restricted access When Film Went to College: A Brief History of the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive
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When Film Went to College
A Brief History of the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive

The increasing importance of films in education and industry...[has] provided great promise for the future film maker.


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The history of educational film is only beginning to be written. Educational films—nonfiction films with a pedagogical purpose—were produced and distributed throughout much of the twentieth century for exhibition in school classrooms and other noncommercial locations, such as libraries, museums, churches, public halls, and so forth. This wide range of venues falls under the umbrella category of “nontheatrical” exhibition. Educational film genres run the gamut of school curricula categories: biology, physics, math, history, sports, industrial manufacturing, music, art, and so on. Educational cinema forged a complex—and still largely unknown—history that runs parallel to the well-known story of commercial cinema in the twentieth century, featuring an entirely different set of key players and an entirely different economic structure. In fact, the production, distribution, exhibition, style, and purpose of educational films are so different from commercial cinema that it is tempting to assert that the only common ground between the two is the apparatus—camera/celluloid/projector—although such an assertion certainly overstates the case. Not only did Hollywood studios produce some educational films, but educational films borrowed heavily from the narrative conventions of commercial cinema. Nonetheless, at first glance, educational cinema’s difference from commercial, feature-length, narrative cinema looms large, and this difference (or apparent marginality) undoubtedly led to its neglect by earlier generations of film scholars. As new scholarship has begun to demonstrate, however, the time is now ripe for exploring educational cinema’s unique development in the twentieth century.

Unlike commercial Hollywood cinema, whose history is often told as a story of famous studios, directors, stars, and films, the story of educational cinema can perhaps be more productively traced through microhistories of specific institutions, companies, individuals, and their forays into cinema—for example, the Museum of Modern Art, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Motor Company, ERPI Classroom Films, the YMCA, and Edgar Dale.1 These accounts do not aim to tell a top-down story of educational cinema, which is still too unknown, too diverse, and too broad to be assimilated into one grand narrative; rather, they chronicle the smaller, ground-up histories of individual and institutional attempts to produce, distribute, exhibit, or interpret films in the classroom.

This article presents a brief history of what is today the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive (hereafter HMIA) at the University of Southern California’s (USC) School of Cinematic Arts. Under a different name, this unit once served as an important distributor and producer of educational films. Drawing from paper materials, oral histories, films, and other primary materials held by the HMIA, we focus on the collection’s core connection to nontheatrical cinema. The story of the HMIA can help us understand the role [End Page 34] universities played in the distribution and production of educational films in the mid-twentieth century, at a time when 16mm nontheatrical cinema was at its peak of expansion and usage.

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Dan Wiegand, Herb Farmer, and John Norwood running the modified RCA projectors in 1939. Courtesy of Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive, University of Southern California.

As recently published essay collections such as Useful Cinema and Learning with the Lights Offhave begun to illustrate, although there were numerous attempts to establish a market for educational films in nontheatrical venues dating back as far as the 1910s, educational cinema did not achieve its most broad-based success until after World War II. Previously, 16mm educational films had been distributed to schools and other nontheatrical venues before the war; as Gregory Waller has shown, “the period between 1935 and 1945 . . . saw 16mm . . . rise to prominence as the chosen apparatus for an ever-expanding non-theatrical terrain that stretched beyond the classroom, home, and church.”2 But the Depression and the war slowed the large-scale assimilation of films into the classroom until the late 1940s...