Geoff Alexander’s book Academic Films for the Classroom: A History is an extraordinarily well-researched and necessary history of educational film between World War II and the Gulf War. It’s an era the author calls “not old enough to be antique, but just old enough to be moldy.” While the public is more beguiled by the campiness of vintage social studies films (Kino just released two fresh volumes of them on DVD), Alexander is more interested in the work of genuine artists whose work endures, as well as the fascinating hacks whose attitudes shed light on the way we were.

Encyclopedia Britannica—an American-owned company since 1929—was one of the biggest companies that got into the educational film business. It was a business bolstered by the 1950s boom in 16 mm projectors, the success of the World War II Army training film and the increases in spending for education over the decades.

Founded by David Smart, the dapper hypochondriac who started Esquire magazine, Coronet was the cheapjack Monogram Studios of educational film. And the National Film Board of Canada sponsored trend-setting work in animation and documentary. Alexander also provides pocket-size histories of the other different entities that put out educational films. Some were small ’70s companies engulfed by multinationals; others were minicorporations caught in their own cultural struggles.

The director/producers make the best stories, though. There’s Budge Crawley, who once hauled his infant son into a burning building to spice up an industrial film on fire safety. There’s also the daredevil Bert Van Bork, who was nearly immolated filming Kilauea volcano. An entire chapter is dedicated to John Barnes (1920–2000). “An auteur,” Alexander calls him. The polymath Barnes’ learned films on Shaw, Shakespeare and Dickens were good enough, but Barnes’ adaptation of the postapocalyptic tale The Portable Phonograph (1977) is my choice for the single best film ever unearthed by Alexander.

The author is remembered in the South Bay for his free Cine 16 salons in the 1990s; the book’s appendix, listing URLs for three dozen of these films, brings back the fun and enlightenment of those nights. Alexander’s Academic Film Archive of North America retrieves the memories as well as the source materials, and the book is an eloquent argument for the further preservation needing to be done.
Academic Films for the Classroom:
By Geoff Alexander; McFarland; 236 pages;
$55 paperback