John Sutherland; Acclaimed for Artistry of His Industrial Films


John Elliot Sutherland, an award-winning industrial and educational filmmaker whose subjects ranged from cancer and chemistry to General Electric and the New York Stock Exchange, has died.

He was 90, and died Feb. 17 in Van Nuys after a short illness, according to his son, Eric, of Chicago.

Sutherland began making live-action training films for the military during World War II. His success in that led to the formation of John Sutherland Productions in Los Angeles, which concentrated on documentaries and industrial films during the 1950s and 1960s.


He produced about 20 movies a year, such as “A Is for Atom” for General Electric, “Bananas? Si, Senor” for United Fruit and “The Spray’s the Thing” for DuPont. In 1957, Time magazine called him one of the best makers of industrial shorts, saying that his films could turn a corporate client into “the nonirritating huckster” by showcasing a company with subtlety and style.

One of Sutherland’s best-known works during this period was his award-winning “Rhapsody of Steel” for U.S. Steel, a 1959 Technicolor epic with music by Dmitri Tiomkin and the Pittsburgh Symphony. Time praised Sutherland as “a slick entertainer and a painless pedagogue.” The filmmaker also earned a plug from Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper, who found the movie “better than many feature pictures.”

In 1972 he produced a series of 50 short films that ran on the “Captain Kangaroo” children’s television series and were later used in Head Start programs throughout the nation.

The brief segments used live action, animation and narration to deal with health issues and self-awareness, such as in “Oops, I Made a Mistake,” a three-minute film that explained, in children’s terms, that to err is to be human.

Born in Williston, N.D., and raised in Montana, Sutherland majored in politics and economics at UCLA, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1937. While working as director of UCLA’s drama and debate department, he met Walt Disney, which led to work at the Disney studios from 1938 to 1940 as an assistant director and story director.

He provided one of the voices of the mature Bambi in the 1942 Disney classic, according to John Grant in the “Encyclopedia of Walt Disney’s Animated Characters.” He was once married to Paula Winslow, who provided the voice of Bambi’s mother.

His survivors include two other sons, John of Midlothian, Va., and Ronald of Coral Gables, Fla.; and a daughter, Diane Leggett of Elkins Lake, Texas.