When did the United States of America attain peak earnestness? It had to have happened sometime in the long 1950s, beginning with victory in the Second World War and ending with the cultural shifts of the early 60s. Though individual Americans back then might express discontent and even cynicism about the nation, U.S. mass culture kept the dial set to triumphant optimism. And in midcentury America there was no cultural force quite as mass as advertising, which broadcast its messages in not just the media of print, radio, television, and billboard, but film as well. This golden age of American earnestness coincides with the golden age of the Calvin Company, once the country's dominant maker of advertising, educational, and industrial films.
Founded in Kansas City in 1931, the Calvin Company capitalized early on the advertising potential of 16-millimeter film. At first considered suitable only for "home movies," the format turned out to be ideal for sales pitches, corporate training sessions, and classroom screenings. Calvin's client list soon grew to include General Mills, Goodyear, Monsanto, Westinghouse, and Encyclopedia Britannica, as well as the Navy, the Air Force, and the Office of Education.
That we can still watch some of the company's many productions today we owe to the efforts of Rick Prelinger, whose eponymous film archives we've previously featured here on Open Culture. At the Internet Archive you can watch such Calvin classics as Coffee Break, Forty Billion Enemies, Fifty Years of Powered Flight, The Bright Young Newcomer, and Enforcing Rules and Procedures.
None have the reputation of The Your Name Here Story, produced by Calvin in 1960 as "the first truly all-purpose film." While previous jobs were made to order, painstakingly tailored by an ever-expanding staff of filmmakers to the needs the commissioning clients, The Your Name Here Story is completely generic. "From the dawn of human history, a better way of life has been man's dream," booms its narrator, launching into an opening whose epic form will be familiar to anyone who's put off writing a term paper until the night before. After telling the story of civilization — especially American civilization — in a brisk two minutes, the film arrives in high-tech modernity. Alas, "despite the world's highest living standards, the average American remained vaguely discontent, aware that his goal of a better way of life had still not been fully realized. There was something missing."
"Gad, it's ironic," says a prototypical American husband of the day, lying awake alongside his wife, both of them sleepless with dissatisfaction. "With all our technology and industrial know-how, we still don't have the one thing that could give us a better way of life." That "one thing" is anything the company that licenses The Your Name Here Story happens to make, footage of which they can easily insert into the various spaces provided throughout the film. "In countless ways, directly and indirectly, YOUR PRODUCT HERE serves the nation and its citizens," says the narrator, crediting whatever it may be with playing a vital role in helping them to "achieve success," "enjoy healthful recreation," "grow bigger crops," "strengthen our national defense," and of course "get real smoking satisfaction."
Some may now watch most of The Your Name Here Story before catching on to the film's satirical intent. That owes to the fact that the Calvin Company itself defined the look and feel of the organizational culture of the 1950s, at least as it remains in cultural memory. Originally created as a bit of fun for the "Calvin Workshop," the company's annual gathering of industrial film producers and technicians, the film's spoofs of what Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari has termed the "military-industrial-scientific complex" almost feel made for audiences of the future. Among the Calvin Company's surviving films we also find 1956's A Magic Bond, directed by no less notable a son of Kansas City than Robert Altman. Knowing what we now do of its self-aware corporate culture, does it comes as a surprise that Calvin would have been the training ground for Hollywood's pre-eminent smart-aleck?
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.