The Ways We Were

"Our Secret Century" unearths American social history from forgotten films.

By Scott Rosenberg
Published September 9, 1996 9:11AM (EDT)

One of the great pointless promises of the digital age is instant access to
infinite archives of data. Pure "information," as anyone who's ever tried to do a
simple search of the Web knows, is frequently useless. The standard line of
punditry today is that information needs organization, filtering and context.

But I'll go even further, and say that information needs loving care from people
to whom its survival and integrity deeply matter. People like Rick Prelinger, the
archivist behind "Our Secret Century" -- a massive project on 12 CD-ROMs that
assembles a fascinating saga of social history from American industrial and
educational films of the '30s, '40s and '50s.

On the face of it, this is not promising stuff: these "ephemeral films" -- about
this year's models from General Motors, or safety at railroad crossings -- were
usually made with some pressing corporate agenda in mind, and not meant for the
ages. Acting and direction tend to be laughable, and production values are all
over the map. With its ballroom dancers caressing sleek Frigidaires and its
paeans to paternalistic codes of behavior, "Our Secret Century" provides endless
opportunities for campy derision of the way our ancestors were, wanted to be, or
were supposed to be.

In the informational morass of cable TV, that's all these films would amount to
-- fodder for "Mystery Science Theatre 3000." Prelinger's accomplishment is to
build them into something more informative and valuable, and also, ultimately,
more mysterious and funny. A film collector and
"media archaeologist,"
he insists on treating these movies not simply as
media detritus to be mocked -- though that may be what first catches our eyes --
but as historical documents to be explored. Then, with a skeptical yet engaging
voice, he transforms them into a gallery of the dreams and nightmares of American
people and institutions.

The first volume, "The Rainbow Is Yours," collects visions of '50s design that
beckoned viewers toward a consumer paradise in which each year brought whiter
refrigerators and bigger tailfins. "Capitalist Realism," the second, presents
three '30s industrial films that show different faces of Depression labor. Volume
three, "The Behavior Offensive," collects examples of post-war educational films
that preached togetherness -- and submissiveness. And in volume four, "Menace and
Jeopardy," 1950s-style safety films offer viewers unintended thrills via the
spectacle of catastrophes to avoid. (Voyager, "Our Secret Century's" publisher,
has eight more volumes on the way.)

Prelinger introduces each volume with talking-head commentary, but it's his
written notes that really shape the experience of watching each film. It's here
that he can explain, for instance, the huge difference in perspective between
Chevrolet's 1936 "Master Hands," which celebrates the skills of the company's
work force, and the 1937 "From Dawn to Sunset," which lavishes far more attention
on the distribution of paychecks than on the assembly of cars, portraying the
employees as eager consumers rather than skilled laborers. (The crucial
difference: between the two films, a sit-down strike at Chevrolet's Flint plant
had galvanized labor organizing in the auto industry.) Similarly, Prelinger
expounds the subtle evolution in attitude between the optimism of GM's 1956"Design For Dreaming," which portrayed thrilled couples cruising down the
"Electronic Highway of Tomorrow," and the toned-down domestic sensibility of
1961's "A Touch of Magic," in which the futuristic has become everyday.

Throughout the series Prelinger takes pains to remind us that these films are not
documentaries -- that they more often present fantasies of how their makers or
sponsors wanted the world to be than records of how it actually was. It's in the
behavioral films that the disparity is most obvious and revelatory: in the
nightmarish 1950 "A Date With Your Family," which counsels a kind of
authoritarian repression that makes "Leave it to Beaver" look positively
permissive, or the 1947 "Are You Popular?," which offers a straight-faced
handbook of conformity in the guise of a guide to dating etiquette. ("He is proud
to be with Caroline because she looks well, is friendly with everyone, and is
considerate of their feelings. She likes him for these same reasons.")

It is a wonderful irony that these informational scraps have found a home in the
over-hyped and now much-maligned CD-ROM medium. In many ways it's a perfect
match: it's pointless to "repurpose" otherwise available material to CD-ROM --
but it makes sense to use the format as a cheap way to distribute stuff that's
obscure or out-of-print. And these aren't films that suffer much from the
inevitable compromises of picture quality that the CD-ROM medium involves.

Still, as you watch a film like "Looking Ahead Through Rohm & Haas Plexiglas," a
ludicrously dated 1947 ode to the glories of an all-plastic future, you can't
help speculating about the ephemerality of the new technologies that are so
breathlessly shoved at us today. Fifty years from now, no doubt, people will gaze
at compendiums of today's throwaway multimedia products and find it all a hoot.
If we're lucky, some spiritual descendant of Rick Prelinger will be there, too,
making sense out of our follies.

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at

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