Today the NFPF adds 24 films to its Online Field Guide to Sponsored Films, a free digital screening room that presents entries from The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, written by Rick Prelinger and published by the NFPF in 2006.
These additions bring the total amount of titles to 159. All of the films were commissioned by a host of American businesses, charities, advocacy groups, and governments, and intended to promote commercial products, highlight good works, bring attention to social causes, and explain government programs.
Among the highlights are two drivers’ safety films: Last Date (1950) introduced the word “teenicide” into the English language, while the cartoon Once Upon a Time (1934) features the good fairies “Carefulness” and “Courtesy” preventing car crashes.
Another pair of films praise public libraries: Portrait of a Library (1940) profiles a forward-looking institution in New Jersey, while Not by Books Alone (1945), shows the range of community services offered by Rochester Public Library. Tackling a much different institution, Your Share in Tomorrow (1957) explains the workings of the New York Stock Exchange and was directed by Francis Thompson, with camera work by Robert Downey Sr. and special effects by D.A. Pennebaker.
One of the most unusual new films is Pete-Roleum and His Cousins (1939), shown at the 1939–40 New York World’s Fair. A promotional short sponsored by the petroleum industry, Pete-Roleum was produced through the collaboration of two iconoclastic artists at opposite ends of their careers; director Joseph Losey was earning his first screen credit, while stop-motion animator Charley Bowers was earning one of his last.
Starring a cast of puppets representing “Pete-Roleum” and his family of oil-drops, the film argues that without petroleum, which “makes a paradise on earth,” the world economy (and life as we know it) would fall apart. Pete-Roleum’s actual motive was to decry the government tax of 35 cents per dollar on oil sales, and claim that after taxes and operating costs the petroleum industry made a profit of only one-cent per gallon. These points were mandated by the film’s sponsors—every major petroleum company operating in New York.
Extolling oil companies was an ironic assignment for Losey, a Marxist who was later blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Prior to 1939 he had supervised the production of educational montage films (all reedited from Hollywood features) for the Progressive Education Association, but Pete-Roleum was his true debut as a director. He continued making shorts until his feature debut, The Boy with Green Hair (1948).
As for Charley Bowers, after 1939 he made only two more films before illness ended his film career. Both were in stop-motion animation, where he was a past master. He had entered the conventional animation industry in the 1910s, directing Mutt and Jeff cartoons (including Mutt and Jeff On Strike, available for viewing here), but starting in the mid-1920s he wrote, starred in, and produced a series of shorts that combined live-action with dazzling stop-motion animation, including There it Is (1928) and Now You Tell One (1926). Being a natural choice for Pete-Roleum, he earned the second-highest salary after Losey.
All 75 of the film’s puppets were crafted by Lou Bunin from rubber skins wrapped around armatures. They cavorted, on 50 three-dimensional sets built by Howard Bay, to music by Hanns Eisler, a former collaborator of Berthold Brecht, and pianist Oscar Levant. Cinematography was credited to Bowers’s longtime technical partner, Harold Muller. Pete-Roleum was a year in the making and opened to universally good reviews: “The fairest screen fare at the Fair,” according to Walter Winchell, and “Perhaps the most ambitious puppet film ever made in America,” in the words of Newsweek. Eight decades later, Pete-Roleum and His Cousins remains one of the best-made films with a cast made from wood and rubber.
Here are links to all 24 additions to the Online Sponsored Film Guide, listed by title, date, and sponsor:
• A is for Atom (1953), General Electric Co.
• Clean Waters (1945), General Electric Co.
• Coffee House Rendezvous (1966), Coffee Information Service.
• Crowded Out (1958), National Education Association.
• Destination Earth (1956), Oil Industry Information Committee, American Petroleum Institute.
• Enterprise (1948), Cluett, Peabody & Co. Inc.
• Feeling All Right (1948), Mississippi State Board of Health; United States Public Health Service.
• Flight to the Future—To the World of Plastics (1952), Bakelite Co., Union Carbide Corp.
• Ford Educational Weekly: “From Mud to Mug” (1919), Ford Motor Co.
• The High Wall (1952), Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith; Illinois Dept. of Public Health; Illinois Dept. of Public Information; Columbia Foundation.
• Industry’s Disinherited (1949), United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America.
• Industry on Parade: “Keep it Clean” (1959), National Association of Manufacturers.
• The Inner Man Steps Out (1951), General Electric Co.
• Last Date (1950), Lumbermens Mutual Casualty Co.
• The Man in the Doorway (1957), American Cyanamid Co.
• The New Age of Architecture (1958), Richard Neutra Studio.
• Not By Books Alone (1945), Rochester Public Library.
• Once Upon a Time (1934), Metropolitan Life Insurance Co.
• Pete-Roleum and His Cousins (1939), Petroleum Industry Exhibition Inc.
• Portrait of a Library (1940), Montclair Public Library, with support by Agnes Osborne Fund.
• The Power Behind the Nation (1940), Norfolk & Western Railway Co.
• 17 Days: A Story of Newspaper History in the Making (1945), New York Daily News.
• This is Life (1950), American Meat Institute.
• Your Share in Tomorrow (1957), New York Stock Exchange.