the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra performing the Rhapsody Of Steel Suite as an overture.
3. The exhibition of the cartoon.
In addition, souvenir programs for the cartoon and also 33rpm LP record albums of Tiomkin’s score were sold to guests. The entire event, with the exception of the film’s screening, was documented by local Pittsburgh radio and television outlets, which interviewed guests and celebrities before and after the screening.
The overall reception of Rhapsody Of Steel at the premiere was extremely positive and was considered a superior replacement for 1938’s Men Make Steel. The vast majority of critics loved the cartoon and gave it raved reviews. Amongst some of it’s praise came from:
– Notable music critic Deems Taylor, who described it as the greatest film since [Disney’s] Fantasia.
– Philip K. Scheuer of the Los Angeles Times, who despite not liking to recommend sponsored films, described it as the most colorful, instructive, and entertaining film he had ever seen, and made the comment at the end of his review “Oscar nominators please note”.
– Hedda Hopper of the Los Angeles Times, who described Rhapsody as a beautifully conceived and executed film that was better then many feature pictures.
Following the World Premiere, the cartoon was entered in numerous film festivals where it received honors and awards, and was distributed theatrically to movie theaters by the Jam Handy Organization where it was shown in major cities and suburban towns. To advertise and promote the film for theatrical screenings, both the Jam Handy Organization and U.S. Steel put together quite the promotional package and press kit. To say the least, the kit along with additional advertising materials made available by Jam handy, was extravagant and unusual for an industrial film or even an animated short subject. (At first glance someone unfamiliar with the cartoon would have appropriately guessed that Rhapsody Of Steel was a feature length animated film.)
The materials made available to theater managers and exhibitors consisted of: (Materials in bold were included in the press/promotional kit mailed out to theaters)
– A one minute theatrical trailer promoting the cartoon; this trailer, prepared by Jam Handy, was sent to the theater one week before exhibition.
– A one sheet 27×40 poster and 11×14 title/lobby cards.
– Four black and white photographs of scenes from the film, which all appear to be different with the various kits.
– An LP album of the score to send to a radio station to broadcast and promote the film.
– Letters from USS to send to schools to attract educators and students to screenings of the film.
– Coloring sheets depicting the film’s epic final scene of the space age for children. (This was intended to be used as a coloring contest for children).
– Seven different Newspaper advertising Mats.
– Prepared text to promote the films.
– Colorful lobby displays.
– Souvenir Programs to the cartoon, to sell to patrons. (A sample program was provided in the kit.)
– Traveling artwork displays for theaters and museums (within the theater’s community) showcasing Eyvind Earle’s and Maurice Noble’s artwork.
– Two different press books, one which highlighted the film’s extravagant premiere in Pittsburgh to promote extravagantly advertising the film in communities, and another book featuring ideas on how to promote the film.
Below are both booklets, the first is the press book recommending how to advertise the film, and the second highlights the film’s grand premiere.
Despite the film’s positive critical reception, public ovation, and success in inspiring individuals to pursue careers in the Steele industry, Rhapsody Of Steel sadly fell into obscurity following the 1960s. While it certainly was no box office flop and also enjoyed a non-theatrical run (after it’s theatrical run) where it was issued on 16mm to schools and community groups, it’s end was apparently prompted by the many different changes that occurred in the American lifestyle and attitudes during the 1960s and into the 1980s.
Unfortunately these changes apparently gave Rhapsody a much shorter life span than it’s 1938 predecessor. While the United States of America made tremendous progress with the construction of the Interstate Highway system during the 1960s and also put a man on the moon in 1969, for a variety of reasons the attitudes associated with what Rhapsody Of Steel encouraged, faded away. With this change and attitude, and the fact that Rhapsody was a sponsored film to promote a bygone era, it fell into obscurity and by the 1990s was pretty much no longer shown.
While Rhapsody Of Steel was pretty much forgotten by the general public and even by the majority of the film history community, it was still fortunately discussed amongst animation historians and ephemera film experts. In 2014, the film finally received it’s first and much long overdue DVD release by historian Steve Stanchfield on Thunderbean Animation’s Mid Century Modern Animation Vol. 2 DVD, which introduced the film to a new generation of history buffs and enthusiasts. (This collection was recently re-issued by Stanchfield on Blu-Ray which can be found on Amazon.) In addition, the Library of Congress uploaded the film in 2017 as part of their Online Field Guide To Sponsored Films where a beautiful 1080p transfer from a 16mm print in their collection can be downloaded and viewed. Both Steve Stanchfield and the Library of Congress have done an excellent job in making Rhapsody Of Steel available and re-introducing this masterpiece to contemporary audiences. Hopefully their work along with this article will help to recognize this phenomenal inspiring Technicolor epic, as the classic it should be regarded as.
(A Special Thank you to Steve Stanchfield and Mitchell Dakelman)