(The following article is an excerpt from the new book “The History of Independent Cinema” by Film Threat contributing editor Phil Hall, published by BearManor Media.)
Starting at the dawn of the 20th century, corporations and nonprofit organizations have actively pursued the production of films. Many of these films were pure marketing vehicles, although some were fairly subtle in disguising the products, services or concepts being promoted. In several cases, these films made no attempt to promote a specific product, service or concept. These films, instead, were present under the umbrella of social responsibility and awareness – and, of course, there were plenty of PR points to be gained as being the sponsoring entity of such an endeavor.
(For the sake of unity, we will refer to this genre as “corporate sponsored,” even if the production source was a nonprofit organization, a medical center or a university.)
While the vast majority of corporate-sponsored films remain obscure, there are some that have moved beyond the realm of the non-theatrical into the wider cultural mainstream. These films, either due to their content or their back stories, have earned classic status within this genre. In many ways, they represent a cinematic timeline of 20th century America, detailing changing attitudes and priorities regarding industry, commerce, social sciences, health and the awareness of global interconnectivity.
In chronological order, here is a presentation of what could arguably be considered as the 25 most important corporate-sponsored films of all time:
“The Stockyard Series” (1901). Armour & Co. commissioned a series of 60 shorts that were filmed at the Union Stock Yards in Chicago. This decision, one of the earliest for corporate-sponsored filmmaking, proved to be prescient: the 1906 publication of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle” was countered by Armour’s re-release of the film to show the sanitary and safe working environment it ran.
“The Yanks Are Coming” (1918). The Dayton-Wright Airplane Co. produced this feature-length film about its de Haviland DH-4 aircraft, which was used by the U.S. Army Air Service in World War I. Remarkably, the film was pulled from general circulation by the Committee on Public Information, a federal agency set up to coordinate the nation’s propaganda efforts during wartime. The agency felt this film was too commercial and ordered its removal from theaters – marking the first time the federal government tried to get a film banned.
“The Wizardry of Wireless” (1923). General Electric produced this two-reel film, which mixed animation and live action to illustrate mankind’s attempts at long distance communication. The efforts conclude with the introduction of the radio, with a brief tour of the company’s WGY station. What is curious about this production is that it was a silent film – not exactly the most obvious medium for outlining sound technology.
“The World Struggle for Oil” (1923). While the film’s title may suggest a contemporary view of the ongoing energy crisis, this feature film from the Sinclair Consolidated Oil Corp. offered evidence of the then-growing American addiction to oil. This feature-length film may have been forgotten had Sinclair not arranged for it to be distributed non-theatrically through the U.S. Bureau of Mines – that decision was cited against the company in the wake of the Teapot Dome Scandal that paralyzed the country amid charges of political and corporate corruption.
“The Forgotten Frontier” (1931). This hour-long silent documentary on the Frontier Nursing Service Inc., a private enterprise that brought medical care to isolated rural communities in Kentucky, is noteworthy in that it was produced and directed by Mary Marvin Breckenridge, who originally worked for the company. Few women directed corporate-sponsored films, and Breckenridge’s time behind the camera created a film that was rich in drama (not to mention dramatic re-enactments): a nurse giving shots, assisting in childbirths, and physically transporting a shooting victim to medical care in a larger community. The film was selected to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
“Love, Honor and Obey (The Law)” (1935). B.F. Goodrich sponsored this two-reeler, which enjoyed theatrical release thanks to the presence of Harry Langdon in the starring role as an inebriated playboy whose pending marriage to a police chief’s daughter hinges on his ability not to get any traffic tickets. The film enjoyed a gimmicky promotion that rewarded winning moviegoers who could recall how many traffic violations took place during the course of the film. The presence of Langdon in this film was significant – although he was far below the star status he enjoyed during the silent movie era, he still possessed enough clout to warrant starring roles in lower-budget features and shorts.
“Master Hands” (1936). One of the most artistically striking corporate-sponsored films ever made was this half-hour production from Chevrolet Motor Co. Using almost no dialogue and backed with a sweeping score by Samuel Benavie that was performed with gusto by the Detroit Philharmonic Orchestra, the film presents the manufacturing operations of Chevrolet’s Flint, Michigan, plant with boldly framed shots and breathless montage editing that calls to mind 1920s-era Soviet filmmaking. The film had several lives – for sales and marketing training, to promote the company’s World War II-era efforts (new footage was added to show military vehicles being produced), and as a vocational education training film in the postwar years. The film was named to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
“Television: An RCA Presentation” (1939). The first promotional film to highlight the medium that would later challenge the motion picture industry, this RCA-produced one-reeler provided glimpses of early TV broadcasts from the New York World’s Fair and the RCA studios at Rockefeller Center.
“Art in the Negro Schools” (1940). Prior to the passage of the 1960s civil rights legislation, African Americans were virtually unseen in corporate-sponsored films. A few exceptions were made, such as this silent two-reeler celebrating the performing and fine arts curriculum at the nation’s leading historically black colleges and universities. The film was part a series called “Negro Education for American Living” that was produced by the Harmon Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropy that advocated racial tolerance and equality.
“Goodbye, Mr. Germ” (1940). The National Tuberculosis Association produced this two-reeler that mixed animation and actors in a fanciful tale of a doctor who cures a child of TB. The film is recalled today solely because it was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the prolific and peripatetic filmmaker whose career pinballed between the Hollywood studios and the low-budget fringe world of independent productions.
“The Green Hand” (1940). Based on a novel by Paul W. Chapman, an agriculture professor at the University of Georgia, the film depicted how a potential juvenile delinquent was cured of his miscreant tendencies by joining the Future Farmers of America. Sears-Roebuck & Co., for whatever reason, opted to produce a film based on the book. The production was shot in Athens, Georgia, using a mix of local townspeople and University of Georgia faculty as the cast. The film, which ran a half-hour, had a theatrical premiere in Athens on January 12, 1940, that attracted Georgia’s governor (who, one month earlier, was in Atlanta for the premiere of “Gone with the Wind”).
“A Place to Live” (1941). The Philadelphia Housing Association sponsored this two-reeler on the lack of affordable housing in the City of Brotherly Love. Somewhat surprisingly, the film’s central focus (a boy living in a slum) does not wind up living happily ever after in a lovely home. More surprisingly was the film’s nomination for the Academy Award as Best Documentary Short Subject – no mean feat, considering it was a non-studio production and it really wasn’t a documentary (the film used actors to dramatize its points).
“Hemp for Victory” (1942). The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the 16-minute film “Hemp for Victory” to show farmers how to successfully cultivate cannibas plants for use in the manufacture of wartime cordage. The film offers an examination of everything you ever wanted to know about growing hemp. The film was only shown during 1942 – it literally disappeared after the war, when the federal ban on growing hemp took effect again. For years, the USDA insisted that no such movie ever existed. But in May 1989, a trio of tenacious advocates for legalizing marijuana – Jack Herer, Maria Farrow and Carl Packard – combed the Library of Congress’ motion picture and filmstrips records in Washington and the USDA library at Bettsville, Maryland, to locate evidence the film existed. They later found a print and donated it to the Library of Congress.
“The Story of Menstruation” (1946). This may seem like bizarre trivia, but the first on-screen use of the word “vagina” took place in a Walt Disney cartoon. No, Minnie Mouse and Daisy Duck were not involved. Instead, it turned up in this 10-minute educational film, created on commission by Disney for the International Cellu-Cotton Products Company (the creators of Kotex feminine products). The film was a staple of health education classes for more than two decades, providing an explanation of the menstrual cycle while offering tips on how to maintain a healthy body and spirit during periods. The film was presented with an accompanying booklet called “Very Personally Yours,” which was not created by Disney.
“Louisiana Story” (1948). Arguably the greatest sponsored film ever made, this feature was directed by Robert Flaherty, who pioneered documentary filmmaking with “Nanook of the North” (1922). What many people don’t realize is that “Louisiana Story” was produced by Standard Oil to play up the pro-development aspects of oil exploration in the Louisiana Bayou. While Standard Oil’s name is never mentioned in the film, its pro-oil drilling message is difficult to ignore. However, most people were more enchanted with the film’s artistic composition than its commercialism. “Louisiana Story,” which enjoyed a theatrical release via Lopert Films, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Story, Virgil Thomson’s score won Pulitzer Prize for Music (the only film score to receive that honor), and is part of the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
“Technicolor For Industrial Films” (1949). This unique production is a corporate-sponsored film designed to be seen by the makers of other corporate-sponsored films. The Technicolor Corp. provides a cogent explanation of why its color film process is the best choice for those who want to make industrial and educational films outside of the confines of black-and-white (and not to mention away from the cheaper color film processes that were encroaching on Technicolor’s market).
“Breast Self-Examination” (1950). Breast cancer was not a subject that was widely discussed in the mainstream media during the 1950s. However, this 42-minute film (co-produced by the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Public Health Service) showed women how to check for the earliest warning signs of possible breast cancer symptoms. Two different truncated versions of the film would be released later in the 1950s.
“Benjy” (1951). Henry Fonda narrated and Fred Zinnemann (Oscar-winner for “From Here to Eternity” and “A Man for All Seasons”) directed this short film about a boy with scoliosis who is rejected by his parents for being disabled, but who is cured thanks to the tireless support of his orthopedic pediatrician. Paramount Pictures arranged for the crew to work on this film, which was used as a fundraising vehicle for the Los Angeles Orthopaedic Hospital. Paramount also released this film in limited theatrical distribution, qualifying it for the Academy Award. Although the film made heavy use of actors to tell its story, as opposed to presenting its tale in the non-fiction format, it nonetheless won the Oscar as Best Documentary Short Subject.
“Paradise for Buster” (1952). During the latter part of his career, Buster Keaton became something of a regular in the industrial film orbit. The one-time silent film icon starred in short corporate-produced films created on behalf of the National Association of Wholesalers (“The Devil to Pay,” 1960), Maremont Exhaust and the Gabriel Shocks Division of the Arvin Corporation (“There’s No Business Like No Business,” 1963), Eastman Kodak (“The Triumph of Lester Snapwell,” (1963), U.S. Steel (“The Fall Guy,” 1965) and the Construction Safety Association of Ontario (“The Scribe,” 1966 – Keaton’s last movie prior to his 1967 death). Keaton’s first exposure to this genre came with “Paradise for Buster,” a 39-minute offering financed by the John Deere & Co. What was curious about the film is that it barely made any mention of the company or its products. Instead, it was a near-silent film (Keaton had two words of dialogue: “I quit ”) about a bookkeeper who quits his dull job after inheriting a substantial fortune. In his new wealth, he moves to an agricultural estate (hence the John Deere connection), where he gets entangled in all sorts of slapstick Keaton reworked several gags from his classic movies into “Paradise for Buster,” thus adding an expert degree of humor that many industrial films lack.
“The Secret of Selling the Negro Market” (1954). This production from Johnson Publishing Co., the force behind black-oriented magazines such as Ebony and Jet, dared to break the Park Avenue taboo regarding the advertising of mainstream consumer products and services in African American media. Shot in Kodachrome Color and featuring U.S. Commerce Secretary Sinclair Weeks, the film was meant to show that African American consumers were an economic force that deserved respect. The film was designed to be shown to potential advertisers who, during the pre-Civil Rights era, often refused to promote their products in African American media. The film had its premiere in July 1954 at the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. in Milwaukee – whether it made any impact on expanding advertising within African American media is unclear, but it deserves recognition as an important sociological barrier-breaker.
“Our Mr. Sun” (1957). American Telephone & Telegraph sponsored this hour-long educational film, which was co-directed by Frank Capra and William T. Hurtz. “Our Mr. Sun” was the first in the Bell System Science series that first appeared on television and was later distributed on 16mm to schools around the country. This film mixed animation and live action to examine the many benefits derived from sunlight. Capra (who had not directed a film since the forgettable “Here Comes the Groom” in 1951) produced and wrote the films, and he teamed with Hurtz in directing three more titles: “Hemo the Magnificent” (1957), “The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays” (1958) and “The Unchained Goddess” (1958).
“Why Braceros?” (1959). Along with African Americans, Hispanics were conspicuously absent from sponsored films for many years. This 19-minute film, commissioned by the Council of California Growers in response to public concern over Mexican immigration, highlighted the importance of Mexican “guest workers” to California’s agriculture and ranching industries. The “bracero” program was originally created in 1942 to help fill the labor void created by World War II; it officially ended in 1964, but the use of Mexican laborers, of course, continues to this day.
“To Be Alive!” (1964). Few corporate films have ever enjoyed the pedigree of this production, produced by S.C. Johnson & Son. The film did not sell products, but rather offered a multicultural celebration of children from around the world. It was originally presented at the Johnson Wax pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair in an unusual exhibition format consisting of having the film projected on three separate 18-foot screens (each screen was separated by one foot of space). The film made quite an impression and a bit of history – the members of the New York Film Critics Circle trekked out to the World’s Fair to see the film and presented it with a special award, the first ever given by that distinguished group to a non-theatrical production. S.C. Johnson & Co. hoped to take the New York Film Critics Circle Award one better, but its attempt to secure an Oscar nomination was halted when the Academy decided that the three-screen approach did not meet the projection requirements of its rules. S.C. Johnson & Co. paid to have the three-screen film reconfigured into a single-screen presentation that could be seen in 70mm. That satisfied the Oscar rules, and “To Be Alive!” won the 1965 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject – beating out another sponsored short, “Point of View,” produced by the National Tuberculosis Association. “To Be Alive!” is still playing – at SC Johnson headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin. The S.C. Johnson Golden Rondelle Theater presents the film in its original three-screen version.
“A Time for Burning” (1966). The upheaval of the civil rights era is reflected in this Lutheran Film Associates feature about the minister of a white Omaha church who faces a revolt from his congregation when he attempts to reach out to a neighboring black church. The film was nominated for the Academy Award as Best Documentary and was selected for the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
“Why Man Creates” (1968). Saul Bass wrote, directed and produced this short film on behalf of Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corp. The film details creativity throughout the history of civilization, from Socrates through the Wright Brothers, tracing an idea from its hazy mental origins through the final presentation of the completed work. The film received the Academy Award as Best Documentary Short Subject, and it was later included in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.