Science on Celluloid

I loved science classes in school. Actually, I loved them up until high school when teachers took all the wonder out of science. In elementary school and even in junior high school, science was full of wonder.

Some of my strongest memories of science in school comes from actual images on films. Celluloid projected by 16mm projectors in a darkened classroom.

In writing about the Sun yesterday, I was reminded of a film I saw in those early years that I still recall fondly and surprisingly clearly. It was one of the Bell System Science Series which were nine television specials made for the AT&T Corporation. They were some of the earliest things broadcast in color between 1956 and 1964. We didn’t have a color TV then, but I remember them from watching them in school where they were shown as films on that pull-down white movie screen that every classroom had in the front of the room along with a few big maps.

The film I recalled first is Our Mr. Sun which uses the premise of a scientist explaining to a writer about the Sun’s importance to humankind.

It was many years later when I was studying film and video as a college student that I realized that the film was produced and directed by Frank Capra. By then, I had seen and loved a bunch of Capra films – It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life, Meet John Doe and others.

The film was a combination of animation and live-action in glorious Technicolor. Originally it was shown on TV in 1956 and 1957. I may have watched it. My father was working at Bell Labs in those years so he might have promoted it to us. But hundreds of 16mm prints were distributed to schools by the Bell Telephone System film libraries and they were shown (and reshown) for years after. Now, this and others in the series are in the Public Domain and available on YouTube and other sites.

In Our Mr. Sun, Eddie Albert stars as a writer who is learning about the Sun. Lionel Barrymore – evil Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life – is the voice of Father Time. But the star of this and 8 of the 9 films in the series is Dr. Frank Baxter as Dr. Research, the scientist who knows everything. As a kid, he was my image of a scientist or professor.

It was also years later that I learned that Dr. Baxter was not a scientist but an authority on Shakespeare with his doctorate in literature from Cambridge University, who taught Literature at USC.

It also didn’t register with me when I saw the Capra documentaries originally that Capra included some soft religious themes in his four films in the series. This first film actually opens with a title card with a quote from the Bible.

Another film in the series that intrigued me was About Time (1962). This was not a Capra production but came out of Warner studios.  Dr. Research was working with Richard Deacon (who I knew from, The Dick Van Dyke Show) and featured the famous scientist Richard Feynman who was also a consultant to the production. I think I might point to this film as the start of a lifelong fascination with the concept of time.

The third film I recall seeing is Hemo the Magnificent (1957)
about blood and the circulatory system. This was also written and directed by Frank Capra. All of Capra’s contributions to the series follow a similar structure.  This film has Dr. Research but Richard Carlson is the writer learning about circulation. Mel Blanc pops in as the voice of a squirrel and Marvin Miller is Hemo (as in hemoglobin).

I don’t recall seeing “The Strange Case of Cosmic Rays” (1957) which takes on the pretty heavy topic of what cosmic rays are and how they work. This one was co-written by Capra with Jonathan Latimer who was a crime fiction novelist and screenwriter. Their premise that cosmic rays are a mystery, like a detective story, got them to use the clunky idea of marionettes representing Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens, and Edgar Allan Poe (Huh?) who have to decide on the solution to the mystery. Bizarre.

The Unchained Goddess (1958) was the fourth and last film in the series that was produced by Frank Capra but directed by Richard Carlson, who also appears in the film. It is about the weather and climate but it has an early warning about climate change. The film was televised on February 12, 1958 and there was a smaller audience share and less than glowing reviews.

We leave the Capra years with Gateways to the Mind (1958) about what the five senses are and how they work. Dr. Baxter is still the “host.”

In The Alphabet Conspiracy (1959) has Dr. Baxter playing “Dr. Linguistics” which examines language and its history.  As an English teacher, I liked this film about a topic that doesn’t much interest most people. But they use characters from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  Hans Conried is the Mad Hatter!

Thread of Life (1960) is about heredity, and how DNA works.

“The Restless Sea” is only a half-hour film and the last of the Bell Telephone Science Series. This one about the oceans was produced by Walt Disney Productions and hosted by Walt Disney, with the actor Sterling Holloway replacing Baxter as the scientist.

And so ended the series.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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