The dearly departed Robert Altman was one of the greatest American directors in history, but he took an unconventional path to art house accolade. At the start of his career, Altman didn’t make narrative films but documentaries, most of them technical projects commissioned by businesses to explain something mundane. The first of those films, made in 1951, was a 26-minute short called Modern Football, which, along with the other Altman projects of that era has been difficult to find and watch. But after sifting through a flea market in Kansas City (where Altman grew up), filmmaker Gary Huggins found Modern Football sitting in a stack of instructional films he’d purchased for $10. Upon recognizing it as an Altman creation, he uploaded it to YouTube for our viewing pleasures.
The San Francisco Weekly talked to Huggins, who says he realized its origins after catching Altman in a cameo at the 2:37 mark. Sponsored by Wheaties and Wilson sporting goods, Modern Football is a tight explanation of the game of football, filled with succinct exposition and captivating action. Which isn’t to say that it’s exactly a prequel to Nashville, but it’s still easy to appreciate Altman’s nascent craft: the immaculate framing, the wandering cameras, the unconventional angles and the clear, focused narrative. The swelling music that backgrounds the opening football action even recalls the parodic patriotism of MASH, though delivered a lot more earnestly here. Yes, it’s a movie about high school football, but it’s a movie, maybe more than the Wheaties people were looking for when they put Altman in charge. At 26 minutes long it’s not exactly a cat video to forward to your friends, but it’s a nice little bit of film history to watch and absorb.
Even at the young age of 26, Altman knew what he was doing. He’d make documentaries and TV shows for the next 19 years before getting his big film break with 1970’s MASH. Everything after that turned out pretty well, it’s safe to say.