Archival Spaces 310
The DuPont Story (1950)
Uploaded 9 December 2022
With Senator Gerald Nye (R, ND) back in the news as an insurrectionist and anti-Semite, the political predecessor of Jim Jordan, I was reminded of his early 30’s project of blaming Jewish bankers and armaments manufacturers, like DuPont, for getting America into World War I. I came across that story in my research on William Thiele’s feature-length industrial, The DuPont Story (1950).
DuPont started getting extremely bad press in the early 1930s because of persistent rumors about DuPont reaping vast profits during World War I, supplying half the world with gunpowder and explosives. “The Special Committee on Investigation of the Munitions Industry,” aka Nye Committee, under the chairmanship of Gerald Nye chased rumors of price fixing, war profiteering, and conspiring with the banks to stoke war fever in Senate Hearings, beginning in September 1934. In fact, the production of explosives had increased from 8.4 million lbs. in 1914 to 544 million lbs in April 1917. Added to the negative ledger was the fact that DuPont also controlled General Motors which was subject to a major labor strike in 1936 that was settled in favor of the United Auto Workers. To counteract negative public images, DuPont began sponsorship of a weekly radio program, “The Cavalcade of America,” on 10 October 1935 on NBC Radio Network. The DuPont Story was not only feature-length but also the most expensive industrial film produced up to that time.
The DuPont Story (1950) was copyrighted on 15 December 1950 and shown at company headquarters in Wilmington, DE, as well as at over 100 DuPont plants and sales offices across the country in the Spring of 1951. The Exhibitor, a Hollywood trade journal called the film “documentary-type public relations,“ noting further that it would not be shown theatrically, but was „interesting and well done.“ In fact, theatrical screenings began a month later, The DuPont Story being screened twice daily over a three-week run in Philadelphia‘s WRVA, thus reaching a general public. Not only was admission free, but DuPont also paid for each customer attending, as stated when the film was projected in a Warner Brothers theatre in Reading, PA. Business Screen gave the film extensive coverage, commenting: “While it is true that no effort was made to drag every skeleton from Wilmington’s closet, the Family depicted is a pretty human lot, with some failings and a few false heroics.” The DuPont Story won a Freedom Foundation Award in 1952. It was listed in the Educational Film Guide (1953), available for free loan on 16mm, and is today accessible on YouTube.
The film opens at a DuPont chemical plant in Waynesboro, VA., where the night shift is leaving and the day shift is going to work, the narrator explaining that the company operates 72 plants in 25 States, producing hundreds of products. The color film then flashes back to the company’s founding in 1803 on the banks of the Brandywine, where the recent French immigrant, Éleuthère Irénée DuPont, who had made gunpowder in France is convinced that there is a huge market for quality gunpowder in America. The company expands rapidly, thanks to the lower cost of American powder, now equal to European products, but an explosion in 1818 destroys 85,000 lbs. of powder, costing forty men lose their lives. Under the founder’s son, Alfred DuPont, the company expands, then brother Henry DuPont, “the General,” takes over the company, while his nephew, Lamont DuPont invents dynamite before blowing himself up.
As a sponsored film from the largest chemical company in the United States, The DuPont Story sought to project the image of a modern capitalist enterprise that took its civic responsibility seriously, creating products that improved the lives of Americans, while offering employment to tens of thousands. Private enterprise was highlighted early in the film when company founder, Éleuthère Irénée DuPont, visits President Thomas Jefferson, who tells him that he will need private investors since Americans do not believe in government handouts: ““We believe our citizens should take the risks and reap the rewards.” That civic duty extended to making the nation not only independent of European sources for gunpowder but also offering gunpowder at the lowest possible price to citizens engaged in the project of nation-building.
Given DuPont’s negative reputation for war profiteering during World War I, the film’s narrative of the 20th century deemphasized the production of explosives in favor of research and development of new products that fulfill the needs of the American consumer. As the DuPont Company notes on its website today: “The history of DuPont is a history of scientific and technological breakthroughs… to help people live safer, healthier lives.” Thus, the 20th century begins with the founding of a research facility and continues with a string of technological innovations, which are characterized as altruistic. In 1915, for example, the Company begins spending millions on the creation of new dyes, since America is cut off from high-quality European dyes, due to the war. In the 1920s, they invest further millions in creating fast-drying lacquer for automobiles, but the film fails to mention the company’s financial stake in the auto industry. The development of nylon for parachutes and other products is characterized by decades-long research into polymers by Dr. Wallace Carothers, while the company did its patriotic duty to the nation in World War II by supporting American defense, however without mentioning its involvement in the Manhattan Project to create a nuclear bomb.
In its march through DuPont’s and white American history, the film featured a huge cast of Hollywood professionals who made each historical vignette credible, given that the brevity of every performance did not allow for audience identification. Here, one can see most clearly Thiele’s ability to cajole realistic performances through a few bold strokes. One wonders whether Thiele had casting rights since the production took pains to cast actors whose facial features strongly resembled known images of the DuPonts on screen, e.g. Grandon Rhodes who had already played President Jefferson in several films. Several actors had previously worked with Thiele, including Nana Bryant, Stanley Ridges, and Pierre Watkin, while David Bruce, Edward Franz, Stacy Keach, Sr., Douglas Kennedy, Walter Sande, Keith Richards, Grandon Rhodes, Lyle Talbot, Pierre Watkin and Whit Bissell, would also work with Thiele on the Cavalcade of America and The Lone Ranger series.
William Thiele who both directed and contributed to the script, structures the narrative as a series of dialogues between company leaders of various generations, illustrating significant moments in the company’s history. Despite major gaps in that history, Thiele avoids the pitfall of a boring parade of waxworks by focusing on technological development and the company’s investment in products known to the public. Thiele’s ability to extract believable performances from his actors in historical costume by featuring pithy dialogue that comes straight to the point, and an efficient mise-en-scene, make the film both entertaining and educational.
One thought on “310: The DuPont Story”
I am impressed by the broad range of film topics you bring to Archival spaces. As a former resident of Delaware, I saw the less industrial aspects of the DuPont company operations, for example, their huge corporate HQ that dominated Wilmington’s city center and “chateau country” (that area of Northern Delaware with many DuPont estates). I have observed that there is very little industrial activity in the vicinity of those estates. On the DuPont Company’s plus side, they provide one of the largest sources of well-paying jobs in Northern Delaware.
Occasionally in films I will see a powder box with the Hercules Powder Co, Wilmington De label. Because The Dupont company was monopolizing the explosives business, it was broken up into 3 companies in 1912(DuPont, Hercules and Atlas).