Posted by Susan Doll on July 18, 2011
Since its inception a couple of years ago, Facets Night School has morphed into more than a midnight movie series. It’s a place where cinephiles can watch and ruminate on a crazy mix of classic, exploitation, genre, and even silent films. The diversity comes from our unique spin on the midnight movie series: Each week a knowledgeable person introduces a film he/she has selected. Despite the late hour, audiences have been receptive to the pre-screening introduction and post-screening Q&A, because they get a context for appreciating the film and an opportunity to contribute their opinions and perspective. In addition, a weekly raffle and other shenanigans have created a relaxed atmosphere that suits the late hour.
Each session gets off to a good start with a reception coordinated by Facets staff member Jenny Grist, who can really get the most out of a tiny budget (or, no budget). Jenny’s specialty is the “theme reception.” The current summer session opened with the blaxploitation film Black Dynamite, so guests were treated to 1970s-style snacks in keeping with the original era of blaxploitation films. Bottles of Cobra Malt Liquor festooned the main table decorated in avocado greens, golden harvest yellows, and burnt browns; guests chowed down on such culinary delights as “ants on a log,” Pixie Stix, and Easy Cheese on crackers. Later, we raffled off the malt liquor as one of our prizes. Only the best for our patrons.
We also added a touch of live entertainment to this summer’s session. Before each lecture and film, a five-minute live episode of a serial called Sisters of No Mercy 3-D is staged by Lew Ojeda and Joseph Lewis. Each week, the chapter is recorded and the episodes will come together as a short film by the end of the session.
However, the heart of Night School remains the lecture before the screening. As Night School has evolved, our stable of presenters has grown to include cinephiles outside of Facets. Film students, local reviewers, film-website operators, and others have approached me to select and introduce a film. Despite knowing there is no monetary compensation, they willingly prepare an introduction or performance because, like the rest of us, they are in it for the love of the game. And, I am impressed by the angles or approaches they take to their material as well as the level of knowledge in Chicago’s tightly knit cinephile community.
Last Saturday, Night School favorite Lew Ojeda introduced a unique program of shorts with a highly informative mini-lecture. Titled “EduPalooza: The Educational & Industrial Film Festival and the Chicago Connection,” the program featured nine short educational and industrial films, many of which were produced in Chicago. The films included: Lunchroom Manners, Care of the Hair and Nails, LSD: Case Study, Fallout, Boys Beware, Why Doesn’t Cathy Eat Breakfast?, The Outsider, Grill Skill, and, my personal favorite, The Flintstones Sell Busch Beer. Though the audience laughed heartily at the dated material and the less-than-stellar acting, Lew made a perceptive and important point: These films reflected and shaped mainstream perspectives on social behavior—for better and for worse.
Lew was kind enough to contribute his knowledge and expertise to this blog via a brief interview. If anyone is interested in studying or showing educational and instructional shorts, a conversation with Lew Ojeda is essential. Also, I would love to hear from readers about specific educational or instructional films they may recall.
1. Why do you think Chicago became the capital of educational, industrial, and instructional films?
Chicago had been a center of the silent film industry in the very early years of the last century and when film producers moved operations to California, there was still the urge to continue with filmmaking. Film companies found interest with industries and some educational institutions like University of Chicago willing to take a new approach to product advertisement and higher learning.
2. When did all this begin?
There was a catalogue of educational films available as early as 1910. However, films were heavy, costly and flammable. Few school districts were willing to risk having their little red schoolhouse go up in flames. The 1920s brought the important developments of a new non-flammable format, 16mm, and Kodachrome, which proved to be wildly popular. The University of Illinois (Chicago) even made some movies with Eastman Kodak in the mid-1920s, but for the most part wasn’t too willing to put up the enormous amounts of money needed to form viable educational film companies. This became especially true with the onset of The Great Depression.
3. What were the major companies and what did they specialize in?
The two most noted Chicago based educational film companies were Coronet Films and Encyclopaedia Britannica Films (EBF). Both released educational films, but EBF ventured into industrial films as well. Other major players were Sid Davis Productions in California, Centron Productions in Lawrence, Kansas, and the Highway Safety Foundation (HSF) based in Mansfield, Ohio. Of these others, only Sid Davis Productions seemed to concentrate almost exclusively on classroom educational films. HSF produced industrial films, but is most famous for its gruesome driver’s ed films capturing auto accident victims’ dying moments. They’re the epitome of what some cult movie fans would call “chunk-blowers” [films that induce vomiting].
4. Was there an aesthetic or style that these films deliberately adhered to? And, what was the craftsmanship like?
The styles differed at each production, sometimes dramatically. Coronet Films patterned itself to resemble scenarios that could appear in Hollywood or on television at the time. They set the standard that we generally recognize as traits of the 1950s educational film: lively music, pleasant narration, actors speaking their own lines and identifiable schoolroom characters with conflicts that could be easily solved through gentle guidance. Viewing itself as Coronet’s main competitor and holding a contempt of having Hollywood influences seep into schools, EBF used no music in many of their films, steered away from character development and employed the same monotone narrator for over 15 years. “Entertainment” was not their form, however, they did have to concede Coronet’s success by approaching youth lightheartedly in some films such as Care of the Hair and Nails. For a period during the 1950s, Centron created some well-crafted shorts like The Outsider and The Gossip, little melodramas containing plots, developed characters and allowing for open endings for further discussion. HSF used a cinema verite approach to filmmaking, literally chasing ambulances to the scenes of devastating car crashes. The producers would then “one-up” the horrible images with dour warnings by a serious narrator.
5. What educational films are likely the most famous; perhaps those that many of us may have seen in school?
Lunchroom Manners (Coronet Films) has been seen in Pee Wee Herman’s HBO special years ago and gained a cult following. If you were a regular viewer of Mystery Science Theater 3000, you watched a number of these educational films lashed with sarcastic humor. SCTV also aired a segment making fun of the Coronet Film’s Dating Do’s and Don’ts, which, by the way, starred an actress named Jackie Gleason and a young actor named John Lindsay who became an important hardcore porn pioneer in the UK! A few of the earliest educational films like the 1949 short Shy Guy (starring Dick York of TV’s Bewitched fame) were still used in a few classrooms by the early 1970s. Some of you may have seen a few of the gruesome driver’s ed films like Signal 30 or Mechanized Death. If not, you can see clips in the documentary Hell’s Highway, a fascinating film about the very strange history of HSF. A clip from Boys Beware (Sid Davis) was prominent in the recent documentary Stonewall Uprising to demonstrate attitudes towards gays at the time.
6. Are there any that are so dated/badly crafted that they are downright funny?
With the exception of the graphic driver’s ed films, most viewers would probably find most of the films quite funny, especially anti-drug films of the 1960s such as The Weird World of LSD and Marijuana (featuring a very stoned-looking Sonny Bono). Most filmmakers weren’t striving for technical quality. The primary purpose was to get the message through, and, for the most part, they felt concentrating too much on story and character development distracted from this goal. That’s why characters tended to be broadly drawn stereotypes and scripts were simplistic for actors. Many times those scripts were non-existent as the performers simply mimed actions and dialogue spoken by the off-screen narrator.
7. Which producers or directors of the educational/instructional/industrial genre deserve to be remembered and why?
David A. Smart and Sid Davis could probably be considered the auteurs of educational films. Smart viewed the films from a business standpoint of creating an identifiable style of shorts that would separate his from his competitors. He had to do this while following the guidance of educational advisors listed in the opening credits. Davis was a renegade. He was his own advisor. The calamaties occurring in such shorts as LSD: Trip or Trap? (tragic auto accident) or Live and Learn (a little girl falling on scissors she’s holding while happily greeting her dad) came directly from the mind of Davis, the educational film genre’s ultimate pessimist. Herk Harvey from Centron is probably the most famous directing his one-off feature classic Carnival of Souls, but was very happy making educational and industrial short films. A classic and wildly entertaining industrial film by him is Shake Hands with Danger made in 1980 for Caterpillar. His cohorts—producer/director Arthur Wolf and writer Margaret Travis—were just as prolific, creating a great roster of short films (including the Oscar-nominated Leo Beuerman in 1969) through the end of the 1970s.
8. What made you interested in the topic?
Enjoying exploitation and camp films, I was naturally drawn to the topic of educational and industrial films. What surprised me was how many of these films were actually made and shown to captive audiences in classrooms and industrial screenings. Despite this amount of exposure, educational/industrial films seem like a discarded genre of filmmaking. No one thought these shorts were worth salvaging and few people, other than archivists like Ken Smith and Rick Prelinger, seem all that interested in exploring this field as something other than camp entertainment.
9. Why did you select the films you did to show at Facets Night School?
First and foremost, they are hilarious even without the MST3K-type back talk they inspire. The last two films Grill Skill and Flintstones Sell Busch Beer fall into the industrial training film category. Fallout is government-sponsored film shown on early television. The rest are classroom educational films. All of them reflect upon the society they served, but misinterpreted how kids felt. In trying to demonstrate to youngsters what was acceptable behavior, which would thus make you “popular,” these producers misread kids’ minds. Many of them would follow the advice given in films like Are You Popular? but a significant number looked up to rebels like James Dean and Marlon Brando. This disconnect would follow educational film producers for many years, eventually putting an end to many productions by the early 1970s.
10. What do you want film lovers/cinephiles/audiences to come away with when they watch these films now?
Cinephiles should take note that the golden era of educational films (1945-1970) were an attempt to engineer social attitudes and behaviors on the masses, put another way, a use of propaganda we don’t pay much heed to nowadays. We can look back them as sort of goofy and almost quaint, but they were originally released for the purpose of quelling a truly serious problem in juvenile deliquency. Although the “cure” eventually didn’t work and the production companies went under, similar tactics of persuasion—updated for more sophisticated viewers—exist in advertizing, blogs, opinion media (both on TV and online), etc. The more you learn about these past films and their methods, the easier it is to view persuasion media today with a skeptical mind.
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