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Enthusiasts Work to Preserve Educational Movies


If you went to High School in the 1960s or '70s, you probably remember sitting in biology class and watching a movie like this.

Unidentified Announcer: (In film clip) With the growth of intensive farming, man has provided a rich diet for a host of pests.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: That's from an educational film called The Living Soil. The Shell Oil Company produced it in 1965 to extol the virtues of pesticides. By today's standards, it ranges from cheesy to pure propaganda. But there are people who still watch these 16- millimeter movies, and they're not just former AV Club members who use to run the projectors. A St. Louis group holds public screenings of old school films, as part of an effort to preserve them.

Matt Sepic of member station KWMU reports.

MATT SEPIC reporting:

It's a Thursday night, and in a room at the St. Louis History Museum, a man standing in the back starts the projector.

(Soundbite of a movie projector)

SEPIC: About 40 people are here to watch an old, 16-millimeter films. They range from college-aged hipsters who grew up watching parodies on The Simpsons, to baby-boomers who remember the real thing. The evening's program includes a campy number from 1973, simply called Barges. It follows a load of corn down the Mississippi River, and its narrator rarely uses a sentence that's more that ten words long.

Unidentified Announcer: (In film clip) Barges don't move by themselves. Leave them alone and they won't come home. They have to be pushed. Towboats push barges.

SEPIC: Films like this are quickly disappearing. For years, school districts around the country, tight on money and space, tossed them to make way for videotapes and DVDs. Often, the films wound up in the dumpster. But a few years ago, the St. Louis Public School District gave all 6,000 of its movies to a local collector. Word spread, and soon movie buffs in St. Louis joined with the Academic Film Archive of North America, a non-profit based in San Jose, California.

St. Louis curator Michael Allen says these films have to be saved, and not just for their camp value.

Mr. MICHAEL ALLEN (Curator, Academic Film Archive): They are very heavily rooted in a specific time, you know, when they were made. And they're very good documents, I think, of the sociological mood of the time they were made.

SEPIC: A case in point is a cartoon called Johnny Learns His Manners. This is about a kid who is so messy, he quite literally turns into a pig, complete with hooves and a curly tail.

Unidentified Man #1: (In film clip) You've turned into a pig, because you prefer to act like one.

Unidentified Man #2: (In film clip) I don't want to be a pig. I just didn't want to be a sissy.

SEPIC: An estimated 100,000 of these films were made in the 20- century. St. Louis archive director Evelyn Williams says most have a decidedly Cold War flavor.

Ms. EVELYN WILLIAMS (Director, Academic Film Archive): In the 40s and 50s, academic films really ramped up in this country. And the main backer of that was the U.S. government, basically pouring money into the education system, anyway it could, to beef up our schools, and get our kids ready for science and mathematics to beat the Russians.

SEPIC: With the fall of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the video age, the classic 16-millimeter school movie declined. Williams says the challenge now is to keep all that old film from deteriorating. Some movies in the archive are the only remaining prints. Keeping track of it all is a tough job, too. But the Academic Film Archive is now working with the Library of Congress to make a worldwide database of all the old school movies it can find, cornball or not.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in St. Louis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Sepic