November 22, 2017


by Kelly Burton, Film Archivist

Of all the larger-than-life figures to emerge from twentieth century history, few rival the early aviators when it comes to pure panache and romantic allure. This is certainly true in the case of Amelia Earhart, an aviation pioneer and author whose celebrity has remained extremely durable throughout the decades following her disappearance over the central Pacific Ocean in 1937. The brief visit that Ms. Earhart made to Helena, Montana in 1933 stands as a testament to her appeal at the time, and both the enthusiastic civic response and the wide regional press coverage speak to the breadth of her fame. References to Earhart’s historic appearance persist to this day: Helena’s annual history pageant – the Vigilante Parade – honored Earhart’s visit with separate floats in 2013 and 2017, and the appearance was further immortalized in 2010 with a painting which now hangs at the Helena Airport.

telegram from Amelia Earhart, 1933 (PAc 2003-62)
title card from Amelia Earhart, 1933 (PAc 2003-62)

Adding its own unique piece to this historical narrative, the Montana Historical Society has an amateur motion picture film of a portion of Amelia Earhart’s 1933 promotional tour for Northwest Airways.  As part of the airline’s bid for the coveted airmail contract for the Northern Transcontinental Route from Minneapolis to Seattle, general manager John Croil Hunter invited Earhart to fly as a guest aboard a Northwest Airways Ford Trimotor on a portion of the northern route to “assess the desirability of flying the route in mid-winter.” [1]  The aviator landed in Helena around 4:30 pm on January 29, 1933, and this particular trip found her playing the role of passenger, observer, and spokesperson for the value of aeronautics. After addressing a crowd of thousands at the Helena Airport administration building, Earhart was then taken to a banquet in her honor at Helena’s Placer Hotel, where she regaled Montana governor John E. Erickson and the town’s elite with stories of her various transatlantic flights. Staying with the State Commissioner of Aeronautics Fred B. Sheriff and his family at 700 Power Street in Helena that evening, Earhart departed for Spokane and Seattle after a luncheon the following afternoon. [2]

Earhart landing at Helena Airport (PAc 2003-62)  
Earhart disembarking at Helena Airport (PAc 2003-62)

The 70-foot, 5-minute reel of silent, black and white, 8mm film begins with handwritten title cards that read, “these pictures of Amelia Earhart taken in Helena Feb. 1933” and “the flight pictures are from Helena to Seattle.” Following these homemade titles, we find footage of a telegram sent from Earhart to Mrs. Fred B. Sheriff of Helena, Montana: “Mr. Putnam and I are off to Chicago this afternoon where I expect to see Mr. Hunter. Please tell your husband I will write him after the interview. Sincerely yours, Amelia Earhart.” The film then shows the approach, landing and taxiing of a Northwest Airways Ford Trimotor airplane, as photographed from the ground at the Helena Airport. Earhart disembarks the plane, where she is immediately engaged by a closely-gathered crowd. The aviator is soon escorted to the airport’s administration building, where she speaks and gestures from a second-story window, and eventually leaves the airport. On what is presumed to be the following day, we see Earhart board the same Ford plane and depart from the Helena valley.  The final images from the reel are aerial views of various mountain ranges and lakes, culminating in very brief shots of the Seattle area from the air and ground.

Earhart at the Helena Airport (PAc 2003-62)

Earhart speaking from the airport administration building (PAc 2003-62)

While motion pictures of early promotional aviation tours – especially those undertaken by pilots of Earhart’s stature –  often existed as widely-distributed newsreels, there are several details from this Helena film which point to a more unique document. In lieu of professionally printed credits, intertitles and copyright information, the filmmaker used only two homemade title cards to identify the contents of the reel. The presence in the film of a personal telegram from Earhart to Bernice Sheriff points to the family of the aeronautics commissioner as the probable source for the amateur film, and this idea is confirmed by the donation paperwork itself. American historian and Montana rancher Jean Baucus, who brought the film to the Historical Society in 2003, is in fact the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Fred Sheriff. A VHS transfer of this wonderfully distinctive film (collection PAc 2003-62) was provided by the donor, and this copy is available for viewing in the Historical Society’s Research Center.

Earhart leaving the Helena valley (PAc 2003-62)

Earhart departing from Helena Airport (PAc 2003-62)

[1] Ric Gillespie, Finding Amelia: The True Story of the Earhart Electra (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009), 55-56.
[2] “Greatest Woman Flyer Delights Helena Crowd,” Helena Independent (Helena, MT), January 30, 1933.