Prelinger Archives

December 1996

The author:

Rick Prelinger is the founder of the Prelinger Archives started in 1982 with the goal of collect, preserve and spread ephemeral media. Since then he has managed to bring together around 33,000 of the films which turned Americans into obedient children, the best students, the most efficient workers and great consumers. Located in New York, his archives of advertising, educational and industrial films have been consulted and used by researchers, students and producers. Fragments from his collections appear in Roger & Me, Natural Born Killers, Heaven, and thousands of TV series, independent films and videos, documentaries and other productions. Far from any nostalgic vision, Prelinger believes that the use of historical material is a way to shed light on key cultural and social issues. As such, he often presents compilations from his archives at universities, museums and festivals.

To New Horizons, Ephemeral Films 1931-1945. Fragments. USA, 1987:

This compilation brings together a series of clips pulled from hard-to-find films which mark landmarks from the Golden Age of American industry. The better part of these films were made to the orders of large corporations with the goal of promoting their products, defining their identities, and seducing the public. Fundamentally, however, they were trying to sell a vision of the world: “Leave the technology to us and we´ll bring you endless progress.” The films in this program were chosen from 600,000 advertisements, industrial and educational films made since 1937. As opposed to features, theatrical releases and newsreels, these other films were produced to fill a concrete need, and were never intended to be conserved. For this reason they are referred to as ephimera.

Educational films like Precisely So, Round & Round and To New Horizons, were sponsored by certain companies as promotions, and to associate their names with broad, vaguely defined concepts like “progress” and “freedom of choice.”

Often produced with big budgets by important producers such as the John Handy Association, Wildin Pictures and Audio Productions, they were rigorously controlled in every phase of production. The creative individuality of Hollywood is not to be seen here, as the work of scriptwriters, directors, designers and actors was always subject to the demands of the client. For us, these films are an open window to the past, much more revealing and accessible in this sense than the better part of major commercial cinema. Their documentary value lies in their idealizing, myth-making character; they present the past not as it really was, but they would have liked it to be. Many of the fragments included in this program were produced during the Great Depression, which accounts for the absence of realities such as unemployment, hunger and an incipient war.

01. Relax, 1937. Improving the efficiency of the office worker.
02. Precisely so, 1937.
03. Extra, 1938. The Esso man sings a duet.
04. Oxydol Goes Into Hight, 1938.
05. Round and Round, 1939. Capitalism for kids.
06. Back of the Mike, 1939. A look at radio sound effects.
07. Leave it to Roll-Oh, 1940. Robotic dreams.
08. Home Movies, 1940. Kodachrome at the New York World´s Fair.
09. To New Horizons, 1940. Film of General Motors Futurama exhibit.
10. Let Yourself Go, 1940. Advice on relaxation.
11. Magic in the Air, 1941. The promise of television I.
12. To Market, to Market, 1942. The billboards that feed Chicago.
13. New Sketches by Max Fleischer, 1944-45.

The promise of television II. You Can't Get There From Here: Ephemeral Films 1946-1960. Fragments. USA, 1987:

A compilation of rarely seen films reflecting the Golden Age of American consumerism. These films show, at the same time, both the dark side of prosperous post-War America, and a world of endless consumption designed for confused adolescents and women shamelessly banished to house-wifery, whose dreams were directed toward “better living in a world of appliances.”

The post-War Baby Boom increased the number of students and massified the schools, inducing teachers to trust in the “aid” of audio-visual media. This ocurred in an era which especially valued conformity and predetermined attitudes, when the ideology of the so-called “American Century” spread into all the classrooms, where students heard only what educators wanted them to hear. An education marked by textbooks with absolutely homogenized content and the new audio-visual media. With the dawning of the Atomic Age, faith in science and technology suffered a severe crisis. The old means of progress were converted into elements of destruction. Also, new worries appeared, which disrupted the euforia of the post-War United States. The Second World War had broken up the American family: while the men found themselves on the other side of the ocean, mothers were working in the great industries associated with the war effort. An entire generation grew up without the supervision or direct contact with their parents. Finally, the Cold War brought paranoia and anticommunist anxiety.

The films of this era reflect a society turning inward, with practically no interest in human rights, urban decay, or world events. Its citizens only seem to worry about maintaining a calm life free of fits and starts. Nonetheless, in the “fabulous Fifties” the symptoms of problems are evident: anxiety, deep social and emotional anguish, the preoccupation with “fitting in” in this paradise, and, almost always, the fear of not being a good consumer.

01. Are You Popular?, 1947. Good girls don´t...
02. Meet King Joe, 1949. American workers have fun.
03. Dating: Do's and Don'ts, 1949. How to say good night.
04. The Last Date, 1950. Do it with a car.
05. What to Do on a Date, 1951.
06. Eisenhower for President, 1952. Electoral ad for television.
07. Mother Takes a Holiday, 1952. High school girls are freed from the kitchen.
08. Sniffles and Sneezes, 1955. A day in the life of a microbe.
09. Two-Ford Freedom, 1956. Another car will set you free.
10. The Relaxed Wife, 1957. Tranquilizers, slowing down reality.
11. American Look, 1958. Freedom is choosing between different products.

  • Mass Media Archaeology: A Selection from the Prelinger Archives