Preserved by the University of Oregon, Adaptive Behavior of Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels (1942) depicts members of the titular species (not to be confused with chipmunks) roaming around Crater Lake, Oregon, before moving indoors to show captive squirrels learning how to solve a series of increasingly challenging tasks. Tantalized by out-of-reach peanuts, the determined critters literally pull strings for food.
The man behind the squirrels was University of Oregon psychology professor and educational filmmaker Lester F. Beck (1909-77), whose love of animals stemmed from growing up on an Oregon ranch; he would later build a house that allowed wild rodents to crawl into a maze suspended from the living room ceiling. Beck called film “one of the greatest aids to learning since the inception of spoken and written language” and played a vital role in establishing the university’s Audio-Visual Department. He frequently made 16mm silent films of his psychological experiments for classroom use, and Adaptive Behavior, his second surviving film, proved effective with students.
Beck’s next short, Human Growth (1947), was called “epoch-making” by Life Magazine. Praised for its film-within-a-film structure and just-the-facts approach, it became of the most important and widely-viewed sex education films ever made. In 1950 Beck became Head of the Department of Cinema at the University of Southern California and continued producing educational films such as the award-winning Human Heredity (1956). It was a golden period for the genre, thanks to high demand from schools and the military.
In 1951 Beck teamed with educational film baron Sy Wexler to rework Adaptive Behavior of Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels into a film for children, titled Squeak the Squirrel (1951). The original footage was retained but thoroughly transformed by the addition of music, sound effects, footage of a human hand setting up the experiments, and narration that anthromorphized the test-subject squirrels into a single individual and described "his" emotions.
Beck wrote that the new film “enables even six-year-olds to grasp two ideas: first that there is a continuity between the various animal species…and, second, that the learning process of animals is not unlike their own.” Footage that had once instructed college students now enthralled grade schoolers: “So great is the suspense built up in the process of watching the really strenuous efforts of Squeak to reach the elusive peanut that when he finally achieves his goal, the child audiences frequently burst into applause.”
For further information on Lester Beck, consult “No Birds, No Bees, No Moralizing: Lester F. Beck, Progressive Educational Filmmaker,” by Elizabeth Peterson and Michael Aronson (The Moving Image, Spring 2014, Vol. 14 No. 1).