Remebering Mr. O
Knoxville’s filmmaker: A rare tribute to a rare artist
Sam Orleans making friends on a Wild Kingdom shot.
Orleans employees shooting one of their more prosaic subjects, a tractor discussion.
Orleans’ often-busy studio on Cumberland near State, circa 1964.
Remebering Mr. O
by Jack Neely
Until his sudden death in 1964, everybody in downtown Knoxville could recognize him at 100 yards; the bald, rotund fellow almost as round as he was short. Everybody knew Mr. O. He was often the happiest guy on Gay Street.
People said that, perhaps unlike most of the regulars at Regas, he lived in a house fashioned from a tool shed and a chicken coop on the south side of the river. But during the middle of the 20th century, Sam Orleans was probably Knoxville’s only professional filmmaker.
Orleans and Associates Studios was near State Street, downhill from the Huddle Tavern, behind the former News-Sentinel Building. It was a two-story building with elaborate studio, screening room, and darkroom facilities. In that building Sam Orleans made movies. They weren’t dramatic features—many of them were prosaic short films, safety films and industrial promotions, for a local or regional market—but some film experts are so impressed with certain qualities of his work that some of his surviving films will be getting a rare public screening, a mini-festival, of sorts, at the East Tennessee Historical Society next weekend.
They had a certain style to them that belied more experience and ambition than you might expect. Orleans’ motto was “Will Go Anywhere, Film Anything.” He did get around.
Born in Montana of French Canadian parentage in 1899, Orleans grew up in Albany, N.Y., dropped out of school in seventh grade, and spent his youth in a series of adventurous odd jobs. He got a job in an early silent-movie theater, and when he was still a teenager, built his first movie camera from a plan he found in Popular Mechanics . He worked for a time on a Hudson River dredger, then went to sea as an engineer for several different lines, but always came back to making movies. In 1926, he became a movie cameraman for Hearst News, later doing journalistic filmmaking for MGM and other companies.
He shot newsreels of some of the major figures of his day, Presidents Coolidge and Hoover, Charles Lindbergh, others. Lindbergh was not a favorite. Following Lindbergh as a news cameraman, Orleans had spent a day helping Lindbergh clear a field of rocks to smooth it out for a landing. When Lindbergh saw Orleans a few days later, he ignored the cameraman. “My father never spoke ill of anybody,” Orleans’ daughter, Alice Jordan recalls, “except Charles Lindbergh, who he couldn’t stand.”
In 1934, he took what he thought would be a short-term job with one of Roosevelt’s New Deal agencies down in Tennessee. His film for TVA turned into an eight-year stint as TVA’s “Head Motion Picture Photographer.” He lived in a houseboat on Norris Lake with a retriever named Scooter. He was so fond of Scooter that he named his houseboat Scooter II. The former high-seas mariner piloted the houseboat around Norris Lake with a Canadian-style cap, smoking a corncob pipe.
Scooter maintained watch while Orleans was at work in Knoxville. Sometimes, though, Scooter accompanied Orleans into town. When he did, Orleans expected his dog to be treated well. One downtown restaurant was in the habit of feeding Scooter on a china plate. When they ceased that amenity, and fed the dog on a paper plate, Orleans refused to go there again.
He quit TVA to do his part for the war effort, working for a time for the Wartime Newsreel Pool in Canada, making documentaries like “Train Busters” and “Target Berlin.” He shot a documentary about the “Nuclear Ship Savannah ,” and returned to newsreel work to shadow Thomas Dewey’s doomed 1944 campaign for the presidency. After the war, for reasons of his own, Sam Orleans returned to Knoxville. He made a film about the Manhattan Project with an ambiguous title: “The Beginning Or the End: The Story of the Atomic Bomb and Oak Ridge.”
After Scooter was hit by a car and killed, a tragedy written up in Bert Vincent’s column in the News-Sentinel , Orleans married, in his 40s, an Iowa-born woman named Jane, who was an enthusiastic hiker and naturalist and, like Orleans, maybe a little bit of an eccentric herself. They settled down, as much as he ever did settle down, in that unusual shack by the river, on Ford Place just east of Island Home. And he formed the Sam Orleans Studios.
Daughter Alice, who grew up in that shack, isn’t sure why her dad stayed in Knoxville for most of his career, even after TVA. He kept space at the Pathe studios in New York, and was a recognized regular at the Piccadilly Hotel there, but it was cheaper to keep his home base in Knoxville, and fly back and forth.
He may also have found Knoxville useful cinematographically; many of his films, even those aimed at a non-local market, used Knoxville street scenes. Among them is “The Sixth Wheel,” one of Orleans last and most successful projects,shot entirely in Knoxville and Maryville.
One film Orleans was especially proud of was “Water Boy,” an early film for television about an escaped black prisoner from a Deep South chain gang. It was shot in the Knoxville and Petros area and employed extensive scenes of the last paddlewheel steamboat to ply Knoxville’s waters. Unfortunately, that film appears to be lost.
Orleans occasionally did TV work, contributing to the likes of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, as well as camera work for major motion pictures, like the Lewis-and-Martin romp, Jumping Jacks, in 1952.
The best-known movie with which he’s associated has a strong Knoxville connection. Jordan says Orleans contributed some outdoor footage, especially the dog-and-bear fight sequence, to the 1946 classic, The Yearling . It raises the question of whether Orleans was close to Clarence Brown, the movie’s Knoxville-raised director, who was about eight years older than Orleans. Jordan doesn’t know that her father even knew the MGM director well.
A handful of Knoxvillians today remember Sam Orleans personally. A few at TVA are aware of his reputation. But we wouldn’t know nearly this much about Sam Orleans if not for the labors of archivist Bradley Reeves.
The Bearden-raised Reeves, who organized next Friday’s tribute became a vintage-movie fan while attending the Tennessee Theatre with his grandfather in the late ’70s, when the struggling old motion-picture palace, its first-run days behind it, was showing black-and-white films, with a strong prejudice for the work of Humphrey Bogart. Reeves began playing with cameras on his own, and eventually went to the Selznick School of Film Preservation in Rochester, New York. He has since worked for the Library of Congress, the National Archives, and most recently for the Archives of Appalachia. He’s now back in Knoxville, working on some freelance projects. Reeves has collected the known music recordings made at the St. James Hotel in 1929-30, and hopes to make it commercially available. He’s also working on obtaining a copy of Stark Love , a controversial silent, shot near Knoxville in the 1920s, to show to a modern audience.
Lately he’s gotten fascinated with the peculiar career of Sam Orleans. His acquaintance with Orleans commenced three years ago, and serendipitously. From an elderly film collector, a reclusive film projectionist who had once worked at the Riviera, Reeves obtained a cache of rare films. “I noticed one film can had a Knoxville address: ‘Orleans and Associates Studios, 211 West Cumberland Ave.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? There was a movie studio here ?’”
Reeves had a look at the films, and though most were merely promotional films made from the mid-1940s to the early 1960s, many of them for Knoxville-area businesses that no longer existed, he was impressed with their quality. He made got together with U.J. Hale, a sometime Orleans employee who still lives in Knoxville, and Orleans’ daughter, who now lives near Atlanta, to fill in some gaps.
Among those he’ll be showing are Valley of the Tennessee , a rave for TVA Orleans made in 1944; it’s likely the one seen by French author Jean-Paul Sartre during his visit to TVA’s Knoxville headquarters in early 1945. There’s a clip from the “Rural America Review,” a national television series sponsored by Ralston Purina in the mid-1950s; “Today’s News, Tomorrow’s Men,” a training film made in 1946 for News-Sentinel paperboys; “Food Freezing In Tennessee,” a promotional film for the defunct North Knoxville company Winter Garden Frozen Foods, which features stalwart Tennessee Theatre organist Billy Barnes, and is more fun than it sounds. And he’ll show “The Sixth Wheel,” one of Orleans’ last and most praised opuses, about the dangers of distracted drivers; numerous distinctive Knoxville locations, like the Broadway Kroger and Greenlee’s Bicycle Shop, are recognizable in the 1962 film. It won several awards and became the basis for a statewide driver-training program in Kentucky. Reeves’ favorite part is the depiction of a Young High kid with a hot rod, presented with “some real hot jazz.”
“Some has a camp appeal,” Reeves admits. Reeves says much of the films’ humor is intended, especially in “Food Freezing in Tennessee,” which features a grandmother’s portrait coming to life, and in “The Sixth Wheel,” in which Orleans himself appears in a Hitchcock-style cameo in that film.
“I’ve never seen films like this,” Reeves says. “He’s so different and goofy. He knows his stuff. When you see somebody camping it up a lot, it’s definitely intentional. He had a wicked sense of humor.”
Also in the lineup is something that’s a little bit of a mystery, dual-camera coverage of a 1951 Santa Claus parade on Gay Street. Either it’s just an unusually elaborate home movie, Reeves suspects, or the remnants of an unfinished project. As the parade passes, crowds in the thousands spill off the sidewalk. “It looks like a little New York City,” Reeves says. “People everywhere.” For long-term Knoxvillians watching that film, it’ll be hard to resist the temptation to scan the crowds for old friends.
Orleans also lived up to his “Go Anywhere—Film Anything” motto even when he stayed here in town. Among Reeves’ collection are some medical films Orleans shot at St. Mary’s Hospital. He mentions specifically film of rib-removal surgery. “It’s one of the grossest films I’ve seen,” says Reeves. He won’t be showing that one at next weekend’s tribute.
Though Reeves admires the camera work in these films, which probably would have been accomplished by others less artistically if Orleans hadn’t been around to do them himself, these color motion pictures may be more valuable to some Knoxvillians as an unusually vivid document of an era in their city. That’s part of the appeal for Reeves, as well. “It excited me to see my home town in color, in 1948,” he says.
Orleans and his wife had one child, Alice, who was born in 1949, a few weeks before her dad turned 50. “He called me his 50-year-old daughter,” she says.
Alice Jordan has many fond and unusual memories of her dad. “He was one of those unforgettable personalities that would just light up a room.” She recalls parents that were devoted to each other, although they were often apart. Life was tough in their early days, she says. “Lots of times, there wasn’t enough money to go around,” she says. Mr. O paid his staff first, and paid himself only if there were a profit. But every day, he dropped in at Baum’s Florist shop on Gay Street, which sold long-stem roses for 10 cents a piece. He’d buy two, one for his secretary, and one for his wife.
Things got better over the years, though, and by the time Alice was a teenager, they were more comfortable. Her father bought a blue Corvette and even proposed moving the family into a real house, on Sherrod Road in South Knoxville. “Daddy was gung-ho about buying a house,” she says. Her mother objected. “We’re not going anywhere,” she said. She liked the shack by the river where no two windows were alike, and she liked the neighbors; they were especially close to the Ford family, who treated them like relatives. Jane Orleans remained there for many years after Mr. O’s death.
Orleans was fascinated with current cinema. “He went to movies when they first came out, in New York,” his daughter recalls. “If he thought they were any good, he took us to see them in Knoxville.” One she remembers especially vividly was Tom Jones , the bawdy version of Fielding’s novel that came out in 1963, when Alice was 14. “It was considered risqué at the time,” Jordan says. “He was bound and determined that I was not going to be sheltered.” They saw it in a theater on Broadway.
As Orleans entered his 60s, he showed no signs of slowing down. Around 1963, he was said to be working in Knoxville with Candid Camera creator Allen Funt on a pilot for a reality-TV concept that apparently didn’t pan out.
Orleans had always been fascinated with flight. As early as the 1920s, he was taking aerial films, as he’d later do for TVA. He was flying back from business in Washington in July, 1964, on a United four-engine Viscount when, under still-mysterious circumstances, it went down in Cocke County minutes before it was to arrive at McGhee Tyson. It remains to this day the worst air disaster in East Tennessee history. Among the 39 killed was Sam Orleans, on one of his many routine trips back home. Mr. O was then so well known, he was the first one identified by the rescue crew.
Jane Orleans stayed in their beloved shack by the river until forced out by the South Knoxville bridge project in the early 1980s. “I think the hardest thing that ever happened to her was when she had to leave there,” her daughter says. Jane Orleans died soon after the eviction.
If not for Reeves’ work, Orleans reputation could easily have disintegrated in forgotten film cans. “This guy’s been totally forgotten about, really,” Reeves says. “I doubt there’s more than one print on the planet of some of this stuff.”
Alice Jordan will attend this rare screening, as will some actors who appeared in some of Orleans work more than half a century ago. Orleans sometime director, Larry Mollot, is still alive in his 90s, and living in New York; he has cheered Reeves in his efforts, but probably won’t make the trip.
“There’s a resurgence of interest in industry films, a new respect for these types of films,” says Reeves. He says other industrial filmmakers of equal or lesser quality are at least acknowledged today. “But this guy’s name dropped off the map.” Some resources list “all the big industrial filmmakers, but not a mention of Sam Orleans.”
“I have over 25 of them now. They keep coming out of the woodwork,” Reeves says. “I’m finding out that Sam must have made films on an almost daily basis.” He was born after Orleans’ death, but has gotten to know him so well in the last three years that he feels as if he’s on a first-name basis.
“Some people may not think this is worth saving,” he admits. “I think it is. It’s a personal mission for me.”
Who: Bradley Reeves’ tribute to Sam Orleans