Watch Robert Altman's First Movie: An Industrial Short About Football

Slate's Culture Blog
March 14 2012 12:06 PM

Is This Robert Altman's First Film?

modernfootball
A still from "Modern Football," a 1951 industrial short film directed by Robert Altman

Late last month, a Kansas City filmmaker named Gary Huggins uploaded to YouTube a long-lost movie by Robert Altman: "Modern Football," an educational short film for high school football programs. As he told SF Weekly earlier this week, Huggins "bought a stack of old instructional films for $10" at a drive-in flea market in Kansas City, and only recently got around to watching them. Then he spotted Altman in a cameo (it's at 2:37 in the video below) and realized what he had.

The movie has begun making the rounds, and has won some enthusiastic fans. At SF Weekly, Alan Scherstuhl hails the picture's "outstanding technique," seeing in it "Altman's great gift for clear storytelling in frames alive with numerous bodies in independent motion." ("Overall," he concludes, "I enjoyed this more than Ready to Wear!") And at Forbes, Bob Cook argues that "Modern Football" is "like a lot of Robert Altman movies, in that he presents a large, chaotic group of characters, and then intertwines them over the course of the film into a cohesive whole."

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You can judge for yourself:

Cook notes that while "Modern Football" is being hailed in some quarters as Altman's first film (perhaps because IMDb lists the short as his first work as a director), another industrial short, Honeymoon for Harriet, may have the greater claim. As the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research explains, Altman told critic David Thompson that the Calvin Company, Altman's employer, "allowed him to direct [Honeymoon for Harriet], which he also wrote, because no one else could figure out how to record the soundtrack of the open road conversation."

You can watch that one—as well as several other examples of Altman's earliest work—here.

David Haglund is a senior editor at Slate. He runs Brow Beat, Slate's culture blog.

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