Introduction: Why Film Ephemera?
O.K., this is going to be short, because I'm a film ephemera buff and you probably are too or you wouldn't be reading this. And if you're a buff, you don't need to ask why. Despite that, though, there are some real reasons why stuff like old tv commercials, eductional and industrial films, wartime propaganda, and the ever-popular drive-in snack bar promos are interesting, listed below:
1.They're campy.At least as campy as any of the famous feature-length Bad Films we've heard so much about, if not more. Actually, very often more, since ephemera makers didn't have to make any concessions to "Hollywood"-style movie-making, or even conventional concepts of "entertainment". I have more to say about in the section "A Few Words About the Appreciation of Badfilm" below.
2. They're weird.Most are at least a little bit weird, some are really weird, and a few open up new frontiers in weirdness. And weird is fascinating. (If you don't "get" that last sentence, then maybe this isn't the blog for you.)
3. They're fascinating from a historical perspective.(I probably should have put this one first––it would have made me look more "serious". But this is a blog, so I don't have to be serious. Moreover, this is my blog, so I can put my true loves first if I want to.) Film ephemera is a genuine cultural artifact––it's the actual stuff people watched 20, 30, 40 or more years ago. Moreover, most film ephemera is trying to sell or persuade in some way, giving the viewer a good idea of what issues the Establishment was worrying about and what kinds of cultural pressures ordinary people had to deal with in a particular time period. You can learn a lot about what it was like to be a dogfaced private during World War II by watching Kill or Be Killed and the Private Snafu cartoons, what it was like to be a kid during the 50s by watching Duck and Cover and A Date with Your Family, and what a trip to the drive-in was like by watching the Hey Folks! It's Intermission Time series. I personally think it's the closest thing we have to a time machine.
Mostly, though, it's film ephemera because I love it. This guide is a labor of love. Although it's a sort of Leonard Maltin-style guide with capsule reviews and stuff, I don't expect you to really use it to choose what to buy so much as to have fun reading the reviews and use them as grist for your own thoughts about the subject.
A Few Words About the Appreciation of "Badfilm"
There are some who are critical of those of us who enjoy campy, bad movies in their various forms. We are portrayed by these critics as self-satisfied prigs who sit on our butts and make fun of poor defenseless movies that, bad as they are, took a lot of effort to make. The main satisfaction we're supposed to be getting is a feeling of superiority over the filmmakers, an undeserved superiority since they've at least created something, while all we've done is sit on our butts and make fun of them.
Now I'd be lying if I told you that there wasn't at least a little bit of truth to that argument. Yes, part of the fun of watching bad movies is laughing, making smartass comments, and wondering what the filmmakers could have possibly been thinking. But if that was all there was to it, it would get old real fast. No, there's much more to it than that.
For one thing, bad movies can be really interesting, much more interesting than merely mediocre movies or even pretty good but very ordinary movies such as, say, Tootsie. In legendary camp classics, such as Robot Monster or the output of Edward D. Wood, Jr., you're guaranteed to see things you've never seen before, moments that make your jaw drop in surprise and wonder (and usually horror, too, admittedly). And it can be really fun to think about and discuss where such movies went wrong.
Secondly, some really bad cultural artifacts can push the boundaries of an art form in ways that the avant-garde can only aspire to. If you ever listen to the Shaggs' first album, music will never sound the same to you again––your whole concept of music will change. The movie Glen or Glenda? surprises you not just with its incompetence, but also the risks Ed Wood took to get his personal vision on screen. After seeing enough of this kind of stuff, your concept of what makes "good art" begins to change, to become broader perhaps. This is the point where it stops being just "bad", maybe even stops being bad at all, but at the very least stops being just bad. In other words, on the surface we may be smirking, but deep down there is genuine respect for this stuff.
Thirdly, I'm going to give away most bad film afficianado's deepest, darkest secret. I'm going to do this by telling you a story about my husband. My husband's personal passion is monster movies, especially giant monster movies, and most especially giant Japanese monster movies made during the 50s and 60s. He loved these movies as a kid with a child's innocent love, but today he speaks of them mainly in terms of how campy they are. They are a real hoot, and we've both spent happy hours msting them. But one day I caught him watching one of these movies alone, and you should have seen the look on his face––it was a child's face of wide-eyed innocent wonder. I realized just then that there is a child inside of him that is still alive and still loves these movies, not as camp, but really loves them. Now that doesn't mean his laughing at their campiness was completely an act. It's more that the camp argument allows the innocent love to exist without him seeming too weird to the outside world. Of course, the same is true for me and some of my favorite types of ephemera, such as populuxe Kitchen-of-Tomorrow stuff, 50s "cute" animation, and drive-in snack bar promos. I may make fun of their campiness in my reviews, but deep down inside there's a real innocent love for them.
And that's the point, really. We bad film fanatics may snicker, but we really love these movies, we're glad they exist, and we're really entertained by them. Remember that when you're tempted to dis us for being too hard on them.
A Few Words About Racism, Sexism, and Other Potentially Offensive Stuff
Some of the ephemera reviewed here is racist––really racist. The Beautyrest Mattresses Commercial for example. That commercial was made during the 30s, a decade that was racist––really racist. We surely know better now than to think something like that is acceptable, but that doesn't mean we should consign it to a vault labeled Stuff Never to Be Seen Again. To do that would be like trying to rewrite history, a bad idea for any reason. We need to remember that not so long ago, stuff as offensive as that commercial used to not only exist but be thought of as perfectly acceptable. We need to remember it because it's true. A lot of people think of the past as a "gentler, simpler" time, which is easy to think if your version of the past has been censored. Let's not censor it then––let's take a good hard clear look at where we've been and then ask ourselves if we really want to go back there.
Just in case I haven't made myself clear in the above paragraph, please be aware that I don't consider the racist stuff I review to be O.K., non-offensive, or acceptable fare for any situation. I don't. I sincerely hope my reviews don't make it appear otherwise. But I do believe we can learn some things from it and that it's far more dangerous to close our eyes to it.
The same goes for the sexism, stereotypes about the disabled, and all other appalling attitudes found in this stuff. 'Nuff said. (Though not for Bucky Beaver. According to my husband, Bucky Beaver should not necessarily be consigned to oblivion, but "be sure to use tongs." Consider yourself warned.)
What Constitutes Ephemera
For the purposes of this guide, some definitions may be in order. Film ephemera in general includes just about any film or video aritfact that is not a feature-length, fictional, entertainment film. Since This Is My Sandbox, though, I get to set some personal, idiosyncratic boundaries on what will and will not deal with. To whit:
For the purposes of this guide, film ephemera includes, but is not limited to:
- Old tv commercials, movie trailers, drive-in and walk-in movie snack bar promos and related ephemera
- Old educational, industrial, military, and public service films
- All the little extras that used to be shown in movie theaters besides the features, with the exception of certain items listed on the "does not include" list below
- Films made before 1920 and tv made before 1955, before they got the "language" and formats of these forms down
- Blooper reels, interesting outtakes, bizarre unplanned moments, and censored material. In the case of bloopers, stuff that was actually shown gets preference over stuff that hit the cutting room floor.
- Newsreels and tv news footage, particularly up-to-the-minute "we interrupt this program" stuff
- Bizarre non-commercial or experimental films, especially if they're not feature-length
- Stuff made for non-mainstream audiences, such as exploitation and grindhouse material, stuff made for segregated pre-civil-rights black audiences, counterculture artifacts, etc.
- Wartime propaganda, including cold war propaganda
- Exploitation films made in a pseudo-documentary style
It does NOT include:
- Serials. I know a case can be made for serials as ephemera, but I just don't like 'em, so I don't review 'em.
- Cartoons in and of themselves. I love cartoons, on the other hand, but I consider them to be a whole seperate category unto themselves. I'm happy to review cartoons which are ephemera for other reasons (for instance if they're wartime propaganda, educational, commercial, etc.)––I'm just not going to review every cartoon I see.
- Comedy shorts. Hollywood churned out tons of these during the 30s and 40s, some of them classics, many of them lame. I'm not about to try to review them all––the classics deserve their own guide, and the lame ones really do deserve to be consigned to oblivion (there's nothing worse than a lame comedy). Again, I will review one of these if it's ephemera for some other reason.
- X-Rated material or extreme gross-out or shock material. I just don't think this is very interesting. I am interested, though, in stuff that used to shock but which now raises no eyebrows––some of that can be a lot of fun.
- Recent material. Generally I try to stick to pre-1980s stuff, both because it's hard to have perspective on stuff that is too recent and because it takes time for a bad cultural artifact to become campy rather than just annoying. Most of the stuff reviewed here is from the 30s to the 60s. (I break this rule a couple of times, though.)
Film Ephemera Categories
I've given myself some rather strict definitions of the categories I've come up with for film ephemera. I do this because I want to put each item into one category only. But what do you do with something like Duck and Cover, which could fit equally into either the Educational or the Military and Propaganda categories? What I've done is make really strict definitions of the categories, with rules that govern which categories take preference over others. In the case of Duck and Cover, it goes in the Military and Propaganda category, since I've made the rule that Military and Propaganda takes preference over all other categories. Actually, most pieces of film ephemera have the same problem of category overlap, so I've made the rules strict in order to avoid tons of repetition. This is an advantage for you, the reader, as it means that each category has a completely different set of reviews, with no category overlap padding things out, giving you more reviews for your money. I hope you're apropriately grateful (insert wry grin here).
Now I'm not expecting you to categorize things according to my overly strict system, but I thought I'd include an explanation of it so that if you're searching for something specific, you'll know what to look under. The categories are as follows:
Commercial:This includes: tv commercials, movie trailers, drive-in and walk-in movie theater snack bar promos and related ephemera, commercial travelogues, and any film designed to sell a product to a consumer market. It does NOT include: films designed to sell products to industrial or wholesale markets (these belong under Industrial), generalized corporate "image" or "feel-good" films not selling a specific product (Industrial again), sales training films (also Industrial), public service announcements or charitable solicitations (which belong under Public Service), or anything with substantial wartime or cold war propaganda content (which belong under Military and Propaganda).
Early Film & TV:This includes: films made before 1920, and tv programs made before 1955. It also includes documentaries about the history of film or tv which were made very early in the history of its medium, such as The Story of Television, made in 1956.
Educational:This includes: films made to be shown in the classroom, including college and adult education classrooms as well as elementary and secondary school classrooms. It does NOT include: employee or industrial training films (which belong under Industrial), military training films (which belong under Miltary and Propaganda), pseudo-"educational" films which are really exploitation films (these belong under Sleaze & Outsider), or anything with substantial wartime or cold war propaganda content (which belong under Military and Propaganda).
Hollywood:This includes: non-feature-length films meant to be shown in movie theaters to paying audiences, including newsreel featurettes (puff pieces put out by the newsreel companies for entertainment purposes with no hard news content), unusual shorts, or unusual cartoons. It does NOT include: trailers, snack bar promos, "minute movies", or other similar promotional ephemera (which belong under Commercial), stuff made before 1920 (which belong under Early Film & TV), hard-news newsreels (which belong under News), stuff made for exploitation or non-mainstream audiences (which belong under Sleaze & Outsider), serials, conventional comedy shorts, or anything else I've already said is Not Ephemera, public service films or charitable solicitations (which belong under Public Service), or anything with substantial wartime or cold war propaganda content (which belongs under Military & Propaganda). Items in this category are more defined by what they are not than by what they are. Basically, if an item is ephemera, and it doesn't belong in any of the other categories, and it was made to be shown in movie theaters, then it belongs here.
Industrial:This includes: corporate-sponsored "image" or "feel-good" films, employee and/or industrial training films, films selling a product to industrial or wholesale markets, and anything having to do with a World's Fair. It does NOT include: corporate-sponsored public service films (which belong under Public Service), corporate-sponsored educational films designed for classroom use (which belong under Educational), films selling a product to a consumer market (which belong under Commercial), promotional travelogues (also Commercial), military training films (which belong under Military & Propaganda), or anything with substantial wartime or cold war propaganda content (also Military & Propaganda).
Military & Propaganda:This includes: films made by or for the military, civil defense films, and anything with substantial wartime propaganda content. This category supersedes all other categories. If it's a military or civil defense film, or contains wartime or cold war propaganda, it belongs here, period. The only exception is propaganda content that is extremely minor and fleeting and which has little to do with the main point of the film.
News:This includes: newsreels and tv news footage. It does NOT include: puff piece newsreel "featurettes" which contain no hard news content (these belong under Hollywood), or anything with substantial wartime or cold war propaganda content (which belong under Military & Propaganda). Ideally, news footage should be in a reasonably uncut condition and presented without added narration to qualify as ephemera (though in some cases I break this rule).
Outtakes & Obscurities:This includes: blooper reels, outtakes, obscure early performances by Big Stars, tv pilots or "lost episodes", unusual post-1955 tv programs, experimental films, and anything I think is ephemera but which doesn't fit into any of the other categories. In other words, this is the catch-all, "miscellaneous" category. It does NOT include: anything that could be placed in another category, this being the least preferential of the categories.
Public Service:This includes: public service films and announcements, charitable solicitations, and government-sponsored films that do not belong in the Educational, Industrial, or Military & Propaganda categories. It does NOT include: government-sponsored films meant for the classroom (these belong under Educational), government-sponsored films made for industrial training (these belong under Industrial), films made by or for the military (which belong under Military & Propaganda), civil defense films (also Military & Propaganda), or films with substantial wartime or cold war propaganda content (also Military & Propaganda).
Sleaze & Outsider:This includes: stuff made for exploitation or grindhouse audiences, including "educational" exploitation films made in a pseudo-documentary style, stuff made for pre-civil-rights-movement segregated black audiences, youth-oriented and counterculture films, anything made for any other kind of non-mainstream audience, previously censored material and/or stuff that was considered racy or offensive at one time, and stuff that was considered perfectly acceptable at one time but is considered offensive today. It does NOT include: X-rated material, extreme shock or gross-out material (classified as Not Ephemera), or anything with substantial wartime yadda-yadda, you know the drill. Note: Putting material for various special audiences in the same category with grindhouse material should not be construed as implying that the special audience material is "sleazy" or belongs in some sort of "garbage" category. The purpose of this category is to generally deal with stuff that is outside of the cultural mainstream. No value judgements should be inferred from this.
Other General Classification Points
- Films are reviewed individually, not as tapes, which generally contain several different films. The tape collection a film is found on is listed in the heading of the review.
- The exceptions to the above are very short items, such as tv commercials, trailers, or drive-in snack bar promos. These are reviewed by tape. If a tape contains both short items and longer films, the films will be reviewed individually and the short items will be grouped together as "extras" and given a single review. A short item may be reviewed individually if it appears in isolation on a tape containing longer films.
The Documentary Question:In general, recently-produced documentaries are not considered ephemera. Most documentaries contain "archival footage," meaning clips from ephemera, but merely containing such clips does not make a documentary qualify as ephemera. However, if a documentary contains lots of really great ephemera clips, or clips from stuff that is unavailable or extremely hard to find in its original form, I may break this rule and allow it into the ranks of ephemera. Unnarrated archival-footage "collages", such as The Atomic Cafe, can also qualify as ephemera.
What's all this "MST3K" stuff? What's "msting"?:"Mst3k" is a cool abbreviation for "Mystery Science Theater 3000", just about the coolest tv that ever was. The premise of the show was a guy in outer space who is forced to watch really bad movies, and who copes with the situation by mercilessy razzing the films, with the help of a couple of robot pals. This might sound kind of questionable, but it worked because the writing was really intelligent and very funny. The movies were regular feature-length entertainment films, but sometimes the movie wasn't long enough to fill up a 2-hour episode, and when that happened, they included a "short", which is usually a great piece of ephemera, most often an educational or industrial film. You can amass quite a collection of ephemera just by collecting episodes of this show. Fans of the show are known as "msties" (pronounced "misties") and "msting" (pronounced "misting") means "making fun of a bad movie". For films that can be found in mst3k episodes, I've listed both the episode number and the title of the feature film in the episode in the review heading.
Where are all the safety films?I know there are a lot of safety film buffs out there who are disappointed to find no Safety Films category. Well, simmer down, folks, there's plenty of safety films to be found––I just didn't make a special classification for them because it didn't quite fit into my overall scheme. Safety films for the classroom (and for kids in general) are found under Educational. Industrial and workplace safety films are found under Industrial. Military and civil defense safety films are found under Military & Propaganda. Pseudo-documentary exploitation safety films are found under Sleaze & Outsider. Other safety films not listed above are found under Public Service. Satisfied?
O.K., folks. Understand the basic principles? Relaxed? Well-fed? Then on with the show!