Jingle Bells a film by D.A. Pennebaker. 1964, USA, 16 min. Christmas and the Kennedys from a great documentarian and pioneer of cinéma verité.

This film screened exclusively for a week and is currently not available online.

This is the fourth and final film in our series curated by Jake Perlin from Metrograph. In Jingle Bells, the legendary American documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker follows Robert F. Kennedy, his family and Sammy Davis Jr. visiting New York City schools and celebrating Christmas in 1964 when RFK was the new senator-elect of New York. D.A. Pennebaker is one of the pioneers of direct cinema and was awarded a lifetime Oscar for his groundbreaking body of work ranging from political to music subjects. He is the filmmaker behind one of the best music documentaries of all time, Don’t Look Back, in which he followed Bob Dylan during his 1965 tour in England.  The opening sequence of that film — to Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” —  is widely considered to be a precursor to modern music videos.



In the early sixties, Pennebaker developed with his colleague Richard Leacock one of the first fully portable 16 mm cameras with synchronized sound recording, which fostered an immediate style of shooting that you can witness in Jingle Bells. Jake Perlin commissioned his friend Michael Chaiken to write an essay about the film, which we are pleased to present below. This showing was made possible as a happy holidays present from Pennebaker Hegedus Films.


“Haunted by enemies both real and imagined, Robert Kennedy was a patrician without a court in 1964. Communist dictators, bosses of crime syndicates, power hungry bureaucrats, even the newly elected President, were all part, or so it seemed, of some nefarious, barely discernible plot to wrestle power and influence away from him and his family, the closest thing to royalty Americans have ever known.


D.A. Pennebaker filmed RFK once prior to Jingle Bells, at the height of his power as United States Attorney General, during a tense two days in June 1963. The resulting film, Crisis, an early piece of political vérité, captured the moment John F. Kennedy federalized National Guard troops and deployed them to the University of Alabama to force its desegregation. On screen, the Kennedys were a double-act of progressive idealism and cold political calculation. Months later, bitter circumstance forced Robert into self-exile, re-emerging as a reluctant agent of history to fulfill the promise of his brother’s shattered legacy.


At sea in the luminous bustle of Christmas in New York City, Jingle Bells catches Kennedy racing at vertiginous speed to retake the political capital he lost after the collapse of Camelot. Now the Senator-elect of New York, he affects an affable, distant, countenance. Who were his enemies? Who were his allies? Was he unwittingly complicit in the absurd tragedy that wracked his family and, by extension, the nation? These would all prove unanswerable, fruitless, questions, yet ones his political future held some large purchase in.


Surrounded by his children, his wife Ethel, Sammy Davis, Jr. (a jester without a court), as he visits schoolchildren around the city, RFK is every bit the good patriarch and dutiful public servant. But it’s the films’ fleeting, in-between, moments where Pennebaker most precisely hits the mark, offering reflection on the possibilities that Robert Kennedy’s all too brief life foreclosed. Set against the pageantry of a long ago Christmas, the film speaks to tragic contingencies of history lying far beyond the ken of politics that continue to circumscribe the tortured destiny of our country.” MICHAEL CHAIKEN

Credits for
Robert F. Kennedy
produced by
D.A. Pennebaker
Michael Balckwood & D.A. Pennebaker
D.A. Pennebaker