Back to Camelot: History Accents Positive in ‘Kennedy Home Movies’

After bailing on a controversial Kennedy miniseries, the channel spotlights a collection of “lost home movies”

The History Channel is making nice with the Kennedys.

The folks that almost  brought you the dark side of the would-be dynasty in "The Kennedys" miniseries is taking an altogether more positive look at America's royal family, "The Lost Kennedy Home Movies."

John F. Kennedy

Assembled from four decades of private film shot mostly by the family and its friends, the  documentary, which premieres at 9 on Wednesday night, ignores stuff like John F. Kennedy's womanizing and allegations that father Joe engineered the theft of the 1960 presidential election. 

Instead, we get the Kennedys at play: tanned, debonair, carefree and privileged, letting their guard down in footage rarely if ever seen publicly.

This is "playtime in Camelot," practically an apology for its flirtation with the April 2011 miniseries "The Kennedys," which was made by avowed conservative Joel Surnow and was characterized as "character assassination" by one former Kennedy aide.

That miniseries was originally slated to air on History — but in January 2011, after protests that it was biased and inaccurate, the channel opted not to show it, stating that its "dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand."

ReelzChannel aired it instead, to mixed reviews.

John F. Kennedy

Now, four months later, History presents a different side of the story, but one, insists producer and director Harrison Engle, that was in the works long before the miniseries, and was never intended to make nice to the Kennedys in the wake of the miniseries.

"I certainly understand that attitude, but we worked with the History Channel folks for two years on it, and I never sensed any of that whatsoever," Engle told TheWrap this week.

"We started our negotiations with them in December of 2009, and we were well into working on our film when the fuss about the miniseries started happening. In my view, it may be a happy moment that this is a positive film for them. But it's certainly not part of some grand scheme."

The channel, he added, "gave us a free hand to make the kind of movie we wanted to make." That kind of movie was one that told the family's story, from political triumphs to a string of premature deaths and tragedies, but stuck largely to images of the active, playful Kennedys.

"There's so much out in the world about John and about the complexities of the marriage," Engle said. "We stuck to the theme of telling as much of the story as we could through home movies, which revealed a side to them that we're less familiar with.

"Frankly, do you want to see Marilyn Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday' again? These are horrible clichés from a filmmaking standpoint."

The show's genesis came in a reel of 16-millimeter film that Joseph Kennedy gave to a Warner Bros. employee named Art Moger in 1952, with the intention that Moger would use it to help John Kennedy's senatorial campaign.

The footage sat in Moger's basement for decades and was passed on to his son Stanley, who was interested in structuring a documentary around the footage but uncertain of the rights. A couple of years ago, though, Moger donated the footage to the John F. Kennedy library, which in turn gave him permission to use the footage in a documentary.

The library also supplied additional home-movie footage, and put Moger (who was by then working with Engle, and served as executive producer of "The Lost Kennedy Home Movies") in touch with others who had their own home movies.

Some of that footage can be seen in this video:

"The Lost Kennedy Home Movies" includes movies of the young and impossibly handsome president-to-be in his college years, hanging off the running board of a car, flirting with young women and acting carefree on the eve of World War II; European footage of the family during Joe Kennedy's tenure as U.S. ambassador to Great Britain; film of John and Robert Kennedy shot by Robert's wife Ethel; and playful moments of John Kennedy and his family at a farm in Virginia only two weeks before his assassination.

None of the people who owned the original material, Engle said, had any kind of editorial control — and neither, he added, did the Kennedy family.

"I spoke to them from time to time," he said, "but they had no control over what we did. And they'll be as surprised as anybody by the film."