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Our Stewardship of JFK's Greatest Speeches

By Mark Sobel
© 2006

When I started post-production on my still-ongoing opus "The Commission", I began to assemble color film of Kennedy’s greatest speeches for possible use within the movie. I assumed that this would be an easy task, however I was mistaken. The attention to the preservation of film that we see today in NARA does not seem to have been the case back in the early 1960s. In other words, locating high quality, color motion picture film of some of the greatest political addresses in American history has proved difficult, and in some cases impossible. I believe that a bill should be introduced in Congress to provide funding to digitally preserve the fading color film of what currently exists of JFK's speeches, and to begin a massive effort to try to locate that film which has apparently "disappeared".

All of JFK's major addresses do exist in B&W video footage shot by the TV networks, but the B&W video cameras were not of superior quality in those days, especially when used outdoors. Thus the existing network master film of JFK’s greatest addresses, including the Inaugural Address, the Berlin Wall Address, and the American University Address for Peace is of inferior quality; displaying problems with blooming, contrast, and a kind-of "solarization" effect. Perhaps these videos could be enhanced with a proper digital restoration effort.

Most of JFK's most important speeches, including television addresses relating to Birmingham, racial equality, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, were photographed in 35mm color by a film unit of the Department of Defense. This color film was shot for possible use in preparing political documentaries (some might use the term "propaganda films") for release in Europe and elsewhere outside of the United States. Indeed, the feature-length documentary "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums" was edited from this existing color film after JFK's assassination. The movie, narrated by Gregory Peck, would seem largely to have been intended to reassure allies that the policies of the Kennedy administration would continue under LBJ. A special act of Congress allowed the documentary to be shown theatrically within the United States in 1965. In fact, until 1990 it was illegal for these color Department of Defense documentaries, released in foreign territories by a government agency called the United States Information Agency (USIA), to be "disseminated" inside of the USA.

The Inaugural Address

There appears to have been two sources of color film of the Inaugural Address; a 35mm color negative taken by the Department of Defense, and a 16mm color film presumably taken by the White House Press Corps that now exists in the JFK Library, readily available to the public on video for a nominal fee. Short clips from B&W duplicates of the Department of Defense 35mm color negative can be found in theatrical newsreels of the day. I studied the newsreels dealing with the Warren Commission for set design in "The Commission".

Within the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), only the first minutes of the Inaugural Address, as well as the final minutes, survive in 35mm color. Although the camera position was inferior to that of the 16mm cameras, the 35mm negative would have allowed for enlarging the image to generate close shots of JFK, something that none of the color films possess. The B&W video of JFK's Inaugural Address does have many good close-ups, and I can think of no better use for the process of colorization than to sample the actual colors from existing color photos, and colorize this video material for the historical record.

One can only assume that the missing 35mm color negative of the bulk of this speech was discarded after using snippets of it for "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums". However, it is possible these outtakes are sitting in a vault in Europe somewhere, long forgotten. Since the original 35mm negative of "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums" itself cannot be located, it may very well be that all missing outtake color negatives might be residing in a single vault in either France or Germany. Because "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums" credits Pathe Labs in France for making the prints, this might be a good starting place for NARA to search, if it has not already done so.

The 16mm original in the care of the JFK Library Archives should certainly be digitized at Kodak using the State of the Art "Cineon," since color dyes continually fade with time. This is an expensive process, and I am not implying that the burden of this preservation should fall on the JFK Library. However, from that transfer, both High Definition Video Masters, as well as 35mm Separation Negatives for very long-term preservation, should be made, to assure that hundreds of years from today Americans will still be able to view quality copies of this historic address.


The Berlin Wall Speech

Because the Berlin Wall Speech is probably one of the most famous speeches in history, I was equally surprised to find that no quality, color version of this speech could be readily located. B&W network video exists and the JFK Library has edited B&W newsreel footage. It appears that the 35mm color Department of Defense negative was duplicated in B&W and provided to theatrical newsreel services, and the existing 16mm print of "Years of Lightening" held by the JFK Library has some clips of the speech in color from very wide angles.

It was literally after years of searching that I managed to turn up a reddish colored, 16mm color print of the Berlin Wall Address as released in Europe by the United States Information Agency (USIA). It is being housed in NARA, although I had missed locating it for years because it was never cross-referenced under "Berlin" or "Berlin Wall Speech" or anything similar. The sound is inferior as apparently it is a transfer off a low-quality 16mm track. but presumably higher quality audio recordings do exist and could be used to replace the existing track.

Because this "propaganda" film was made while JFK was still alive and therefore before the creation of "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums", the best camera angles from the 35mm color D.O.D. negative had been used in making this documentary of the full speech and as a result, the film "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums" had used outtake color negative consisting of wider shots.

Unless, and until the original 35mm negative of the Berlin Wall Address is ever located, (likely in a German vault, since the threading-leader on the 16mm film print had writing in German on it), this surviving 16mm print should be digitized on a Cineon at Kodak, then have the fading color restored digitally, followed by the creation of HD and 35mm separation masters.

American University Address On Peace

The American University Address is probably JFK's most important address, and arguably the most important address in modern history. In this address the President announced his decision to initiate arms control talks in Geneva and unilaterally suspend all atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons as long as all other nations would do the same. It is disappointing that of a 25 minute speech only one minute of 35mm color negative seems to remain in NARA. A very short clip of this speech is used in "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums" and once more we find that a B&W duplicate of the 35mm color negative shows up in theatrical  newsreels presenting the portion in which JFK announces the ban on atmospheric testing.

A somewhat low-quality B&W network video exists, however to date I have not been able to locate any source of the complete address in color, in any format. Because of its use in "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums", perhaps the outtakes of this speech, which would comprise 99% of the address, might also be in storage in a European vault along with the "lost" negative to "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums".


Even if this important color negative does indeed exist in a vault somewhere in Europe, it is important that it be located as quickly as possible, because even under refrigeration the color has been fading for over 40 years. Regrettably,  the kinds of dyes used in professional color negative film is very different from the dyes used in the Kodachrome home-movie film which has allowed the Zapruder film to maintain its color so well after all of these years. The director of "Image of an Assassination," who saw the original the Zapruder 8mm film over a light-well on a viewing bench, told me that the color on the original the Zapruder film was beautiful, as if it had been shot yesterday.

If anyone who once worked for the USIA or Department of Defense Motion Picture Unit in the 1960s is reading this and might recall where the original 35mm color negatives were stored after leaving the vault for negative cutting on "Years of Lightening, Day of Drums", please contact me at CommissionMovie@aol.com and I will pass along the information to NARA. Also please contact me if you are a private film collector who happens to have preserved a color 35mm or 16mm film print of any important USIA releases of JFK's speeches.

I was quite shocked to learn that the preservation of such an important element of our history was not properly taken in the 1960s; thank Goodness for the White House Press Corps and the JFK Library of the day, or we might not have the Inaugural Address either. Perhaps the Kennedy family might want to consider organizing a drive to raise the funding for such a preservation project, if Congress itself is unwilling to do so. The speeches of President Kennedy motivated our country to strive for peace at home and abroad, inspired us to dream of great things and believe we could accomplish them, and stirred the hearts and minds of not only his generation but those that would follow. The filmed presentation of his speeches should be preserved; and I encourage each of you to do your part to make it happen.

About the Author

 Mark Sobel  is the producer and director of the film “The Commission”, a feature film docu-drama based on declassified transcripts and documents of The Warren Commission, which was charged by LBJ in 1964 with the task of ascertaining the facts regarding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The movie stars Martin Landau, Sam Waterston, Martin Sheen, Ed Asner and Corbin Bernsen. Clips of the feature, which is now in the final stages of editing, can be viewed at www.TheCommissionOnline.com .

Mark’s credits include many acclaimed TV series throughout the 1990s, including the CBS series "The Equalizer"; series premiere episode of NBC’s "Quantum Leap"; ABC's "Gabriel's Fire" starring James Earl Jones; ABC's "Equal Justice" starring Sara Jessica Parker; NBC's "I'll Fly Away", the landmark civil right series starring Sam Waterston; and the pilot to the popular ABC TV series "The Commish" starring Michael Chiklis, which ran for 5 seasons on ABC. He directed the series pilot of Showtime's “The Outer Limits," and the premiere episode of “7th Heaven" for the WB. In recent years Mark has been directing television movies and independent features. “The Commission” began production in 1998 as a personal labor-of-love for both the director and actors, and as a work-in-progress won the top award at the IFP New York Market in 2004 for “Best Emerging Feature”.  Completion is expected later this year.

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