Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Persuasion, Prejudice and Psychology: Ephemeral Films From The Prelinger Archives

Posted By on Wed, Oct 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM

This anthology of six “ephemeral” films was created from the thousands of educational and industrial short subjects collected in the Prelinger Archives, movies of instruction and sometimes deception meant to be shown in schools, at middle-management pep rallies, churches or other civic outlets. They offer sociological insight into the not too distant past and are often hysterically funny.

Produced by the National Clean Up-Paint Up-Fix Up Bureau with the cooperation of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, The House In The Middle (’54) is a classic bit of false-hope propaganda in the tradition of duck-and-cover, offering handy tips on how to keep your home from being totally destroyed if somebody drops an atomic bomb nearby. True, the initial shock wave will blow out your windows and loosen the floorboards, but by simply picking up those newspapers and magazines that tend to get strewn around the house and keeping your lawn clear of dead foliage you can prevent that secondary heat blast from causing the whole structure to burst into flames. The fact that you’re going to be atomized into a glowing heap of dust is somehow overlooked; your house will still stand, a wrecked shell but salvageable.

Perversion For Profit (undated, but apparently from the late ’50s), produced by the Citizens for Decent Literature, Inc. and narrated with flair by one George Putnam (described as an “outstanding news reporter”) warns against the “floodtide of filth” that’s polluting our nation’s youth in the form of “nudie” magazines and salacious paperbacks promoting homosexuality, sadism and just sex in general. The subtext — that young people are going to either wank themselves into a stupor or succumb to the ravages of “unnatural sex,” thus leaving them ripe for foreign takeover — emerges briefly when Putnam intones that wanton sexual behavior “weakens our moral resistance to the onslaught of the communist masters of deceit.”

Some of the shorts are less insane. Age 13 (’55), while suffering from the zero budget look and amateur acting that’s the hallmark of the ephemeral film, is an interesting dawn-of-the-therapeutic-age take on adolescent grief; it is psychologically astute until the unlikely happy ending. This Charming Couple (’50 — from a series called “Marriage For Moderns”) makes the reasonable point that people who fall in love with idealized versions of each other shouldn’t get married.

Overall, the collection offers a cross-section of the ’50s mind-set, from the reactionary to the progressive, and while it’s impossible for many of us not to laugh at the quaintness of this strange landscape, it should be kept in mind that this is a place where many people still live.


Prelinger Archives founder Rick Prelinger will introduce the film at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 3. Call 313-833-3237 for details.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].


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