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Educational film archives preserve aura of postwar America

Monday, January 01, 2001

By Randall Chase, The Associated Press

RALEIGH, N.C. -- As the 16mm projector begins to whir and light flickers on the screen, Skip Elsheimer and his buddies open the beer and chips and settle in for another Sunday night at the movies.

Skip Elsheimer sits in his Raleigh, N.C., living room, repository for part of his collection of educational films. (Karen Tam, AP photo)

This evening's lineup includes "Understanding Others," "The Fundamentals of Public Speaking," and "Physical Examination: Musculoskeletal System."

It's scintillating stuff for Elsheimer, a self-described audio-visual geek, and fellow devotees of the 20th-century cultural phenomenon known as "educational films."

"Those were great," Elsheimer says later, noting the role of socioeconomic class implied in one film about getting along with others.

Educational films, familiar to almost any baby boomer, were cinematic how-to guides for the generation that grew up between World War II and the Vietnam War.

Today, films that warned of the dangers of premarital sex, described the wonders of plastics or extolled the virtues of courteous driving habits are finding renewed interest as cultural and historical treasures. Elsheimer, just one aficionado, has crammed his house floor to ceiling with some 8,300 films in brown plastic boxes and the familiar gray metal canisters.

"Once you get beyond the whole campy irony thing and start putting these films in context, they are easily digestible history lessons," says Rick Prelinger of The Prelinger Archives in New York, the largest private collection of educational films in the world.

For Prelinger, who has some 48,000 titles and miles of additional archival footage, educational films are "the keys to the 20th century."

    Campy Classics

Some of collector Skip Elsheimer's favorite educational films, with his comments:
"Squeak the Squirrel" -- The film is supposed to demonstrate how animals learn, but quickly becomes an allegory championing the proletariat.
"Down and Out" -- This is a work-safety film about the dangers of falling. In the course of the film, the main character falls about a hundred times, making this film as funny as most Three Stooges shorts.
"Social Acceptability" -- This film explains cliques and all the social politicking that takes place in high school. The moral of the story is that you're only as popular as your parents.
"VD Attack Plan" -- An animated Disney film about venereal disease. Intentionally entertaining and, surprisingly, very factual. And no, none of the Disney characters stars in this film.
"White Wilderness: Lemmings" -- A Disney True Life Adventure film with dramatic footage of lemmings committing suicide. Some people refer to it as "The Lemming Snuff Film."
"Soapy the Germ Fighter" -- Billy is a little boy who thinks washing up after playing cowboy makes him a sissy. A giant, talking, cake-of-soap cowboy convinces him otherwise.
"Sudden Birth" -- This film, made for police officers, gives the basics on how to deliver a baby. The acting is so terrible that when a woman actually does give birth, in the back of a car, you're too bewildered to realize what you just saw.
"Wheels of Tragedy" -- One of those classic driver's education films, made with the Ohio Highway Patrol, designed to disgust and scare people into driving safely. Real car crashes and gore punctuate badly acted dramatizations of poor driving habits.
"Winged Scourge" -- An animated Disney film about malaria and how to stomp it out. The Seven Dwarfs drain wetlands and spray pesticide to deal with the mosquitoes.
"Pride on Parade" -- Made for Oscar Mayer, this film equates working at a meat-processing plant with being in a high school marching band. This one is a favorite because of all the hot dog and luncheon meat conveyor belt footage.

"Outbreak of Salmonella Infection" -- A military base is stricken with food poisoning and we get to see in excruciating detail (lots of vomiting) how it happens.


"They give us a clue as to what we were supposed to think and what we were supposed to believe," he says. "... As historical material, it's riveting; it's much more compelling than something that's printed or static."

Prelinger is building an online archive offering 1,001 films for free viewing or downloading -- that number chosen because "it was more exciting than 1,000."

He is also working on a feature film titled "Danger Lurks!" an all-archival drama showing "risk, menace and jeopardy in America" through the experiences of one family at home, work and school.

Early attempts by innovators such as Thomas Edison and George Eastman to use film as an educational tool met with little success, partly because of opposition from some conservative educators and parents.

But the success of World War II training and indoctrination films, such as the "Why We Fight" series directed by Frank Capra, paved the way for postwar educational films, says Larry Bird, curator of the political history collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

"It just made perfect sense that this would continue on into peacetime with these classroom films," says Bird, author of "Better Living," a book on how films, television and radio drama were used to create consensus in postwar America.

According to Prelinger, psychologists, clerics and others were worried that the trauma of World War II would lead to another Lost Generation, the term given to young people left rebellious and cynical after World War I.

"These films were made to teach kids how to be kids again," Prelinger says.

Elsheimer, by profession a software technician, started his collection inauspiciously a few years ago with "Uncle Jim's Dairy Farm."

He and his housemates had found an old projector amid six pallets of electronic equipment they'd bought from state surplus property and wanted to try it out.

At a flea Market, Elsheimer and his friends found a man selling a few old films and planning to auction a bunch more the following weekend.

Elsheimer had to work that weekend but asked his roommates to pick up anything that might interest him. When he got home, his roommates nodded toward a corner of the room -- where sat a pile of 500 films.

Elsheimer had found his passion.

"It's kind of a sad, pathetic obsession -- I readily admit that," says Elsheimer, who buys most films for mere pennies by bidding on state surplus. He once bought 1,500 films for $50.

His collection now includes three copies of "Uncle Jim's Dairy Farm," some "atypical Disney" and the Cold War classic "Duck and Cover," which advises school children to hide under their desks in the event of an atomic bomb blast.

Elsheimer holds Sunday night screenings for friends and has regular showings at a Raleigh art gallery and Duke University's Center for Documentary Studies. He also sells videotaped compilations of some of his films and hopes to start a stock footage business.

While good for laughs, the films produced by companies such as Coronet, Encyclopaedia Britannica and Centron also are significant for the study of American culture, according to Elsheimer and other collectors.

"When people first go to my shows, they laugh at the hairstyles and the corny dialogue, things like that," he says. "What brings them back is ... looking back at a historical perspective."

"Every archivist is really a cross between an archaeologist ... and a little bit of a geek," adds Stephen Parr, owner of Oddball Film Video, a stock footage company in San Francisco.

Contrary to what some might think from the vantage point of 2001, the producers of many "social guidance" films, a popular genre among the film makers, were not reactionary conservatives, says Ken Smith, author of "Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970."

"Just the idea that you could teach guidance tactics through film was pretty radical at the time," Smith says. "Guidance was the province of the church and the home. ... These films were kind of a substitute authority."

But the films and their lessons gradually were made obsolete by the social and political turmoil of the 1960s.

"Television had a lot to do with it," Smith explains. "You could see people getting killed in Vietnam, firehoses in Selma, and you have these films about dating and the kids are saying, 'What's this?'

"It was a carefully scripted, artificial world -- it didn't work any more," Smith says. "But I always tell people not to laugh too hard, because 50 years from now, they'll be laughing at us."

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