Puppets of Dostoevsky, Dickens & Poe Star in 1950s Frank Capra Educational Film

Pro­duced between 1956 and 1964 by AT&T, the Bell Tele­phone Sci­ence Hour TV spe­cials antic­i­pate the lit­er­ary zani­ness of The Mup­pet Show and the sci­en­tif­ic enthu­si­asm of Cos­mos. The “ship of the imag­i­na­tion” in Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s Cos­mos reboot may in fact owe some­thing to the episode above, one of nine, direct­ed by none oth­er than It’s A Won­der­ful Life’s Frank Capra. “Strap on your wits and hop on your mag­ic car­pet,” begins the spe­cial, “You’ve got one, you know: Your imag­i­na­tion.” As a guide for our imag­i­na­tion, The Strange Case of the Cos­mic Rays enlists the humanities—specifically three pup­pets rep­re­sent­ing Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Dick­ens, and, some­what incon­gru­ous­ly for its detec­tive theme, Fyo­dor Dos­toyevsky, who plays the foil as an incu­ri­ous spoil­sport. The show’s host, Frank Bax­ter (“Dr. Research”) was actu­al­ly a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at UCLA and appears here with Richard Carl­son, explain­ing sci­en­tif­ic con­cepts with con­fi­dence.

The one-hour films became very pop­u­lar as tools of sci­ence edu­ca­tion, but there are good reasons—other than their dat­ed­ness or Dr. Baxter’s expertise—to approach them crit­i­cal­ly. At times, the degree of spec­u­la­tion indulged by Bax­ter and the writ­ers strains creduli­ty. For exam­ple, writes Geoff Alexan­der in Aca­d­e­m­ic Films for the Class­room: A His­to­ry, 1958’s The Unchained God­dess (above) “intro­duces the view­er to bizarre con­cepts such as the pos­si­bil­i­ty of ‘steer­ing’ hur­ri­canes away from land by cre­at­ing bio-haz­ards such as ocean borne oil-slicks and intro­duc­ing oil-based ocean fires.” These grim, fos­sil fuel indus­try-friend­ly sce­nar­ios nonethe­less open­ly acknowl­edged the pos­si­bil­i­ty of man-made cli­mate change and looked for­ward to solar ener­gy.

Along with some dystopi­an weird­ness, the series also con­tains a good deal of explic­it Chris­t­ian pros­e­ly­tiz­ing, thanks to Capra. As a con­di­tion for tak­ing the job, “the renowned direc­tor would be allowed to embed reli­gious mes­sages in the films.” As Capra him­self said to AT&T pres­i­dent Cleo F. Craig:

If I make a sci­ence film, I will have to say that sci­en­tif­ic research is just anoth­er expres­sion of the Holy Spir­it… I will say that sci­ence, in essence, is just anoth­er facet of man’s quest for God.

At times, writes Alexan­der, “the reli­gious per­spec­tive is tak­en to extremes,” as in the first episode, Our Mr. Sun, which begins with a quo­ta­tion from Psalms and admon­ish­es “view­ers who would dare to ques­tion the causal rela­tion­ship between solar ener­gy and the divin­i­ty.” The Unchained God­dess, above, is the fourth in the series, and Capra’s last.

After­ward, a direc­tor named Owen Crump took over duties on the next four episodes. His films, writes Alexan­der, “did not overt­ly pros­e­ly­tize” and “relied less on ani­mat­ed char­ac­ters inter­act­ing with Dr. Bax­ter.” (Watch the Crump-direct­ed Gate­ways to the Mind above, a more sober-mind­ed, yet still strange­ly off-kil­ter, inquiry into the five sens­es.) The last film, The Rest­less Sea (unavail­able online) was pro­duced by Walt Dis­ney and direct­ed by Les Clark, and starred Dis­ney him­self and Bax­ter’s replace­ment, Ster­ling Hol­loway.  The Capra pro­duc­tions will be added to our col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Carl Sagan’s Orig­i­nal Cos­mos Series on YouTube: The 1980 Show That Inspired a Gen­er­a­tion of Sci­en­tists

Watch Episode #1 of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cos­mos Reboot on Hulu (US View­ers)

Wern­er Her­zog and Cor­mac McCarthy Talk Sci­ence and Cul­ture

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (4)
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  • Randel McGee says:

    You incor­rect­ly stat­ed that the actor in the “Cos­mic Rays” video was Eddie Albert of “Green Acres” fame. The actor is Richard Carl­son, as stat­ed in the open­ing cred­its.

  • rubel khan says:


  • GregH says:

    Inter­est­ing­ly, “The Unchained God­dess” is blocked in Cana­da because “it con­tains con­tent from Fox Inter­na­tion­al Chan­nels Asia, who has blocked it in your coun­try on copy­right grounds.”

    Which is both unbe­liev­able and kind of sil­ly.

  • Erland Tollendal says:

    So kind­heart­ed they seem to be thé char­ac­ters’ drawn or in body and soûl and hope­ful­ly in mind’ but an excep­tion is of course Fedor ’ thé Russ­ian’ ‘Dos­to’ ” so much for thé fifties ” but we’ll take it and swal­low with some sug­ar too”like’ we’ did alteady THEN and with Vlad in Moscow now ”well’ it Will be à habit”’ Rather fun­ny is that thé DRAWN char­ac­ters have SOME affin­i­ty in their lines with Russ­ian DRAWN char­ac­ters”’…

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