Labor unions, Detroit automakers, anti-communists, WPA socialists, progressives, conservatives, and '50s housewives ecstatic over their new designer phones share the pages of The Field Guide To Sponsored Films. This indispensable catalog, compiled by historian and archivist Rick Prelinger. coins the term "sponsored films" to describe movies funded by entities other than movie studios (although major studies often handled the production; Disney shilled electric appliances for Westinghouse, tissues for Kimberly-Clark, and Oreos for Nabisco). It's a near-irresistible browse; flip it open and find Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorites like Mr. B Natural (Conn musical instruments) and The Last Clear Chance (Union Pacific Railroad) alongside paeans to civic boosterism like The Baltimore Plan and Philadelphia: City On The March.
Underneath the kitsch of the pre-video era, Prelinger's guide reveals an unexpected cultural conversation that often erupted into outright slow-motion war. The National Right To Work Committee releases And Women Must Weep to undermine union organizing efforts, and the International Association of Machinists deconstructs it in Anatomy Of A Lie. The House Un-American Activities Committee funds Operation Abolition to denounce anti-HUAC demonstrators, and the American Civil Liberties Union and the Roman Catholic Catechetical Guild produce debunking rejoinders. For every Harding College, font of pro-business and anti-communist propaganda, there's an Anti-Defamation League to create celebrations of multiculturalism, or an American Social Hygiene Association to push sex education.
Even though the guide covers only a representative sample of Prelinger's collection, now housed in the Library Of Congress, the 452 films listed deepen the notion of the industrial film far beyond the educational, safety, and advertising examples most often cited. Prelinger seems especially interested in mental-health case studies produced to train social workers, and in collections of actuality footage such as Frank Gilbreth's efficiency studies (presented by the Chicago chapter of the Society Of The Advancement Of Management). Such films preserve candid views of life in a lost time, depicting how Americans of various ages and social classes talked, dressed, and related. The inclusion of bizarre fictitious vignettes about Pete-roleum and his oil-droplet buddies raises the hip quotient, but Prelinger argues that sponsored films are an untapped resource, essential for understanding culture far beyond the corporate.
(Available as a free PDF download from filmpreservation.org, or in a printed version for the cost of shipping and handling.)