Thank you to Greg Javer, who compiled Gordon Weisenborn's biography and filmography
Gordon Weisenborn was born on March 20, 1923. He was raised in Chicago in an artistic household (his father Rudolph was a noted Imagist painter whose WPA murals still hang throughout Chicago, and mother Alfreda/“Fritzi” was art critic for the Chicago Times during World War ll). Weisenborn attended the University of Chicago where he majored in Theatre. When his father's friend John Grierson began drafting talent from the United States while building the National Film Board of Canada, Gordon mentored under him. In the ensuing years, he would go on to blend the naturalism, lyricism and objective gaze of the Grierson school with the abstract modernist sensibility and joy in movement of his father's art. He worked throughout his career in a variety of capacities, including director, writer, producer, cinematographer, and editor). His early films are notable for then-unusual topics: WHEN ASIA SPEAKS takes a slightly skeptical view of Gandhi, and FEELING ALL RIGHT , a film directed by Fred Lasse, whose path would cross often with Weisenborn's over the next few decades, depicts syphilis among rural blacks.
Returning to Chicago after completing his second film for the Film Board, Weisenborn married Selma Revsin, a mother and more than 10 years his senior. They would have no children of their own and maintained a working relationship of more than a quarter of a century (much of Selma's involvement in Weisenborn's films is uncredited). In the early 50's, Weisenborn initiated another important partnership, finding a perfect complement in another young filmmaker, John Barnes. Though short-lived, the pairing produced several films, including PEOPLE ALONG THE MISSISSIPPI, a film ahead of its time in terms of its representation of racial relationships. Sarah Weisenborn also partnered with Barnes, writing (and in some sources credited as co-directing) THE BALTIMORE PLAN (1953), itself a perfect complement to Barnes' Oscar-nominated THE LIVING CITY.
Shortly after making these films, Weisenborn and Barnes
had a falling out. Barnes remained at Encyclopedia Britannica, creating
a body of Humanities films that still define the upper-limit of
educational film excellence. Weisenborn moved on to the world of
sponsored and industrial films, finally landing with Fred Niles
Productions in the late 50's (previously known as Kling Studios/Nile
Studios in the early 50's, where another young and talented filmmaker,
Haskell Wexler, shot commercials). It was there that Weisenborn directed
his only feature - and the first feature shot in Chicago in over 40
years – THE PRIME TIME, with sequences that included skinny dipping,
catfights and rockabilly. The film was produced and funded by adman,
radio and TV producer, and part-time professor Herschel Gordon Lewis.
The directing of the film has been erroneously credited Lewis, who would
eventually go on to direct erotica and horror films.
Though largely unknown beyond the milieu of the educational and sponsored film, Weisenborn continued working with gifted filmmakers in the crucible of Chicago ephemeral filmmaking. The aforementioned Fred Lasse would shoot for Barnes at Encyclopedia Britannica in the latter half of the 50's, as well as teaching at Columbia College in the Motion Picture (later Film) Department (HG Lewis also briefly taught there in the late 50's). Though Lasse and Weisenborn would occasionally work together, his longest-lasting collaboration, outside of working with Selma, was with cinematographer Andrew Costykian. Andy, too, worked at Britannica, on producer Warren Everote's unit in the late 40's. He also worked with Louis Clyde Stoumen, another Britannica vet who produced the only one of Weisenborn's films to be nominated for an Academy Award, the documentary feature THE NAKED EYE.
The year following THE PRIME TIME, Weisenborn directed what has become one of his best-remembered films. At the time, MURAL MIDWEST METROPOLIS, from 1960, might have seemed just another urban paean to the abundance society, specifically intended to promote shopping as it was sponsored by Sperry and Hutchison, the company behind Green Stamps. In recent years, MMM has played occasionally in Chicago to acclaim, appreciated for being a cinematically breathtaking portrait of the city. Andy Costykian's camera never stops moving, although GW's cutting obliterates the axis. The text/narration is co-written by Selma Weisenborn and is poetic, even melodic. It's capped by a rousing score by Sid Siegel (who would write the cult classic tune MY BATHROOM in 1969, part of his score for the fabled, lost Industrial Musical THE BATHROOMS ARE COMING!, sponsored by American Standard).
MMM is also curious in the context of Weisenborn's work for not representing racial diversity. Blacks are barely glimpsed in a few background shots, a surprising omission by the filmmaker, likely dictated by a sponsor targeting suburbanite shoppers. (A special thanks to Kevin Lee of the Art Institute of Chicago for this acute observation). More characteristically, racial integration is shown as normal, and without any false attempts to claim or appear so, throughout 1967's GIRLS ARE BETTER THAN EVER, ostensibly sponsored by the American Dairy Association to promote a new national youth initiative, The President's Council on Physical Fitness. Again, the result is dazzling as pure cinema, even if its racial depictions – the ink was barely dry on the Voting and Civil Rights Acts - may have been unwelcome to those lamenting change.
Described by a friend as “brilliant and eccentric” (the irony was doubtless not lost on Weisenborn), the college drop-out was about to become a professor. William Barger, a production manager at Niles, taught at Columbia, as did Jack Behrend, a Chicago-area industrial filmmaker to whom Weisenborn would later leave prints of a sizable number of his films. In the early 60's, Weisenborn joined them at Columbia, remaining there for more than a decade. By the time he left, a young film critic named Roger Ebert was also teaching there.
Weisenborn continued making sponsored films while teaching, finally leaving Niles and starting his own independent production company in 1970. Though Gordon Weisenborn Productions, Inc. would shoot sponsored films, he also gravitated back to his roots, crafting films for the educational market. He commanded the respect of his peers, if remaining obscure (the IMDB lists only three titles in his filmography), amassing over 70 national and international film awards. The Director's Guild listed him among the top 20 makers of specialized films.
Selma Weisenborn passed away in 1980, and Gordon's (known) credits cease around that time. He died on October 4, 1987 at the age of 64. His obituary listed his younger brother West as his only survivor. When Jack Behrend passed away, he donated the prints and rights to the Weisenborn films he had been given to the Chicago Film Archives. They have digitized many of them and hopefully will do so for those in their holdings that remain. We can only hope that many more films by GW are discovered.
Gordon Weisenborn Filmography
(Inclusive of films in which GW or his production company participated in making; GW's specific role is credited when known.)
- Mr. Williams Wakes Up - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0gG5EhBlxg - 1944 - Director/Editor: GW ("by courtesy of the World Today, Inc.") - Written by: George Stoney - Sponsored by the North Carolina State Board of Health - Produced by the Southern Education Film Production Service
- Feeling All Right - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/3404 - 1944 - Cinematography: GW - D: Fred Lasse - Co-W: George Stoney - Produced by the Southern Education Film Production Service – New York Film Critics Best Documentary Short
- When Asia Speaks (Le Réveil de l'Asie) - http://www3.nfb.ca/objectifdocumentaire/index.php?mode=view&language=english&filmId=37 - 1944 - D: GW - National Film Board of Canada - Narrator: Lorne Greene
- Tomorrow's Citizens (Citoyens en Herbe) - 1947 - D: GW - National Film Board of Canada - Series: Canada Carries On - Narrator: Lorne Greene
- Impact - 1951 - D/Producer: GW - Co-C/Co-E: John Barnes- Railroad documentary. Barnes left few notes on this film, but it is believed to have been produced and distributed by Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Company, with the film described as follows: Shows the problem of damage to freight shipments, as a Santa Fe freight conductor faces the facts of loss and damage. Emphasizes the conductor's realization that it's everybody's job on the railroad to help move the freight on time and in good condition.
- People Along the Mississippi - https://archive.org/details/people_along_the_mississippi - 1951 - EB - D: GW - P: GW/John Barnes
- SIX STORY FILMS to accompany "Dick and Jane" readers - 1953. They are believed to include:
- Flying a Kite - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPbL3rdiYPw - 1952 - EB (Primary Reading Series) - P: GW/John Barnes
- Frank and His Dog - https://archive.org/details/0872_Frank_and_his_Dog_05_01_06_00 - 1952 - EB (Primary Reading Series) - P: GW/John Barnes
- Jean and Her Dolls - https://archive.org/details/0433_Jean_and_Her_Dolls_01_15_59_00 - 1952 - EB (Primary Reading Series) - P: GW/John Barnes
- Safety on the Playground - 1952 - EB - Co-P: GW/John Barnes in Hollywood
- Surprise for Jean, A - https://archive.org/details/SurpriseForJ - 1952 - EB (Primary Reading Series) - P: GW/John Barnes
- Look to the Land - https://archive.org/details/LookToTheLand - 1954 - EB and 20th Century Fund - W/D/E/P: John Barnes - Cameramen: Haskell Wexler, Lou Stoumen, GW, John Barnes)
- Preface to Chemistry – https://archive.org/details/6039_Preface_to_Chemistry_01_39_39_28 - 1953 – Photographer: Gordon Weisenborn. EB Producer Warren Everote writes: “As a former chemistry teacher I wrote the script and had it approved. Then without an explanation EB Films President Walter Colmes gave it to Gordon Weisenborn to complete.”
- The Civil War - https://archive.org/details/CivilWar1954 - 1954 - EB - D/E/P/Co-W: John Barnes - C: Louis Stoumen and Gordon Weisenborn
- The Long Corridor - https://archive.org/details/6407LongCorridorThe01004108 - 1955 - D: GW - Sponsored by Zenith Radio - Production Company: Vogue-Wright
- The Naked Eye - 1956 - Associate Producer: GW - Feature-length, Academy-Award-Nominated documentary on the history of photography (featuring the work of Edward Weston and Weegee) - D: Louis Clyde Stoumen - Music: Elmer Bernstein - Narrator: Raymond Massey
- A Changing Liberia - 1956 - D/W: GW - C: Andrew/Andy Costykian - CCM Films
- The Prime Time - aka Hell Kitten - 1959 - Feature directed by GW for Fred Niles, hired by Herschell Gordon Lewis (Lewis on GW: "He was good at lighting beer cans and nothing else." Lewis' then-partner David Friedman likewise derided GW in his autobiography, for possessing a serious artistic purpose, at least acknowledging his talent. Spurious stories claim GW was fired by Lewis, who then took over and completed the film. Many sources still claim GW as an alias for Lewis, though not Friedman or Lewis. And the reputed Lewis alias "Gordon Herschell Weisenborn" is a complete and utter fiction, never claimed by involved parties, nor in the credits of any film.
- Mural Midwest Metropolis - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/2819 - 1960 - D/Co-W: GW - Co-W: Selma Weisenborn - C: Andy Costykian - PC: Fred A. Niles Communications Center - Sponsor: Sperry and Hutchinson
- Pit Paths – 19?? - Sponsored by Dow Chemical
- Bowling - 1961 - D: GW - C: Andy Costykian - PC: Fred Niles - Sound effects only/no narration (aimed at an international audience)
- African Rhythms - 1961 - D: GW - C: Andy Costykian - PC: Vogue-Wright
- Method for Miracles – 1962
- Girls are Better than Ever - https://archive.org/details/GirlsAreBetterThanEver - 1967 - D: GW - W: Selma Weisenborn - Sponsor: American Dairy Association
- Beatrice/Beatrice Foods Company - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/3416 - ca. 1970s? - D/E: GW - PC: Fred Niles (The nebulous year is credited by The Chicago Film Archives, but it appears that GW worked for Niles no later than 1969, the year he worked on the MeTooShow for Three Prong, and on 7/17/70, he incorporated GW Production, Inc.)
The MeTooShow - 1969/1970 - Three Prong Television Productions, Inc. in association with the Erikson Institute (possibly syndicated, at least locally in Chicago?) Titles include:
- Water is Wet - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/3403 - 1969 - D/C: GW - Animation
by Homer Groening and Yellow Ball Workshop; additional cinematography by Thomas G. Smith.
- Sit Down! - 1969 - D: GW
- Where Does My Street Go...? - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/3454 - ca. 1969 -
- If I Were an Animal - 1970 - D: GW
- Facing Up to Vandalism - 1973 - GW and Selma Weisenborn - Distributed by Perennial Education
- Amazing Grace - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/2801 - 1973 - PC: GW Production,
Inc. - Sponsored by the Lutheran Church
- Who's to Blame for Bad Classroom Films? 1974 - Audiocassette produced by GW (we can infer the audience was educators/buyers, and this was a
sales pitch for GW Production, Inc.)
- My Father the Song and Dance Man - 1975 - "Contributor: GW" - D: May Pietz
- Teaching Children Poison Prevention - 1976 - Sponsored by Parke, Davis and Co. - P: Frederick Julian Margolis - PC: GW Production, Inc.
- The System - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/3638 - 1970s? - D/E: GW - "Structured by
Selma Weisenborn" - Sponsor: ExxonMobil
- The Chicago Eye of Rudolph Weisenborn - 1976 - Documentary short about GW's father, noted Imagist painter - Appearance by GW
- Black Powder: A Hunting Heritage - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/3415 - ca. 1980 -
D: Jack Behrend - PC: GW Production, Inc.
- Am I Really that Different? - http://www.chicagofilmarchives.org/collections/index.php/Detail/Object/Show/object_id/3399 - 1980 - D/Co-W/E:
GW - Co-W: Selma Weisenborn - PC: GW Production, Inc. (Overview of Head Start programs)