Posted by Pseudonym at 11:10 AM on Wednesday, May 6, 2009
I love ephemeral films, those little slices of Americana that they used to play before movies and in classrooms back in the 40s and 50s.
While primarily they're recognized as a quick and almost obscenely easy (and hilarious) thing to mock, the glimpses they give into the lives and concerns of the times are fascinating to me. No other medium - books, radio, newspaper captures the overall tone of the times as well as these films. While these other mediums do provide factual information or were produced for entertainment purposes, these ephemeral films are more earnest in their approach, neither giving factual information nor entertainment (at least not intended) but providing what I can only label "cultural education", which was itself a highly recognizable product of the 40s and 50s.
Consider I Want To Be A Secretary, a film where the protagonist ("I'd like to drop physics - I don't really need it - for advanced stenography.") is shown various types of advanced clerical work, to show her the wide variety that she can pick from for her future career. The film explains though, that to get to the upper crust of clerical work, she'll need to have very specialized skills. These jobs aren't for just anybody. (These women have had two years of technical training after high school, and some can type 70 words a minute or more!)
We look back on a film like this and marvel at the sheer audacity of the premise and content, but within the context, it was probably received as intended - good advice for young unmarried women looking to get a clerical job. Keep in mind that this was before World War II, a period I consider to have more impact on the equality of women's work choices than the Womens Lib movement of the 60s and 70s.
Obviously the films aren't just about vocational matters. Many deal with health issues, such as posture, and the importance of good hygiene. Ones produced during WWII concerned themselves with the topic of sexually transmitted disease, one of the few times where the health of the populace was considered more important than keeping mum about the subject matter. For social health, films like Perversion for Profit produced in 1965 warn about the dangers of pornography, intimating that it for sure will spell disaster for all of civilization.
There were plenty of safety videos, pertaining to bicycle safety (Warning: REALLY scary monkeys), workplace safety, and more. These films are interesting for the value they purport to have for the common American. Consider a film beginning not with 20 minutes of previews and commercials (come ON!), but a film instructing you to look both ways before crossing the street. There would be riots in the aisles; for some reason we prefer the commercials.
Another thing that I have a difficult time wrapping my head around is the amount of films dedicated to the issue of Going Steady. Should you? When should you? Why would it be better not to? When is necking acceptable, and when. The films dance around the subject of physical intimacy (referring to it as 'petting' in a charming nostalgic sort of way), but promote the idea, a cultural staple for teens at the time, of dating in the more traditional sense: going on several dates a week with several different partners, until you narrow it down to just one. It is really head-scratching that this concept preceded the sexual revolution of the 60s, somehow contradictorily making it so such polyamory, even while simply dating, is somewhat frowned upon as cheating.
Give yourself an hour or two to watch some films that interest you if you're a fan of Americana. You can almost feel the repression coming at you in waves.
Bonus drinking game for teetotalers: drink every time you see a person of color!