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The Golden Age of 16mm school films


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Decided to post a few favorites of the 16mm genre that populated schools from the 1930s through '80s, beginning with a few pairings of titles from Encyclopædia Britannica Films ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encyclop%C3%A6dia_Britannica_Films )

Aesop's "live action" version of THE HARE AND THE TORTOISE (© October 7, 1947)

Collaborator is Grace E. Storm, with camera work by Lynwood Chase. The success of this title begot a few follow-ups with the same personnel, such as THREE FOX FABLES (1948) and THE FOX AND THE ROOSTER (1951), neither available online yet.

However an animated cartoon version of THREE FOX FABLES was released by Britannica in 1984 and directed by Paul Buchbinder.

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Another pairing of Encyclopædia Britannica Films

NEWSPAPER STORY (© August 10, 1950)

Slightly different industry, but similar style of film. Hair styles and fashions change along with the technology itself in TV NEWS BEHIND THE SCENES (© August 17, 1973, but filmed '72). A young pre-talk show host and Fox News journalist Geraldo Riviera is seen in his youth here, along with the more familiar faces "back then": Burt Reynolds and Dyan Cannon. Producer is the great John Barnes, but primarily responsible here are Michael Livesey and Randolph Hobler.

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A third Encyclopædia Britannica Films pair-up: Japan before and after the war

CHILDREN OF JAPAN (© October 15, 1940) narrated by the fatherly James Brill with Hugh Borton as adviser. This was made a few years before ERPI Classroom Films changed its name to Encyclopædia Britannica.

William Deneen filmed and directed a cluster on Japan for EB Films, this one being my favorite: JAPAN: MIRACLE OF ASIA (© September 30, 1963). My... how things have changed over the decades.

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Not Encyclopædia Britannica here. Bailey-Film Associates distributed this one to schools nationwide.

Ironically this VERY popular 16mm title is neither a short film (and technically does not belong on this forum) nor a school film initially. It was first seen as part of a TV series CBS REPORTS: BLACK AMERICA broadcast as a summer "filler" following the Martin Luther King assassination.

This episode from July 2, 1968, "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed", hosted by a young Bill Cosby in his more innocent days as an emerging TV personality, holds special interest to movie buffs. Of course, he is going to focus on the DARK side of Hollywood... and he does so with no subtlety and often a little too literally.

For example, we see a silent clip of Farina in the "Our Gang" comedy acting "frightened by spooks", but he does not mention that Hal Roach treated the different races much better on screen than other film producers of the 1920s and '30s. At least we saw interracial friendships among children in an era when you rarely saw adults intermingling inter-racially. Even white child star  Shirley Temple gets a few punches here.

Right on cue, "a kat named Griffith" gets chewed out for BIRTH OF A NATION, although Cosby boo-boos by dating this film 1918 instead of 1915. The year 1918 ironically was the year D.W. Griffith produced an "apology" film of sorts, THE GREATEST THING IN LIFE, which is a rare lost film of his today. Allegedly one reason was due to the outrage over the (seen today as positive, but not back then) interracial relationship between two soldiers that even included a same sex kiss.

Although the future 60 MINUTES lovable "crank" Andy Rooney directs this episode with a rather heavy hand, it nonetheless raises good questions that demand discussion in any classroom. The reference to BIRTH OF A NATION's title card "a passage of a bill, providing for the intermarriage of blacks and whites" is particularly interesting from a historical perspective: the federal government only legalized it nationwide just one year before this broadcast. The final segment with children being taught to stand up for themselves against white teachers is rather fierce in its intensity but easier to understand when you realize that America was a LOT less "integrated" as a nation in 1968 than today.



Here is the late Andy Rooney briefly discussing this show.

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I think I need to rest. I was getting carried away... ha ha!


TCM needs to add their shorties back on their online schedule so I can get back to what I am supposed to be doing.

Well, you're discussing something you obviously enjoy. I remember watching Andy Rooney's closing segments at the end of 60 Minutes. Sometimes the three main stories were not half as interesting as his two and a half-minute editorials. I miss watching him. What a pro!

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THE LOTTERY (© October 17, 1969) is definitely NOT your typical school film even though it was made by the biggest company in the business. This short story of Shirley Jackson is brought to life by Larry Yust and Clifton Fadiman and showcases Olive Dunbar and William Benedict in lead roles.


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This 55 minute documentary from the National Film Board of Canada profiles a 1960s-70s "great experiment" in school films and multi-media lecturing that went down in flames... as seen and heard in interviews with film makers, participants, teachers and children (grown up now in 2004) remembering.


While Encyclopædia Britannica, Coronet Films, Bailey-Film Associates, Weston Woods, Centron and others were simply providing 16mm films and 35mm filmstrips to school districts in the sixties, a few innovative companies decided to stretch the definition of "educational media" to go beyond just movies on a projector. After Sputnik, the US government was so paranoid of Soviet threat education-wise that the federal money was just pumping away into the public school systems. This was a time of great experimentation... some successful and some disastrous...

The saga of Educational Services Inc. backing MAN: A COURSE OF STUDY (abbreviated to MACOS), with support from the National Science Foundation, is a bizarre and fascinating tale of high ideals, shocking the masses and eventually involving conservative politicians to destroy it.

In 1963, a series of films featuring "Nestilik Eskimo" were filmed in Pelly Bay (Northwest Territories in Canada) by National Film Board of Canada veterans Quentin Brown and Douglas Wilkinson as part of a multi-media project for 4th and 5th graders that also included interactive charts, games, filmstrips, LP records and all kinds of "toy" artifacts so that students could imagine themselves in a completely different culture. Later (by 1968) the project added additional films that, for example, even compared baboon and salmon lifestyles with humans.

Almost immediately, teachers balked at the amount of time and energy needed for this nontraditional style of teaching, when a history lesson of Europe was so much easier. Also anthropology high brows were outraged by the project's attempt to "match up" Eskimo lifestyles to US children. Although rural school kiddies used to blasting Bambi in their backyards were hardly shocked by a key seal hunting scene (with blood stained snow), urban kiddies and animal lovers (and I admit to being one) were in a total state of shock. Then... all of the religious right creationists were up in arms, including the California State Board of Education which was already fed up with all of the "evil" Darwin talk going on in the classrooms and comparing the Christian raised to "beasts" was the last straw. It was a repeat of the Scopes Monkey Trial all over again. The project was only beginning to see a profit when Arizona Republican congressman John B. Conlan had to step in and help, with avid conservative voters behind him, to destroy this (as one concerned parent called it) "hippy dippy philosophy" a decade after it began.

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A pair of Encyclopædia Britannica "Nature Reels"...

BIRDS OF PREY (© September 30, 1938, but a reissue print here). First released by ERPI Classroom films before it changed its name to Encyclopædia Britannica, this covers some feathered familiars. James Brill narrates, as he did a great many of the ERPI and Britannica films of the 1930s and '40s.



ARMY ANTS: A STUDY OF SOCIAL BEHAVIOR (© December 6, 1966), produced by John Walker with Ralph Buchsbaum

One of the duller EB films although it profiles one of earth's most exciting creatures... and even touches on their *gasp* SEX life. Of course, I just have to ask: Did they refrigerate the little suckers so that they could line up individuals in a row to compare their sizes before they "came to" by thawing out? I am not quite sure if any insects were harmed in the making of this film, but the ants themselves enjoy killing others with great abandon.



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This pair of Encyclopædia Britannica Films relates to the earlier posted CBS REPORTS special below, but were made earlier in time and do not have such a direct and to-the-point host like Bill Cosby. They do feature the great John Barnes, perhaps the most critically acclaimed producer-directors of educational films for school students.

PEOPLE OF THE MISSISSIPPI, filmed 1951 (and © February 21, 1952), was co-produced by Barnes with Gordon Weisenborn. It is a simple tale of a toy boat traveling from Minnesota to Louisiana and just might have inspired the National Film Board of Canada's popular PADDLE TO THE SEA fifteen years or so later. More intriguingly, it was also among the earliest SCHOOL films (unlike theatrical releases intended for adults) that actually acknowledged that there was a racial "problem"... if only fleetingly. One child stops playing with his friend (the dark skinned one narrating) due to peer pressure in a key scene. Later Barnes productions were much more direct in their social issues as the years progressed and occasionally EB Films got in trouble with school districts of the south because of him.

EQUALITY UNDER THE LAW: THE LOST GENERATION OF PRINCE EDWARD COUNTY (© August 22, 1967, but mostly filmed in 1965)

After Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) integrated schools, each district in the south acted differently. President Eisenhower sent troops down to Little Rock to enforce the law in 1957. Yet the white citizens of Prince Edward county, Virginia were so upset by these changes to their community that they fought the government by shutting their public schools altogether in 1959... and kept them closed for a few years. This odd little piece of history was mostly filmed by John Barnes a year after the schools re-opened... with many angry parents paying the additional tuition to send their students to private schools in order to avoid the public school "mixing". Key writer here is  Linda Gottlieb, who was later, amusingly, a producer of "nobody puts baby in a corner" DIRTY DANCING (1987).



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Encyclopædia Britannica Films goes to Ancient Rome...


Two boys are friends, but one happens to be a slave of the other boy's father. Interesting social dynamics here.


CLAUDIUS, BOY OF ANCIENT ROME (© July 9, 1964) was produced by William Deneen and John Eadie. They cleverly scored a deal with Samuel Bronston to borrow some of his Spanish sets used in the colossal epic FALL OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE. Elmore Leonard provided the thoughtful commentary here.


Some of these videos are available on both youtube and the Internet Archive. The latter (which can always use some $$ sponsoring from dedicated users), seems to be a more "official" site for many school films, while youtube videos I post on these threads have the habit of "poofing" away. Uh oh! (In any case, I am sticking to the Internet Archive here.)





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  • 1 year later...

Let's learn all about ducks and chickens. Just don't discuss Thanksgiving in front of the turkeys.


Poultry On The Farm


Produced by Electrical Research Products Inc. (ERPI, later Encyclopædia Britannica) and supervised by Arthur I. Gates. James Brill is our fatherly narrator.


© October 1, 1937





A duck's best friend is his human.


The Case Of The Elevator Duck


This one is from the Learning Corporation of America, a company I covered here: http://forums.tcm.com/index.php?/topic/114972-a-shortie-checklist-an-assortment-of-culinary-delights/?p=1478578


Directed by Joan Micklin Silber and featuring Robert Lee Grant, Bee Jay, Jackie Torres, Walter Grant & Ruben Sotomayer


© August 8, 1974


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