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BPA Film Collection: Volume One, 1939-1954

January 17th, 2014 by Anne Richardson · No Comments · 1930's, 1940's, 1950's, Oregon as inspiration, Oregon film, Oregon film archivist, Oregon film old definition

Members of the BPA chapter of the Elmer Buehler Fan Club, Libby Burke in the center.

This 2 DVD set was made for you and me!

The Friday Film Festival held by Bonneville Power Administration in March 2013 was so successful the curator of the series, research librarian Libby Burke, decided to release the films on DVD. She selected six, spanning 1939 to 1954. The first, Hydro (1939) was directed by Gunther V. Fritsch, (you know, the guy who went on to direct The Curse of the Cat People  in 1945). The second, The Columbia (1949), features songs written for it by Woody Guthrie. The third,  Highline (1950) focuses on long distance transmission of electricity. All three were produced by Stephen B. Kahn.

Stephen B. Kahn boasted that he discovered Woody Guthrie. He made the hire, at the recommendation of Alan Lomax, before Woody was famous. It was 1941. Kahn hired Woody to come to Portland for one month to write songs. He was assigned a driver, BPA employee Elmer Buehler, and with Woody in the back seat strumming his guitar, Elmer drove up and down the “Power Stream” as Stephen Kahn liked to call the mighty Columbia River. Woody wrote a song a day during that month. He was paid $266.

One song was Pastures of Plenty. Another was Roll On, Columbia. Both were first recorded here in Portland, at the BPA office.

During the McCarthy era, when political winds had changed, Elmer Buehler, the patron saint of Oregon film archivists, was ordered to destroy all BPA’s prints of  Hydro and The Columbia. He refused to do it, and sequestered one print of each in his basement.

Elmer Buehler (1911 – 2010)

I propose we hold an annual Elmer Buehler Film Festival of rescued films in his honor. In the meantime, you can hear Woody Guthrie perform the songs he wrote in the back seat of Elmer’s car on The Columbia, the second film on the first DVD.

The second DVD has Power Builds Ships (1942), showcasing PNW ship building as part of the war effort. 25,000 Volts Under The Sea (1951) documents the rural electrification of the San Juan Islands. Look To The River (1954), about the construction of the McNary Dam and the Hungry Horse Dam, features a score by Ernest Gold, who hadn’t yet won his Oscar.

Taken together, the series forms a composite portrait of the river, a forceful, magnetic, photogenic presence, and of the people who spent their lives attempting to tame it. Libby Burke’s introductions provide an inside track on the personalities behind the films. These films were made during a comparatively fallow period, when it comes to indigenous Oregon filmmaking, so the interface between BPA and Hollywood is especially fascinating.

From the BPA website:

And the BPA Library is offering the newly released set to the general public, particularly to teachers, schools, libraries, Northwest electric utilities and other public institutions. To receive a copy, contact BPA’s Public Information Center at the agency’s headquarters in Portland at 503-230-4636 (toll-free: 800-622-4520) or . In addition, all six films are available to view and share on BPA’s YouTube channel.

I hereby claim all the films included in the  BPA Film Collection: Volume One, 1939 – 1954, as Oregon films, based on the location of the producer, Bonneville Power Administration, in Portland.

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