It would be interesting to know what percentage of those watching old educational shorts on DVD and on the Internet have ever actually had the experience of sitting in a classroom and watching them unspool from a noisy old projector. I have dim memories of seeing one at a school assembly in the second grade, a cautionary tale of possible railroad-crossing casualties, but that's about it; our school went VHS within the next year or so, and by the late '80s, the films themselves had gone the way of the dinosaur. Most of today's movie geeks were introduced to them via Mystery Science Theater 3000, which used educational films and sales shorts as time-fillers; MST3K off-shot Rifftrax continues to send them up on a regualar basis online.
What is it about these dopey old films that's so fun? Is it the stilted acting, the unconcealed propagandistic agendas, the immediately dated sets and costumes, the tragically unhip point-of-view? Yes, yes, all of the above. There's no intellectually honest reason to watch this stuff, unless you're putting together some kind of sociological study; there's certainly no excuse for a supposed cinephile like me to have seen so many of these films and so few of Kurosawa's.
For years, Skip Elsheimer (and his site A/V Geeks) has been the source and authority on these public-domain shorts, first through the invaluable Educational Archives series, now through the "Classic Educational Shorts" discs on Kino. Last fall's first two volumes, How to Be a Man and How to Be a Woman, are now followed by volume three, Safe... Not Sorry, and volume four, The Celluloid Salesman.
The focus this time is on the sales short--most of them directly selling a product to the public, some instructing salesmen on how to best push the product. The 227-minute program consists of the following films:
"Movies Move People" (1969), Kodak, 23 minutes: This is an ideal first short, since it floats the notion that, you see, you can use film to sell things. That's not exactly a shocking idea, though the lengths to which Kodak goes to convince the viewer/customer are a bit surprising (what a nice family out for a drive! Let's graphically wreck the car!). Bonus fun: the grim psychological drama of the salesman who can't close anymore, which plays like Roman Polanski's Glengarry Glen Ross.
"Comprehending Blending" (1963), Hamilton Beach/Portafilms, 18 minutes: Hamilton Beach produces motors, which are used in household appliances, like the "deluxe liquid-blender" (FANFARE!). This "exciting motion picture film" was produced for showing to "women's groups" and home ec classes and the like. It is, contrary to the description, not a terribly exciting motion picture film. But you've gotta love that bongo drum accompaniment when the blender is being used.
"Doomsday for Pests" (1946), Sherwin-Williams/Jerry Fairbanks, 14 minutes: This animated ad for "Prestoy DDT" begins with charming scenes of cartoon pests reading newspaper articles about the product, which is wiping out pests by the hundreds; one even scans the pest obituaries, mouth agape. They then head to the theaters and watch a "newsreel" on the epidemic; the live-action demonstration of how the product works amounts to a pest snuff film. Enjoy, animated viewers! And enjoy humans, as your house and furniture are smothered with DDT-laden paint.
"Freeze-In" (1968), Sears, Roebuck & Co/Calvin Productions, 16 minutes: "This film is for SEARS INTERNAL TRAINING USE ONLY," warns the opening card, "and must not be used for sales, public relations, television or any other purpose or audience." It must have been excruciating to keep this little gem away from the general public. Someone at Sears apparently had the bright idea of making a training film in the style of then-hot Laugh-In, and even hired Judy Carne and Arte Johnson to star. But that doesn't mean it's entertaining; they've got the stars, the design, and even some of the catch-phrases--but none of the energy, wit, pace, or laughs. It does have lots of freezers, and apparently some Sears inside jokes: "Monkey Wards disproves the Darwin Theory," reads one inter-title. The entertainment value here comes from one of our most reliable sources: guys in suits trying to come across as hip and with-it.
"Miss Puff" (c. 1960s), Labelon Toner, 10 minutes: Well, this one's just downright inexplicable. The title character is a busty, blonde "sales engineer" at "tonal headquarters," some kind of a futuristic computer room as designed, apparently, by a class of second graders. They're selling toner cartridges for copiers here, but the boing-boing sound effects, up-skirt leering, and goofy editing suggest that Sears wasn't the only company going for a Laugh-In vibe (except during the actual demonstration of how a copy is made, which is like watching paint that's already dry).
"The Adventures of Chip and Dip" (1968), Potato Chip Institute/Academy McLarty Prods., 20 minutes: Yes, that's right, the Potato Chip Institute. (I think I have a new career goal.) The birth of the potato chip (at an Indian-run Inn in the Adirondacks) and dip is described by the animated title characters, leading to live-action demonstrations of dip preparation. Good luck watching these faded, vintage cooking segments without thinking of The Groove Tube. Then it's time to find out where potato chips come from (no, not from the potato stork), as Chip and Dip track the potatoes from the field to the bin to the assembly line to the package. Potato chips are, we're assured, "a good food for everyone" (and "93.3% energy"). Then it's back to the kitchen, for demonstrations of some stomach-churning potato-chip recipes.
"News Cavalcade" (1965), Sterling Movies, 13 minutes: Packaged like a newsreel (excuse me, "a public information report"), this short sells mobile homes, college entrance exam study guides, the "low section height tire," genetic engineering of chickens (maybe?), and the radar air defense system in Hawaii (no idea).
"The Stage is Yours" (ca. 1961), National Cotton Council, 13 minutes: You know, selling is both an art and a science. Beginning "backstage at one of the greatest shows on earth: retail selling," this is a step-by-step guide to selling. "Let's see how they work in actual practice," muses the Don Draper-like host, who then narrates a series of stilted vignettes ("I really think you'll be very satisfied with this wash-and-wear model!").
"Goodbye to Garbage" (ca. 1960), General Electric, 5 minutes: "FROM THE LABORATORIES OF GENERAL ELECTRIC!" announces the opening title, with accompanying music indicating that GE might be working on some human cloning. But no, they'd like to tell you about their new garbage disposal (or, as the narrator none-to-subtly pronounces it, the "dispose-all"). But can you handle the "slow-motion scenes" of "cutting action"? Grisly stuff!
"This Is... Elk Country" (1967), Schlitz Brewing Company/Centralab/Edlin Film Prods., 10 minutes: "We came to find elk--and we did too!" enthuses the folksy narrator of this faux-travelogue, in which a group of elk hunters hit the trail, with the help of portable power, camping appliances, and cold, icy Schlitz beer (the brews soften the chore of doing "the traditional woman's work: washing dishes").
"Give the Lady What She Wants" (ca. 1970s), GATX/PC Prods., 21 minutes: And that lady wants to buy a "tank car"! But what could she want it for? That's the central mystery of this vintage oddity. Considering what "PC" came to stand for in the decades to follow, the film's insights into "what ladies like" are pretty offensive--if unintentionally funny--from our vantage point.
"Your Daily Bread" (1957), American Bakers Association, 12 minutes: Better nutrition keeps disease away, and makes you better at sports! Join the whitest family alive as they sit down for a backyard barbeque--with lots and lots of bread. Specifically, we're encouraged to enjoy enriched white bread, which "adds zest and enjoyment to any meal." Yay, bread!
"Ideas in Action" (1966), Westinghouse Electric/Jam Handy Organization, 6 minutes: Ideas! Man sure does get a lot of them, am I right? Westinghouse especially gets a lot of them, which are shown here, in all their "computer-directed efficiency." It's pretty dazzling.
"Goodbye Weeds" (1946), Sherwin-Williams/Jerry Fairbanks, 18 minutes: More cheapo animation, this time tracking man's historic struggle against spiteful, jeering weeds. Fade to the present day, as a housewife enjoys her "modern devices" ("Yes, it's good to be alive today!"), but her poor husband--well, he still can't get rid of those darn weeds. On the golf course, he accidently tastes a weed killing spray (!) called Weed-No-More, which "works where others fail." We can be sure it really works, because they have footage of scientists in lab coats developing it.
"A Summer Opportunity" (1969), Collier's, 14 minutes: Alistair Cooke, foreign correspondent, regales us with tales of his travels before turning his attention to "The P.F. Collier Vacation Earnings Program." Spend the summer selling encyclopedias and earning money; the incentive is a trip to "Swinging London" (lots of pictures of birds in bikinis and minis).
Well, seriously, what do you expect? The full-frame shorts look about as bad as we've come to expect with these raw materials, which weren't exactly painstakingly preserved. There are scratches, jumps, and dirt a-plenty, while the color saturation is mostly at eye-sore levels. So, sure, the shorts are a bit lacking in aesthetic beauty. But would you have it any other way?
Ditto the English audio mono tracks, which are about as thin and crackly as you remember. That said, there aren't really any audibility issues to speak of--you can make everything out, and that's about all you could ask for from these discarded films.
A/V Geeks founder Skip Elsheimer provides an Introduction (10:13) to the program, though it cues up at the top of the "play all" function, so its box copy status as a bonus feature is questionable. But it's a worthwhile inclusion, in which Elsheimer, narrating over snippets from several shorts, breaks down the distinctions and subgenres within the commercial short film, as well as providing some background and context on the specific films in the program. Elsheimer also contributes detailed text-only Film Notes for all of the shorts.
The current cultural obsession with all things Mad Men piques the viewer's interest in these samples of vintage advertisers at work, but it must be noted that--in sharp contrast to the first two Kino volumes-- The Celluloid Salesman is a bit of a chore to get through. Though I'm not sure how much of its audience will consume it as I did (in one solid, almost four-hour chunk), some of the shorts really do amount to overlong informercials, and once the initial chuckles are dispensed with, the remote-control finger gets a little itchy. That said, there are some startling sociological insights buried in these films, and the wooden acting, transparent motives, and silly graphics ("Labelon saves you money!" accompanied by several on-screen dollar signs) are pretty amusing. The Celluloid Salesmanisn't a must-have, but fans of the genre will enjoy it.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.