Falling Down an Archival Rabbit Hole: Following the Trail from Finished Film Back to the Research that Inspired It

We’ve written here before about the 2007 rescue of a treasure-trove of government films from a shuttered film laboratory. Archivists from the National Archives recovered many films produced across the Federal government so they could be preserved and made accessible to the public. You may be familiar with the anti-drug film Curious Alice, but I doubt you’ve heard of a film with the curious title That Feeling of Falling . . . and some Suggestions on How to Avoid It, also found in the abandoned lab.

This may be a case when jumping in with no context is best, so without further comment, here is the opening sequence of the film:

Pretty wild, right?

That Feeling of Falling was produced in 1976 by the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) to promote safety in the home through simple home improvements. In its visual and sound effects, the film shares stylistic elements with other government films of the decade, including Curious Alice and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms anti-moonshine film One Time Too Often. However, the message of That Feeling of Falling is very clear.

The CPSC used the film to address conditions that could lead to injuries within the home, whether by falling down dark stairs, slipping in a wet bathroom, or putting your arm through a plate-glass window. After depicting a fall in slow motion, the scene rewinds itself and the conditions that caused the fall are addressed. The victim navigates the same situation again, this time without injury.

To see this template in action, watch this clip about the dangers of basement stairs:

Because of its striking visuals and sound, I always remembered That Feeling of Falling since first working on it almost ten years ago. And so I was intrigued when another film about the hazards of stairs came through the Lab several years later.

The Impact of Design on Stair Accidents Among the Elderly (1972), found in the records of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), is not a film in the traditional sense, and on its face is pretty bizarre. Though it came to the Motion Picture Preservation Lab as a kinescope film, the original source material was definitely video. (Learn about the difference between film and video here.) It plays almost like a PowerPoint presentation made up of slides, charts, and hidden-camera footage of people falling down stairs.

Watching this, you may ask how something that looks like an episode of Candid Camera came to be held in the National Archives. Fortunately, there is a clue on the title card. The name John Archea led me to a report on the Government Publishing Office’s govinfo website titled An Analysis of the Behavior of Stair Users, which Archea co-authored.

This report, prepared for the CPSC’s Directorate for Engineering and Science, describes research with an objective “to recommend ways to reduce the frequency and severity of the approximately 350,000 stair, ramp and landing accidents that are treated in hospital emergency rooms each year.” We also learn exactly where all the video footage came from:

Image from page 1 of "An Analysis of the Behavior of Stair Users", a report of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Directorate for Engineering and Science.
Image from Page 1 of “An Analysis of the Behavior of Stair Users”, a report of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Directorate for Engineering and Science.

Drilling down even further, I was able to locate a document on govinfo about the department within the NBS where this research was done. The Center for Building Technology: A Perspective contains a description of the stair safety research project and an illustration of a researcher videotaping a set of stairs.

Image from "The Center for Building Technology: A Perspective", a publication of the Institute for Applied Technology, National Bureau of Standards, Department of Commerce
Image from “The Center for Building Technology: A Perspective”, a publication of the Institute for Applied Technology, National Bureau of Standards, Department of Commerce

An Analysis of the Behavior of Stair Users tells us that the researchers used coded data derived from the video segments to develop recommendations to improve stair design and reduce accidents. For example, distracting patterns can make it difficult to see where each step ends:

Image from page 28 of "An Analysis of the Behavior of Stair Users", a report of the Consumer Product Safety Commission's Directorate for Engineering and Science.
Image from page 28 of “An Analysis of the Behavior of Stair Users”, a report of the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Directorate for Engineering and Science.

Both The Impact of Design on Stair Accidents Among the Elderly and That Feeling of Falling contrast hazardous patterned carpeting with stair treads covered in a less-distracting solid color.

For someone like me who loves historical research, it is gratifying to follow how a simple research question about stairs generated results that were sent across Federal agencies to produce a film outlining solutions for the American public. And what a film it is!

Additional records outlining collaboration between the NBS and the CPSC may be found in Record Group 167 and accessed at the National Archives at College Park, Md.

Note: We are unable to post the entirety of That Feeling of Falling due to copyright concerns, but the full film may be viewed in the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Research Room at College Park.

3 thoughts on “Falling Down an Archival Rabbit Hole: Following the Trail from Finished Film Back to the Research that Inspired It

  1. After watching this film, I recommend listening to “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement,” by the Ramones, released the same year.

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