Series Blog

Staff Favorite Films

This Fall, American Experience will celebrate its 25th anniversary. That's 25 years of documentaries broadcast on PBS -- 287 films, 399 hours of programming, and 428 nights of television. Everyone has a favorite, including all of us on staff at American Experience, and we want to share that with you. As part of our 25th anniversary celebration, we are going to publish a Staff Favorite Film blog post every month, starting today.

My favorite American Experience documentary premiered in 2010. It just so happens that two other staffers had the same favorite film as I did, so in an effort to be a little less boring I am going to choose something else. As the master of all things digital here at American Experience, I will side with the masses on this choice; every year, without fail, we have one legacy (read: old) film that people keep coming back to online. We update it, people keep coming back to it. We post about it on Facebook and Twitter, people keep coming back to it. We ignore it completely, people keep coming back to it. It's the cockroach after the nuclear war -- except that it's very very popular. It premiered March 2, 1998, back when Natalie Portman looked like this and Seinfeld was battling ER for the most popular tv show of the year. It is Surviving the Dust Bowl.

We call it "The story of the farmers who came to the Southern Plains of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas dreaming of prosperity and lived through ten years of drought, dust, disease and death," but surely it is more than that. It's a story about probably the toughest Americans that ever lived. They were simple people. Mostly farmers. Doing what they were supposed to be doing. Working hard. Hands growing calloused while raising crops in the beautiful and bountiful Southern Plains. And not having any idea of how lucky they really were… until the rain stopped coming.

Today, stock market will have a bad day, the unemployment rate might grow for a month, housing prices don't rise as fast as we'd like them to, and it's front-page news. In 1931 the rain stopped for ten years. Ten years! Imagine it. Storms of dust. Dust coating every surface. Dust in your nose. Dust in your stomach. Dust pneumonia.

But this film is not called "The Dust Bowl." It is "Surviving the Dust Bowl," and that is what makes us come back to it again and again. It is the majority of the residents who chose to stay and tough it out. Theirs are stories not only of sadness and loss, but also determination, perseverance, and ultimately preservation and conservation. It's the story of the little guy who stayed the course, made some adjustments, and kept on chugging until the skies finally opened up again late in 1939. The guy who had such faith in his life and work that he promised "to stay here 'til hell freezes over, and skate out on the ice." And isn't that guy just the ultimate American hero? Isn't that the guy that we all really want to be? 

Or, maybe people keep coming back to this website because it's one of the top results when you Google "The Great Depression." Either way, Surviving the Dust Bowl is a great film, and it's one for which I have successfully lobbied my superiors at American Experience to pay the extra money to be able to keep streaming online for free for all of our amazing super fans. So watch it while it lasts!

(You'll have to come back again to later blog posts to find out what my #1 favorite American Experience documentary is…) 

Molly Jacobs is the Web Producer for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

Summer 2013 Broadcast Schedule


Mark your calendars for American Experience, airing on your local PBS station this summer! We will broadcast two films from our ever-so-popular Wild West Collection, biographies of two American titans, and on July 2, Mount Rushmore will air as part of PBS's Independence Day programming. We hope you enjoy our upcoming Summer schedule, which kicks off with "Jesse James" on May 7 at 8/7C. 

May 7, 8pm ET: Jesse James
May 14, 8pm ET: Annie Oakley
June 18, 8pm ET: The Rockefellers
June 25, 8pm ET: Henry Ford
July 2, 9pm ET: Mount Rushmore

Jesse James, May 7, 8pm ET

The story of Jesse James is one of America'smost familiar myths -- and one of its most wrong-headed. James, so the legend goes, was a Western outlaw, but in reality, he never went west. He has been called America's own Robin Hood, yet he robbed both rich and poor, and was never seen to share his ill-gotten gains. He was known as a gunfighter -- but his victims were almost always unarmed. Less heroic than brutal, James was a member of a vicious band of Missouri guerrillas during the Civil War, and sought vengeance for the Confederate defeat afterwards. In a life steeped in prolific violence and bloodshed, he met what was perhaps the most fitting end.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Jesse James, the true story of an outlaw who has captured the imagination of generations of Americans. "There's something about this legend that Americans have a hard time letting go of," says film producer Mark Zwonitzer. "Perhaps it's the much-needed idea of a hero or the allure of an outlaw. Either way, I hope this film will set the record straight."

Annie Oakley, May 14, 8pm ET


In 1926, just a few months before Annie Oakley's death, Will Rogers describedher as "the greatest woman rifle shot the world has ever produced." As the star attraction of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, she thrilled audiences around the world with her daring shooting feats. Her act helped fuel turn-of-the-century nostalgia for the vanished, mythical world of the American West. Over time she became an American legend -- the loud, brassy, cocksure shooter celebrated in the musical "Annie Get Your Gun." But that legend had little to do with the real Annie Oakley. Although famous as a Western sharpshooter, Oakley lived her entire life east of the Mississippi. A champion in a man's sport, she forever changed ideas about the abilities of women, yet she opposed female suffrage. Her fame and fortune came from her skill with guns, yet she was a Quaker.

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE presents Annie Oakley, the story of a five-foot-tall sharpshooter who pulled herself out of the depths of poverty to become known the world over as a symbol of the Wild West. From producer Riva Freifeld, this one-hour film chronicles Oakley's life, from her childhood in Ohio to her world tours with Buffalo Bill's Wild West show.

The Rockefellers, June 18, 8pm ET


"Mr. Rockefeller, your fortune is rolling up like an avalanche! You must distribute it faster than it grows! If you do not, it will crush you and your children and your children's children!"
--The Rev. Frederick Gates, hired by John D. Rockefeller to guide his philanthropy

They feared the temptations of wealth, yet their estate was once described as the kindof place God would have built--if only he had the money. They amassed a fortune that outraged a democratic nation, then gave much of it away. They were the closest thing this country had to a royal family, but they shunned the public eye, retreating behind the walls of their palatial home at Pocantico Hills, New York.

"The Rockefellers" is the saga of four generations of a legendary American family whose name is synonymous with great wealth.

Henry Ford, June 25, 8pm ET


An absorbing life story of a farm boy who rose from obscurity to becomethe most influential American innovator of the 20th century, Henry Ford offers an incisive look at the birth of the American auto industry with its long history of struggles between labor and management, and a thought-provoking reminder of how Ford's automobile forever changed the way we work, where we live, and our ideas about individuality, freedom, and possibility.

Through his own fierce determination, Ford created the Model T, the most successful car in history, and introduced the groundbreaking $5-a-day wage, ushering in the modern world as we know it. But despite his success, Ford remained restless and driven, always seeking to control what lay just beyond his grasp. While creating a more urban, industrial age, Ford simultaneously longed for the simpler era he had helped destroy. One of the nation's richest men, he despised the wealthy and blamed Jews for what he deemed society's degeneration. A hero to many ordinary Americans, he battled his workers and bullied those who looked up to him -- including, and most tragically, his only son.

Mount Rushmore, July 2, 9pm ET


High on a granite cliff in South Dakota's Black Hills tower the huge carved facesof four American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. Together they constitute the world's largest piece of sculpture.

The massive tableau inspires awe, curiosity and bemusement. How, and when, was it done? What obstacles were overcome to cut the 60-foot-high heads out of a wilderness mountain? Who possessed the audacity -- or lunacy -- to create such a gargantuan work?

The story of Mount Rushmore's creation is as bizarre and wonderful as the monument itself. It is the tale of a hyperactive, temperamental artist whose talent and determination propelled the project, even as his ego and obsession threatened to tear it apart. It is the story of hucksterism and hyperbole, of a massive public works project in the midst of an economic depression. And it is the story of dozens of ordinary Americans who suddenly found themselves suspended high on a cliff face with drills and hammers as a Danish sculptor they considered insane directed them in the creation what some would call a monstrosity, and others a masterpiece.

Stay in touch with AMERICAN EXPERIENCE! Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, and sign up for our e-newsletter. We have more great new films coming this Fall and Winter, and we will announce the broadcast schedule for the 2014 season soon!

Casey is the Special Projects Assistant for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE. 



Fan Favorites from Seasons 24 & 25

Last week we asked our fans on Facebook and Twitter what has been your favorite AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film over the past two seasons. You gave us a great response, and we would like to share the results. Many of the films are streaming for free on our website, so if you have not had the chance to see some of the films listed below, you never know -- you may soon have a new favorite!

The top three films that received the most votes were:


   1. The Abolitionists  

Radicals. Agitators. Troublemakers. Liberators. Called by many names, the abolitionists tore the nation apart in order to make a more perfect union. Men and women, black and white, Northerners and Southerners, poor and wealthy, these passionate antislavery activists fought body and soul in the most important civil rights crusade in American history. What began as a pacifist movement fueled by persuasion and prayer became a fiery and furious struggle that forever changed the nation.

Bringing to life the intertwined stories of Frederick DouglassWilliam Lloyd GarrisonAngelina GrimkéHarriet Beecher Stoweand John BrownThe Abolitionists takes place during some of the most violent and contentious decades in American history, amid white-hot religious passions that set souls on fire, and bitter debates over the meaning of the Constitution and the nature of race. 

Learn more on the website:
Watch videos from Part 1Part 2, and Part 3.  

   2. Death and the Civil War  

From acclaimed filmmaker Ric BurnsDeath and the Civil War examines the many ways the staggering death tolls of the Civil War permanently altered the character of the republic, and the psyche of the American people.  The work of contending with death on an unprecedented scale propelled extraordinary changes in the inner and outer life of Americans – posing challenges for which there were no ready answers when the war began  – challenges that called forth remarkable and eventually heroic efforts as Americans worked to improvise new solutions, new institutions, new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale. Based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s groundbreaking book, This Republic of Suffering, the film was broadcast in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.

Learn more on the website: 

   3. Clinton  

The biography of a president who rose from a broken childhood in Arkansas to become one of the most successful politicians in modern American history, and one of the most complex and conflicted characters to ever stride across the public stage. From draft dodging to the Dayton Accords, from Monica Lewinsky to a balanced budget, the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton veered between sordid scandal and grand achievement. Clinton had a career full of accomplishment and rife with scandal, a marriage that would make history and create controversy, and a presidency that would define the crucial and transformative period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9-11.

The latest installment in the critically acclaimed and successful series of presidential biographies, Clinton follows the president across his two terms as he confronted some of the key forces that would shape the future, including partisan political warfare and domestic and international terrorism, and as he struggled with uneven success to define the role of American power in a post-Cold War world. Most memorably, it explores how Clinton’s conflicted character made history, even as it enraged his enemies and confounded his friends.

Clinton is part of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE's The Presidents collection.

Watch the film online: 

Check out the rest of our films that have premiered during the past two seasons. They're all excellent, even if we do say so ourselves...

   The Amish  

An intimate portrait of contemporary Amish faith and life, this film examines how such a closed and communal culture has thrived within one of the most open, individualistic societies on earth. What does the future hold for a community whose existence is so rooted in the past? And what does our fascination with the Amish say about deep American values?

Watch the film online: 

   Billy the Kid  

A fascinating look at the myth and the man behind it, who, in just a few short years transformed himself from a skinny orphan boy to the most feared man in the West and an enduring western icon.

Billy the Kid
is part of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE's Wild West collection.

Watch the film online:

   Custer's Last Stand  

Like everything else about General George Custer, his martyrdom was shrouded in controversy and contradictions. The final act of his larger-than-life career played out on a grand stage with a spellbound public engrossed in the drama. In the end, his death would launch one of the greatest myths in American history.

Custer's Last Stand
is part of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE's Wild West collection.

Watch the film online:

   Grand Coulee Dam  

It would be the "Biggest Thing on Earth," the salvation of the common man, a dam and irrigation project that would make the desert bloom, a source of cheap power that would boost an entire region of the country. Of the many public works projects of the New Deal, Grand Coulee Dam loomed largest in America's imagination during the darkest days of the Depression. It promised to fulfill President Franklin Roosevelt's vision for a "planned promised land" where hard-working farm families would finally be free from the drought and dislocation caused by the elements.

Grand Coulee Dam
is part of AMERICAN EXPERIENCE's The Environment collection.

Watch the film online:

   Henry Ford  

An absorbing life story of a farm boy who rose from obscurity to become the most influential American innovator of the 20th century, Henry Ford offers an incisive look at the birth of the American auto industry with its long history of struggles between labor and management, and a thought-provoking reminder of how Ford's automobile forever changed the way we work, where we live, and our ideas about individuality, freedom, and possibility.

Watch the film online:

   Jesse Owens  

The most famous athlete of his time, his stunning triumph at the 1936 Olympic Games captivated the world even as it infuriated the Nazis. Despite the racial slurs he endured, Jesse Owens' grace and athleticism rallied crowds across the globe. But when the four-time Olympic gold medalist returned home, he could not even ride in the front of a bus. The story of the 22-year-old son of a sharecropper who triumphed over adversity to become a hero and world champion, Jesse Owens is also about the elusive, fleeting quality of fame and the way Americans idolize athletes when they suit our purpose, and forget them once they don't.

Watch the film online: 

   Silicon Valley  

In 1957, decades before Steve Jobs dreamed up Apple or Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook, a group of eight brilliant young men defected from the Shockley Semiconductor Company in order to start their own transistor business. Their leader was 29-year-old Robert Noyce, a physicist with a brilliant mind and the affability of a born salesman who would co-invent the microchip -- an essential component of nearly all modern electronics today, including computers, motor vehicles, cell phones and household appliances.

Watch the film online: 

Casey is the Special Projects Assistant for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE.  

Why Celebrate the Emancipation Proclamation?

On New Years Day, 1863, William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, and countless other abolitionists across the nation waited anxiously for word on the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. In grade school, I learned that it freed the slaves. But when I later read the document, I realized that it was not that simple: Lincoln only freed the slaves on Confederate soil, exempting those states under Union occupation and those fighting for the Union. Why, then, on January first, 1863, did abolitionists celebrate the news of partial emancipation as if it fulfilled the very core of their mission?

Lincoln was no abolitionist. Up to the moment he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the stated goal of the War was the reunion of the states, with no mention of emancipation. Lincoln bent over backwards to leave the door wide open for any state wanting to reenter the Union. In a meeting with representatives from the slave-holding Border States in July of 1862, he proposed the colonization of black Americans to South America, compensation for any slave-owners who emancipated their slaves, and gradual emancipation by the turn of the century (Medford, 13-15). From the moment Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation till the night before he signed the final draft, abolitionists had every reason to believe Lincoln would backslide. But he didn’t.

After decades of fighting slavery with virtually no response from the federal government, the abolitionists could breath a sigh of relief. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall on that day. Imagine William Lloyd Garrison, who had been gripped by the struggle since 1829, sitting in Boston Music Hall and seeing the word “emancipation” in the President’s handwriting; Frederick Douglass, who carried the scars of slavery on his back, welling up with joy at the prose; and the group of Virginia runaways who gathered in the nations capitol to hear the news, only to find that they were now free (Weekly Anglo-African).

The abolitionists knew this was the beginning of the end. No one understood this better than Douglass, who saw the document as the start of a journey that would inevitably abolish slavery:

“…we were thenceforward willing to allow the president all the latitude of time, phraseology, and every honorable device that statesmanship might require for the achievement of a great and beneficent measure of liberty and progress.” (Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p. 484)

They had a type of foresight and perspective that is hard for me to fathom.

Just as the abolitionists predicted, Lincoln did not stop after the Emancipation Proclamation but began moving closer towards full emancipation. He started by opening the Union Army to black troops and, after heavy protest by black service members, passed an equal pay bill for the troops. In the 1864 elections, he encouraged the inclusion of an anti-slavery amendment on the Republican Platform. Only weeks before his death, on a trip to Richmond, freed blacks streamed into the streets to greet “the Great Emancipator” (Medford, 36). I believe he deserved the title.

There is something momentous about the Proclamation that I completely missed when I first read it. I did not understand the decades of hard work put forth by the abolitionist community, the political tightrope Lincoln walked by signing the document, and the millions of slaves who sensed that the nation had embarked on a path to freedom. On January first, 1863, the movement had been given its due, and the throngs of activists had every reason to party. Not only did they believe in the Proclamation, but they also believed in their president.

I’m starting to feel a little less skeptical about the version of history I learned in elementary school. My teachers gave me the precise truth: the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves, albeit eventually. If I wanted to truly understand the document, I should have looked no further than the accounts of that joyous night.

“Can any colored man, or any white man friendly to the freedom of all men, ever forget the night which followed the first day of January 1863, when the world was to see if Abraham Lincoln would prove to be as good as his word? I shall never forget that memorable night, when in a distant city I waited and watched at a public meeting, with three thousand others not less anxious than myself, for the word of deliverance which we have heard read today. Nor shall I ever forget the outburst of joy and thanksgiving that rent the air when the lightning brought to us the Emancipation Proclamation” (Douglass, 592).

American Experience Honored with 12th Eric Barnouw Award

American Experience, television's longest-running and most watched history series, has been honored with the 2013 Eric Barnouw Award for its recent film, Death and the Civil War. This is the 12th time an American Experience production has received this honor.

From acclaimed filmmaker Ric Burns, Death and the Civil War examines the many ways the staggering death tolls of the Civil War permanently altered the character of the republic, and the psyche of the American people.  The work of contending with death on an unprecedented scale propelled extraordinary changes in the inner and outer life of Americans – posing challenges for which there were no ready answers when the war began  – challenges that called forth remarkable and eventually heroic efforts as Americans worked to improvise new solutions, new institutions, new ways of coping with death on an unimaginable scale. Based on Drew Gilpin Faust’s groundbreaking book, This Republic of Suffering, the film was broadcast in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history.

One or two awards are given annually by the Organization of American Historians in recognition of outstanding programming on television, or in documentary film, concerned with American history, the study of American history, and/or the promotion of American history. The award honors the late Erik Barnouw, Columbia University, a historian of the mass media. 

"We are thrilled to be honored by the Organization of American Historians with its Eric Barnouw Award. Death and the Civil War, like most of our films, draws upon the crucial work done by historians such as Drew Gilpin Faust and David Blight. For Ric Burns's film to be recognized by America's historians is, for us,  the highest acclaim," said Executive Producer Mark Samels 

The Award will be presented in San Francisco at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians on April 13th.