The Source Material


On Film

Dipping into the thousands of ephemeral films in the Prelinger Archives.

Still from Design for Dreaming.


There’s a scene in Ed Wood, Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic of the director of Glen or Glenda, that has always struck me as profound. The young Wood, played by Johnny Depp, is doing thankless work as a stagehand on a Hollywood-studio lot where he kills time watching stock footage of bomb detonations and rampaging bison. Visibly rapt, he asks what’s to become of these clips, only to be told by the kindly clerk, “Probably file it away and never see it again.” He replies, “If I had half a chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage. The story opens on these mysterious explosions. Nobody knows what’s causing them, but it’s scaring all the buffalo!”

Since 1982, the archivist, filmmaker, and open-access advocate Rick Prelinger has curated the Prelinger Archives, which comprises upward of sixty thousand sponsored, ephemeral, and industrial films. Some six thousand of these are available for free viewing on the Internet Archive. Like Ed Wood, I can while away hours watching these movies, many of which were originally made to be shown before feature films, as part of expos, or in classrooms. I am so grateful for the opportunity to take a journey by cable car in “A Trip Down Market Street” (1906), which captured downtown San Francisco just before the fire and earthquake reshaped the city; or to observe the industrial constructivism of the Chevrolet-produced “Master Hands,” (1936) where the toil of autoworkers converts the assembly of machine parts into a kind of proletariat ballet. 

I love these movies for their balance of fantasy and realism—they take on American themes out of Sinclair Lewis or John Dos Passos, sometimes coupled with an ostentatiously Brechtian pageantry. More than anything, these films show us what postwar America looked like. The 1960’s “Golden Years” was tasked with taking bowling alleys out of the seedy working-class demesne and into middle-class wholesomeness purely in the basis of its color palette, described by voice-over as “the warmth of coral, the richness of gold, the quiet relaxation of green, the calm coolness of blue, the crisp contemporary look of classic white, and the pleasure-packed attractiveness of tangerine.” Other films are psychosocial vignettes. In “A Case of Spring Fever” (1940), for instance, a man who foolishly wishes to live in a world without springs is taunted by a demonic coil of steel—an educational reel of the type memorably parodied on The Simpsons. Then there’s the immersive fantasia of General Motors’s “Design for Dreaming,” in which a dancer dreams of a masked man who takes her on a musical tour of the kitchen of the future.

Some of these movies, or their tropes, have passed into the public consciousness, as you can see in footage like that of a portico withstanding the blast of an atomic bomb from 1952’s “The House in the Middle” (a promotion by the National Paint, Varnish, and Lacquer Association) or in one of Rick Prelinger’s favorites, the Frank Capra–directed “Hemo the Magnificent,” from 1957, whose animated guide to the circulatory system was almost certainly the model for that jolly strand of DNA from Jurassic Park.

Prelinger is clearly thrilled by the drama of materiality; as an eighth grader, he wrote a play about the dangers of nitrate film stock and began making found-footage movies from scraps of sixteen millimeter rental prints. Mesmerized by the footage of war and calamity with which CBS padded Twentieth Century with Walter Cronkite (“I resented the editor’s hand,” he recalls, “I wanted to see the source material in its entirety”), he attended U.C. Berkeley before getting caught up in the punk movement and landing in 1980s New York, where he happened to share a flat with the archivists behind 1982’s nuke-panic montage-movie The Atomic Café. Prelinger was hired as the director of research on a follow-up film on post–World War II sexuality to be called Heavy Petting but, at a time when film was rapidly transitioning to video, making it both cheap and endangered, he found himself driven to collect educational and sponsored film with the undiscriminating eye of a salvager. By the 1990s, his collection was a hundred thousand reels strong and this had more than doubled by the time the Library of Congress acquired it in 2002. Now it’s not uncommon to see the films featured in ad hoc music videos on YouTube like a sublime paring of “A Trip Down Market Street” with Air’s “La femme d’argent.” My first exposure to “One Got Fat,” a bike safety film where children in grotesque monkey masks are run down one after another, was as visual accompaniment to “Everything You Do Is a Balloon” by Boards of Canada. Nor has Prelinger ceased to play at this “game of recombinations” himself, producing feature length films like 2004’s Panorama Ephemera or 2013’s No More Road Trips?, which was composed entirely from home movies of families on vacation.

“The highest destiny of cultural collections is to be consumed,” Prelinger wrote to me in an e-mail. This befits commercial masterpieces like “Once Upon a Honeymoon,” where an angel breathes new life into a marriage by demonstrating how AT&T telephones can become part of any decorating scheme; or its counterpoint “Adventure in Telezonia,” where a demonic marionette out of nightmares glides along telephone wires to enforce proper telephone usage. Film is a participatory art form for Prelinger and he asks audiences of his recent home-movie montages to become the sound track, as in “the Elizabethan Theatre, a boxing match, or question time at the House of Commons … Sometimes the excitement of making noise in the movies outweighs (or transcends) whatever specific goals the maker might aspire towards: permission is granted the audience, they eagerly accept it and run in whatever direction they choose.”

Prelinger’s brand of defamiliarization is especially striking, and possibly transgressive, when you consider how many of the ephemeral films in the Archive were created simply to bring new innovations to the attention of consumers, no matter how slight or self-explanatory said innovations would seem to be. “Behind the Freedom Curtain,” for example, dramatized the function of voting booths for audiences in 1957. Another thing that becomes impossible to ignore after gorging on these movies is the ubiquity of “danger”: an often unspecified, catchall menace that, like Henry James’s “Beast in the Jungle,” promises that some spectacular doom waits for us in cars, out of the skies, at work, or even in our own homes. The cadence of these films mines everything in the midcentury pop-cultural vernacular—aliens transform a crossing guard into an all-purpose avenger of household negligence in “Harm Hides at Home,” and the Caterpillar Tractor Company’s “Shake Hands with Danger” features a catchy Johnny Cash–style jingle—to make their points. But my favorite of the safety films is “Time Out for Trouble,” (1961) where a sinister voice—the accident personified—gloats, “These stupid humans. They think things are responsible for accidents. Material things, like that electrical cord that caught Jane’s foot.”


It can be tempting to laugh off artifacts like “Perversion for Profit,” an antipornography screed by a Cincinnati-based censorship outfit, but Prelinger was careful to correct me when I referred to the visionary Technicolor aesthetic of so many of these movies as “pop art.” These films were made in all sincerity: they serve as records of both the entrenched values of their era and the extent to which we’re all naturally reconstituted from the received memory of film. One thing that becomes clear in Prelinger’s 2006 book, The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, is how much of the cultural conversation hinged on extremely telling documents like the Academy Award–winning “The House I Live In,” where Frank Sinatra urges children in 1945 to “Use your good American heads” and resist anti-Semitism; or, on the other side of the scale, the paranoid “Brink of Disaster” (1972), a diatribe against New Deal hippie liberalism where a student besieged by the student protester riffraff huddles in a campus library with the disapproving ghost of a Massachusetts colonialist. After the mob interrupts their discussion of drugs, sex, and radicalism, a freeze-frame title asks, “WILL YOU LET THIS BE THE END?” Meanwhile, the midcentury tug-of-war over public perception of labor unions is captured in real time. Prelinger’s description of a 1946 film called “Deadline for Action” reads:

Influential union film arguing for political action through the ballot box. The film traces the story of an ex-serviceman who joins the picket line against his antilabor employer but also learns the importance of fighting big business through democratic elections. In explaining the rationale behind the post–World War II strikes against General Electric and Westinghouse, Deadline for Action uses footage of police suppression of the picketers and animated sequences depicting corporate dominance of the American political system. Wrote J.A. Livingston [in the Washington Post], “It’s worth seeing, both as a technical tour de force and as a masterful piece of propaganda. There’s no doubt about this job—it was not done by amateurs. But there might be some doubt whether it was made in America.”

Suburban sprawl and urban blight; leftover New Deal socialism and the Red Scare; sexual education and the pervasive authority of triumphalist white-collar parenting. There’s more than a little whiff of American mythology cut into the Prelinger Archives’s assembly of narratives, even if the impulse is fundamentally documentary. Since the national library acquired the Archive, Rick Prelinger, who is an associate professor of film and digital media at UC Santa Cruz, has increasingly turned his attention to video while compiling several film programs that chart the transformation of the American city, including Lost Landscapes of Detroit (2010–2012) and Lost Landscapes of Oakland (2014). He’s obviously concerned with the question of how ideas and concepts become objects and what we bring to the table as observers of these objects. How much of the pleasure I take in 1969’s “Coffee House Rendezvous,” which did for the coffee house what “Golden Years” did for bowling alleys, is rank nostalgia? Do I feel thrilled by the gloomy World War II–era “Machine: Master or Slave?” precisely because, with fifty-fifty hindsight, I think I know the answer? These are the suspicions art is supposed to provoke, a sort of screening room for the unconscious where we cut scraps of the world together into crude coherence.

It’s an irony of the present that these commercial remnants and public-service announcements have been allowed, through Prelinger, to outlive their original intent. They reach us as an authentic American art form, a chronicle of bygone beauty and horror in the modern world, deserving of preservation, study, and, especially, a new life.


Recent work by J. W. McCormack appears in the New York Times, ConjunctionsBOMB, and the New Republic.