Monday, June 14, 2021

1939-1940 NFL Promotional Films, Champions of the Gridiron

By Chris Willis, NFL Films
1940 Champions of the Gridiron title scene 

Throughout his tenure as NFL President from 1921 to 1939 Joe F. Carr used several promotional ideas to help the growth of the league. Besides using radio, the Official Guide of the National Football League, trading cards, Ladies Day coupons, and other ways of trying to promote the league in 1938 Carr came up with another idea to get the NFL product out to more fans. He wanted to have a promotional film produced to show what the NFL was about and how the game was played. The film would be shown in movie theaters all across the country and would give the NFL more publicity than ever before.

To get his film started Carr contacted Detroit Lions owner G. A. Richards, who had been living the past year out in Hollywood for health reasons, to see if he knew of a film company that could shoot and produce the documentary on the NFL. Richards suggested Industrial Pictures, Inc., located in his adopted hometown of Detroit. Industrial Pictures was a fairly new production company that had just completed an eight-minute film on the Bryce Canyon National Park sponsored by the Ford Motor Company. Ford showed off its newest vehicles that could get you around the vast Bryce Canyon Park for reasonable prices. Carr was intrigued with the novice company, plus they could give his “football film” all the attention it needed.

After Carr contacted Industrial Pictures, the film company agreed to join the project. Industrial hired Juett Box as director and Oscar Ahbe as cameraman for the entire shoot. Carr then went looking for a sponsor for the film and found the perfect partner. Wheaties breakfast cereal was founded in 1924 in Golden Valley, Minnesota, and used sports as a tool to promote its healthy product. In 1927 the company put up billboards advertising their cereal at Nicollet Park, the minor league baseball stadium located in Minneapolis. Soon the cereal was advertising itself as “the Breakfast of Champions.” In 1934 Lou Gehrig became the first athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties. In subsequent years, Babe Zaharies became the box’s first female athlete (1935), and Jesse Owens became the box’s first black athlete (1936).

Carr knew that Wheaties was the ideal sponsor for his film. The combination of the NFL’s good, clean sportsmanship reputation and the cereal’s clean, good-for-your-body product was perfect. Carr contacted the executives at General Mills, Inc., to see if they would want to sponsor the NFL film. It was an easy decision for General Mills as they gave Carr a yes and drew up a fifteen-page contract for Carr and the owners to sign. The contract claimed the film was being made as “it is the desire of the Clubs and the League to promote, advertise and popularize the game of professional football, particularly as played by the Clubs of the League, so as to increase the public following of the Clubs and the public interest in and attendance at League games . . . and the Clubs and the League are desirous of accomplishing said end by the media of [this] motion picture.”

The NFL and General Mills agreed to 16 main points in the contract, including the following:

I. Company [General Mills] will arrange and pay for the production of an educational sound motion picture film featuring the preparation, training, fundamentals and execution of professional football, as played by the Clubs of the League during the 1938 playing season. Said film shall be produced by such technique as Company in its discretion deems best, shall be from four to five thousand feet in length, shall be non-commercial but may contain implied or inferred references to Company’s product WHEATIES by such means as the appearance of WHEATIES advertising signs on practice fields and such means as Company, with the cooperation and relying upon the ingenuity of the Clubs, such devise.

II. Company’s responsibility shall be limited to the expenditure of Thirty-five Thousand Dollars ($35,000.00) in the production, editing and processing of the said film. Company agrees to furnish each member Club of the League with one print of such film as the Club’s own property and Company will maintain for its own use a print or the number of prints adequate for distribution to places where Company can produce exhibition without cost to itself.

III. The Clubs and the League will cooperate with Company, its agents and employees in making playing fields, practices, action and players available for the filming and will likewise cooperate in procuring appropriate endorsements from such of their players as use and are willing to endorse Company’s product WHEATIES…

THE UNDERSIGNED, As President of the NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE, hereby approves of the foregoing agreement on behalf of the League and hereby accepts for himself and his successors in office during the existence of this agreement all delegations and responsibilities therein outlined which apply to the President of the League in such capacity.

1938-1939 Contract between General Mills & NFL for promotional film. Cost of $35,000, to be signed by NFL Owners. (Source: Joe F. Carr Family) 

The contract was then signed by President Carr and all ten owners. The deal was now complete- the NFL would have its own promotional film - some twenty-six years before the league formed NFL Films.

Carr could see the NFL’s continued growth, and he wanted to use everything in his power to promote the game. By using film and the increasing popularity of movie theaters, he took another bold gamble in trying to get the NFL to a broader audience. None of the other owners objected to this new idea, and they let Carr’s media background take charge.

Now that the film was in motion, Carr got to putting the NFL schedule together for the 1938 season. While assembling the games Carr gave permission to a few teams to play games in non-NFL cities such as Buffalo, New York, Erie, Pennsylvania, and Charleston, West Virginia, to help further the NFL’s potential fan base. Carr set up the Charleston game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Pittsburgh Pirates mainly for the new NFL film. He wanted to show off the league to a new audience in front of the rolling cameras. On July 7 Carr released the NFL schedule and its fifty-five regular-season games. The season was to start on September 9, and the 1938 NFL Championship Game would be played on the home field of the Eastern Division winner.

As the summer began, Carr arranged for the film director hired by Industrial Pictures to shoot the training camp of the Detroit Lions. It would be the opening segment of the NFL promotional film. Lions head coach Dutch Clark agreed to be the technical advisor for the film. He allowed  the film company to shoot his team going through camp—starting with the players’ physicals and weigh-in and continuing onto the field where they filmed the players standing in their positions and running the plays of a typical NFL team. Clark was even asked to demonstrate the dropkick (he was the best in the league at drop-kicking), which was shot in super slow motion for added effect. Lions’ owner G. A. Richards made a surprise visit to camp and would be mentioned in the movie. Filming was also done at every other team’s training camps and would continue throughout the regular season with at least one league game shot for each team. The film would conclude with the season-ending 1938 NFL Championship Game.

Dutch Clark on set of Champions of Gridiron, he was the technical advisor. 

In the middle of November, the city of Charleston, West Virginia, prepared itself for the arrival of the NFL. During the summer Carr announced that several non-NFL cities would host a few league games to help showcase the sport. Local sports promoter Henderson Peebles thought his city of roughly 67,914 citizens (1940 federal census) would enjoy seeing the NFL up close and personal. Carr contacted Peebles and scheduled the game in Charleston between the Pittsburgh Pirates, with the league’s newest star Whizzer White, and the Philadelphia Eagles for Saturday, November 19. Peebles secured Laidley Field (capacity of roughly 10,000) and set ticket prices at $2.00 for general admission and $1.50 for reserve seats. He also blocked off a section of bleacher seats for students priced at fifty cents. As the game approached, Carr informed Peebles that the game would be part of the NFL’s promotional film. He wanted the game captured on film to show the increasing popularity of the pro game. “The pictures that are to be taken in Charleston will be part of a five-reel educational and entertaining picture on football which later will be shown in the theaters throughout the country and will be available for display in elementary and high schools, colleges, noon-day luncheons, clubs, and other groups,” Carr said.

In a letter to Peebles, he reiterated his attention of sending the film crew to Charleston.

Dear Mr. Peebles:

I sincerely hope you and your associates appreciate the unusual opportunity afforded Charleston—for national advertising purposes—by the visit of the newsreel and motion picture men this coming weekend. The mere scheduling of the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia National League professional game for Charleston has already brought your city considerable publicity, but that is a small item compared to the advantages offered by the picture men.

These films will be shown throughout the United States—wherever football is played and in addition to the action shots of Whizzer White, Dave Smukler [Eagles fullback] and other luminaries of the gridiron many views of the crowd and celebrities in attendance will be photographed.

 Charleston is the capital city of West Virginia and with such a marvelous chance to bring it to the attention of millions of people. . . . The importance of this motion picture invasion of your city cannot by over-emphasized.  

Get busy now and have your leading citizens dressed up and on parade Saturday. Motion picture fans and gridiron enthusiasts from coast to coast will be seeing them on screen a few months from now.

With best wishes and greetings to my many Charleston friends, I remain as ever, Sincerely your friend,

Joe F. Carr,


Cameraman Oscar Ahbe

The film crew from Industrial Pictures with director Juett Box and cameraman Oscar Ahbe traveled to Charleston to begin shooting. Arriving on Wednesday before the game, Box and Ahbe scouted the stadium to find the best angles to film the game. Box was impressed by the layout, and speaking to the Charleston Gazette, he talked about the experience of shooting the NFL’s first promotional film:

“This is certainly a great break for Charleston. When you consider we have only operated in Brooklyn, Cleveland, Washington, Detroit, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and it puts Charleston right up with the big boys. President Joe Carr, of the National League, told me nothing was too good for Charleston so we are going to “shoot the works!” Hundreds of fans hear and read of “spinner players,” “double wings backs,” “off tackle slants,” and “lateral passes” and not 10 percent of them know what they mean. We take pictures of these plays, in slow motion, as they are executed by the pros in practice. Later we take shots of the same plays as they are run off in a regular game. Tomorrow [Thursday] we expect to photograph the Eagles in action at Laidley Field. We’ll catch them in various offensive and defensive maneuvers and then Saturday we’ll film the same plays as they “try” to execute them against the Pirates. Present plans call for a reversal of this procedure on Pittsburgh, as we expect to make our shots of them Sunday afternoon here, the day after the game.

I hope you have a banner crowd and we want every celebrity in the state to be on hand when we start grinding. 

As the game approached the weather didn’t cooperate, as a rainstorm hit Charleston starting Friday afternoon, and it rained all day Saturday. Peebles conferred with owners Art Rooney and Bert Bell about postponing the game. They thought it was a good idea and told him to call Carr

to ask permission to move the game. Carr told Peebles that a lot had gone into putting on the game, and that postponing the game until Sunday was fine with him. The forecast for Sunday was much better. As the two teams took the field on Sunday, what the two owners saw didn’t make them happy. Only 6,500 fans came out to watch the NFL in Charleston. What a letdown. The small crowd did see an entertaining game - a 14–7 Eagles win - highlighted by Whizzer White’s seventy-nine-yard touchdown run.

Carr was disappointed with the attendance in Charleston but was happy the two teams played well. He was also pleased the film crew got a lot done in their time in West Virginia. The film was nearly complete with only the 1938 championship game and President Carr’s introductory stand-up to shoot.

On January 1, 1939  Carr announced that the NFL’s promotional movie titled Champions of the Gridiron would be released sometime in March. Produced by Industrial Pictures of Detroit, the nearly one-hour film was almost ready to be shown in theaters across the country. In the opening scene of the film, Carr is sitting at his desk in his Columbus office and introduces what the following movie is all about:

     “In presenting Champions of the Gridiron, the National Football League, in conjunction with General Mills Incorporated, has produced an entertaining and instructive picture that should appeal to every member of the family. In this picture you will see most of the outstanding college stars of the past few years. Many of whom are the greatest football players of all time, now playing postgraduate football. For those whose only interest in the game is that of a spectator, these experts will analyze and demonstrate intricate plays in order to make the enjoyment of watching football more complete. To perspective football players in elementary schools, high schools, and colleges, these champions will demonstrate how the game should be played to obtain the maximum of efficiency, with the greatest amount of safety. For this great fall sport has a minimum of hazards for personal injury if properly played.

     Above all, the object of this picture is to demonstrate to the people of America that clean, competitive athletics, combined with the proper nourishing food and good habits will develop healthy, rugged bodies and clean active minds. Such as have made the youth of America the finest in all the world.”

NFL President Joe F. Carr at desk for opening scene, Champions of Gridiron, 1939 version.

Carr was excited about the potential of the promotional movie. It would give the NFL more exposure as the film would play in movie houses from coast to coast. Carr started lining up premieres in NFL cities, as well as other parts of the country, including his hometown of Columbus.

Title Page for 1939 version of Champions of the Gridiron

In March of 1939 the NFL’s promotional film Champions of the Gridiron made its premiere in theaters across the country. It was also made available for free to colleges, schools, and athletic and fraternal clubs. After five months of shooting, the nearly one-hour film - which was produced from 300,000 feet of film, narrated by [Bob Hall] and the game action described by Harry Wismer of WJR radio in Detroit (owned by Lions owner G. A. Richards), and supervised by Dutch Clark - was released to glowing reviews. After a private showing Carr was extremely pleased with what he saw:

“This film displays the greatest numbers of star players ever gathered in football films. It not only provides exceptional entertainment but also makes simple, the games technique as played by the leading elevens in this country . . . contains more action, thrilling entertainment and instruction matter than any football film ever shown. This film is certain to be very popular with football fans, young and old and others who may be strangers to the gridiron spectacle.”

The five-reel film featured footage of all ten NFL teams in actual games and practices, as well as close-ups - shot in both slow-motion action and regular speed. NFL stars such as Sammy Baugh, Don Hutson, Mel Hein, Whizzer White, Ed Danowski, Ace Parker, Dutch Clark, and Jack Manders are predominately featured throughout the movie. The film concludes with the thrilling finish of the 1938 NFL Championship Game won by the New York Giants over the Green Bay Packers. Several NFL cities had free viewings including a showing in New York for 100 Big Apple sportswriters and radio personalities. In attendance was newly hired Navy football coach

Swede Larson, who was very impressed by the film: “The National Football League would be doing great public service to show this film in every high school in the country. It is the finest football movie I have ever seen.”

One report in the Green Bay Press-Gazette announced that a “total of 154,425 persons attended 237 showings of the National Football League’s official motion picture, ‘Champions of the Gridiron,’ during the month of April.” The promotional film was a hit.

1939 ad for Champions of the Gridiron (Source: Carbondale, IL Daily Free-Press, 12-13-1939) 

Viewers for Champions of the Gridiron (Source: Green Bay Press-Gazette, 5-16-1939) 

While sitting at his desk in Columbus, Carr wrote a letter to Bert Bell and talked to Art Rooney on the phone about having the 1939 summer meeting in Pittsburgh. He also made arrangements to premiere the film in his hometown. Cosponsored by the Ohio State Journal and the Agonis Club of Columbus, Champions of the Gridiron was set up to be shown at the RKO Palace Theater on Saturday May 13, just a block west from Carr’s office at 16 East Broad. At 9:30 a.m. “several thousand people” crammed into the Palace Theater to watch the NFL’s newest promotional idea. Attending the premiere were the OhioState Journal Quarterback Club, Agonis Club, Central Ohio Football Officials Association, and many coaches and players of Central Ohio colleges, universities, and high schools. One of the coaches watching was Ohio State head coach Francis Schmidt, who was also impressed by the film. “It was the most complete showing of its kind that I have ever seen.”

1939 Ohio State head coach Francis Schmidt at showing of COG (Source: Ohio State Journal, May 14, 1939) 

All the hard work of putting together the film was paying off for President Carr, as the movie was reaching a big audience. It had done what he thought it would do. Little did he know it would be the last presidential duty he would accomplish in office. A few days after the Saturday premiere of the film, Carr completed a long week of work at the NFL headquarters and looked forward to a quiet weekend at home. It had been a very productive off-season up to this point, and Carr had reached the pinnacle of his career. The vision he had for the NFL as a big-time, big-city sport was taking shape right in front of his own eyes. As Carr reflected on his nearly two decades as NFL president, he must have felt very proud of how the NFL had grown up from its small-town disorganized roots to having a prominent place in the sporting world. But suddenly the NFL family was about to have its world shattered.

On May 20, 1939 Joe Carr passed away from a heart attack. He was 59 years old.

His work was continued by Carl Storck, who was elected President to replace him, and the other NFL owners. During the 1939 NFL season, footage was shot of several games and the season ending Championship Game against the Packers and Giants. An updated version of Champions of the Gridiron was produced and sponsored by General Mills. Storck did the introduction speech from his desk in Dayton. Sportscaster Bob Kelley narrated the film and Red Barber replaced Harry Wismer to describe the game action, including the championship game. The film was released in 1940.

NFL President Carl Storck in opening scene of 1940 version of Champions of the Gridiron

Washington quarterback Sammy Baugh about to throw pass in COG film.

A year later the NFL office was turned upside down with the removal of Storck for Elmer Layden, one of the Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, as NFL Commissioner, and the promotional film, Champions of the Gridiron, went away.

If Joe Carr hadn’t passed away promotional films like Champions of the Gridiron would have continued for the NFL. Who knows, maybe NFL Films would’ve started early.

More scenes from Champions of the Gridiron 



  1. fascinating as usual Chris...I know you discussed this in your bio of Joe Carr, is there possibility of getting this uploaded onto YouTube? thanks

  2. Tough to get older stuff put onto our You Tube channel. Will see. Thanks.

  3. I want to see that film too! Don't suppose it got uploaded sometime in the last 6 months, did it??