Today the National Film Preservation Foundation launches an ambitious digital access project: an online screening room featuring more than 100 films from The Field Guide to Sponsored Films. Written by Rick Prelinger and published by the NFPF in 2006 through the generous support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Field Guide was the first overview of the motion pictures commissioned during the past century by American businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and state and local government organizations. The annotated filmography singled out 452 sponsored films of particular historical, cultural, and artistic interest; now viewers can see 102 of them online. Almost all are in HD and available for free download, thanks to our partners at the Library of Congress and the Internet Archive.
Since the 1890s films have showcased industry, advocated social causes, explained government programs, promoted commercial products, and highlighted the good work of charities. Such motion pictures came to be called sponsored films, since their production was funded or “sponsored” by corporations, government entities, or non-profits to communicate a specific message. Sponsored films offer “a picture of 20th-century America that adds a great deal to our understanding of daily life and work, gender roles, persuasion and consensus, politics and culture,” according to Guide author Rick Prelinger, Associate Professor of Film and Media at UC Santa Cruz. “Each sponsored film is a history lesson that can entertain while offering us serious and useful insights about the past so that we can look more knowledgeably toward the future.”
Screening Room highlights include The House I Live In (1945), featuring Frank Sinatra making a plea for religious tolerance as a core American value; More Than Meets the Eye (1952), a mid-century modern animation from John Hubley arguing for the value of radio advertising; the 35mm Technicolor featurette The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair (1939), commissioned by Westinghouse to promote the wonders of technology; Booked For Safekeeping (1960), a police training film produced by the Louisiana Association for Mental Health for instruction on safely handling the mentally disturbed; Design for Dreaming (1939), General Motors’ futuristic fantasia of the 1956 Motorama trade show; and Shake Hands With Danger (1975), a Caterpillar Tractor Co. safety film directed by “Herk” Harvey, best known for his horror classic Carnival of Souls.
“These titles are a constantly rewarding chronicle of lived experience in the modern age, a rich visual resource that will prove invaluable to scholars and casual viewers alike,” says Mike Mashon, Head of the Moving Image Section at the Library of Congress. “The Library has more than 300 of the 452 Field Guide titles in its collection, so it made sense for us to prioritize them for digitization as part of our ongoing preservation activity. And since most are in the public domain, we’re excited to partner with the NFPF to make them available online.”
The films appear on the NFPF site thanks to hosting provided by the Internet Archive, a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, websites, and more. Eighty-three titles come from the Library of Congress. Ten other archives have also generously provided films: A/V Geeks, George Eastman Museum, the Hagley Museum and Library, The Museum of Modern Art, the National Archives and Records Administration, Northeast Historic Film, the Prelinger Archives, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the USC School of Cinematic Arts Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive. The NFPF will continue partnering with these archives to upload more sponsored films in the coming months, so watch this space.
A PDF copy of The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, with clickable links to films available for viewing, can be freely downloaded from the NFPF website.