Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Romance of Radium: A Post on Short Films

God, I love old short films. To me, the short films of the 1930s through the 1960s serve much the same function as the silents did and the talkies did before the Hays Code. They give an insight onto the values of the time in a very visceral way. They push certain kind of moral values in a tendentious way that was usually avoided within the real films that followed since those actually had to entertain. It is easy to see why Mystery Science Theater made fun of so many of these shorts--they are hilarious nuggets of absurd gold. I had TIVOed some shorts off of TCM that I watched back to back the other night.

The first set were these 1940s nostalgia trips. Great stuff. The first was an early look at car nostalgia. The narrator was just a baby when his parents bought their first car, which was some kind of 1905 thing. It went through time showing how cars framed our lives and changed the city streets. It was fascinating to see how early car nostalgia reached Americans. Seeing this short was the equivalent of going to the modern-day car show with your grandfather and listening to him spiel about what all of these cars meant to him.

The second short in this set was a piece on a family's Swedish maid off all the damn things in the world. It was the same guy narrating as the first one. It was about his family growing up in the city and hiring a Swedish maid just over from the old country. One thing was particularly striking about this: the story starts off with the woman getting hired as a trial and the father coming home the first night to witness her spraying the boys with a hose as they had been messing with her. She is going to be fired the next day but she cooks her best Swedish food that night and wows the father and they keep her on. Now my question is this: how bad must American food have been in 1900 or whenever this supposedly took place to be completely overwhelmed by Swedish food? Wow. That is totally beyond my comprehension. White American food by all accounts was almost totally inedible to the modern palate even in the early 20th century. Now I have greater insight into this.

The second set revolved around science. The first of these shorts, "The Romance of Radium," which is a great title if I've ever seen one was about the discovery of radium and the early experiments that took place with it. It wasn't all that exciting, despite the title, though there was a good bit on some African kid getting healed by his local tribe through being placed in radium-laced dirt, something that gave the creators of the short a good excuse to film their version of African customs. The second short in that was about Alfred Nobel and was pretty uninteresting I suppose.

The last set came from the late 1960s. The first was one of the creepiest things I'd ever seen for many reasons. It was entitled "All Eyes on Sharon Tate" and was basically a publicity short for Tate after she shot her first movie. So obviously there was a certain element of unintended creepiness built into this. But to make it more creepy, her first film, which I can't remember the title of now, starred David Niven, a creepy guy if there ever was one. To make it worse, when Niven is interviewed about Tate, the first thing he says is, "Well, first of all she's a marvelous looking bird." Which is a great 60s phrase from a really creepy guy. The next best part of this short was Sharon Tate saying she would never want to do something like Shakespeare but she would like to do some light comedy.

The final short was the only one too boring to get through. It was about the 1969 John Frankenheimer film The Gypsy Moths that had a lot of skydiving in it. The short was about the skydiving stunts. To some, no doubt it would have been really interesting. To me, well I just don't care about stuff like that. Plus by that time I had had a few and wasn't really up for paying attention to something that didn't grab me.

None of these matched my favorite short of all time which was about Stephen Foster and was an excuse for blackface and racial stereotypes, but nonetheless these did give a nice overview of bad filmmaking, self-serving moral tales, and Hollywood self-promotion. And what makes better watching than that?