I know lots of people whose passion for collecting films—and by that I mean good old fashioned celluloid reels—was inextricably linked to their passion for sharing them with friends and family. We usually associate “living room cinema” with home movies, but back in the day there were also countless numbers of junior impresarios presenting programs of fiction films, primarily 8mm and 16mm versions distributed by companies like Blackhawk and Castle.
I was more of a record collector in my youth, but my budding love for movies was nurtured considerably in the one glorious year I served as a seventh grade film monitor at Henderson Middle School in Little Rock, Arkansas. Being a film monitor—a projectionist, actually—was a coveted job; I was part of a team responsible for showing 16mm educational films to various classes. It got me excused from my own classes! However, the true pleasure for me wasn’t in the projecting (although to this day the whirr and clack of film speeding through a projector gate remains one of my favorite sounds), but rather in the movies I got to see.
To people of a certain age, film company names like Coronet or Encyclopedia Britannica are exceedingly evocative, and I certainly saw more than my fair share of their offerings that year. I projected films about the Revolutionary War, the Pythagorean Theorem, and wood shop safety. On one unforgettable red letter day, I was summoned for emergency service to project a female health and hygiene film for a girls gym class. It was, shall we say, an eye opening experience.
One of the great, relatively untapped resources of the Library’s moving image collection is our expansive variety of educational, industrial and promotional films of the type I used to project in seventh grade. Whatever you want to call them, these kinds of films are endlessly fascinating, an indisputably fertile ground for the study of fields ranging from factory production to social mores. We have many thousands of these movies, primarily from five sources: Copyright deposits, the American Archive of the Factual Film, CRM Learning, the J. Fred and Leslie W. MacDonald Collection, and the (Rick) Prelinger Archive. And speaking of Rick, I encourage you to download his excellent and indispensable Field Guide to Sponsored Film, published by our friends at the National Film Preservation Foundation in 2006. At last count, we hold over 300 of the 452 titles in the Field Guide and want to make as many of them available online as we can possibly manage (one of them—Blame It on Love from 1940—can be found here). I’ll be talking a lot more about these sorts of films and collections in future blog posts.
My training as a film monitor lasted all of about five minutes, mostly just another kid showing me how to thread a projector. I caught on pretty quickly—I am spectacularly inept regarding most things mechanical, so that’s illustrative of how easy the gig was—but I did have my share of mishaps and close calls. Contrast this with the almost boot camp-like regimen instituted for audio-visual volunteer students at Tom S. Lubbock High School in Lubbock, Texas, back in the late 1950s, as amply documented in the attached article from Educational Screen. Thirty-six days…and three of them spent on learning the “basic fundamentals of Parliamentary Procedure” for club use. Now that’s thorough!
In retrospect, it would have been nice to make my middle school team watch Facts About Film, a 1948 instructional movie on how to project and protect 16mm, before any of us were ever allowed to haul a projector to a classroom; the lucky kids at Lubbock High saw it on Day Five. It’s an amusing but serious movie about the differences between nitrate and acetate film, the parts of a projector and how to maintain them, proper technique, and more. Our copy comes from the MacDonald Collection. My favorite scene is when we see a girl threading a film as the narrator helpfully notes, “these days, anyone can operate a sound projector.” It was the unexpected illness of our sole female film monitor that pressed me into service for the girls gym class. I don’t recall I ever thanked her for that.
Facts About Film (International Film Bureau, 1948)
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