Lost (and Found) Art: Curating Campaign Films in the Russell Library
By Craig Breaden, Head, Media and Oral History Unit, Russell Library
Direct Cinema and Carl Sanders, 1969-1970
Carl Sanders shows his different sides in "Running Again," filmed in 1969 by Albert Maysles and produced for television by Hugh Wilson, Burton-Campbell Advertising, and Shelton Productions in 1970. Images taken from video transfer of the film in the Carl Sanders papers, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies.
“I’m the man who got Jimmy Carter elected Governor of Georgia,” Hugh Wilson told me with a chuckle as we talked over the phone this past April. Wilson, who now lives in Virginia, is best known as the creator of WKRP in Cincinnati, but in the late 1960s worked for Burton-Campbell, an Atlanta ad agency. He was Burton-Campbell’s creative head when, in 1969, Carl Sanders hired the firm to win back the governor’s office in 1970. Wilson worked with two young and ambitious writers, Remer Tyson and Robert Coram, to put together a campaign that would rely heavily on television.
Wilson was out to grab attention – this would be no ordinary campaign. In his 1963-67 term as governor, Sanders reshaped Georgia into a progressive Southern state. But at the time, the Governor could serve only one term and Sanders was required to sit out a term. Nevertheless, in 1970, at a youthful 45, Sanders was politically seasoned and still had a loyal following among voters. Wilson was confident that a bold campaign avoiding traditional political rhetoric would win the day. Through a friend who was a documentary filmmaker, Wilson had become familiar with the work of Albert and David Maysles, whose landmark documentary Salesman (about Bible salesmen) had been released the previous year. Wilson believed their “direct cinema” could cut through the political fog and create memorable campaign spots. Wilson offered the Maysles brothers the job, and Albert accepted (David, who recorded sound for the brothers’ productions, was unable to accompany his brother south). It wouldn’t be Albert’s first experience with politicians: in 1960, Maysles had worked with Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker to produce the film Primary, documenting the John F. Kennedy/Hubert Humphrey Presidential primary race.
In the early summer of 1969, Albert Maysles and Hugh Wilson followed Sanders as he kept himself in front of the public in preparation for the following year’s campaign. Four decades on, looking at a sample of the resulting films collected in the Carl Sanders Papers at the Richard B. Russell Library, it is difficult not to wonder at how beautifully they are crafted: they bear almost no resemblance to any other modern campaign film. Elegant and visually striking, the films do not trade on Sanders as a political candidate, and the slogan of the campaign, “Running Again,” is never translated as “running against” – Sanders is simply a proud Georgian who wants what’s best for Georgia.
Carl Sanders talks to farmers in the campaign spot "Agriculture," filmed in 1969 by Albert Maysles and produced for television by Hugh Wilson, Burton-Campbell Advertising, and Shelton Productions in 1970. Images taken from video transfer of the film in the Carl Sanders papers, Richard B. Russell Library for Political Research and Studies.
“The films were very impressive, but not particularly persuasive,” Norman Underwood remarked when I talked to him in March. Underwood was Sanders’ attorney during the campaign, and while he’s been a participant in a number of other campaigns (including his own bid for governor), the 1970 race for him is the most memorable. Underwood observed that the ads, wonderful as they were, neither attacked nor defended, failing to counter the ruthless campaign run by Jimmy Carter, who, in time-honored Southern tradition, painted himself as the populist farmer going up against a big city politico, the “Humphrey Democrat” Sanders. Both Wilson and Underwood recalled Sanders’ determination to run a clean campaign, and his subsequent refusal to counter Carter until it was too late. The rest, of course, is political history, with Carter becoming Governor of Georgia, a platform that took him to the Presidency, and Sanders retiring to an extraordinarily successful law practice.
And what of the films? Since the summer of 1969 the Maysles have become icons of direct cinema with Gimme Shelter (shot only months after the Sanders commercials) and Grey Gardens, two examples of their distinctive work. They continued to do commercials, which were lucrative and helped support their other films, but as works for hire, these are rarely mentioned in discussions of their cinematic contributions. Thankfully, however, the beautiful films Albert Maysles shot for a Georgia gubernatorial campaign were kept despite that campaign’s outcome: Sanders retained the films in his personal papers, which came to the Russell Library in 2004. Here are the quick facts of our archival perspective on the films:
- They are unquestionably of inherent and enduring value – they are films that document a dramatic and historically important political race, made by a master cinematographer.
- They are of research interest to students of film, political science, history, and advertising.
- There are fourteen reels with separate soundtracks, totaling about two-and-a-half hours, of edited footage.
- Of this edited footage, we have only two five-minute spots and a handful of 30-second and 60-second ads that are actually accessible.
- Films decay over time, and to create preservation prints, and therefore access, for each reel of film will cost about $2,000.
- Our goal in the next year is to effectively preserve and describe the films, and provide researchers access to them.
If you would like to help save these remarkable films, please contact Chantel Dunham at (706) 542-0628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.