Archive | July, 2013

USIA Films and the Smith-Mundt Act

23 Jul

We have a couple of films in our library (Himalayan Awakening and Arts of Japan) produced by the U.S. Information Agency which was the “public diplomacy” (aka, propaganda) arm of the State Department from 1953-1999. So I’ve been intrigued by the recent news about the fresh loosening of the The United States Information and Exchange Act of 1948, which prohibited domestic distribution of propaganda created for international audiences. The USIA made hundreds of films and very, very few were ever seen in the United States before the Act was first revised in 1987. Unfortunately, however, because U.S. distribution was effectively illegal for so long, very few copies of the films have survived, at least as far as I’ve been able to find so far. The National Archives holds the records of the USIA’s Motion Picture and Television Service, but few of the films are available for viewing outside of NARA.

The word “propaganda” gets people all worked up because it seems inherently manipulative and deceitful. Arguably, the USIA’s mission was an ideal non-violent alternative to the Cold War arms race against the perceived Communist threat. Show movies! Of course the movies were infused with an ideological agenda to promote the so-called American way of life; ahem, “to understand, inform and influence foreign publics in promotion of the [U.S.] national interest, and to broaden the dialogue between American and U.S. institutions, and their counterparts abroad.” And thanks to the Hollywood- and auteurist-minded George Stevens, Jr., who ran the the Motion Picture Services unit from 1962-1967, several notable filmmakers got their start working for the USIA, including Carroll Ballard (O how I long to find a copy of his Beyond this Winter’s Wheat, shot in eastern Oregon in 1965!), Charles Guggenheim, Bruce Herschensohn, and University of Oregon alum James Blue (go Ducks!). Like the best (read: most insidious) propaganda, these films are an aesthetic pleasure; the dogma is muted by the skill of the filmmaking. James Blue’s The March walks an especially tricky line as it tells the story of the pivotal 1963 March on Washington for a foreign audience. Amidst the gross injustices and inequality that made the march necessary, Blue had to convey how awesome the United States is for allowing such a peaceful demonstration to occur at all.

Fortunately, there is a growing amount of scholarship on the USIA’s film production. Currently on my shelf:

  • The Cold War and the United States Information Agency, by Nicholas Cull (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008)
  • Inventing Public Diplomacy: The Story of the U.S. Information Agency, by Wilson P. Dizard (Lynne Rienner, 2004)
  • The People’s Films: A Political History of the U.S. Government Motion Pictures, by Richard Dyer MacCann (Hastings House, 1973)
  • Hollywood’s Cold War, by Tony Shaw (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2007)
  • “Auteurs of Ideology: UISA Documentary Film Propaganda in the Kennedy Era…,” also by Cull (Film History, v.10, 1998)
  • “Experiments in Propaganda: Reintroducing James Blue’s Colombia Trilogy,” by Jennifer Horne (The Moving Image, v.9(1), 2009)


Duty to Cargo revisited

18 Jul

Thanks once again to the request of a far-flung researcher who requested a copy of the one existing print of this film in the University of Oregon’s 16mm collection, Duty to Cargo (c1939) is now available online. This is one of those orphan films that is not all that compelling to watch, but all the contextual information around it makes it very interesting.


The thorough Iris Bull documented it elsewhere on this blog, but it’s also worth noting that the film was produced in Cosmocolor, a process developed in 1938 by the industrial film company Wilding Picture Productions, and described in more technical detail in Business Screen. Cosmocolor was Wilding’s solution to bringing down the cost of producing industrial films in color. “Commercial producers have been holding a finger on the pulse of American advertisers long enough to realize that it doesn’t take much argument to convince potential clients of the advantages of color in advertising films…something had to be done to bring color to a point where it could as readily be used as black and white from the viewpoint of cost, mobility and production.” I don’t know enough about the use of color in advertising and industrial films from the 1930s to know how many were produced in color at this time, but 1939 was still relatively early for the use of color in motion pictures in any genre.

More Wilding films are available courtesy of the Prelinger Archives on the Internet Archive. Other Wilding titles I’d love to see: The Cheese Family Album (1949), Knucklehead (also from 1949, “a training film for service station owners and attendants”), and Time for Living (1949), which features “a demonstration of modern laundry service.”

Human Beginnings (1950)

7 Jul

After the phenomenal success of Human Growth (1947), a sex education film for 7th grade children, my man Lester F. Beck heard enough feedback from parents and teachers that there ought to be a film for even younger children. He wrote Human Beginnings (watch it online here) especially for children in kindergarten and first grade. Eddie Albert produced this film, too, and although the E.C. Brown Trust wasn’t involved in this edition, they sponsored later different editions titled Human and Animal Beginnings

Human Beginnings has all of Beck’s signature elements: a mixed gender classroom, a warm and competent teacher who guides the students through productive discussion (and who speaks directly to the camera to encourage the students watching the film to do the same), lots of visual aids, and a white nuclear family calmly discussing human reproduction as part of a normal evening together. His goal was to demonstrate how “sex talk” could take place with kids of all ages in the classroom and family room without drama or embarrassment.


In Lester Beck’s progressive world, both boys and girls like to play with dolls.

In this film, the students make pictures about what they think a baby looks like when it is still inside the mother. As the children share their artwork with the rest of the class, it is clear that the children have different attitudes and feelings about babies and their own parents.


“The baby starts as an egg.”


“The baby is in the mother’s pocket.”


“This mother is having triplets.”

The second half of the film shows Tommy and his parents as they get ready for the birth of a new baby. Thanks to his parents giving him plenty of information ahead of time and involving him as much as possible, Tommy easily accepts his new sister and eagerly helps with her care.


The best resource for sex information turns out to be Lester Beck’s own book, “Human Growth”!


Visual aid within the visual aid.



Breastfeeding the new baby.

Human Beginnings was critiqued for not offering enough details about how babies actually get inside the mama, and one professional association actually warned against showing the film to its intended audience. Lester Beck himself downplayed the sex education uses of the film in a 1950 New York Times article: “The film is designed as a clinical instrument for use by classroom teachers to uncover both the thoughts and feelings of children toward their parents and their brothers and sisters–particularly their younger brothers and sisters.”


Poor Lee says that “some mothers don’t want their babies,” so he drew a mother without a head or arms.”


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