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Monday, November 04, 2002

My Mad Experiment

I have a topic I want to blog about extensively---or until I get really sick of it---but before that I want to do an introductory post. Non-existent readers, meet the Prelinger Archive; Prelinger Archive, meet my non-existent readers.

The Prelinger Archive is a big pile of "ephemeral films", that is, little movies made for (fairly) temporary purposes, and not meant to be remembered. The films in the archive are generally 1) educational films for viewing by school children, or sometimes broader groups, and 2) industrial films introducing new products or showcasing a company or an industry in general. The online archive has over 1200 films available for downloading for free, free, free, IF you have a fast internet connection, because the very shortest of them are tens of megabytes in size.

This sounds boring, and I'm sure such films often are. But some of these films, which weren't exactly crafted with posterity in mind, give a surprising glimpse into the world that produced them. A good example of this are the "mental hygiene" films: these films highlighted social problems, from trivial issues like table manners to big ones like juvenile deliquency. Sometimes they were dry lectures, but often they were cast in the form of mini-dramas containing characters and a plot.

Rick Prelinger started the archives after researching ephemeral films for a movie some friends were making. (Here's the first part of the story of his archive.) He soon began collecting the little films on his own, at first storing them under his bed. He bought them and saved them even when he wasn't earning much, and so deserves much credit for that, even though he irritates the hell out of me (I'll explain in good time...).

I was introduced to them through the wonderful world of Mystery Science Theater 3000, MST3K for short. For those of you who don't know, MST3K was (for ten years!) a cable-TV puppet show. A man and two robot puppets were forced to view old movies by an evil scientist (who hoped to use this method to take over the world); our heroes kept their sanity by making wisecracks back at the screen. I love this show.

Since some of their main features were too short to fill the two-hour format of the show, they also watched short subjects---usually old serials or instructional films, or those "mental hygiene" films.

Ken Smith used to work at the Comedy Channel (forerunner of Comedy Central, and the channel that produced MST3K for its first seven seasons), which, in its infancy, screened clips of these films for laughs. Many of the films came from Prelinger's collection. Smith began to enjoy these films for their own sakes, not just for laughs, and eventually wrote a book about them, Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970. (You see there that Amazon encourages you to buy it with Lileks's The Gallery of Regrettable Food.)

Many, but not all, of the films featured in MH are available at the Prelinger archive. One that is, and was also an MST3K classic, is A Date with Your Family. This is a totalitarian little item which urges children to suppress their own personalities in order to keep the family dinner table in order. (There will be those who say that a little iron fist in the iron glove is what's needed these days, but I'll let them do it.) Don't miss the instructions to the females of the house to get gussied up to please the men, oh, and Sis, you fix the dinner while Brother prepares for college.

I so, so longed to do a version of this teaching parents how to treat their children. "Remember, gently instruct the children in proper table manners. The phrase 'you eat like a goddamned hog' should not be used. It is neither polite, nor instructive." There's more, oh so very much more.

Another good choice is Are You Ready for Marriage?. This is the story of two rather unattractive young people who want to get married, but her parents think they're too young. They go to see Mr. Reverend Marriage Counselor, who explains things to them with charts and lines and checklists and little dolls, all of which are better suited for use in elementary school than with actual adults. (Although the two here do seem real dumb.) The subject of sex is not broached, except that the woman later recites the sort of things they'd read up on: "the physical side of marriage". That's it. Oh, and Boing! is discussed.

I really loved Mental Hygiene, although I'm now extremely irritated with Smith (this too, shall be explained in the fullness of time).

Mostly, however, MST3K did not do these "hygiene" (physical or mental) shorts, but others. Some of them are beautifully-photographed, and occasionally witty. They also provide fun, sometimes fond, sometimes disturbing, glimpses into the world in which they were made. My favorites, which are also in the Prelinger archive, are:

Design for Dreaming: This is a film version of the 1956 General Motors "Motorama", apparently intended to be shown in theaters in smaller towns where the actual Motorama did not travel. A young woman dreams that a snazzily-dressed masked man comes into her bedroom to whisk her off to the Motorama at the Waldorf-Astoria. They caper and prance and dance around the new cars (dig that silver-blue Buick convertible, mm-mm-mmmm) before he disappears and she gets a fainting spell and has to be carried into the kitchen. Once there she begins a cake using the all push-buttons Kitchen of the Future, and while it's baking begins a manic tour of leisure. Then her cake's done, and she does the "Dance of Tomorrow", which segues into a show of the cars paired with the latest fashions. Finally the masked man reappears with a silver-black devil of a car, to take her riding on the "electric highway of the future". Man. That's THE FUTURE!, mind you, into which we here in 2002 fitfully stumble. Ken Smith says: Your life will not be complete until you see this film.

Once Upon a Honeymoon: Directed by Broadway choreographer Gower Champion. A strange little film, it's ostensibly about a couple who can't go on their long-delayed honeymoon until the songwriter-husband comes up with a new tune for the show he's tuning for. While he's struggling with this, the wife dances around the house humming and singing and finally a tune comes to him. That's the plot, but in reality it's all driven by phones. It's the dialing of the telephone which inspires the music the husband finally writes. The woman is fantasizing about redecorating the house, and imagines colored phones (which were new at the time---before they'd been black) to go with each decor. There are even wall phones, if you can imagine. A guardian angel is involved, and my favorite part of the film is the frosty, starry heaven at the beginning. Of course there will be stars in heaven.

Out of This World: This short posits that angels and devils watch over the humble working man, each trying to win him over to their side. Not only that, but the angels and devils do their own work side-by-side. A devil (Red) makes a bet with an angel (Whitey) that it won't take much to tip a certain bread truck driver, Bill Dudley, back to his old wicked ways. A condition of the bet is that the angel must try to subvert him. So, posing as a magazine reporter, she dons a cute little outfit and rides around with him in his truck, while asking a bunch of questions and insinuating that he's working too hard and being a chump. Occasionally Red pops up in various guises to pester her and find out how she's doing. Finally Bill answers all her questions, showing her (in a series of flashbacks) how he used to be lazy and sloppy but now he's wised up.

This short should be called Heaven's Bureacracy, because that's what heaven seems to be here (no stars in this heaven). But I like it for its stated purpose---to show that there's more to bread delivery than just dropping the stuff off. In particular I was interested in how the driver mentioned new items to the grocers, and suggested putting, say, hamburger buns out with the hamburger meat, which is on special this week. I didn't think drivers were given that much initiative. In truth, it made me think driving a bread truck in a 1950s small town might not be a bad career. Also, it's a good look into the days when almost all bread was snowy white and dull, and anything else was "specialty bread". This film was sponosored, strangely enough, by the cellophane division of Du Pont. Ken Smith (in the notes for the film on the archive) seems to find something sinister in this. It does explain the glistening packaging on all the loaves.

In our next installment, I'll explain why I'm telling you all this. Right-wingers may be especially interested.