Fantoma Films presents
The Educational Archives: Volume 4—On The Job (1948-80)
"I used to laugh at safety. Now they call me Three-Finger Joe."- Troubadour/narrator of "Shake Hands With Danger"
Stars: Lou Rawls, Raymond Massey
Director: Jerry Kurtz
MPAA Rating: Not RatedRun Time: 02h:28m:13s
Release Date: 2002-05-07
DVD ReviewIf you've ever spent any time with struggling actors, you've probably heard of "industrials." A few steps up the food chain from waiting tables, and down from soap opera work, industrials are training films, more or less, produced for limited distribution to a target audience. They share an obvious cinematic kinship with educational films, collected by Fantoma on volumes one and two of their series—but just because you're out of high school doesn't mean you can close the door to this aspect of cinema. A dozen industrials are collected on this DVD, and while they won't bring back the heebie-jeebies you got in junior high health class from having to watch a movie about menstruation, they are sure to fill you with fear and desire nonetheless as they investigate the workplace in its many aspects.
Promotion By-Pass— 1958 (08m:12s)
"You know, Harry, that we all think the world of you around here."
Anybody who has ever been called into the boss's office knows that the next word after the sentence quoted above is "But." This tension-filled drama poses the dilemma: Who will be the new office manager at the Amalgamated Products Lake City plant? Frank, the boss, has to make a choice, between Bob Randolph, who is brimming with potential, is a real go-getter, but has only five years' experience; and Harry Stevens, who's got the longest tenure, but he ain't got no class. Harry doesn't wear a necktie, is gruff with his colleagues and secretaries, and even though he's a good worker, he just rubs some folks the wrong way. He is the industrial film's version of Willy Loman.
Frank goes with beauty over age, and while this must have been intended as a lesson in how to keep your employees from going postal, it backfires in a big way:
Harry: Well, I guess I have one thing to say about it.
Frank: Well, good. Out with it.
Harry: I quit.
Frank: But Harry! You're my best man!
Harry has a Vince Lombardi, bulldog quality, and though he gets the shaft from management, you can only imagine that this guy would be the nightmare boss. The audience is left to ponder that tantalizing question: Where did Frank go wrong? It's a moral dilemma that will not keep you up for days.
This rates three projectors on our five-projector scale.
Down and Out!— 1971 (08m:53s)
"One of the most common causes of injuries in work situations is falling."
Here's a shocker: the laws of Newtonian physics apply in the workplace as well as everywhere else. Designed to promote worker safety, the film offers such insights as "balance is a critical factor in falls," and "carrying something can greatly increase the risk of falling." As the voice-of-God narrator intones these warnings, the same actor clad in a handsome brown jumpsuit falls and falls and falls. I couldn't help but wonder about this poor guy, about what sorts of bruises he must have accumulated on this shoot, and if his dreams of being a master thespian were met by being the guy in an industrial film who slips on crayons and magazines and jelly doughnuts. It goes on long enough that you start to see Chauncey Gardner-like wisdom in the keen grasp of the obvious: "Another common way of destroying balance is overreaching." But pretty much it all adds up to: Try not to fall down, you might hurt yourself.
Barbers And Beauticians— 1960 (14m:31s)
"If attractive people are the leaders of society, then barbers and beauticians are the molders of leaders."
This is a production of the AFL-CIO, and I'd be mightily annoyed if my union dues went to pay for stuff like this. Part of a continuing series on the nobility of labor, the narrator traces the origins of barbers to ancient Egypt and to Plato, and speaks of the many functions they serve today—barber as artist, barber as shrink—as we crosscut between father and son at the barber shop, and mother and daughter at the beautician.
The boys finish first, and stand around waiting for the girls; here it's the unintentional things that are so interesting to us, with the little boy's saddle bucks and Dad chain smoking. We're told that "the transformation that can take place in a young girl's appearance simply by changing the style of her hair is deftly accomplished in the hands of an experienced beautician," but when they finally emerge, the ladies don't really look very good.
Special bonus: a PSA featuring Raymond Massey, debunking some medical quackery, including a machine that supposedly uses music to cure cancer.
You and Your Work— 1948 (10m:22s)
"You know, Frank, I don't think there's such a thing as a dull job."
Max Weber and the Protestant work ethic come to the guidance counselor's office. Frank wants to pick up some extra money, so he goes to work at the local shoe store—he starts bright eyed and bushy tailed, but soon loses his luster: "It wasn't bad for a week or so, but then I began to get bored." Frank starts showing up late, bitching about his wages, even yelling at the customers. ("Boy, some of those people really made me sick.") He gets a stern talking-to from the school counselor, who insists that he must drink the Kool-Aid—a carpenter, a farmer and a secretary, all previous occupants of the chair in the counselor's office, preach the virtues of work. Frank gets with the program and goes back to work at the shoe store, in what is intended as an uplifting ending, but apparently consigns poor Frank to what Thoreau called a life of quiet desperation.
The Trouble With Women— 1959 (06m:10s)
"I can remember the good old days when we had only men in my department, and we didn't have these problems."
Mr. Bradshaw has it in for the fairer sex, and is not at all happy with the new bearings inspector, because she's a woman. Bradshaw goes to personnel, complaining variously that he doesn't like change, that women get married and up and quit, are resistant to taking orders, and are more prone to absenteeism than men. Tough luck, Brad—this is the only bearings inspector available. (I think we all know how hard it is to find a good bearings inspector.) Bradshaw huffs back to his department, and we're left with a full-screen question: "What is Brad's trouble?" It remains unclear whether counseling will be available for Mr. Bradshaw, or if he can expect to be named as a defendant in a sexual harassment suit.
When You Grow Up— 1973 (11m:21s)
"You will grow up someday. You will get a job. You will be...working."
This one is designed for the kids, and assures them that "working is part of being grown up." To a groovy bossa nova beat, we see many, many people doing their jobs: pharmacists, traffic cops, carpenters, doctors, and on and on. You can match your skills to your profession: "Do you like to meet people?" Then why not become a used car salesman? We spend an inordinate amount of time inside the workings of a trucking business. Recommended for the perpetual grad student who thinks that he or she is never getting out of school.
Oh, and by the way, auteurists take note: this is "a film by Jerry Kurtz."
The Grapevine— 1958 (07m:11s)
"Why is it that people are always interested in things that are none of their business?"
A stern lesson in the viciousness of office gossip. Is the Perkins Company taking over, and moving everybody to Cleveland? Worse still: are Helen and Sally being replaced by a new contraption called a computer? They are not, but the rumors have spiraled out of control, and management has to tamp them down. (You can, however, feel the first low rumblings of the new economy and the coming problem of workers displaced by advancing technology.) Instead of being a lesson in staying tight-lipped, the film is more revealing about gender inequity—not only are the men referred to by their last names (the boss is Mr. Stone) and the women referred to by their first names, they're not even called women: they're always called girls. "If this wasn't so serious, it would be ridiculous," in the immortal words of Mr. Stone.
As were Promotion By-Pass and The Trouble With Women, this one was produced by McGraw-Hill, which apparently was to industrial films what MGM in its heyday was to musicals.
Shake Hands With Danger— 1980 (23m:05s)
"This is the moment, that split second when a man decides between being safe or shaking hands with danger."
The most recent and the longest film on the disc, the narration is provided with a guitar-picking, singing troubadour who sounds more than a little like Charlie Daniels. Early on, this seems like a cut-rate Stephen King story about an evil Caterpillar backhoe, wreaking havoc on the men who touch it. One after another, workers come to the machine like lambs to the slaughter, banging the machine into pickups and cranes, falling and getting killed from the forklift, unaware that the machine is liable to run them over at any moment. There's so much horror here that you can't just dismiss it as a bunch of boneheads working construction; the body count is too high, and as you watch you'll find yourself wincing in anticipation of the next accident.
The degree of specificity is fabulous, too: "Harry knows that with one axel removed and the differential unlocked the machine shouldn't move." Some of the talk sounds more like defensive line coaches dissecting a busted play: "Improper blocking or failure to block are major causes of crushing accidents." The carnage escalates, and in the second half is concentrated especially on the hands and arms—vicious burns on a forearm from a hot vise, hands covered in boiling oil, hands lopped right off in misguided efforts to fix the machinery. The grand, overarching lesson: Read the manual.
How to Keep a Job— 1949 (11m:22s)
"Dependability is one of the main keys to keeping a job and getting ahead."
This is in some respects the holy grail of industrial films: it's an evil twin movie. Ed got fired after eighteen months on the job, and he's still pissed off that he didn't get a promotion. Here he's applying for a new position, and the interviewer tells him the tale of Walter and Bob, brothers, the Goofus and Gallant of the shipping department. It's a tour de force for the unnamed actor who plays both brothers, with Walter slacking off and cutting out of work early as Bob slaves over the boxes and tape and paperwork. We're told that the four key attributes to a good employee are dependability, initiative, cooperation and loyalty; but I'd strongly advise the makers of this film to contact their attorney, because the stunning climax of their story was blatantly ripped off by David Fincher for Fight Club.
Purely Coincidental— 1970 (19m:06s)
"Well, I'll tell you one thing: someone is gonna pay for this."
With the social conscience of Upton Sinclair and the depth of family feeling of Sophocles, Purely Coincidental is The Godfather, Part II of its kind, and its legacy can be felt in films as various as Sleepless in Seattle and Heat. Harry lives in Wisconsin and works in a pet food plant, where cleanliness is not next to godliness. Crushed glass and drill bits routinely fall into the dog food, but Harry and his colleagues are oblivious—they just want to get off work and talk about the Packers.
We cut between Harry and John, who works in an Illinois food plant, where hygiene is poorer still. This is sure to put you off your lunch, as workers with hands covered in oil and dirt routinely handle food before it is canned; the roughest image is of John failing to wash his hands after urinating, and then going directly to knead today's batch of bread dough.
In a tragic coincidence full of pity and terror, John's dog Duke is fed a can of food from Harry's factory, and Harry's daughter Allison eats her breakfast cereal straight from John's plant. Allison is rushed to the hospital, and though it's touch and go for a while, escapes with a nasty case of food poisoning. The news is worse for Duke, who lies dead in the yard.
Harry and John have twin epiphanies: how could anybody work in a place that would produce something so filthy? Not content to leave it at that, the filmmakers provide a wrenching culmination, when Harry and John meet up in a bar, sadder but wiser, each the unknowing engineer of the other's misfortune. Also, the Packers beat the Bears.
Hidden Grievance— 1959 (06m:25s)
"Funny how it takes so long to get to the real gripe."
Blame Canada. Jake is always bellyaching about something on the job—the light isn't right, his legs hurt, he's unhappy with his recent transfer. Larry, the boss, tries to make things right, but Jake will not be mollified—he files a grievance with the union, and a breach-of-contract complaint is brought against Larry and the firm. The unspoken subtext is about nativism on the job, as the prejudice against Jake and his thick Canadian accent is unmistakable. Another memorable McGraw-Hill production.
All Together— 1970 (21m:26s)
"There are brothers just like yourself doing it. You could do it too, man."
Lou Rawls hosts this Navy recruiting film aimed at "the young black." It's a tour through just about every position you could fill in the Navy, ranging from fighter jock to barber, and Rawls is relentlessly upbeat about the things the Navy has to offer: "You learn to swim, man, you dig?" This is both deeply patronizing to its target audience ("You'll find, when you're hungry enough, that common weeds taste like soul food, you dig?") and full of the anxiety of its time: ROTC is presented as a glorious campus option, but in this 1970 production you don't once hear the word "Vietnam." Particular appeals are made to women (the promise of equal pay for equal work) and to law students. The musical accompaniment is provided by Port Authority, "The U.S. Navy's soul band."
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+
|Aspect Ratio||1.33:1 - Full Frame|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: As they should be, these films are full of scratches, blotches and skips, and they are preserved in all their 16 mm glory on this disc. Not always pretty, but brimming with authenticity.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: The original mono tracks are battered but comprehensible, and in what may be either a loving re-creation of the authentic experience or some guys with way too much time on their hands, there's a second audio track called "Classroom Experience." The 5.0 mix simulates the sound that you would have heard if you were watching these films on a crappy old projector in a classroom, with the dialogue from the one little speaker muffled by the whir of the film going around the reels.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Extras Review: Chapter stops are for each of the twelve shorts. Also, there's a brief but nice little essay on the case insert by Skip Eisheimer, the curator of the DVD, who readily acknowledges that "twenty years from now, the videos of today will probably seem just as corny and inappropriate as the films included on this DVD."
Extras Grade: D
Final CommentsGood for more than a few belly laughs, these shorts also provide pretty earnest little meditations on the nature of work. You won't be mistaking them for Socratic dialogues any time soon, but God bless the folks at the A/V Geeks Educational Film Archive for preserving these.
Jon Danziger 2002-07-15