If you tuned in to watch the PBS documentary, “American Experience: JFK,” earlier this week, you saw historical footage taken from the holdings of the UCLA Film and Television Archive — including clips of John F. Kennedy during his presidential campaign and his nomination at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, a London meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the president returning from West Palm Beach on crutches.
“American Experience” is just one of dozens of TV specials and documentaries airing this month to mark the 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination on Nov. 22 in Dallas, Texas. And it’s one of numerous productions that have incorporated footage licensed from the archive’s substantial holdings of Kennedy-related films. Among them are the History Channel’s “JFK Assassination: The Definitive Guide” and “The Lost Kennedy Home Movies;” MSNBC’s "Kennedy Brothers: A Hardball Documentary" with Chris Matthews; and the PBS biography "Frontline: Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?”
UCLA has the second-largest moving image archive in the United States after the Library of Congress, and the world’s largest university-based media archive. When it comes to JFK, the university possesses a large catalog of historic materials that can’t be found anywhere else — from newsreels to behind-the-scenes footage taken of Kennedy on the 1960 presidential campaign trail.
Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the archive, believes the recent “uptick of interest” from television and film producers who are hungry for historic footage documenting Kennedy’s time in the White House “underscores the archive’s vital role as the keeper of a visual record of such momentous events in history — especially as new generations of Americans have no firsthand memory of them.” Barack Obama is the first president with no personal recollection of the assassination and the dark days that followed for a desolate nation paralyzed by grief. He was just two years old when it happened.
The archive’s massive library of historical footage documenting people, places, events and lifestyles of the 20th and 21st centuries can help to reconstruct such events. That’s why the achive has become a frequent go-to source for production companies, authors, academic researchers, UCLA students and other users of its materials. Licensing fees charged by the archive provide financial support it needs to maintain its collections and provide access to them.
“JFK is perennially a popular subject, especially since he also intersects with other topics of interest, such as the civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis and the space program,” said Kara Molitor in the archive’s media licensing department.
Mark Quigley, manager of the Archive’s Research and Study Center, agrees. “The Kennedys and their place in American history, as well as in the history of the emerging electronic mass media at mid-century, are consistently topics of interest.”
So it’s not surprising, for example, that when director Oliver Stone was filming his 1991 Oscar-winning political thriller “JFK,” he drew from the archive’s Kennedy holdings.
In the areas of Kennedy’s assassination and its aftermath, including footage of the days immediately before and after, the UCLA archive has particular strength, according to archivist Dan Einstein, who works with the archive’s collections.
One rich source for this footage, he said, is the archive’s massive Hearst Metrotone News Collection. One of the largest such collections in the world, it contains more than 27 million feet of theatrical newsreels, unreleased news stories and outtakes spanning the period from 1915 to 1975. The collection was donated to UCLA in 1981.
There’s footage of Kennedy’s campaign, his years in the White House and, ultimately, his assassination, with scenes of the Dallas motorcade, the swearing-in of Lyndon B. Johnson as president, the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby and JFK’s funeral. The archive has also preserved some of these newsreels, including unedited footage filmed in 1938 of a young JFK, his siblings and mother Rose when patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy served as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
Also abundant in Kennedy material, Einstein said, is the Jack Denove Collection of film and videotape amassed by filmmaker Jack Denove, who was hired to produce campaign commercials and programming for Kennedy’s presidential campaign. The collection, which was donated to UCLA in the 1970s by the Denove family, contains all the footage the filmmaker and his crew shot, using hand-held 16mm cameras and a mobile video unit: every speech and public appearance made by Kennedy, all of his campaign commercials, and TV programs around specific themes such as urban problems, health care for the elderly as well as a television dramatization of the PT-109 incident highlighting Kennedy's heroic actions during World War II.
Documentary filmmaker Harrison Engle praised the archive for enabling him “to present the big picture as well as a more intimate one” of the Kennedy family’s private lives in his production of “The Lost Kennedy Home Movies.”
“To give our story historical context, we needed supplemental material,” said Engle, who found just what he needed at the archive. “We got some very valuable footage of John Kennedy, for example, when he underwent surgery as a senator from his days in Washington, and during the presidential campaign, the Cuban missile crisis and other historically relevant topics. These really rounded out of program.”
The archive also has materials that are available for research purposes but not for broadcast or licensing. For example, the Horton/Kennedy collection contains interviews, film and other materials related to "America Remembers John F. Kennedy," a 1983 documentary produced by Thomas Horton Associates.
There’s also a collection of restored and preserved television shows, such as NBC’s 1960 “The Campaign and the Candidates: Interview with John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy.” And the archive has Los Angeles television station KTLA’s raw news footage of then-Senator Kennedy in Los Angeles in 1959; JFK with Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961; and Robert F. Kennedy, Ted Kennedy and Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
The public has free research access to many of these materials at the archive’s research center in Powell Library. In fact, noted Quigley, who manages the center, “both JFK and RFK are frequent research topics for undergraduate and graduate students and visiting researchers, who have written on such subjects as assassination as cultural trauma and the impact of television on American life during the ’60s.”