Classic Educational Shorts Vols. 3 & 4: Safe... Not Sorry and The Celluloid Salesman (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt
From the A/V Geeks Film Library; curated by Skip Elsheimer; produced for video by Bret Wood. DVD, color and B&W, 1946-1982. A Kino International release distributed by Kino Lorber, www.kino.com
A noteworthy side effect of advances in video and digital technology has been the demise of 16mm film as a medium for classroom movies, training pictures, marketing pitches, and all manner of documentaries aimed at nontheatrical audiences. Although the great majority have long since been discarded, destroyed, left to decay in forgotten closets, or otherwise lost to posterity, a small but significant number have been salvaged by collectors and in some cases made available in DVD and streaming formats. This is a decidedly mixed blessing, to be sure. It’s an unqualified boon for nostalgia buffs, midcentury-cinema completists, and connoisseurs of the unsung, the unrecognized, and the overlooked. For others it’s a creeping ooze of ephemera that deserves the obscurity in which it has hitherto been cloaked.
Count me among the former group, partly for nostalgia reasons but mostly because the more interesting specimens make up in sociological and visual-culture interest what they lack in the creativity and intelligence departments. That said, I don’t want to spend inordinate amounts of time and energy wading through oceans of scratchy, splice-ridden footage in search of the odd archaeological gem. Unless you’re obsessed with this stuff, you need a conscientious curator to sort through it on your behalf, yanking out the junk and arranging the rest in a manageable and coherent order. The most prolific such historian is Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archives, which has accumulated some 60,000 nontheatrical films. A less famous archivist with similar interests is Skip Elsheimer, founder of the A/V Geeks Film Library, which holds more than 23,000 pictures in its collection.
Elsheimer has been collaborating with Kino International on Classic Educational Shorts, a DVD series devoted largely to classroom films, which are his specialty. The first two discs, How to Be a Man and How to Be a Woman, arrived in 2009, and another two volumes are now upon us. Elsheimer introduces each one with a personable video interview, stating his intentions and calling attention to highlights in the films that follow. He is a trusty guide, with useful things to say in his intros and his on-screen program notes. One of the most fascinating aspects of the series is how vividly it displays the stylistic shifts that overtook the field in the middle Sixties, when the relentless uniformity of Forties and Fifties films was challenged by directors (usually anonymous) who had fallen in love with the French New Wave and the New American Cinema and strived mightily to incorporate the innovations of these movements in modest instructional and industrial shorts. Colors grow more vibrant; cameras spin and lurch; ubiquitously white schoolrooms suddenly sport African-American faces; and so on, sometimes with considerable flair.
This notwithstanding, content is the raison d’être of even the most adventurous sponsored pictures, and their essence resides in their unfailingly overt messages. True to its title,Safe…Not Sorry comprises fourteen films on the all-important topic of safety, most of them aimed at classrooms full of presumably reckless kids. Many are the pitfalls awaiting these unlucky youngsters if they don’t heed the warnings and instructions held out for them by Irvmar Productions, the Jam Handy School Service, and other such benefactors.
Lucky You, an animation from 1958, uses a cast of colorful cartoon characters—Cutabus, Fallabus, Burnabus, Hitabus, and Shootabus—to embody the dangers indicated by their sort-of-eponymous names. The great character actor Edward Everett Horton narrates One Got Fat, a 1963 bicycle-safety fable in which the energetically pedaling actors wear monkey masks for reasons as murky as the picture’s peculiar title. Two memorable items come from producer Sid Davis, whose cautionary tales are so emphatic that 16mm mavens call him the King of Calamity: The Dangerous Stranger (1972) points up the menace posed by friendly men offering candy, while Live and Learn (1951) deals with a wider range of perils, such as running with scissors, a must-to-avoid enacted for the camera by Davis’s own little girl. The pièce de résistance is Safety with Animals, a 1961 opus in which young kids illustrate the dangers of teasing and taunting animals by teasing and taunting animals, including good-sized dogs and a mare nervous about her colt. The folks at Grover-Jennings Productions could have used some safety tips themselves.
Safe…Not Sorry also includes pictures aimed at grown-ups. Step Right Up (1977) takes a slapstick approach to ladder safety, depicting a sub-Jerry Lewis bumbler who has a string of bruising accidents because he’s too stupid to remember the rules. At the other end of the genre spectrum, Our Obligation (1960) is a twenty-four-minute melodrama in which a terrifying fire ravages a school, killing helpless pupils and demonstrating the need for alertness among community leaders. My personal favorite of the adult selections is An Outbreak of Salmonella Infection, an unglamorous title for an unglamorous movie in which men at a military base, stricken with the title affliction, demonstrate its virulence by writhing in discomfort, vomiting into basins, and racing frantically for toilets. By the end of the thirteen-minute docudrama we know what generated the germs, what enabled them to spread, and how such nastiness can be avoided. Let it be a lesson to us all.
Volume 4 in the A/V Geeks series, The Celluloid Salesman, takes on the ever-fascinating sphere of raw American capitalism, showing how variously and deviously film has been used to sell, sell, sell all kinds of products to all kinds of consumers. This disc has more dull stretches than any of its predecessors, but don’t get me wrong, it contains many pleasures, most of them creepy in one way or another. A late-Sixties picture called Miss Puff promotes an obscure brand of copy-machine toner by bringing together a buxom “sales engineer,” a flirtatious phone caller, and an illustrated lecture on xerography. The Adventures of Chip and Dip (1968) deploys animated leprechauns and live-action kitchen scenes to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that every dish you ever heard of can be vastly improved by tossing potato chips (they’re ninety-three percent energy!) into the recipe. Your Daily Bread (1957) is even more audacious, observing that American athletic achievements started a steady upswing in 1941, the very year when mass-production bakeries starting mixing “nutrition wafers” into white bread. Freeze In (1968), designed as an icebreaker for sales conferences, touts home freezers via a staggeringly unfunny knock-off of the Laugh-In television show. The sneakily titled News Cavalcade (1965) uses a thin veneer of newsreel style to disguise product pitches for Ford, Encyclopedia Britannica, and other big outfits, anticipating today’s infomercials, which will doubtless show up on DVDs like this in years to come.
Again I have a clear favorite among the fifteen films on view: Doomsday for Pests, made in 1946 to market Pestroy, a brand of DDT manufactured by Sherwin-Williams before the insecticide’s ill effects on human health—and disastrous effects on wildlife—led the United States to ban it. The framing-tale of the fourteen-minute film is an animated tragicomedy wherein flies, fleas, cockroaches, and other species suffer an insect Armageddon (“Bug Casualties,” blares a headline in the Bugville Blast) from Pestroy-wielding humans. The rest of the picture is a live-action sales pitch showing carefree, pest-free people indulging in orgies of DDT-fueled insect slaughter—painting the toxin on doors, slathering it on window screens, brushing it on kitchen shelves and picnic tables, squirting it onto upholstery, kneading it into the fur of household pets, spreading it on hedges, and spraying generous quantities into the air throughout the house. Who knew insecticidal mania could be such wholesome, gratifying fun? Sherwin-Williams also contributes the 1946 companion piece Goodbye Weeds, touting a herbicide that later got the company sued by farmers who claimed it was killing their crops.
The Celluloid Salesman sags at times. Few things are less exciting than hearing a sleazy-looking expert’s advice about how to close a clothing sale (The Stage Is Yours, circa 1961), or enduring a railroad-company promo that waxes eloquent on tank cars for a slow-going twenty-one minutes (Give the Lady What She Wants, from sometime in the Seventies). Nor is Kodak’s artsy Movies Move People (1969) as impressive as Elsheimer claims, novel though it is to watch a film meant to sell filmmakers on the joy of filmmaking. These lapses make me wonder if Elsheimer has already displayed his most interesting wares, in which case future volumes (if produced) may prove increasingly prosaic and predictable. My hopes remain high, however. The undervalued corner of American cinema that has given us such evocative titles as Comprehending Blending (1963),Goodbye to Garbage (circa 1960) and Say No to Strangers! (1963) surely has more to offer us. In any case, watching Mad Men will never be quite the same.
David Sterritt is Chairman of the National Society of Film Critics and film critic at Tikkun and RobinHoodRadio.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVI, No. 3