Submitted by kaustin on Mon, 11/20/2023 - 11:17


Dallas was broadcast in “over 90 countries from Turkey to Australia, from Hong Kong to Great Britain, [and the world witnessed] empty streets and a dramatic drop in water consumption when an episode” aired.

- Ien Ang, Watching Dallas: Soap Opera and the Melodramatic Imagination


On the air from 1978 to 1991, the CBS blockbuster program Dallas solidified national and global stereotypes about the typical Texas oil family: Swaggering, scheming, and very, very rich. With a single gusher atop a Beaumont salt dome at the turn of the twentieth century, Texas had embarked on its own industrial revolution. Whole cities developed overnight, while independent wildcatters and newly formed corporations experienced a rapid increase in wealth. Within a few years, the Lone Star State transformed from a bountiful source of cattle and cotton to a global economic authority. Texas and Texans would never be the same.

Numerous authors, scholars, and journalists have examined documents, newspapers, and photographs to tell the evocative story of the Texas oil and gas industry. POWER: GLIMPSES OF BOOMTOWN TEXAS explores what moving images reveal to us that other historical registers do not. The fictional world of Dallas represents a certain cinematic Texas dynasty, but home movies show the impact on real Texas oil tycoons, roughnecks, and truckers. Industrial and promotional films illustrate the pitches made to entice individuals and businesses to the booming state. Newsreels and local television often highlight the dangers posed to oil workers, while educational and government films soberly consider lasting economic and environmental effects.

POWER forms not only a visual record of Texas oil operations but also a compelling examination of how the industry produces power beyond energy utility. For the state’s widespread oil and gas production also manifests considerable social power, national economic power, worldwide political power, and enduring cultural power. Power well suited for Hollywood entertainment, from Boom Town (1940) and Giant (1956) to AMC’s television adaptation of The Son and, of course, back to Dallas.



Oil Today, Power Tomorrow (1950) wonders how oil becomes power—“power to run the giant plants that make the things we need and use, power to speed our modern trains, ships, airplanes, and automobiles.” As the industrial film shows, turning crude oil into usable energy requires more than drilling and pumping wells. It also involves geological surveys and exploratory missions, vast shipping and transportation systems, and complex chemical processing.

From professionally made films like Oil Today to home movies shot by roughnecks themselves, moving images provide a valuable look at various stages of oil operations.

SURVEYING -- After learning about equipment safety features and seismic operations at the Geophysical Service, Inc. offices in Dallas, Jim Miller—a newly hired electrical engineer—joins a party in the field for practical safety training in explosives, drilling, and water surveying. DRILLING -- This silent footage, most likely recorded in the 1950s, provides a first-person perspective of the mechanics of a large-scale oil drilling operation. The well's location is unknown. The film was one of several rescued from a flooded trailer in Galveston after Hurricane Ike in 2008.
TRANSPORTING -- Produced for Humble Pipe Line Company, this silent industrial film documents the construction and opening of a 375-mile oil pipeline from Kemper in West Texas to Satsuma in Harris County. Prior to the Kemper-Satsuma line, oil was transported through a system of small lines that grew as wells were discovered—a method that proved inefficient and expensive. Completed in 1950, the new line offered a shorter route with a greater capacity. REFINING -- Produced for Humble Oil and Refining Company, this industrial film demonstrates the conversion process of catalytic cracking. Catalytic cracking is used in petroleum refining to convert crude oil to usable petroleum products, such as gasoline and diesel fuel. According to the US Energy Information Administration, there are 32 petroleum refineries in operation in Texas as of 2023. These facilities account for 25 percent of US refining capacity.


Texas reserves predominantly exist across seven main regions: Southeast Texas, East Texas, North Texas, Panhandle, Permian Basin, South Texas, and offshore. Moving images not only share stories about the discovery and development of these areas but also demonstrate the broad socio-cultural impact on surrounding communities.


Stories about the Texas oil boom often focus on the independent wildcatter—the legendary prospectors who risked everything in search of black gold. But how did sudden personal wealth change their lives and the lives of their families?


William Perry Herring "W.P.H." McFaddin (1856-1935) was a prominent cattle rancher and businessman. Under his leadership, the McFaddin Ranches of Beaumont grew to encompass some 120,000 acres in Jefferson County and 48,000 acres in Knox and King counties. McFaddin also established companies in commercial real estate, rice farming and milling, canals and irrigation, and cattle feeding and meatpacking. The expansive McFaddin estate became the backbone of Southeast Texas in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Arthur Edward Stilwell purchased large portions of the Jefferson County ranch to form the townsite of Port Arthur. It was also McFaddin land that Anthony Lucas leased to drill the Lucas Gusher—the discovery well of the Spindletop boom.


Ross Shaw Sterling (1875-1949) purchased two oil wells in 1910, chartering the Humble Oil and Refining Company the following year. He served as president until 1925, when he sold his interests to pursue Houston real estate development. He subsequently bought two local newspapers to form the Houston Post-Dispatch. In addition to its growing newspaper circulation, the company also operated KPRC Radio and eventually KPRC-TV. Sterling was elected the 31st Governor of Texas in 1931—a critical moment for the Texas oil industry amid rampant overproduction and the Great Depression. After losing his race for reelection, Sterling returned to Houston and established the Sterling Oil and Refining Company.

Home movies from the Ross Sterling Collection capture both his rising political prominence and the family’s position among Houston elite society.

This 1920s home movie shows the Sterling family at their vacation home near La Porte. Alfred C. Finn—architect of the San Jacinto Monument—modeled the mansion after the White House. Considered the biggest residence in Texas upon its completion in 1927, the extravagant home contained nine bedrooms and 15 bathrooms as well as a ballroom, billiards room, bowling alley, and 300-seat dining room.


Miles Franklin “Frank” Yount (1880-1933) moved to Texas at age 15 to work in the oil fields. He formed what became the Yount-Lee Oil Company in 1913, securing mineral rights near Spindletop. While many believed the field dry after years of overproduction, Yount looked for deposits at deeper depths on the flanks of the dome. His McFaddin No. 3 well struck oil in 1925, launching a second Spindletop boom. Yount became known as the “Godfather of Beaumont,” investing in building projects and saving the city from financial ruin during the early years of the Great Depression through an $82,000 loan to cover payroll demands. Two years after Yount’s death, Stanolind Oil purchased Yount-Lee for over $41 million—the third-largest cash transaction in US history at the time.

With several films focusing on Mildred Yount Manion—the only child of Frank and Pansy Yount—and her descendants, the family’s home movies also examine intergenerational oil wealth.


Edwin Butcher “E.B.” Hopkins (1882-1940) was a Dallas-based petroleum geologist and engineer whose consulting credentials included the Mexican Eagle Petroleum Company, the Petroleum Finance Corporation of Texas, the Drilling and Exploration Company, the Highland Oil Company, and the American Maracaibo Company. A prominent member of the local community, he also served as a trustee of the Dallas Art Museum, the Dallas Public Library, and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Featuring stylish vacations around the globe and one-on-one meetings with foreign leaders, the Hopkins family home movies demonstrate the level of wealth and status afforded Texans who found success in the developing oil industry.

In this silent home movie from 1927, E.B. Hopkins travels to Maracay, Venezuela. General Juan Vicente Gómez, the de facto ruler of Venezuela, appears during water well inspections. Hopkins no doubt knew Gómez through ties to the oil industry. After the discovery of petroleum in Venezuela in the 1910s, Gómez granted concessions to foreign oil companies to refine the reserves and develop their own fields. While the deal brought economic stability to Venezuela, much of the country’s wealth ended up in the hands of Gómez and foreign oilmen, furthering the United States and Europe’s dominating influence in Latin America.


Albert Morris “A.M.” Harper (1901-1997) owned and operated a successful oil field trucking company in Alice. Financial success following the Texas oil boom enabled him, wife Lucille, and the couple’s three children to enjoy a recreational home in Port Aransas. Harper’s home movies document hunting and fishing expeditions around the globe as well as offshore operations in the Gulf of Mexico.


The most successful independent oil operations grew into major corporations. Spindletop launched Texaco, Sunoco, and Humble, among others. Phillips Petroleum Company, a progenitor of what is now ConocoPhillips and Phillips 66, worked the natural gas fields of the Texas Panhandle. Other companies, such as Pennzoil, operated elsewhere but still located their headquarters in Texas, further demonstrating the state’s significance to the American oil and gas industry.

In 1972, Standard Oil of New Jersey rebranded itself Exxon Corporation. Humble, a domestic division of Standard Oil, became Exxon USA. To establish a unified corporate identity, the company also consolidated the Humble, Enco, and Esso brand names under the nationwide Exxon trademark. This industrial film addresses the name change and its impact on consumer brand loyalty. Presented as a narrative rather than a documentary, this 1977 industrial film follows a young man named Matthew as he arrives in New York and begins a job at Texaco. In his travels between the company’s corporate offices and offshore drilling sites, he learns about Texaco’s oil exploration operations in the Atlantic Ocean and the technology used to study seismic recordings.


Ranching and agriculture initially drove the Texas economy, but widespread oil production in the twentieth century dramatically transformed the Lone Star State into a global industrial power. The US Energy Information Administration reports that the United States is now the world's largest crude oil producer, with Texas accounting for 42 percent of the nation's total.

The Texas Legislature first recognized the industry’s growing importance in 1917, expanding the authority of the Texas Railroad Commission to include oil and gas regulation. As the industry developed throughout the twentieth century, the agency gained considerable leverage over national regulatory policy and worldwide oil prices. Economic power thus produced immense political power, with many Texas politicians characterizing the federal government as an adversary to the state’s economic interests.

Produced by the Railroad Commission Centennial Committee, this 1992 documentary chronicles the history and legacy of the Railroad Commission of Texas. The film traces the development of the agency in its first 100 years, from its original role of regulating the railroad industry to its expanding influence over the booming oil and gas business. Several former commissioners make appearances, discussing the agency’s commitment to environmental protection and the controversy over oil proration. Multiple Texas congressmen call on the US House of Representatives to support domestic oil production in this April 1986 session. Representative Mickey Leland begins by describing how the reliance on foreign oil has hurt working-class Texans and argues that the resulting drop in oil prices is not worth the larger impact on the national economy and American citizenry. Lending their support are Representatives John Bryant (D-TX), Jack Fields (R-TX), Joe Barton (R-TX), and Ralph M. Hall (D-TX).


As consumer energy demands rose through the twentieth century, so too did the need for alternative sources. Following the 1970s energy crisis, concerns about future fuel shortages combined with conservation policy to create a national movement toward energy reform. Beyond increasing domestic fossil fuel production, the United States also began to develop nuclear power and renewable energy.

Texas proved a leader among all markets, becoming not only the nation’s largest producer of crude oil but also its largest producer of natural gas, ninth-largest producer of coal, fifth-largest supplier of nuclear power, and largest generator of wind power, according to 2022 reports from the US Energy Information Administration. The state also ranked first in energy consumption and carbon emissions, however, contributing to a serious debate about climate change and the harmful effects of oil and gas production.

This 1971 industrial film pays particular attention to the impact of offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, from the danger of oil fires to cooperation with commercial fishing. While the film was not produced by or for a specific energy company, it nevertheless adopts an industry perspective on the ecological dangers of oil production. Produced by Houston’s KPRC-TV, this 1979 television special profiles the modern energy crisis and the need for alternative energy in Texas—specifically satellite solar power. News Director Ray Miller solicits expert testimonies on the topic from Dr. Alex Dressler, Dr. Harlan Smith, Dr. Christopher Kraft, and former Houston Mayor Louie Welch.


Oil and gas production is a dangerous business. A single spark can set an entire gusher or reservoir ablaze, while faulty equipment and simple accidents can trigger fiery explosions during transport or refining. Safety precautions and firefighting techniques evolved since the time of the Texas oil boom, but the threat of disaster remains.

On March 18, 1937, a massive natural gas explosion destroyed the New London School. Killing an estimated 298 students, teachers, and bystanders, the disaster remains the third deadliest in Texas history. The East Texas oil boom made London School District one of the wealthiest in the country. Literally surrounded by derricks, the New London School was heated by illegally tapped natural gas lines—a common practice in small oil towns. Within weeks of the explosion, the Texas Legislature mandated service providers add odor to natural gas to ensure easier leak detection. Narrated and produced by famous Texas firefighter and oilman Paul Neal “Red” Adair, this 1962 industrial film follows his efforts to extinguish an oil well fire in Algeria. Nicknamed the “Devil’s Cigarette Lighter,” the 700-foot pillar of flame burned 550 million cubic feet of gas per day for more than six months. Adair gained an international reputation as the best in the business for his accomplishment, with the feat serving as the inspiration for Hellfighters (1968), starring John Wayne. By his retirement in 1994, Adair had battled more than 2,000 land and offshore oil well fires.


With the help of Hollywood features like Giant (1956) and lurid newsreels about death and drama on the Texas fields, the oil industry became as much of a touchstone of Texas cultural identity as cowboys and cotton. To people around the globe, the Lone Star State embodied a dramatic, flamboyant example of the American Dream, where scrappy go-getters could transform into wealthy tycoons overnight to pursue lives of opulence and power. While some Texans understandably chafed from media depictions of life in the state, others created annual community festivals celebrating the oil and gas industry and pragmatically grappled with the benefits and challenges wrought by discovery and production. Parades, sports, operas, and even cheerleaders proudly (sometimes loudly) helped illustrate and document oil's enduring cultural impact.

A month after the release of Giant, audiences met another melodramatic Texas family in Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind. Dorothy Malone, a Dallas native, and Robert Stack play the scandalous adult children of an oil tycoon. Lauren Bacall and Rock Hudson complete the principal cast. Based on Robert Wilder's 1946 novel of the same name, the film changed the story from tobacco heirs in North Carolina to oil heirs in Texas. "More and more nowadays, the mood of the country is going Texas," says PM Magazine co-host Frank Kerr, thanks to television programs like Dallas. This 1981 segment returns to the set after the series became a global sensation. An estimated 350 million people tuned in on November 21, 1980, to solve the "Who shot J.R.?" mystery. American viewership alone was 83 million, representing 76 percent of all US televisions at the time.


Power was originally curated and produced by Katharine Austin for the Texas Archive of the Moving Image as a part of the Texas Film Commission's Texas Moving Image Archive Program.

Edited and reproduced in 2023 by Katharine Austin.

It features archival materials contributed to the award-winning Texas Film Round-Up program by Bailey Productions, Travis Boles, Bettie G. Burton, Sterling Miller, Jay Moore, Patricia Ann Morrison, Paul and Elizabeth Nelson, Chip Richie, San Antonio Public Library, Story Sloane III, Southern Methodist University, Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum, Don Stokes, Sul Ross State University, Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Southern University, Tyrrell Historical Library, and Jan Valentine.



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