Several years ago, I wrote about Leroy Jauman after we visited the home on Eighth Street where he was born, the abode with those two tall, slender palm trees in front of it. His dad, Andy, planted those trees in honor of his son Leroy’s birth back in 1924, and that they still sway in the ocean breeze is a marvelous thing: a symbol of everlasting parental love.
But the day we met there, Leroy tantalizingly shared some information about another piece of local history that goes back to his youth: a movie that was made by a teacher at what today is Dwyer Middle School (and back then was known as Central Elementary School).
Mrs. Elinor Greer was the teacher, and in 1937, when Leroy was 13, she decided to shoot a film as part of a master’s degree she was in the process of working toward. It ran 40 minutes and was titled “The Air Mail Saves the Day.” She cast Leroy, whom she considered her teacher’s pet, to star as “Leroy Brown,” a bit of a hellraiser who must find a way to help his family find money to pay the mortgage, lest they lose their house
It’s a storyline that could have easily been ripped from today’s stale-economy headlines, and in the film, Leroy decides to enter an essay contest that promises a big payout.
As Jauman described to me, the film was shot all over Huntington Beach and captured rare footage of the oil wells, Pacific Electric Red Cars, Main Street and more. But when he said he had a copy of the vintage film and was willing to share, it almost seemed too good to be true.
However, when I met him and his former classmates from Huntington Beach High School, class of ’42, recently for lunch, there was the VHS tape, brought by his friend and classmate Rosemary Robinson. When I arrived back home and popped it in the player, I was genuinely taken aback by what I saw, and thoroughly impressed with the efforts of Mrs. Greer.
The film is silent, and title cards are interwoven throughout, helping to advance the narrative as we see a teenaged Jauman and his classmates chewing the scenery for almost 40 minutes — an epic for the time. The title cards appears to be typewritten pieces of paper simply filmed by the camera operator, as there were obviously no optic effects available for the class.
The scene is set with this opening card: “In the windy city of Pacific Beach is the home of the Brown family.” Then we see some establishing shots of oil wells, the ocean, and a house that bears a striking resemblance to the house Jauman was born in — and there is a small palm tree right in front. Did they shoot there? Jauman could not quite pinpoint all of the locales around the city, but he thinks that may be his house of birth.
Another card: “The mortgage is due in 15 days. Father cannot get work. Everything looks hopeless.” So the young Jauman gets to work when he hears about an essay contest in New York.
The film reminded me of something producer Hal Roach might have created in his Our Gang days, a bunch of ragtag kids running around town, trying to stave off the evil “villain” who can’t wait to evict the family.
Throughout the film, the viewer is treated to some remarkable footage of Huntington Beach. We see Jauman march up to a mailbox on Main Street near Pacific Coast Highway and mail his entry. We the post office on Main Street, the same one that is there today, as the letter gets sorted. Then we see the mailman place the mail sack on a Pacific Electric Red Car bound for Los Angeles, where it will be put on a plane to New York. The footage of the train car pulling away from the Main Street station, oil derricks as far as the eye can see, is a “money shot” if there ever was one.
Mrs. Greer even includes footage of a plane taking off that, presumably, was shot at one of several locals airstrips that existed before Meadowlark Airport.
Long story short, the essay wins, but Leroy also learns an important lesson on paying attention in class about how to send a letter. See, he forgot to include his return address, as he hears on the radio, which jeopardizes his winning entry. Nevertheless, things are sorted out, the money is sent, good triumphs over evil and the family home is saved.
My friend Maria Hall-Brown, with whom I co-hosted the “Forgotten OC” series on the PBSSoCal program “Real Orange,” was kind enough to digitize the movie footage and edit a condensed, nine-minute version of “The Air Mail Saves the Day.”
To experience this cinematic trip back in time to Huntington Beach, 1937, simply look alongside this article on the Independent’s website.
And make sure you watch the end to see the elaborate credits, to get a real sense of how sophisticated this production was and how many students Mrs. Greer involved in the making of it. Jauman told me as much and it seems obvious, but she must have been just a marvelous teacher to go to these lengths. I only wish she could have known how many more people will now get to enjoy her work.
And in honor of Leroy, who has since passed away – thank you for sharing this treasure.