Motoramas in Pink Pajamas

And Other Illusions From When Life Was Mighty Swell

Our Secret Century:
Archival Films From the Darker Side of the American Dream

by Rick Prelinger: CD-ROM for Mac or Windows,
12 volumes, $19 per 2-CD set, Voyager

In a 1956 vision of the future, a ballerina and her beau glide down the Electronic Highway of Tomorrow in a car that looks like a jet fighter without wings (but with a huge, single tail fin in back), singing "Girls don't go to Motoramas... dressed in a pair of pink pajamas"... a young Dick York of Bewitched fame doesn't fit in at high school because he wears a suit and everybody else wears sweaters... God sends a nerdy angel named Wilbur down to the home of a composer and his wife to provide musical inspiration while putting in a plug for modern appliances and color telephones in every room... a young Angie Dickinson falls in love with a basketball player on a cross-country bus ride while the ghost of the Unknown Soldier goes from passenger to passenger, finding a way to reaffirm each one's faith in the greatness of America...

Welcome to the sometimes campy, sometimes creepy, but always entertaining and illuminating world of Our Secret Century, a compilation of short films of the industrial, educational, and promotional variety made between the Thirties and Sixties. As the title suggests, this 12-volume CD-ROM series (sold in two-volume sets) is a look backward at a time when the future looked pretty swell. Cars had fins. Even steak knives had aerodynamic shapes. Suburbs were clean, neat, modern. Buzzwords like Futurama, Motorama, Kitchens of Tomorrow, Electronic Highways of Tomorrow, and phrases like "freedom to buy the products of your choice" equated consumerism with Americanism and communicated the idea that a streamlined, push-button, suburban future was the birthright of every American.

The films come from the 35,000-film archive of film archeologist Rick Prelinger, and are organized according to theme and socio-historical context. Prelinger, who produced the series, provides QuickTime introductions and supplemental text on the background of the films and their producers.

My first impression was that the cumulative effect of these films would be similar to Jayne Loder's cult film Atomic Cafe without the bomb. After viewing all eight volumes that have been released to date, I'd say that wasn't too far off. These films and accompanying media are, at times, both eerie and kooky. Oftentimes they are impressive from a technical and/or artistic standpoint while communicating a different message than the one intended. Time does that to media. On the other hand, viewing these films may also alter your perception of the present world.

Prelinger calls these films "national home movies" because, while each was made to serve a specific purpose -- to educate, promote, sell, or edify certain American ideals -- they say a lot about how Americans used to view themselves. They also reveal unresolved conflicts and contradictions that are still part of the fabric of our culture. Prelinger also calls these "ephemeral films" because, unlike cinema, they weren't made to last. Their influence, however, has been incredibly pervasive. Since 1927, over 600,000 films of this category have been produced in this country -- as many as 10 times the number of feature films.

Advertising films, minute movies, and industrials were not only shown in classrooms and work places, but in movie theaters and on early television. Their offspring includes television commercials and infomercials. To watch them is to trace the evolution of the language and vocabulary of modern media. More importantly, as they generally revolve around daily life, culture, and industry, these films provide a vivid record of the way people lived, worked, thought, and consumed in the past. That's not to say they always present a realistic picture of the way things were. But hey, subversion can be entertaining, too.

Prelinger points out that "often, the films encouraged us to delegate responsibility for our collective future to the companies that made our cars, houses, and appliances," and that the purpose of mass advertising campaigns during the post-war boom was to not only stimulate demand for new designs, but to create in consumers' minds a feeling of dissatisfaction with the old. With the sly confidence of Columbo finding a murder weapon, Prelinger states that the reason General Motors did such a hard sell on the futuristic fins of its 1959-model cars was that beneath those newly designed bodies was the same old chassis from '58.

You might wonder, will people 20 years from now buy CD-ROM collections (or whatever medium exists then) of Nike promotional films or America Online commercials? Somehow, the future just sounds more appealing in Looking Ahead Through Röhm & Haas Plexiglas, which depicts a mid-Fifties version of the home of the future, with tubular-shaped Plexiglas bath showers, Plexiglas dressers, and even "Plexiglas hats on Plexiglas racks," or an animated film about the fantastic voyage of a drop of gasoline through the innards of a 1935 Chevrolet (The Gasoline Trail). Throw in some educational films about gender wars in the Fifties (Who Wears the Pants?), the dangers of dry-cleaning in the home (More Dangerous than Dynamite), a nice girl who gets hooked on "horse" (The Terrible Truth), and a patriotic journey across the American landscape in a Greyhound bus that uses flashbacks from old Westerns to illustrate "our American heritage" (Freedom Highway), and my CD-ROM drive is ready to rock.

This is a classy production from start to finish. Performance of the programs was nearly faultless on my Power Mac. Each volume kicks off with a QuickTime introduction by Prelinger, who riffs on the social subtext of the film compilation and the backgrounds of the filmmakers and their clients. You can view each film in either quarter-screen or half-screen, and most of the films are accompanied by supplemental background text from Prelinger. Many have additional supporting text and/or film and visual support, including contemporary magazine articles and interviews with filmmakers or other relevant people. Then there's more material in the archive section of each CD. And if you're still information-hungry, Prelinger will send you to the library armed with a massive bibliography.

An inventory of the contents of the first two-volume set will give an idea of what to expect for your entertainment dollar. Volume 1, The Rainbow Is Yours, compiles seven big-budget, Technicolor industrial films (including a promotional film on the Technicolor process itself, and how wonderful it makes vegetables, toothpaste, and soup cans look in commercials) that promote style as content and designers as demi-gods in a way that must have been extremely seductive and dazzling in the Fifties. Today it's just extremely entertaining, not only for the ways in which these campaigns succeeded, but in the ways that their visions of the future were not realized.

Design for Dreaming (1956), the third film on volume one, is a lush musical production of General Motors' Motorama, an annual promotional event for GM and Frigidaire products. Ballerina Tad Tadlock dances atop the new GM models and spins through the kitchen of the future, singing lyrics like "Tick tock, tick, tock... I'm free to have fun around the clock."

Volume one's big hit is American Look (1958), a 28-minute extravaganza intended as a salute to the "men and women who design." Enjoy this eye candy smorgasbord of Futurama, including everything from door knobs to toasters and baby cribs, but realize that it's all just a pitch to buy new Chevrolets. Be sure to check out the filmed interview with the producer of this and thousands of other ephemeral films, Jam Handy. (By 1963, Handy's Detroit-based film empire was raking in $10 million a year, and his output rivaled not only his closest commercial competitors, but Hollywood as well. His other clients included Coca-Cola, DuPont, Parke-Davis, RCA, and U.S. Steel to name only a few. That said, Handy reveals enough in the film interview to suggest that this capitalist crusader was a truly frightening and eccentric individual.)

In Touch of Magic, we return to the world of Design for Dreaming five years later. This is also a GM film, but in this one, the ballerina (Tad Tadlock) and her husband have settled down. They're worried about putting on a dinner party. Without a doubt, the shadows of Korea and Sputnik linger in their minds. That futuristic landscape seen in the previous film has been downsized, and that car of the future, Firebird II, with its single shark fin, titanium body and gas turbine engine, will never glide down the Electronic Highway of the Future.

Supplementary material also includes articles on the GM Tech Center in Warren, Michigan; the Jam Handy "Pitch Book" for American Look; an excerpt of a 1949 film on Ford's automotive design studio (from which Jam Handy obviously borrowed a riff or two); and two interviews with Tad Tadlock.

Things turn more serious on Capitalist Realism, the second volume of this set. Two black-and-white films from the Thirties, Master Hands and From Dawn to Sunset, were designed to make the lowly jobs of assembly line workers at automobile plants look like heroic stuff. Pure propaganda, the stylistic look of these films is grim and monolithic, and there's no doubt that the machines are the real gods here. Rounding out the indictment of capitalism in the first half of the century is Valley Town, an incredibly bleak documentary about what happened to a steel town after its mill shut down.

The unsettling theme of the series continues with volumes three and four: The Behavior Offensive compiles nine social-guidance classics designed to instill family values and healthy habits, while Menace and Jeopardy consists of seven safety films that often combine good intentions with sadism and naiveté. Among the standouts are Shy Guy, which stars a young Dick York learning assertiveness lessons in high school, Safety Belt for Susie, and Why Take Chances?, a 1952 safety film that follows the misadventures of an accident-prone lad named Jimmy. The film includes classic lines of narration like, "It's no fun getting struck by lightning," and a dramatic climax of a young girl getting trapped in an abandoned refrigerator.

The next two volumes, Teenage Transgressions and The Uncharted Landscape, don't always follow through on Prelinger's stated themes, but there's no doubting where his sympathies lie once you delve into the supplemental text and archival materials. The former includes Freedom Highway, the previously-mentioned film about a Greyhound bus journey across America (probably my favorite film in the series) and American Harvest, both which evoke a strangely arrogant updating of the themes of Manifest Destiny. The latter film shows massive pit mines and other extractive industries that have raped, scarred and poisoned the American landscape, while the narrator admonishes us to see the beauty in this "American harvest" whose main purpose is, apparently, to build more automobiles and keep gas in their tanks so we can be free to "drive where we want to drive, live where we want to live, work where we want to work."

There's also plenty to think about on volumes seven and eight, Gender Role Call and Tireless Marketers. Standouts on the first include This Charming Couple, an incredibly artsy marriage film which was, in fact, written by a blacklisted writer; Who's Boss?, which documents the gender battles of a two-income marriage in the 1950s; and The Home Economics Story -- ostensibly an ode to the skills required for being a housewife -- that is ultimately condescending and smarmy ("cooking is practically applied chemistry... flattening a towel or wielding a trowel, even steven..."). Tireless Marketers includes the aforementioned Gasoline Trail along with a fine medley of minute-movies, the Lucky Strike dancing cigarettes ads, jazz music video ads for Max cigarettes (featuring female performers who deliver the slogan: "Men of the world smoke Max"), a spot for the Futuramic Oldsmobile, and another of my favorites, Girl on the Magazine Cover, which equates feminine beauty with automotive design while the narrator makes snide and sexist remarks to a series of fashion models -- behavior that in this day and age would provoke a sexual harassment suit or a dose of pepper spray in the face.

But these programs are entertaining as well as thought-provoking, and would play equally well in a classrom or home. Where I'd really like to see them is in a vintage boutique where customers pay top dollar for the "futuristic" antiques being promoted in many of these films. I look forward to the next installments in the series whose titles are: Busy Bodies, Make Mine Freedom, Nuts and Bolts, and Free to Obey. Sounds good to me.

Jesse Sublett lives and writes in South Austin. He is currently working on his fourth mystery novel and a documentary film on ironclad warships, to be aired on the History Channel.

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