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Lester Beck first revealed himself to us by way of a little movie about little squirrels. This 16mm silent film produced in 1942 depicts what appears to be a single squirrel engaged in increasingly difficult tasks in a laboratory. Motivated by the reward of peanuts, the squirrel learns how to use tools—a string, a ladder, a stool—and overcome all manner of obstacles to retrieve the nuts. While the film never anthropomorphizes the squirrel by giving it a name or ascribing it feelings beyond the drive to feed itself, the effect of the squirrel tirelessly toiling alone is nonetheless for the viewer to identify with the squirrel and its efforts. When the nut is dangled just out of reach and the squirrel stands on two legs, straining to grasp the nut with its handlike paws, it seems a mighty injustice. This is compounded by a close-up shot on the squirrel in this scene, so that the outstretched paws come across as a plaintive supplication.
Adaptive Behavior in Golden-Mantled Ground Squirrels is charming and moving on its own, but as with many nontheatrical, ephemeral films, further research and context show its full story to be even more compelling. The film is part of the 16mm educational film collection at the University of Oregon Libraries, and its online catalog description provides the scant information: “arranged and photographed by L. F. Beck.” A search of cross-references, however, quickly indicated that Lester F. Beck (1909–77) earned his AB (1930) and AM (1931) in psychology at the University of Oregon, where he was a star student and a member of the Phi Beta Kappa honor society. Beck’s curriculum vitae, included in his eventual dissertation, suggests he was very focused early on in his academic work, serving as “Senior Assistant in Psychology.”1 He would return to Oregon as a psychology professor from 1934 to 1950, and there he worked on many other educational films on topics ranging from hypnosis and sex to audience psychology and learning behavior (see the appendix for a filmography). Beck did not stay put, though, and by 1950, he was the head of the prestigious Department of Cinema at the University of Southern California (USC) as well as working for the U.S. State Department in Southeast Asia at the height of the Cold War and as a consultant for both the U.S. Office of Education and the U.S. Public Health Service. How did a kid from rural Oregon rise to such prominence in the heyday of educational filmmaking, only to fall into obscurity a decade later?
Despite increasing scholarship on nontheatrical and educational film, information about academic film production is so scant that even the most prolific educational filmmakers remain largely unknown and unstudied. Lester F. Beck’s own daughter described him as “down-right mysterious.”2 So it is no surprise that Beck too has been forgotten, although his contributions to educational and scientific filmmaking were wide ranging, substantial, and, at times, controversial. Although there remain significant [End Page 50] gaps in the information available about him, we have pieced together a historical sketch of this filmmaker, framing him within a broader context of scientific and educational film history. We went looking for clues to his sensibilities using a combination of his own films and articles, newspaper stories, archival sources, and personal interviews. We wanted to know how his varied interests and eccentricities shaped his development as a scholar and important progressive advocate for educational film; how he got interested in film in the first place, particularly as a tool for education; and how those interests took his career in unexpected directions. We also wanted to know more about the impact of his work, to make a case for why Lester F. Beck matters.
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As a young boy, Beck was raised by his grandparents on a ranch in southern Oregon, and it was there that he developed an enduring love of...