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DeWitt Beall Collection Update

About a year ago, CFA went on a quest to find the film materials for LORD THING (1971), a documentary on the Conservative Vice Lords made by Chicago filmmaker and adman Dewitt Beall. Soon after our search began, film researcher Bucky Grimm found the film materials with Elina Katsioula-Beall, who then donated the films to CFA. Elina cared for her husband’s films since his passing in 2006 and took it upon herself to carefully inventory Dewitt’s collection of films and ship them our way.

In addition to the the 27 prints and elements associated with LORD THING, the Dewitt Beall Collection also contains a handful of other 16mm productions made by Dewitt. These productions are a mix of documentaries, commercials, sponsored films and a PBS television series (Earth Keeping) that never quite came to fruition.

Two stand outs from this mix of films are the sponsored documentaries, MAKING IT (1966) and A PLACE TO LIVE (1968).

MAKING IT, which was made by Beall for the American Can Corporation, looks at the obstacles African-American males face when building a career. As the narrator states, “this film is about his chances, about the changes that have been made and the problems still remaining.” The film includes interviews with men who are “making it,” or who are some of the first African-Americans in their field. These men discuss how they feel about their struggle at large and what changes they think have been made since their current career path began. Some of these men (Allen “Tiny” Evans and Henry Jordan), later became part of Dartmouth University’s Foundation Years Project – a program that transported members of the Vice Lords from Chicago to Dartmouth from 1967 to 1973. Beall, a 1962 graduate of Dartmouth, spear-headed this short-lived 1960s-era program, even suggesting potential candidates that he met while shooting MAKING IT and LORD THING (read more about this Dartmouth-North Lawndale connection over at Chicago Magazine).

I can’t help but draw obvious parallels between MAKING IT and Chuck Olin’s A MATTER OF OPPORTUNITY (1968). Both films are sponsored documentaries that look at the limited career opportunities afforded to African-Americans. A MATTER OF OPPORTUNITY, though, narrows its focus within the field of medicine and also expands the discussion to include African-American women. Both of these films arose from the burgeoning civil rights movement in the United States and gave voices to African-American professionals at a time when obstacles to their careers were still firmly in place.

MAKING IT (Dewitt Beall, 1966)

Two years after MAKING IT, Beall made A PLACE TO LIVE (1968) for the City of Chicago’s Department of Urban Renewal. This film attempts to defend the city’s redevelopment plan for residential and commercial urban renewal, and explains how relocation officers can assist those who have been recently displaced. As the narrator states, “we are tearing down what stands in the way of a better city. Some buildings must go simply because they occupy space needed for something else, but for the most part, it’s the worn out areas of the city that are making way for the new.” Surprisingly, the film also gives a voice (albeit, brief) to recently displaced home owners who express their rightful frustrations and distaste of the city’s urban renewal process. Instead of analyzing these opinions, though, the film shifts back to its main goals – convincing viewers of the necessity of urban renewal and highlighting the relocation services offered by the Department of Urban Renewal.

A PLACE TO LIVE (DeWitt Beall, 1968)

At this time, it’s unclear how these films were originally seen. We’re left with only can markings and speculations – MAKING IT was found in a can addressed to a PBS affiliate, while A PLACE TO LIVE was undoubtedly used for outreach (or propaganda, depending on your definition) purposes by the City of Chicago. To the best of our knowledge, these two prints may be the only ones out there in existence (perhaps this is a world premiere of sorts?!..but we don’t want to get too ahead of our selves).

We’re still in the process of wrapping our heads around this complicated collection, with loads of hand inspections, digitization & cataloging to go. We’re also looking forward to receiving a newly struck print of LORD THING from our friends over at Colorlab (thanks to a grant from the NFPF!!). We’ll be sure to keep you posted as more on these films and filmmaker unfold…