BOOTLEG FILES 516: “To Be Alive!” (1964 nonfiction film directed by Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid).
LAST SEEN: The film (or at least one-third of it) is on YouTube.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An elusive Oscar-winning film that is difficult to shrink down for small screen viewing.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It would be nice.
Fifty years ago, one of the most acclaimed films to open in New York was not a big-budget bonanza in a reserved seat engagement at a major Broadway movie theater. Instead, it was an 18-minute film playing in a free admission engagement at the Johnson Wax Pavilion at the 1964/65 New York World’s Fair.
Why in the world would anyone be interested in an 18-minute film being shown at a Johnson’s Wax-sponsored venue? Well, funny you should ask!
Although it is regarded today with a great degree of nostalgic fondness, the New York’s World Fair was mired in constant controversy during its inception and following its opening. The refusal of the Bureau of International Expositions to officially sanction the fair resulted in a decision by many nations to avoid participation in the event. In their absence, a surplus number of American corporations set up pavilions, but this lead to criticism of excessive and often tacky commercialism.
In the midst of this environment was the decision by S.C. Johnson & Son, the parent company behind the Johnson Wax product line, to use the fair for the exhibition of a film that had absolutely nothing to do with cleaning products. Instead, the film would celebrate the universality of youth by showcasing the path from childhood to maturity in different cultures.
The film in question was called “To Be Alive!” and it was in production for 18 months. Co-directors Francis Thompson and Alexander Hammid decided to break away from the traditional single screen presentation of their work by creating a production that would require the simultaneous projection on three screens. To create this effect, they used a rig consisting of three cameras arranged together horizontally. But unlike the celebrated three-strip Cinerama process that united the trio of projected films into a single panoramic image, “To Be Alive” would be shown on three separate 18-foot screens that had one foot of space separating them. Although the final presentation sometimes linked into a single image, much of the film was a collage of imagery projected on the three screens.
“To Be Alive!” opens with an exaggerated view of New York during rush hour. Using footage run at a ridiculous fast pace, and then splicing the image into multiple panels within the screen, the city becomes a frenetic blur of motion. On the soundtrack, a somewhat tired older male voice (belonging to character actor Robert Fields) bemoans this state of affairs. “I have to work for a living,” the narrator says. “But this is living?”
The film then quickly escapes the urban jungle for a tranquil forest. “I remember the time it seemed my eyes had just opened,” the narrator continues. “There were a thousand eyes, hidden in the leaves, watching. All was new.”
A small Asian boy appears on the screen and makes the acquaintance of a turtle. “If he couldn’t speak,” the narrator says of the turtle, “it didn’t matter. We had endless time to look at each other.”
From here, “To Be Alive!” divides itself between the U.S., Italy and Nigeria. Common experiences between youngsters in the three countries are laced together. For example, a Nigerian boy precariously rides a mule, just barely avoiding a fall to the ground. But a blonde American boy falls off his bicycle while a dark-haired Italian boy in a boat finds his craft sinking in the water. Later, a boy in New York runs down the inner city streets while a boy in Italy racing down the ancient cobblestone streets of his city to a church tower, where he can ring the bells.
American youth somehow get the lion’s share of attention. One extended sequence involves a group of suburban boys that build a ramshackle go-kart. Somehow, this turns into a real vehicle and the camera takes the point of the view of the driver speeding down winding mountain roads. (This P.O.V. effect is reminiscent of the various thrill sequences in “This is Cinerama” and the other widescreen travelogues of the 1950s.)
Girls don’t turn up in “To Be Alive!” until midway through the film, but they are not shown as equals. Instead, girls are there to root on the American teen male athletes at sporting events (several shots of athletes spinning and running are an obvious homage to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Olympia”) and as the dancing partners for the hip-swinging guys at a party. Over in Nigeria, boys and girls flirt with each other while rowing a long canoe. An Italian young man takes a lovely young lady on a motor scooter ride, culminating in their wedding and a reception feast with enough food to feed half of Rome.
Ultimately, the narrator realizes that he needs to grow up and become part of a wider world. We see Americans heading to work while Nigerians row their fishing boats into the waves and lead their camel caravans across the sands. But all of this motion has a purpose – an elderly Nigerian woman creates pottery by hand while an Italian artist creates a sculpture in his studio. An African-American man (the only nonwhite in the American footage) is shown at a desk in an engineering office. “A man can create a building in his mind,” the narrator says, which is followed by a shirtless, muscular construction worker riveting the engineer’s concept into reality.
The film wraps with an elderly American with (we assume) his grandson in a rowboat. The child is enchanted with his surroundings, and the old man finds himself smiling at the kid’s fascination with nature.
By contemporary standards, “To Be Alive!” is a bit muddled in its approach to multiculturalism. Except for the aforementioned Asian boy with the turtle and a later glimpse of a Japanese woman making sushi rolls, there is no acknowledgement of Asian populations; don’t look for Latin Americans, because they’re not here at all. The film’s focus on a Nigerian fishing village, as opposed to a modern African city, also contributes to a stereotype of African people living in shacks and leading a primitive life. Even more remarkable is the near absence of women in being an integral part of the daily routine. The only thing missing from the stereotype parade was Mr. Bacciagalupe as the symbol of Italian manhood.
But by 1964’s standards, “To Be Alive!” was fairly groundbreaking in pushing that notion that people around the world are more alike than previously considered. At a time when the U.S. was going through convulsions over accepting the belief that black people and white people were equal, this film made a profound statement.
S.C. Johnson quickly realized that they had something special with “To Be Alive!” and the company arranged for a press screening of the film – no mean feat for an 18-minute film at a World’s Fair pavilion. The media reaction was overwhelmingly positive, and the New York Film Critics Circle broke with precedent by giving “To Be Alive!” an honorary award, the first ever presented to a non-theatrical production. The company estimated that more than five million people saw “To Be Alive!” during its exhibition at the World’s Fair.
S.C. Johnson then sought out an Academy Award, but it discovered that the multi-screen presentation violated Academy rules (only a single-screen projection was allowed). At considerable expense to the company, the three-screen production was morphed into a single screen 70mm endeavor. That worked for the Academy and “To Be Alive!” won the Best Documentary Short Subject Award for 1965. S.C. Johnson also published a book based on the film, with a special introduction written by Nobel-winning diplomat Dr. Ralph Bunche.
“To Be Alive!” turned up at the United Nations Pavilion at Expo 67 in Montreal; Thompson and Hammid made a six-screen film for the expo called “We Are Young” that was presented at the C.P.R. Cominco Pavilion, but it did not make the same impact as their earlier work.
After 1967, “To Be Alive!” vanished from sight until 2005, when S.C. Johnson announced that the original three-screen film would be screened at the Golden Rondelle Theatre on the company’s headquarters campus in Racine, Wisconsin. The 70mm version has turned up on occasion at retrospective celebrations of co-director Alexander Hammid’s career and festivals of widescreen films.
To date, alas, there has been no commercial home entertainment release of “To Be Alive!” A faded version of the film can be found on YouTube; Tino Hammid, the co-director’s son, has identified this unauthorized posting as the middle screen presentation from the original three-screen version. This means that YouTube fans are missing two-thirds of the film.
S.C. Johnson still controls the rights to “To Be Alive!” and it would be lovely if the company would agree to make the single-screen 70mm version available for DVD and Blu-ray. Until such time, “To Be Alive!” can only be seen in a bootlegged upload consisting of one-third of the original presentation. Oh well, one-third of an elusive Oscar-winning flick is better than none!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!