It's fascinating stuff. Still, given that so much of this material started out as propaganda and promotion, you have to ask how well it really reflects history. Put another way, will historians and other scholars really ever be able to accept Health Heroes Battle Disease and Chimp Safety as genuine historical documents?
"Most twentieth-century history is the study of special interests and groups that sought in one way or another to make a profit or increase their hegemony over somebody else," Prelinger responds. "In that sense, these films are sometimes more revealing than a lot of other documents, because the pretense of neutrality is much harder to swallow. And in addition, the history of consumer society, especially midcentury, is the history of idealized wants and needs rather than real ones. We are beings who are constructed in many ways by these stimuli that have a corporate or institutional or governmental push behind them. These films are sort of prima facie evidence of that process.
"Yes," he goes on, "we have a million unanswered questions about them. Like how seriously were these films taken, if they ever were? That's complicated, and we can speculate a lot, but we do know that they must have worked because they kept making them. Some of these films would stay in circulation for 20 or 30 years." One of the films on his first disc, We Drivers, "was seen by something like 30 million people, and brought the message that GM was interested in road safety. Of course, GM was also the company that didn't put seatbelts in its cars until long after Ford did," he grins. "So there's a hidden history there that this film goes a long way to illuminate."
For information about the Ephemeral Films series, call the Voyager Company toll-free at (800) 446-2001.