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Stop Projector – Discuss Film

by larrydachslager on September 12th, 2013

“Euphoria” is an emotional state that children and teenagers rarely experience while at school.  But most people who were attending elementary, junior, or high school before the VCR days knew what it was like to enter a classroom, see a certain temporary addition to the room, and feel what can only be describe as “euphoria.”  That temporary addition was this:


The mere sight of a 16mm projector perched on a cart in a classroom had the power to turn the quality of a day around – even if that morning started out like one of those days, the projector brought joy.  The level of that joy was largely determined by the size of the front reel on the projector.  The bigger the reel, the longer the film, the more the happiness.

Part of the excitement stemmed from the element of surprise.  We were never informed that a film would be shown the following day.  The teacher never intended it as a reward of any kind, but we always took it that way.  What did we do so right to deserve a movie day???  Nobody cared what the title of the film was or what it was about.  It could have been called Lint Is Your Friend and it would have been fine.   A movie in class meant a respite from schoolwork.  It was a brief unexpected vacation.  The prospect of a darkened classroom was enticing, too.  It was perfect for note passing.  If the film was mind-numbingly boring (and it often was), it could be time for a nap.

Of course, today’s school kids are still happy to learn that it’s “movie day” in class.   But much of the magic is gone.  Showing a movie in class today is so easy and accessible, it happens more frequently.  Before the early 80s, if a teacher wanted to show a movie, he or she really wanted to show that movie.  It was a time and energy-consuming ordeal, and schools had a limited number of projectors, so screenings were rare.  The film had to be mail ordered through a catalogue.  The projector had to be reserved in advance and brought to the classroom and threaded by specially trained technicians (AV kids).    Today, anybody in the room can operate a DVD player, but back then, there was an aura of mystery to a 16mm projector because not everyone knew how to operate it – including the teacher.   It required training attained through taking a special class.  Though I was well versed in how to run an 8mm projector, the 16mm one had me intimidated.  First, it wasn’t self-threading like my projector at home.  The film had to be manually guided through its serpentine course in a very particular way or it wouldn’t work properly.  Then, there was the added complication of sound.  More on that later.

Another element of intrigue was the knowledge that, in many cases, the teacher had not actually seen the movie, but merely guessed at its effectiveness or educational value based on catalogue information.   I clearly remember occasions of teachers apologizing to the class for the movie’s being especially and unexpectedly boring, scary, or violent.  (Admittedly, a few gave me nightmares.)  No apology was necessary, however.  We were grateful to the film for getting us that much closer to the sound of the dismissal bell – and for the nap.

The educational films of the 50s are usually thought of as the genre’s “heyday,” so those are the ones most often shown and parodied today. I watched classroom movies during the 70s, so that was my focus when searching on Youtube for examples.   The passing years from the 50s to the 70s did nothing to improve the films’ budgets or the low-grade quality of the acting, writing, and directing.  The 70s films, however, were in (faded) color and had more “modern” music.  The biggest advance for the 70s films was that, unlike the whitewashed 50s educational films, the classrooms, parties, and social circles depicted in the 70s ones were multicultural with the filmmakers being sure that every ethnicity was represented.  Whatever the film’s theme… it could needed to apply to everybody.

Educational films were shown in every class, but Youtube provides very few academic ones for our viewing pleasure.  That’s understandable.  Today, the films geared for English or History class aren’t nearly as much “fun” as the often outdated, politically incorrect ones intended to be shown during Social Studies or, even better, the cautionary ones shown during Health.  For many years, these movies have been the subject of ridicule being skillfully lampooned on shows like Mystery Science Theatre: 3000.

But don’t think for a moment that it’s the passage of time that makes them laughable today.  Trust me… we laughed and made fun of those films when they were new.  Even though we were naïve in many ways, we were still able to recognize and appreciate the stiff acting, contrived situations, and moments that blatantly didn’t ring true.  I always remember these films being accompanied by giggling and eye rolling because of the sheer insincerity of the acting.  Successful producers of material aimed for children know that genuineness in the writing and playing should be first priority.   That memo was often missed when it came to the way classroom educational films were presented.

I don’t know if I actually saw the following three examples in class or not, but they are certainly typical of what I did see.  I’ll get the lights.  If one of you will pull the window shades down, we can begin.  Most films began with the countdown.

It was almost impossible for the class not to count aloud in unison as the numbers flashed on the screen.  The temptation was too great.  Some brave souls even said the high-pitched “beeeeep.”   At the time, nobody knew that actual purpose of the countdown.  I always assumed it was to build excitement before the picture began.  I was in the 9th grade before a teacher explained that the rhythmic countdown and beep allowed the projectionist to make sure the sound was in sync with the image.  If the beep was too late or early to jibe with the rhythm of the numbers, the sync would be off.  (Think “No! No! No! Yes! Yes! Yes!” in Singin’ In The Rain.) In all honesty, the countdown explanation was probably the most valuable piece of educational information I took away with me when it came to these films.  Incidentally, as grateful as I am to be able to share these movies via Youtube, please be aware that you’ll be missing the loud “BRRRRRRRRRR……” of the projector, which was an integral part of the experience.

Films like Why Doesn’t Cathy Eat Breakfast? (above) were frustrating.  First of all, they were short and didn’t use up much class time.  It took longer to thread the projector than it did to watch the film.  Second, it was a “cliffhanger” with no resolved ending.  Instead, we were instructed to turn off the projector and engage in a vigorous roundtable debate about why Cathy skipped breakfast.   We wanted a real ending that told us whether Cathy survived not having breakfast.  Who cares about the reasons?  If we must have a question-based discussion, let’s talk about why Cathy doesn’t seem at all surprised or concerned that, in her bedroom, there’s a middle-aged male narrator (who sounds like William Schallert) pointing a camera at her and asking her questions from the moment she wakes up.  Or why she has a poster on her wall that shows people wearing what looks suspiciously like blackface.  My theory is that Cathy eats all through the night.  After all, who can sleep when the ticking of your alarm clock is louder than the alarm itself?

In the 70s, my classmates and I watched Saturday morning superhero shows like The Secret of Isis and Shazam!   In the privacy of our living rooms, we could safely watch those shows and buy into what they offered in a non-jaded way without fear of peer judgment.  However, the goings on in Safety: In Danger Out of Doors (above) would had induced many a giggle in the classroom.  Even in the 70s, no self-respecting kid would have bought into this premise or the portrayals.  If you can endure the seemingly endless and grating “alien voice” giving the character exposition, the way the events play out is pretty entertaining.  I give kudos to the lead actress for being able to say her lines, especially in that costume, with a straight face.   And be sure to catch the nearly drowned kid’s enthusiastic and genuine delivery of the line, “Safety Woman, are we glad to see you.”   But I’m not complaining.  At least we know how this one ends.

Bob Crane gets star billing in Patriotism (above).  For those of you who are too young to know who Bob Crane is, he was the star of Hogan’s Heroes.  For those of you who are too young to know what Hogan’s Heroes was, it was a sit-com in the 60s all about the hilarious hijinks that go on in a Nazi POW camp.  I’m not joking.  Anyway… Bob Crane gets top billing and narrates, but only about as much on-screen time as Claude Rains had in The Invisible Man.   I’m not sure what the point of this film is  – it seems to have several – or under what circumstances a teacher might have been compelled to show it.   Aside from the vintage 70s fashions, there are two moments worth pointing out as being giggle-worthy both today and in the classroom at the time.  After the two boys finish their discussion about the baseball glove, they walk away with their arms awkwardly around each other, presumably at the prompting of the director.  This is a moment that would have been laughed at due to it’s being so amazingly awkward and insincere.  It’s obvious that the two actors had probably just met each other ten minutes before the scene was shot.   As in most of these films, the acting of the kids seems pretty much by rote.  But in Patriotism, the kids could be members of the Royal Shakespeare Company compared to the performance by the woman playing the teacher.  It’s astonishing to think that this was chosen as her best take!

It’s amazing how dated and somehow creepy these films seem today.  In many ways, they’re more educationally valuable now than they were when they were made because they serve as a fascinating sociological time capsule.   I must admit, as cautionary tales, they could sometimes be effective and convincing – especially when it came to depicting the dangers of smoking, ignoring safety regulations, or thinking that wearing bright orange slacks looks “cool.”

One Comment
  1. Bob Leeds permalink

    As to the comment that the teachers rarely knew what the film was about, in the 8th grade my homeroom teacher announced we were going to see a documentary about eskimos called (and here she stalled). I enthusiastically called out “Nanook of the North?” she happily said yes, that’s the one. At the end of the movie, Nanook and his wife settle down to sleep. The wife takes off her clothes and climbs into the makeshift bed. My teacher (did I mention she was a nun?) just stood there with her jaw hanging open. We kids loved the movie. I don’t think the second period class got to see it though.

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