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By Marilyn Ferdinand
Among film collectors, archivists, and preservationists, Rick Prelinger has the status of movie legend. Prelinger, an archivist, writer, and filmmaker, amassed a collection of 60,000 advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films that became the Prelinger Archives. In 2002, the U.S. Library of Congress acquired the collection, which has made a portion of it available free online to those who wish to view, download, or reuse the material. He is cofounder of the Prelinger Library (with spouse Megan Shaw Prelinger), an appropriation-friendly reference library located in San Francisco.
He wrote The Field Guide to Sponsored Films (2007) which “describes 452 historically or culturally significant motion pictures commissioned by businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and state or local government units between 1897 and 1980.” It is available as a book and as a free PDF from the National Film Preservation Foundation. From 2005 to 2007, Prelinger worked at the Internet Archive on a large-scale texts digitization project and recently helped organize the Open Content Alliance. His feature-length film Panorama Ephemera, depicting the conflicted landscapes of 20th-century America, opened in the summer of 2004.
On the heels of the NFPF announcement of its partnership with the New Zealand Film Archive to repatriate 75 American films, I thought a conversation with the founder of another important film archive was in order. Here are the results of our e-mail Q&A.
Rick, you’ve done just about as much as anyone to ensure that sponsored films remain a part of our cultural heritage. How did you get interested in this area of film making?
I was working in 1982 as a researcher on Heavy Petting, a documentary film about sexuality and romance in the years after World War II. As part of the job, I did extensive research about educational, advertising and industrial films, becoming fascinated with this rich world that no one knew much about at the time.
How did you build your collection?
When I started collecting, we were in a time of transition from film to video, just as we are now in a transition from physical to digital media. The U.S. is an incredibly media-rich nation—we throw away more media than most countries ever produce. I began approaching schools and colleges with media collections, libraries, production companies that had gone or were going out of business, and people who’d worked in the industry who had collected material. There was a great deal to choose from and my collection grew rapidly. In 1984-85, I realized that I needed to think in an archival way rather than just collecting, and began to collect original and preprint material instead of simply copies of release prints made for projection. Since there was obviously never going to be money to preserve all of these films, it seemed important to try and save these films in the best possible state.
Where is the collection now?
In 2002-03, the film collection to date went to the Library of Congress, where it is now being unpacked and processed. There will be public access to the materials sometime in the next few years, but it may take some time—they are dealing with some 200,000 cans: 60,000 completed productions plus a whale of a lot of unedited footage. Since that time, we have also continued to collect, and I mainly concentrate on home movies, amateur film, and a few commercially sponsored films. I don’t really collect educational films any more.
I’m a fan of these films, particularly “civil defense” films. The House in the Middle is a curious film that posits the unlikely idea that a fresh coat of paint will protect a house from a nuclear explosion. What are your personal impressions of this film?
The House in the Middle, to me, is a film that relies on a gimmick to get its point across. The government-run civil defense campaign was systemic and reached into many areas of life—there were films for householders, for farmers, for industrialists. In my opinion, this was simply another angle to repeat the line that preparedness would guarantee survival. In addition, the film links cleanliness and fresh paint with morality and survival. While this looks pretty ridiculous today, America’s marketers have often resorted to weird twists in order to sell their products. Compare this film to the many post-9/11 ads that use patriotic words and images to pitch specific goods and services.
Was this film an official part of the Defense Department’s informational effort?
I think it was made with the consent and collaboration of the government, who provided footage for the project, but I’ve seen no evidence that it was an official film.
Do we know anything about the people who wrote and filmed The House in the Middle?
Not really. It appears to have been made by a Washington PR film that may have contracted out production, but I haven’t done deep research yet.
Can you tell me about the physical state of extant copies of this film? What exists? How good are the YouTube and DVD copies of the film?
We have a 16mm Kodachrome print, as does the Library of Congress. Our print is not bad, though a little dark. We made a fairly decent video transfer and put it online for free at the Internet Archive. I think the YouTube version, like most YouTube archival videos, is a poorly derived, poor-quality dupe of what we offer online for free, and the DVDs are also copies of our online copy. I don’t know whether the original film materials still exist but hope to find them some day.
This film is on the National Film Registry as worthy of saving. What exactly does it mean to be on this registry and how will it affect The House in the Middle?
Films that make it onto the Registry are “artistically, culturally or historically” significant. I hope that this means the film will be preserved for posterity, but I believe we should hold off until we are as certain as we can be that original materials no longer exist. Going back to original materials would result in a film that much more closely resembles the original version. Beyond that, the Registry is a wonderful way of calling attention to films that may not be extremely well known but have the potential to enrich public understanding of cultural, social and cinema history.
Sponsored films are obvious precursors to the infomercial and the sponsored news spots that look like newsroom-produced stories. How do you compare these earlier efforts with today’s sponsored films?
Sponsored films are an ancient genre of cinema, going back to the first advertising films projected on New York City walls in 1896. While they are still being made by the hundreds of thousands, companies tend to focus more on the Web as a medium for their messages. The big difference to me between the film era and today is that the large and small production companies and studios that made sponsored films mostly no longer exist. But there’s more in common between video and Web production today and the glory days of industrial and advertising film than most of us might realize. Many of the messages and storytelling strategies are still the same.
What can people do if they want to see these films?
The best resource is the collection we’ve put online, and it’s absolutely free to download and use the films. Check out the Prelinger Collection at the Internet Archive. There are also other great collections at the Archive, including the Academic Film Archive of North America and AV Geeks. Click around!
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Director: Gregory La Cava
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There are many classic film buffs out there for whom the Pre-Code era of 1930-1933 is the source of their greatest viewing pleasure. It’s easy to understand why—it’s a momentous time in film and world history. Sound trickled in, flowed steadily, and quickly inundated motion picture production. With that sound, it was possible to hear the songs and seductions that brought musicals and sex vividly to life—and scared the hell out of the Hays Office. It was also the time when the Great Depression grabbed onto the world economy and plunged it as low as it had ever been experienced in the United States. All types of films explored the plight of the unemployed, from Busby Berkeley musicals to gangster flicks to comedies about slumming socialites.
One type of film that wasn’t particularly common in the United States at that time, but was in its ascendancy in the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, was the propaganda film. Hollywood moguls interested in churning out mind-distracting entertainment certainly weren’t interested in it. In fact, there’s only one well-known propaganda film from that era done by the only movie mogul who not only had the interest, but also the experience to pull it off—Gabriel Over the White House, a production of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Pictures.
Hearst, of course, was the notorious newspaper baron whose politics and personal preferences trumped truth and impartiality in the heyday of yellow journalism and beyond. In the early 1930s, Hearst used his various bully pulpits to tout what would become Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal administration.
Gabriel Over the White House, a truly bizarre film on first viewing, centers on the Hoover/Hardingesque political hack, Judson “Judd” Hammond (Walter Huston), who we first see taking the presidential oath of office, change his evil ways, baby, after a coma-inducing car accident puts him in touch with an unseen presence. His mistress, Pendie Molloy (Karen Morley), who also mends her fornicating, father-fixated ways to embrace the more age-appropriate marriage-minded presidential press secretary Hartley “Beek”’ Beekman (Franchot Tone), senses the presence and identifies it as the angel Gabriel.
Hammond is shown before the conversion hobnobbing with his party cronies, all of whom hold cabinet seats, carelessly discarding the problems of massive unemployment and rampant crime as “local matters.” Hammond, the rare bachelor in the White House, is a real bad boy. After installing Molloy as his “private secretary,” and putting off all serious questions at his first press conference with jovial dismissal—and the announcement that all future press conferences will require questions submitted in writing beforehand—he decides to take a joy ride in his limo with several of his staff. He floors it, pushing past 110 mph so as to shake both his security escort and trailing reporters. The car blows a tire and careens off the road. The condition of the passengers in the ill-fated car is never revealed, but the comatose president is not expected to live.
As divine presences always seem to do in movies, the unseen messenger arrives on a gust of wind that ruffles the curtains covering the president’s open bedroom window and fills the room momentarily with light. The doctor, Beek, and Pendie are hurriedly called in from their death watch in an adjacent room by Judd’s nurse. Judd has regained consciousness. He’s alert, but distracted, as though he were listening to a voice beyond the wall. His coldness toward Pendie announces his renunciation of the immoral pleasures of the flesh, and with a vigor and seriousness of purpose never seen in him before, sets about mending the ills of the country. He fires all of his sleazy cabinet members, encourages labor leader John Bronson (David Landau) and his million unemployed men to come to Washington to talk about stimulating the economy, and sends tanks against notorious bootlegger and criminal Nick Diamond (C. Henry Gordon). When the political hacks in Congress rebel against Judd’s sweeping social-welfare proposals, he declares martial law.
In his zeal to fill up the nation’s depleted coffers, he decides to collect the debts the nations of the world owe the United States for supplies and assistance it provided during and after World War I. He deploys the Navy to prevent any interference with his grand plan—to gather all of the leaders of the world on a naval vessel and watch American bombers destroy two American battleships. These planes, rather than some antiquated battleships, represent the military force of the future, and he will not hesitate to use them if the debts are not paid and a new understanding of peace is not reached that very day. The leaders of the world line up to sign and stamp their seal on a peace accord. Hammond enters the room last. Looking not at all well, he stumbles to the table on which rests the document and, with a shaky hand, signs it. Then he collapses and dies, his brief resurrection rescinded now that his divine work has been completed.
It would have to take someone with the enormous ego Hearst had (or the absurb humor of the Blues Brothers) to promote his politics as a mission from God. The authoritarian way Hammond goes about doing good reminded me of another film that most people see quite benignly, but that I have always contended was rather fascistic—The Day the Earth Stood Still. Gort and the bombers are much the same, as are Klaatu’s and Hammond’s ultimatums. The difficulty in seeing Hammond’s actions in a completely sympathetic light have to do with our understanding of and revulsion against martial law. Doing right by assuming absolute control just doesn’t taste right. Nonetheless, there’s no mistaking the appeal of Hearst’s agenda to a country bent by the Depression, from the proposal for a federal works program Hammond promises to the throngs of jobless men chanting, “We want work,” thrusting their shovels into the air, to the war on crime, with Nick Diamond unmistakably modeled on the real gangster Jack “Legs” Diamond, whose death in 1931 precluded him from suing Cosmopolitan for defamation of character. Many of the programs Hammond outlines actually formed part of the New Deal; indeed, Hearst sent the script to his candidate, FDR, for suggestions and revisions and worked them into the screenplay.
Despite Hearst’s adulterous, live-in relationship with Marion Davies, he preferred to project a moral protagonist in Hammond. Pendie comes off a bit like Mary Magdelan crossed with Jean Arthur’s Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The very presence of women seems to be undesirable, and there are only four in the entire picture: Pendie, Hammond’s nurse, Hammond’s sister, and Bronson’s wife—a reformed sinner, a traditional helper, a relation with a walk-on who looks after Hammond’s beloved nephew Jimmy (Dickie Moore), and the wife of a labor martyr. Not a substantial woman in the bunch. And Pendie’s romance with Beek is one of the most bloodless I’ve seen, that is, until Pendie is felled in a hail of machine-gun fire from the Diamond gang, but miraculously lives to tell the tale and trot off into marriage.
Gregory La Cava is a skilled director with such classics as My Man Godfrey and Stage Door to his credit. I believe it is his skill in bringing this film to life that disguises its true nature as a propaganda picture. Huston plays the sinner quite realistically, as do all of the crooked pols who surround him. His saint is forceful and rather wooden, appropriately a vessel rather than a man. Franchot Tone, who always seems a bit precious to me, really nails this character, a 1930s version of Tony Snow before Hammond’s transformation, revealed to be a really likeable guy. Karen Morley is better in this film than in most of her output, putting more feeling into her unfortunate, flat voice.
Gabriel Over the White House was an eerie film for me to watch again. Yesterday’s corrupt prosperity, today’s economic collapse, and a president from one of the most corrupt states in the union offering change we can believe in—including a return to some New Deal measures—parallel the world of this ancient Hollywood oddity. This is a timely film to ponder.