Monday, January 20, 2020

Ephemeral Films (1931-1960): A Look Back on an America That Was

by G. Jack Urso

 
In 1987, The Perlinger Archives released a two-volume collection of short subject films in the public domain. Produced by Richard Prelinger and Robert Stein, Ephemeral Films Vol. 1, “To New Horizons” (1931-1945) and Ephemeral Films Vol. 2 “You Can’t Get There from Here” (1946-1960), include commercials, educational and industrial films, social guidance films, and home films that bracket the pre-war and immediate post-war period. Both collections in their entirety and links to individual segments are available below from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

Click on the above video to view the complete film.
Ephemeral Films Vol. 1, “To New Horizons” (1931-1945) is dominated by productions sponsored by automobile companies. The period of time covered by this collection represents the glory waning years of the Machine Age, generally considered to have occurred between the years 1880 through 1945. This is the era of skyscrapers like the Empire State Building, large ocean-going palaces like the Titanic, massive infrastructure projects like the Hoover Dam and the Tennessee Valley Authority, electricity, telephone, film, radio, aircraft, and a myriad of weapons of war. Noteworthy segments in this collection include Master Hands (1931), an industrial film with no narration, just visual images, which shows American mass production at the height of the Machine Age. ’Round and ‘Round (1939), is a stop-motion animated educational film explaining how industry and consumerism work and interact with each other.

Ephemeral Films Vol. 2, “You Can’t Get There from Here” (1946-1960) shifts from the industry-heavy segments of Vol. 1 to more socially-oriented topics. There are still some industrial films like A Report to Homebuilders (1946), and Two Ford Freedom (1956), and the surreal Design for Living (1956) is a must-see, but in this era we begin to see what have been termed as “Social Guidance films.” Segments like Shy Guy (1947), Are You Popular? (1947), Dating: Dos and Don’ts (1949), and the The Last Date (1950) are stereotypical of this genre. Flickering against screens in classrooms across Baby Boomer-America, these films formalize social expectations for the youth. In a way, they helped to ease the transition from pre-teen years to adolescence, but from a decidedly white middle-class perspective. Indeed, one will be hard-pressed to find any people of color in these films. While one can assert this is a reflection of the era, the systemic racism of the times, manifested in segregation, infers a concern only with the behavior of those of Northern European decent. For minorities, the message was plain; this was a reality where they did not exist.

Click on the above video to view the complete film.
Some production companies turn up repeatedly. The Jam Handy Organization was founded after World War I by Henry Jamison "Jam" Handy (1886–1983), an Olympic breaststroke swimmer and water polo player. According to Rick Prelinger in "Smoothing the Contours of Didacticism: Jam Handy and His Organization" (Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States), the company turned out approximately 7,000 motion pictures and nearly 100,000 slide shows before closing shop in 1983.

The leader in Social Guidance films was Coronet Instructional Films, established in 1934. If somehow you managed to miss the industrial films of Jam Handy, as a Baby Boomer from the late 1940s through the 1970s it was hard to miss a Coronet  production. Known more for quantity than quality, Coronet nonetheless was an early user of Kodachrome film stock. The company ceased production in 1984 after a merger with MTI Films, which in turn was later acquired by Gulf and Western Industries. It probably is no coincidence that both Jam Handy and Coronet came to an end in the early 1980s as the video cassette recorder and inexpensive video production equipment exploded in popularity about the same time.

Aeolus 13 Umbra has previously reviewed post-war mass media in RetroTV Commercials: A Resource for Historical Study.  Indeed, this site’s mission statement is to focus on the influence of society on us. Individually as human beings, and collectively as a civilization, we are the sum of many parts. Some are major historical events. Some are artistic or literary works. Some are musical or poetic. Some are important achievements in science and technology. Some are tragedies. Some are personal stories.

And some, I dare say, are a bit more ephemeral.
_________________________________________________
 
Ephemeral Films Vol. 1, “To New Horizons” (1931-1945)
Click on links to view individual segments.

In My Merry Oldsmobile (1931). Animation. Producer Fleischer Studios. Sponsor, Olds Motor Works.

Master Hands  (1931). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Chevrolet Motor Co. Note: An excellent industrial film production that tells its story with no narration, just visual images, and shows America at the height of the Machine Age. In 1999, Master Hands was selected by the National Film Registry for preservation.

We Drivers (1936). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, General Motors Corp. Note: driver education film.

Chevrolet Leader News  (1936). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Chevrolet Motor Co. Note: Corporate industrial film.

Relax  (1937). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Chevrolet Motor Co. Note: People don’t know how to relax, so let high-pressure busy automotive executives tell us how!

Precisely So  (1937). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Chevrolet Motor Co.

Extra (circa 1938). Sponsor, Esso.

Breakfast Pals  (circa 1938). Producer, Cartoon Films, Hollywood. Sponsor, Kellogg’s. Note: Features the advertising characters Snap, Crackle, and Pop.

Three Smart Daughters (1938). Sponsor, The Singer Company.

Oxydol Goes into High  (1936). Advertisement. Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Proctor and Gamble

’Round and ‘Round  (1939). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, General Motors Public Relations. Note: Stop-motion educational film on how industrial production and consumerism works and interacts.

Back of the Mike  Completed in 1937; released to theaters 1939). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Chevrolet Motor Co. Note: Educational film on how radio productions are made.

Leave it to Roll-Oh (1940). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Chevrolet Motor Co. Note: Entertainment short about a robot assisting housekeepers in the future.


To New Horizons (1940). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, General Motors Corp.  Note: Industrial film. Features the NY World’s Fair Futurama exhibit.

Let Yourself Go  (1940). Producer, Jam Handy Organization; Sponsor, Chevrolet Motor Co. Note: Efficient interior design and yet another segment from Chevrolet on how to relax.

Magic in the Air (1941). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Chevrolet Motor Co. Note: industrial film about the coming of TV.

To Market To Market (1942). Producer, Jam Handy Organization; Sponsor, General Outdoor Advertising industrial film.

New Sketches by Max Fliescher (1944-1945). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Director, Max Fleischer.
_________________________________________________
 
Ephemeral Films Vol. 2, “You Can’t Get There from Here” (1946-1960)
Click on links to view individual segments.

A Report to Homebuilders (1946). Producer, Jam Handy Organization. Sponsor, Stran Steel Division of Great Lakes Steel Corp.

Shy Guy (1947). Producer, Coronet Instructional Films. Note: Features a 19-year old Dick York (Darren Stephens on Bewitched). Also used as a filler segment on Mystery Science Theater 3000. First film by Coronet in its Social/Personal Guidance films.

Are You Popular? (1947). Producer, Coronet Instructional Films.

Technicolor for Industrial Films (circa 1949). Producer, Technicolor Corp.

Meet King Joe (1949). Animation. Producer, John Sutherland Productions. Sponsor Harding College, Arkansas

Dating: Dos and Don’ts (1949). Producer, Coronet Instructional Films.

The Last Date (1950). Producer, Wilding Picture Productions. Sponsor, Lumbermens Mutual Casualty. Note: Dick York returns, this time as a daredevil behind the wheel — Can disaster, death, and horrible facial disfigurement  be far behind?

A Date with Your Family (1950). Producer, Simmel-Meservey.

Treasures for the Making (1951). Producer, General Foods Corp, Certo & Sure-Jell Divisions.

What to Do on a Date (1951). Producer, Coronet Instructional Films.

Young Man’s Fancy (1952). Producer, Edison Electric Institute.

Ike for President (1952). Producer Roy Disney. Sponsor, Citizens for Eisenhower-Nixon Note: This is the full-length version of the classic election commercial often seen in short clips.

Mother Takes a Holiday (1952). Producer, Whirlpool Corp.

Sniffles and Sneezes (1955). Producer, Audio Productions. Distributor, McGraw-Hill Book. Co.

Two Ford Freedom (1956). Producer, Filmways. Sponsor Ford Motor Co.

Design for Living (1956). Producer, MPO Productions. Sponsor, General Motors Corp. Note: This one is bizarrely weird, but an overall outstanding production in its own way. A surreal look at a concept for future consumerism. Interesting set design and model work.

The Relaxed Wife (1957). B. Roerig & Co., Div. Of Chas. Pfizer & Co., Inc. Note: What helps us relax more than a pair of disembodied hands pushing sedatives?

American Look (1958). Producer, Jam Handy Organization, Sponsor, Chevrolet Div. General Motors. Note: The freedom of individual choice is somehow linked to innovative modern kitchen design and appliances.

A Wonderful New World of Fords (1960). Producer, FIlmways. Sponsor, Ford Motor Co.