Useful Cinema


By exploring the use of film in mid-twentieth-century institutions, including libraries, museums, classrooms, and professional organizations, the essays in Useful Cinema show how moving images became an ordinary feature of American life. In venues such as factories and community halls, people encountered industrial, educational, training, advertising, and other types of “useful cinema.” Screening these films transformed unlikely spaces, conveyed ideas, and produced subjects in the service of public and private ...
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Useful Cinema

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By exploring the use of film in mid-twentieth-century institutions, including libraries, museums, classrooms, and professional organizations, the essays in Useful Cinema show how moving images became an ordinary feature of American life. In venues such as factories and community halls, people encountered industrial, educational, training, advertising, and other types of “useful cinema.” Screening these films transformed unlikely spaces, conveyed ideas, and produced subjects in the service of public and private aims. Such functional motion pictures helped to shape common sense about cinema’s place in contemporary life. Whether measured in terms of the number of films shown, the size of audiences, or the economic activity generated, the “non-theatrical sector” was a substantial and enduring parallel to the more spectacular realm of commercial film. In Useful Cinema, scholars examine organizations such as UNESCO, the YMCA, the Amateur Cinema League, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They also consider film exhibition sites in schools, businesses, and industries. As they expand understanding of this other American cinema, the contributors challenge preconceived notions about what cinema is.

Contributors. Charles R. Acland, Joseph Clark, Zoë Druick, Ronald Walter Greene, Alison Griffiths, Stephen Groening, Jennifer Horne, Kirsten Ostherr, Eric Smoodin, Charles Tepperman, Gregory A. Waller, Haidee Wasson. Michael Zryd

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“[T]he 13 case studies nicely illustrate the variety of institutional settings in the US that exploited the cinematic medium to shape thinking, tastes, and behaviors throughout the 20th century. . . . The overall results are engaging, provocative, and useful. Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty/professionals; general readers.“ - J. I. Deutsch, Choice

“Charles Acland offers here a complementary (and alternative) history of media engagement…. provides significant food for thought…. [E]xperimental film serves perhaps an unusual, but still a legitimate, purpose.” - Liz Giuffre, Media International Australia

“A wholly solid collection of new research in a blossoming area of study. Each of Useful Cinema’s articles offers unique, substantial, and interesting work that will engage and benefit any scholar even peripherally interested in the socio-cultural and socio-political dimensions of educational or industrial film. . . . As broad as its subject matter may be, the volume is unified by a rigorous standard of archival scholarship, a remarkable tendency to build interest and delight in unexpected topics, and a consistency of accessible writing that clearly illuminates how film and media are used to write and rewrite social histories.” - Andrew James Myers, Mediascape

“Education is commonly understood as opposed to entertainment. But this rich and fascinating volume puts the lie to such an assumption. It shows how, across the decades, ‘useful cinema’ was measured in relation to Hollywood entertainment and indeed interacted with it in a complex fashion. Useful Cinema does so through essays that are themselves compelling and captivating, eloquent and enjoyable. The book is itself, in other words, a masterful blend of the entertaining and the useful.”—Dana Polan, New York University

“This valuable book reveals how moving images proliferated beyond the spectacular confines of theaters to become deeply embedded in everyday life, cultures, and institutions. The publication of this fascinating anthology is a welcome sign that film historians are starting to forgo their longtime fascination with mass-produced glamour and make peace with cinema’s most utilitarian, and numerically dominant, genres.”—Rick Prelinger, founder of Prelinger Archives

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822350095
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 9/28/2011
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Charles R. Acland is Professor and Concordia University Research Chair in Communication Studies at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of Screen Traffic: Movies, Multiplexes, and Global Culture, also published by Duke University Press, and the editor of Residual Media.

Haidee Wasson is Associate Professor in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University. She is the author of Museum Movies: The Museum of Modern Art and the Birth of Art Cinema and a co-editor of Inventing Film Studies, also published by Duke University Press.

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Read an Excerpt



Copyright © 2011 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4997-6

Chapter One



Eric Smoodin

A moment of film viewing first made me aware that film education had an extended history, and that it was, indeed, more common many years ago than I may have thought. I remember watching A Tale of Two Cities on late-night TV with my mother and my sister, and while the movie came out in 1935, the viewing I am talking about took place in the mid-1960s, when I was twelve or thirteen years old. After we had all been properly moved by Sidney Carton's selfless death and heroic last words ("It's a far, far better thing I do ...") my mother mentioned, somewhat offhandedly, that she recalled seeing the film when she was in public high school in Chicago in the mid-1930s, because it had been part of a classroom assignment. She had read the book in her English class, and then her teacher had told the students to go see the movie, so that they could discuss the novel and film together. I cannot remember asking my mother much more about this, but I was struck by this apparently natural link between the movies and the classroom, and by how popular motion pictures had had a place in the curriculum at a time that seemed so distant to me.

In fact, as the work of a number of film scholars over the last fifteen years has shown, the cinema had a central role in various educational settings in the 1930s, and the decade marked something of a golden era in film education in the United States. Hollywood films were studied in grammar school, junior high, and high school classrooms as well as at the university; educational films were produced for classroom use; and other settings became the sites of viewing these films and of studying the cinema generally. Some of these sites beyond the classroom seem perfectly logical to us now—the library, for instance. Some might seem surprising—the prison, and even the department store, as in the case in 1934 when Macy's announced that the entire department store chain would begin showing The Story of a Country Doctor to its customers, with the film documenting the renowned surgical practices of a famous doctor. In these places during the period, we have both the study of Hollywood film as an aesthetic and industrial object, and the study of other subjects through film.

There was, as well, a vast body of literature produced about motion picture pedagogy and film-related educational activities. These materials ranged from textbooks to scholarly essays to an ongoing journal dedicated to the field, Educational Screen. The sheer volume of scholarly articles from the 1930s about film education in grammar and secondary schools, in such journals as the English Journal, the Journal of Educational Sociology, and the Elementary School Journal, demonstrates a broad humanities and social science interest in the subject. The titles of some of these articles, such as "Testing Some Objectives of Motion-Picture Appreciation," "Relative Importance of Placement of Motion Pictures in Class-Room Instruction," and "Can Youth's Appreciation of Motion Pictures Be Improved," show the possibilities of a precise science of film education in which results can be quantified and categorized. Other articles, like Mark A. May's "Educational Possibilities of Motion Pictures," from 1937, hint at the belief in the utopian pedagogy that movies provided.

In an article about film studies at New York University (NYU) published in February 1934, Educational Screen, the monthly journal devoted to film pedagogy, expressed some of the excitement that Depression-era educators felt about motion pictures. Citing Dr. Frederic M. Thrasher, who helped to institute the serious study of film at nYU, the article claimed that "the enormous influence of the popular motion picture [has] forced the public schools and the colleges and universities to recognize the permanence of this great educational instrument and its potentialities in all educational fields." The editorial continued with "education can no longer neglect the motion picture," and then went on with practically an admonition to teachers: "It must be studied." Just a month later, in an editorial, Educational Screen sounded something of an alarm, as if the fast and widespread acceptance of film education in public schools had already produced a crisis. With the place of film education in schools no longer questioned, the editorial said, "we incline to wonder if those concerned really know what it's about," and asked, further, "are they sure in how far the theatre is part of the school's job," and even, "do they know whether they are contributing to or complicating the educational problem?"

Both the enthusiasm for and concern with motion picture pedagogy situate the film education movement in the center of some of the era's significant debates about elementary and secondary schools. Of course, the dominant philosophical movement among educators at this time was that of progressive education, developed primarily by John Dewey, but also indebted to the work of G. Stanley Hall and George Counts, among others. The progressive education movement can be difficult to pin down because it was practiced so differently by so many different people in a number of different areas, but it typically dealt with the perception of a central problem in American education. Progressive educators, whether they came from the leftist-socialist wing of the movement or from the center, believed that, as noted by the education historian Mustafa Emirbayer, "in the midst of massive socioeconomic and political changes, a new generation was coming of age that was woefully lacking in the citizenship skills needed to sustain a true democracy."

Thus it was the project of the American school to make fundamental changes both in pedagogical practice and in American society. Educational reforms ranged from the space of the classroom—chairs that were not bolted to the floor—to an extension of educational space well beyond the school, and an insistence that "the everyday life of the community must furnish the main content of education." This brief description hardly does the movement justice, but we can begin to see the place of cinema in the educational practices of the period. The cinema was itself viewed as one of the agents of modernity, of the vast social and technological changes that had so affected the population. Appearing first in the 1890s, the cinema developed alongside the increasing implementation among states and localities of compulsory education, with the theater and the classroom thereby becoming two of the central sites of childhood and adolescent activity. The cinema also functioned as one of those communal spaces beyond the classroom that were seen as so important to the progressives, and that also, if young people could only learn to use the cinema properly, might become a space of educational and intellectual work, a prospect attractive to a new generation of educators who typically rejected traditional notions of homework.

But the cinema was not simply a utopian space of promise and democracy. It also posed dangers, dangers examined by many connected to a broad progressive movement in the United States, such as Jane Addams in The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (1909). Much later, at the same time as the flourishing film education movement, we can see similar concerns posed by the Payne Fund Studies, which were indebted to Dewey but also on the periphery of the progressive movement. Those scientific analyses of the effects of movies upon children adopted G. Stanley Hall's notion of children as "fragile, innocent creatures," and so assumed the dangers that movies posed to the intellectual, moral, and emotional development of young people, and even to their physical well-being, as in the studies' concern with such things as the effects of movies upon sleeping habits. Indeed, as I will discuss, much of the film education movement depended on a belief in the child as an incipient adult, able to make adult judgments, which may well have separated 1930s-style motion picture study from the progressive ideal.

The Payne Fund Studies, moreover, show the breadth of film studies during the period, and the broad range of educators connected to the movement. Many of the studies embrace the liberal mission of the social sciences from the period, the belief that viewers could be measured and quantified, and the effects of cinema perfectly understood. From the apparent mathematical precision of the studies came the hope that movies would be used to produce consumers who were anti-racist and anti-nationalist, who understood the social causes of crime and poverty, and who realized the necessity of Prohibition and measures designed to eliminate gambling. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) demonstrably fostered the belief that war was always futile, according to the studies, just as The Criminal Code (1931) became a tract on the link between social practices and crime, and a film unknown today, Son of the Gods (1930), produced more favorable attitudes among white students toward the Chinese.

This liberal impulse manifested in so many of the studies was both complemented by and contrasted with the goals of cultural improvement in such elite institutions as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) and NYU, and also, often, in the American high school. In these locations, film studies was as much a humanities discipline as a social science one, and so was clearly marked by aesthetic instruction, by issues of camerawork, national style, and realism. The institutional locations of film studies also give evidence of the breadth of the program, and also, of course, of possible internal conflicts. Instruction and leadership came from those elite institutions, including the University of Chicago, Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Southern California in addition to MOMA and NYU. But Edgar Dale, who became the main prophet of film education during the era, taught at Ohio State University. Sarah McLean Mullen, who published a film studies textbook in 1935 and frequently contributed to The Motion Picture and the Family, a tabloid-style publication that rated films and gave suggestions for classroom instruction, taught at Abraham Lincoln High School in Los Angeles. That leaders of film studies came from "lesser" locations—the state university, the high school—as well as elite ones gives a sense of the grass-roots nature of the movement during the 1930s, as well as its dependence on the prestige of the Ivy League or the major urban museum.

The methodologies of film studies ranged from L. L. Thurstone's psychometrics—the science, so important to the Payne Fund Studies, of measuring intelligence and the effects on attitudes of various social and cultural stimuli—to the more literary and art historical approaches of Robert Gessner, who taught film appreciation and history at NYU during the period. Thus we have a movement united by a field of study—the cinema—but marked also by the conflicts between the humanities and social sciences, by methodological differences, by the needs of teachers in varying educational locations, and often by a conviction in either the political or aesthetic benefits of studying film.

There were other reasons for bringing film to the classroom that had far less to do with pedagogical philosophy and much more to do with the daily difficulties of education in the 1930s. Educators at the time realized that the high school population had increased dramatically over the course of the century, and that there were now, during the period, millions and millions of kids in secondary school who had no interest in scholarship or in college, and so film seemed like the best way to reach these disinterested masses. Further, as was the case with my mother and A Tale of Two Cities, films might make students into better readers of books. Teachers also seemed to have the sense, regardless of their philosophical commitments, that education needed to change profoundly to serve a mass clientele, and that the cinema would be the instrument of this change. According to Edgar Dale, "everyone recognizes that we are going to live in a new kind of world, in which increased meaning, enriched experience and enjoyment are to be the heritage of everyone." In other words, early twentieth-century modernity was marked by the near-universal availability of leisure time, and the activities of that leisure—viewing films, for instance—could be tapped by various institutions to educate the masses who participated in them so avidly.

Thus Dale and many other educators recognized the possibility of using the school to effect positive changes in leisure. Dale wrote that more and more educators were concerned with "how youth [are] to be trained, first of all, in the wise selection of motion picture entertainment," with the role of film education that of making children and adolescents better consumers of film, and thereby forcing Hollywood to make better movies. Along with this link between the site of education and the movie theater, there was also a connection between the educational institution and that other great site of agitation about film quality during the period, the church. According to an editorial in Educational Screen in 1934, "there should be a school movement, synchronized and articulated with" church programs for better films, a school movement that "could stand worthily beside the church plan as the schools share in the great effort." Here, then, we have the two significant programs for better films, a liberal, progressive one, for want of better terms, and a more reactionary one. Scholars have with endless elaboration examined the censorship movement spearheaded by the church, the one that led, however circuitously, to the more rigorous Motion Picture Production Code of 1934. But there was also an anti-censorship movement, engaged in largely by progressive educators, to improve films not by mandating content and representation, but by producing better consumers of film.

In this chapter I am interested in the classrooms and libraries that were the spaces of film education during the 1930s, and also in the fluidity between the film industry and the "normal" theatrical sites of film exhibition, and those sites that we may not immediately think of as having a connection to film. I also want to expand the notion of cinema in these apparently nontraditional locations, and examine not just films, but also film culture more broadly. Thus, in addition to the screenings of films, we can discuss the uses of film stills in the classroom, film conferences that would take place in educational settings, and the activities of film clubs.

Local and national efforts from the period demonstrate the links between schools and the film industry, and also the practices of film education in schools and in the film industry. In an instance of film education in a specific place, New Haven, Connecticut, served as one of the testing grounds for the movement, having become "movie conscious," in the words of a 1937 issue of the Journal of Educational Sociology, in 1933. When the National Council of Teachers of English "appointed a committee to begin experimenting with the motion picture as a part of the English curriculum" in high schools, the New Haven school system eagerly joined the program.

The project in New Haven required an extensive film studies bureaucracy. The city's effort was aimed at high school students, but the school board realized that for high school students to become movie conscious, much younger students needed to be targeted. As a result, "Motion Picture Councils were established in every eighth-grade, junior high, and high school in the city." These councils themselves were highly regulated, with a governing student council, an overseeing faculty council, and then two New Haven teachers overseeing all of that. The councils left little up to the individual schools. They mandated that, in the fall of 1935, all high school English classes needed to devote "at least ten lessons ... to the study of photoplay appreciation each year," although individual teachers could, apparently, shape these lessons according to their own interests. Most teachers used the same textbook: Edgar Dale's How to Appreciate Motion Pictures, which had first been published in 1933.


Excerpted from USEFUL CINEMA Copyright © 2011 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1 CELLULOID CLASSROOMS....................17
"What a Power for Education!": The Cinema and Sites of Learning in the 1930s Eric Smoodin....................34
"We Can See Ourselves as Others See Us": Women Workers and Western Union's Training Films in the 1920s Stephen Groening....................59
Hollywood's Educators: Mark May and Teaching Film Custodians Charles R. Acland....................81
UNESCO, Film, and Education: Mediating Postwar Paradigms of Communication Zoë Druick....................103
2 CIVIC CIRCUITS....................125
Projecting the Promise of 16mm, 1935-45 Gregory A. Waller....................149
A History Long Overdue: The Public Library and Motion Pictures Jennifer Horne....................178
Big, Fast Museums / Small, Slow Movies: Film, Scale, and the Art Museum Haidee Wasson....................205
Pastoral Exhibition: The YMCa Motion Picture Bureau and the Transition to 16mm, 1928-39 Ronald Walter Greene....................230
3 MAKING USEFUL FILMS....................263
Double Vision: World War II, Racial Uplift, and the All-American Newsreel's Pedagogical Address Joseph Clark....................289
Mechanical Craftsmanship: Amateurs Making Practical Films Charles Tepperman....................315
Experimental Film as Useless Cinema Michael Zryd....................337
About the Contributors....................369
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