This post was written with Heidi Holmstrom.
In the past year, staff in the motion picture preservation lab handled millions of feet of film. Films might come to us for inspection and repair, photochemical duplication, or digitization. To continue an annual tradition, we’ve identified a handful of films that were digitized in 2017 and found their way to our list of favorites.
James Hunter shows off his new muscles after a day of work in the forest with his father and brother. (Still from Men of the Forest)
Japanese war bride Miwako feels isolated as she adjusts to life in the United States. (Still from Japanese Bride in America)
After returning Stateside, Lt. Packaday Cummings reminisces about how he came to be a reconnaissance pilot. (Still from Reconnaissance Pilot)
Shelley and Pete find that life as teen-aged parents is difficult. Still from Shelley & Pete (…&Carol).
Rock Creek Park Puppet Show, 1979 (79-HFC-229)
Here in the lab we have a fondness for government films starring puppets, probably because the examples we hold go so far off the rails. The newest addition to our list of marionette productions, Rock Creek Park Puppet Show, came down this year for inspection as a new accession.
In the film, a possibly sociopathic child becomes angry at a sentient rock after he trips over it. He beats the rock with his butterfly net, and then injures his foot when he kicks it. When the rock explains that it was actually here first, the child responds in disbelief, “For a talking rock, you sure do lie a lot.”
The film then switches gears and becomes an animated geology lesson, but happily returns to the puppets. The child, now apparently fascinated, asks the rock to talk to his friends. The rock declines and decides to take a 75,000 year nap instead. The child responds, “Well, who cares anyway? I’ve got better things to do than waste my time talking to rude rocks.” The rock gets the last laugh, quite literally, with the film closing out on bright flute music and the rock’s demonic chuckle.
Reconnaissance Pilot, 1943 (342-SFP-125)
Reconnaissance Pilot is a slick World War II training film starring William Holden. We’ve written about the Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit before, but only came across this title when we were putting together a presentation on the unit. In the film, William Holden is Lieutenant Packaday Cummings, the son of World War I ace fighter pilot. Although he is disappointed with his assigned role, over the course of the three-reel film, Lt. Cummings learns that his work as a reconnaissance pilot can have a greater impact than if he were a fighter.
Holden was one of many Hollywood actors and technicians who served in the First Motion Picture Unit during the war. He is best known for his star turns in the 1950s, notably in Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, and Bridge on the River Kwai.
Japanese Bride in America, 1952 (306.5604)
After World War II, many GIs stationed in Japan married Japanese women. While at first U.S. immigration laws made it difficult for the women to move to the United States with their husbands, the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act removed legal barriers. Japanese Bride in America was produced that same year by the U.S. Army Signal Corps’ Civil Affairs Division, likely to be shown to Japanese women and their families.
The film is the story of Miwako, who moves to Cleveland, Ohio, with her husband and must learn to adjust to American life. For the most part people are welcoming, but Miwako struggles to feel comfortable, especially with the English language. The film does not gloss over how hard it is to adapt to a new culture, but Miwako gradually begins to fit in, particularly after she and her husband start a business making and selling bamboo housewares.
For more stories of women like Miwako, read “The Untold Stories of Japanese War Brides” by Kathryn Tolbert in The Washington Post.
Shelley & Pete (…& Carol), 1980 (235-EDU-20)
This 1980 film is pure Afterschool Special, produced in the mold of the made-for-television movies ABC began broadcasting in 1972. The topic here is teen pregnancy and its effect on teen life and relationships. Shelley is a cheerleader and Pete has dreams of sailing around the Caribbean Sea, but everything changes when Carol is born.
Our readers in Washington, D.C., may recognize the name of the actor who played Pete. Tucker Echols was a longtime on-air reporter for radio station WTOP’s Washington Business Journal.
Men of the Forest, 1952 (306.824)
There are three things to know about Men of the Forest: It features an African-American family in rural Georgia, it was made by the United States Information Agency for overseas audiences, and we’ve seen nothing else like it in our holdings.
Men of the Forest is about the Hunter family, centering on the youngest son, James. The film begins when James, on summer vacation and finally old enough to join his father and brother working in the woods, wakes up excited to start his day. James notices that other families have power saws and can cut more trees every day. James forges a plan for the Hunter family to save the needed funds so they, too, can have a power saw and with it, an opportunity to improve their lives. The Hunters scrimp and save; Mother gives up her sewing machine fund and the sons forgo treats on a trip to town. By the conclusion, the Hunters buy their power saw, and with the profit from the additional timber they cut, they buy Mother a sewing machine and fix up their home.
In theme and form, Men of the Forest echoes New Deal films like We Work Again or Power and the Land that show the value of labor and how technology can improve workers’ lives. Like many of the New Deal documentaries, Men of the Forest is beautifully shot. Unlike those films, Men of the Forest features a black family as the core protagonists. It would be hard to overstate how rare this is in government films. In fact, we haven’t seen anything like it before.
Men of the Forest came to the lab for inspection as part of a larger project to process the backlog of films from the United States Information Agency.
Every year we see so many great films that it’s hard to narrow it down to just five. Honorable Mentions for 2017 include Don’t Be a Sucker, Union and Community, and Endless Chain.