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Short Starts: Watch Steven Spielberg’s 1968 Calling Card, “Amblin'”

Short Starts: Watch Steven Spielberg's 1968 Calling Card, "Amblin'"

Short Starts is a column devoted to kicking off the week with a short film, typically one tied to a new release. Today we look at an early work by Steven Spielberg in anticipation of his two new films, “The Adventures of Tintin,” which opens this Wednesday, and “War Horse,” which opens Sunday (Christmas).

Have you ever wondered where Steven Spielberg got the name for his production company, Amblin Entertainment? It comes from the filmmaker’s first commercially released film, a 35mm short from 1968 titled “Amblin’.” As it turns out, yesterday was the 43rd anniversary of its debut. The 26-minute effort opened at L.A.’s Crest Theater on a bill with Otto Preminger’s “Skiddoo” before heading into festivals, such as the 1968 Atlanta Film Festival, where it won the Silver Phoenix Award for Best Short Subject. Even before the fest success, though, the film served as Spielberg’s calling card, earning him his original seven-year contract at Universal as a television director.

“Amblin'” is a love story starring Richard Levin and Pamela McMyler (Jamie Lee Curtis’s adoptive mom in “Halloween II”) as young hitchhikers who meet on the road and travel together towards California (ending up at the Malibu beach house of actor Jack Palance, apparently). It’s a dialogue-free film featuring minor diegetic sound effects and an instrumental folk rock score by Michael Lloyd (later a Razzie nominee for his original songs for “The Garbage Pail Kids Movie”) and the band October Country. Spielberg had no real personal interest in the project, which was made under career-minded motivation by the director and became both an embarrassment and the object of a legal battle. After rising in fame he called it “a great Pepsi commercial” with “as much soul and content as a piece of driftwood.”

Watch it below (in a copy far from flattering) to see if you agree:

Other members of Spielberg’s crew on “Amblin'” that would go on to bigger things include the director’s sister, Anne, a script supervisor here who later earned an Oscar nomination for co-writing “Big.” Thom Eberhardt, a P.A. on the film, went on to direct films like “Night of the Comet” and “Gross Anatomy” and script such comedies as “Honey I Blew Up the Kid.” Another P.A., Robin Chamberlain is a TV producer (“Wings”; “24”). And most notably, cinematographer Allen Daviau went on to work on many of Spielberg’s features, including “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “E.T.” and “The Color Purple,” and has been nominated for five Oscars. It’s hard to see the quality of his work in the version of “Amblin'” embedded above, of course.

Daviau also worked on an earlier, unfinished short film by Spielberg titled “Slipstream,” the director’s first after moving to California for school. While “Amblin'” was the most successful, Spielberg had previously made five other unreleased films, most of which better anticipated his future hits than that passion-less work-for-hire. 1964’s “Firelight,” for instance, is a 140-minute sci-fi flick about an alien attack, and it is said to feature shots later copied for “Close Encounters.” And the war movies “Fighter Squad” and  “Escape to Nowhere,” the latter begun in 1959 when he was only 12, forecasted the numerous World War II films he’s made throughout his career. Below is a little collection of clips from the 40-minute “Escape to Nowhere,” which won Spielberg a camera and other prizes through an amateur film contest.


Also check out the video of Spielberg and his father, Arnold, talking about the film in a supplement documentary from the “Saving Private Ryan” DVD.

For further info and stories about the production of these and the professional films of Steven Spielberg, check out Joseph McBride’s 2010 book, Steven Spielberg: A Biography.


Follow Christopher Campbell on Twitter: @thefilmcynic
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