By Thomas F. Schwartz
One of the most successful campaign films was the Will Irwin, Master of Emergencies silent film promoting Hoover’s presidency in 1928. Irwin used materials from the lost silent film on the Commission for Relief in Belgium made by Rosalie Ashton and the subject of previous blog posts. The battle within the Hoover campaign over its use is summarized in Will Irwin’s letter to Hoover on September 13, 1928:
Hate to bother you about a comparatively small matter, but here is where I appeal to Caesar.
There appears to be some hitch between the National Committee and the New York state committee about the film. They have asked us to send down a duplicate negative to make a short film of the same material. That’s all right. But they add in effect that they have decided against a national distribution of the “Master of Emergencies” film. And that’s where I protest.
I didn’t really know what we had—I was so sick of the material—until I saw it shown in Clayville, New York night before last—the first time I saw it tried on an audience. Since the idea of doing this thing was in the beginning Alan Fox’s, not mine, I can say without immodesty that it was a knockout. In the first place, when they learned that there was going to be a picture, people came in from the surrounding farms until the overflow outside of the hall was twice as great as its capacity. We had to repeat it and re-repeat it. In the second place, they went wild over it—to the point of tears. By the end, they were sobbing all over the house. And when they cry, you’ve got ‘em. Those tears mean votes. Toward the end they were applauding all the titles, and finally they stood up and cheered. Several of the local politicians saw it with me. They rushed order for it. One of them said that he intended to show it in every town in the Mohawk Valley. From every other place where it has been shown, we have reports of about the same results. Notably Boston, here it was put on after Senator Curtis’s speech. Concerning the effect there, I believe Chris Herter or John Richardson have written you.
Now if the National Committee means that for some political reason or other they don’t want to assume responsibility of distributing it, well and good. We have our own machinery of distribution and change of machines would cost time. But if they want to withdraw it, I think, and so do all who have witnessed its effect on audiences, that it would be a great mistake. The idea was to use it in place of speakers in small places where it is hard to get a good speaker. And in those circumstances, I’m sure it’s a better vote-getter than any local politician. I remember that the night you saw it you said that it would get votes only from the morons. But at least three-fourths of the voters, in my opinion, are moronic enough to be persuaded by their eyes and their emotions. And our reports from the film seem to show that.”
Irwin won the debate and the film was a great success highlighting Hoover’s many humanitarian relief efforts before and after World War One ending with this relief efforts during the 1927 Mississippi Flood. Although initially a silent film, sound was added for the 1932 campaign. The only copy of the talkie version is at the Hoover Institution.