Between streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, and the pay-only online archives of legacy media like Warner Bros. and CBS, the TV and movie business is becoming increasingly subscription-driven — to the extent that getting access to the best of popular culture seems prohibitively expensive. But there are some bargain options out there, especially for adventurous viewers. A sizable number of films and shows are available for free, either because the work’s in the public domain, or because the rights-holders are willing to share.
Last week, the National Film Preservation Foundation launched a remarkably well-curated and easily accessible online collection of movies featured in Rick Prelinger’s book The Field Guide to Sponsored Films. These are mostly educational shorts, financed by government agencies, charitable organizations, or corporations with something to say. In the latter half of the 20th century, these shorts were fairly common in schools, workplaces, and civic institutions. But these days, most people encounter them only when they’ve been comedically repurposed. The gang from Mystery Science Theater 3000 often riffs on sponsored films. So do video bloggers like Everything is Terrible! And then there are the countless tongue-in-cheek TV commercials that have made fun of educational films’ flatly placid Americana.
For decades, Prelinger has been one of the most active archivists of cinematic ephemera, working to find, research, and preserve everything from home movies to stag films. Via repertory screenings, laserdiscs, CD-ROMs, DVDs, and the Internet Archive, he’s made a lot these materials available, and has encouraged cinephiles to see them not as kitschy jokes, but as vital pieces of American history. Some of these movies are entertaining because they look silly now, or because their propagandistic elements are hilariously blatant, but a lot of them exhibit significant artistry, with music, animation, art direction, or documentary rigor that merits real attention.
The NFPF site currently has 102 high-quality digital copies of films covered in Prelinger’s Field Guide, each with explanatory notes. They’re sortable by title and year, and also by source, in case users want to jump straight to movies made by the John Birch Society or US Steel. Many of them are downloadable, and the Online Field Guide to Sponsored Films even includes a PDF copy of Prelinger’s book, with links that take readers directly to the shorts in question.
All together, the Online Field Guide constitutes hours of free entertainment, covering topics from labor unions to traffic safety to venereal disease. Some of these films are strange, some funny, and some edifying. And some — like the multiple documentaries about mental health — are even heartbreaking. Here are five good ones to start with, to get a sense of what the site has to offer:
Now You’re Talking (1927, AT&T, nine minutes)
Animation pioneers Dave and Max Fleischer — the men behind the classic Betty Boop, Popeye, and Superman cartoons — explain the dos and don’ts of the desk telephone in this delightful short, which mixes live-action with marvelously detailed drawings. The Fleischers present one broken phone’s daily diary, as it rails against twisted cords, slammed receivers, and rude people who just let the phone ring. As a look back at early telephony, Now You’re Talking is fascinating. But it’s also a beautiful piece of cartooning, overseen by two of the medium’s greats.
The House I Live In (1945, Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, 10 minutes)
Accomplished Hollywood director Mervyn LeRoy and superstar crooner Frank Sinatra do strong work in this pointed PSA aimed at shaming bigots. In between two stirring musical performances, the film has Ol’ Blue Eyes intervening in a juvenile street fight, schooling the youngsters on freedom of religion and the American melting pot. Made right at the end of World War II, The House I Live In takes advantage of the nation’s patriotic fervor to argue that our strength is in our diversity, and that anyone who says otherwise is a dirty Nazi. Sinatra’s passionate performance sells the message.
Albert in Blunderland (1950, Albert P. Sloan Foundation, eight minutes)
Prelinger’s archive doesn’t discriminate based on politics. Some of the most illuminating pieces in the collection were made by right-wing ideologues, intending to spread their vision of America. Case in point: the clever and colorful Albert in Blunderland, which savagely satirizes excessive government oversight. A high-ranking socialist ant takes a typical American worker on a tour of his tightly controlled state, where everybody’s forced into back-breaking jobs they hate, and punished if they complain. It’s over-the-top, but effectively persuasive, thanks primarily to polished animation produced by ex-Disney man Jonathan Sutherland.
Color and Texture in Aluminum Finishes (1956, Aluminum Co. of America, 18 minutes)
Becoming a devotee of what are sometimes called “industrial films” requires at least some appreciation for art for art’s sake. This salute to the versatility and popularity of aluminum — intended both to sell the product and to pump up attendees at industry conventions — is beautifully designed and photographed, with shot after shot of shiny metal in action. Remove the narration, and this would still be mesmerizing, with framing and camera-moves that encourage viewers to be awed by these machine-tooled pieces of furniture and siding, as though they were abstract sculptures on display at a museum.
Good-bye, Mr. Roach (1959, Velsicol Corp., 10 minutes)
The squeamish and the eco-conscious are advised to steer clear of this pro-insecticide picture, paid for by the company that three years later would get pilloried in Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring. But fans of nightmarish horror should consider kicking off their next movie night with Good-bye, Mr. Roach, a genuinely disturbing up-close-and-personal look at how the creepy little pests thrive in and around the American home. The scene of writhing roach hatchlings alone is more disgusting and terrifying than anything David Lynch or David Cronenberg has ever come up with. Even the “happy ending” of chemical extermination can’t wash away the squirmy memories of roaches, roaches everywhere. Now that’s cinema!