A year after starring in House of Wax, Vincent Price made another film with a solid cast and a script by an Oscar-winning writer, photographed in Technicolor by the man who went on to shoot such rainbow-hued classics as Mary Poppins. But Born in Freedom: The Story of Colonel Drake never played in theaters: it was an industrial film. Many Hollywood professionals made a good living working in the arena of nontheatrical filmmaking. These sponsored films were underwritten by various corporations, industrial groups, and branches of our government. Now my pal Ron Hall at Festival Films has released a collection of these oddities on DVD under the title Industrial Strength America.
Born in Freedom has the most impressive credentials, with Price supported by Andy Clyde, Thurston Hall, Alan Hale Jr., and other familiar character actors in the story of Edwin L. Drake, the man who discovered how to extract oil from the ground. Norman Reilly Raine, creator of Tugboat Annie, wrote the screenplay and the period piece was designed by art director Eugene Lourié, who had recently worked on Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight(and went on to write and direct such ‘50s favorites as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and The Giant Behemoth). It’s a polished production that resembles a B movie of the time; the American Petroleum Institute certainly got its money’s worth.
You’ll find names ranging from Alan Ladd to Woody Guthrie in the lineup on this disc. Veterans of MGM and Warner Bros. cartoons collaborated on Fill ‘er Up and Destination Earth which, like many of the shorts, extolls the glories of fossil fuels! (The latter short is co-written by the great Bill Scott, who was the head writer—and voice—of Bullwinkle for Jay Ward.) It’s fun to see original Technicolor prints of these cartoons, produced by John Sutherland, who consistently hired top artists. And I always enjoy hearing the voice of the ubiquitous Marvin Miller, who narrates and plays all the characters as well.
Ladd, two years from his starring breakthrough, is featured in Unfinished Rainbows, about the history of aluminum, while Asphalt Through the Ages reveals that the title substance dates back to Biblical days.
The Columbia, made in 1942, is a particularly interesting story of harnessing hydroelectric power in Washington State, and features three original songs performed by Woody Guthrie. The film’s release was delayed for years and it became embroiled in controversy when President Eisenhower’s Secretary of the Interior ordered all prints destroyed—as he was a proponent of private rather than public utilities.
Does all this material qualify as great entertainment? Not really, but it does represent a facet of American film history that remains largely unexplored and undocumented. Richard Prelinger was the first person to see the value in these industrials decades ago but since his groundbreaking compilations no one has done much with them.
When I was a kid and had access to a 16mm projector at my junior high school I pored over the pages of a nontheatrical catalog, hoping to find some way to screen the most intriguing titles. There was no charge to rent these propaganda films but they weren’t going to send them to some kid without a bona fide organization or school doing the ordering. Thus I was denied the chance of seeing all sorts of films that sounded interesting. There were even some Disney animated shorts, including one whose title made no sense to me: The Story of Menstruation. Perhaps it’s just as well that I had to contain my curiosity.
Here’s a preview trailer:
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