The Field Guide to Sponsored Films screens at the Brooklyn Drafthouse Tuesday, May 9.
I never thought I’d get emotional at the sight of Frank Sinatra asking some kids if they’re “a bunch of Nazi werewolves,” and yet, here we are. The line comes during the ten-minute 1945 short film “The House I Live In,” directed by Mervyn LeRoy and sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Designed to warn against discrimination, the plot is absurdly simple: Taking a break from recording a song, Old Blue Eyes runs into some children bullying another over his religion, then sits them down for a brief lesson about the American Way of Life.
“You know what this beautiful country is made of?” he asks them. “A hundred different kinds of people, and a hundred different ways of talking, and a hundred different ways of going to church… Religion makes no difference, except maybe to a Nazi, or someone just as stupid.” It is the blandest of sentiments, expressed as blandly as possible – and I wish I could broadcast it across America’s airwaves right this very minute. (The short was given an honorary Academy Award in 1946.)
“The House I Live In” serves as the grand finale to The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, a program of shorts screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in Brooklyn tonight . An early variation on what is today referred to as branded content, “sponsored films” were movies commissioned by corporations, charities, and governmental organizations. Working together with the archivist and professor Rick Prelinger, who wrote the seminal 2006 book The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, the NFPF will soon be launching a new web archive, The Online Guide to Sponsored Films, which will feature countless message-oriented motion pictures available to stream in restored versions. The movies themselves are surprisingly varied. They might sell product, but they also teach proper behavior, offer safety tips – or warn against ideological threats.
Case in point: “Albert in Blunderland,” a ten-minute cautionary “patriotic cartoon” from 1950 educating us about the evils of socialism and New Deal-style government programs. Produced by Harding College and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, it follows a straight-talking auto mechanic who, while knocked unconscious, dreams of a Communist dystopia populated entirely by ants who adhere to a system of strict central management and income distribution. “One must give up a little freedom if one wants government to take care of one,” proclaim the sinister (and grammatically suspect) insects.
Then there is the unnerving “Adventures in Telezonia,” (1949) sponsored by AT&T and designed to teach proper telephone usage. In it, a puppet takes a young boy who’s lost his dog off to a magic land of marionette phone workers. The puppets are all there to help, but their wide, lopsided eyes and thick, raised eyebrows make them look constantly furious, their awkwardly swaying marionette walk merely adding to the nightmarish atmosphere.
But perhaps the real treasure here is “Shake Hands with Danger,” a 1980 masterpiece produced for the Caterpillar Tractor Co. by Carnival of Souls director “Herk” Harvey. An instructional film about workplace safety, the movie is a cavalcade of horrors – mutilations and other catastrophes resulting from careless use of construction equipment. One guy mangles his arm when he tries to grease an axle with his bare hands. Another plummets to his death off an improperly positioned excavator. Yet another effectively shoots himself in the chest when he cavalierly hammers a piece of chipped metal. (Don’t ask.) And then there’s the distracted dude who, worrying about his ill son, accidentally destroys an entire building with a giant tractor. Adding to the surrealism is that the narration is partly sung in an alarmist country twang: “Shake hands with danger/And I’m a guy who oughta know/I used to laugh at safety/Now they call me Three-fingered Joe.”
Sucharchival oddities, of course, gain in weirdness the older they get, and laughing at them can sometimes feel like we’re snarkily (and cynically) mocking the innocence or ignorance of earlier generations. But there’s something beautiful about these films: Divorced from their immediate consumerist or political needs, they become captivating works of art on their own – surreal, bold, unforgettable. And in most cases, they earn their laughs, and their frights, and their slack-jawed what-the-fucks: “Shake Hands with Danger,” for example, is clearly meant to be terrifying and weird.
Besides, lest we feel too smugly ensconced in our contemporary cocoons, these films also remind us that the march of time never stops. As “The House I Live In” proves, yesterday’s amusing oddity can just as easily become today’s urgent message of tolerance.