One of my favorite things about the internet is its infinite supply of archival films, advertisements, and newsreels. I can (and often do) spend hours digging through whatever dusty old videos I can find on YouTube or the Internet Archive. But I’ve spent the last few weeks sourcing old films from a different source—Amazon Prime Video, of all places.
That’s right, your Amazon Prime subscription comes with cold war propaganda, sexist educational films, and mind-numbing 1950s laundry detergent jingles! Unlike YouTube, which relies on algorithms and drifts between unrelated videos, Amazon compiles similar tapes into 1 or 2-hour long collections. It’s easy to flip on Amazon Prime and watch back-to-back drive-in movie ads while cooking, cleaning, or farting around on a laptop—something that’s easy for my quarantine-brain to appreciate.
Drive-in movie ads? I know it sounds boring, but mundane archival footage can provide a better glimpse of the past than books or movies. A 20-second animation where hotdogs do the cakewalk can tell you a lot about early advertising techniques, the inflation of the dollar, and the material interests of Americans during the postwar economic boom. It’s easy to look at these advertisements with a critical eye, and it’s interesting to see the occasional PSA about the death of “Free TV” or the illegality of stealing drive-in speakers.
Drive-in ads are just a small part of Amazon’s archival smorgasbord, but they echo the basic attitudes and values that you find in most 1920s to 1950s public domain fluff. There’s the obvious stuff, like sexism, racism, and the fear of social dissent. And then there’s the underlying plot points, which are interesting, disturbing, and hidden in plain sight.
One plot point that I keep running into is technology. It’s hard to find an archival flick that doesn’t bedazzle its audience with washing machines, cars, robots, cameras, and the instruments of war. This technology is usually a Trojan horse for consumerism or military pride—two things that the government had to actively encourage after The War to End All Wars and the Great Depression. Of course, technology also comes up during conversations about job automation, the role of women, and the dreaded Communists.
A Westinghouse movie titled New York World’s Fair: The Middleton Family covers a lot of what I’m talking about. In it, the Middleton visits the 1939 World’s Fair to see Elektro, the world’s first voice-controlled robot (genuinely). Elektro is quite the spectacle—he can crack jokes, count up to the number five, and even smoke cigarettes. Elektro’s charm inspires the Middleton family to spend more money, to look forward to the future, and to kick a sleazy communist out of their home. Hey, my favorite smoking robot does the same thing!
New York World’s Fair, which came out at a time when unemployment was quite high, tries to associate commodities and appliances with American pride and modernity. The film advertises some Westinghouse appliances, including a dishwasher, and suggests that women who do dishes by hand aren’t feminine. Like the other archival tapes on Amazon, New York World’s Fair contains multitudes, even if it’s a bit boring.
I could go on about archival footage all day, but I’d probably sound like a broken record. All I know is that I like the stuff and that it’s available on Amazon in neat little packages. Still, I have a question that you might be able to help me with—where did Amazon find all this film?
Most of the archival footage on Amazon is published by a company called Sprocket Flicks, which doesn’t seem to exist outside of the Prime Video website. The footage itself is low quality with a ton of digital noise, which suggests that Sprocket Flicks is pulling its content from DVDs or the internet, not original tapes. Is someone downloading archival footage from YouTube, compiling it into short movies, and selling it to Amazon? If so, why didn’t I think of doing it first?