The Way We Learned: Educational Films In The United States (Part I)
Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Devin Orgeron, an associate professor of film studies at NC State and co-editor of “Learning With The Lights Off: Educational Film In The United States.” This is the first of three posts in a series on educational films.
I regularly teach a course on documentary film here at NC State. And when I do, I always include a unit on educational film. I do this, in part, because our working definitions of documentary film have been surprisingly and regrettably narrow. This narrowness contradicts the thrust of some of nonfiction’s earliest thinkers who recognized the educational and persuasive power of the cinematic medium. It also flies in the face of a corpus of nonfiction films that informed several generations of viewers.
Part of the problem is associational, and this can be a difficult burden to shake off. “Educational film” seems like a transparent category. It’s the stuff they make fun of on “The Simpsons,” right? The category, however, can be far more diverse than the material Hollywood churns out. We are “educated” in a variety of ways and in a number of contexts, and the films that have assisted in this effort mirror the diversity of these patterns. The essays collected in “Learning With The Lights Off” tackle this diversity and the somewhat daunting volume of materials just begging to be investigated.
The book is timely. Film Studies is changing, and part of what has changed is our appreciation for and examination of materials that existed outside of mainstream movie-going, a category we call “nontheatrical.” Our flexibility in this regard is related to what has been happening in Media Studies for the past decade or so. Scholars of contemporary media are keen to understand the complicated ways in which we interact with and are shaped by our media. “Learning With The Lights Off” traces the history of a previous generation’s “new media.” And, interestingly, some of the results look quite similar. Film, like today’s media, was a powerful and controversial tool. And it was one that was utilized by a number of parties.
My chapter in the collection, “Spreading the Word: Race, Religion, and the Rhetoric of Contagion in Edgar G. Ulmer’s TB Films,” looks at an important moment in American history when a disease, tuberculosis, was on the rise and film was deployed in an effort to stop its spread. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, The National Tuberculosis Association (later known as the American Lung Association) would lead the charge, enlisting the services of Edgar Ulmer, a poverty row, “B” filmmaker most famous for his 1945 film, “Detour.”
Ulmer’s TB films, several of which are aimed specifically at American minorities, appear to uphold a commonly-held belief that the disease was no longer a white man’s disease. His films aimed at white Americans, however, fight against this misconception. His most aggressive contribution, “They Do Come Back” (1940), demonstrates the prevalence of the disease among working white Americans, and its structure is perfectly consistent with the other six films in the series. Two versions of the film exist, however, and the NTA’s “edit” of Ulmer’s film (his name is removed from the credits), softens Ulmer’s more radical message, suggesting that while the disease might still strike white Americans, this group is easier to treat because, among other things, traditional belief structures (especially religion) do not stand in their way.
This work is instructive for several reasons. First, it affords a more nuanced view of Ulmer, who has been, since the 1960s, a kind of cinematic cult figure (though his nontheatrical work is rarely dealt with beyond a mention of its existence). It also provides a case study for students interested in doing archival work who might be unaware of what might hide in the vaults (the Ulmer films were misfiled, and the “edit” was not accounted for in any way, so this work rights an historical oversight). Finally, it provides an account of a generation’s use of film to combat disease—successfully, one might add.
Note: additional films, and information about “Learning With The Lights Off: Educational Film In The United States”, are available here.