One of my favorite things on the internet is its endless supply of stock footage, ads and news feeds. I can (and often do) spend hours digging through the dusty old videos I can find on YouTube or the Internet Archive. But I have spent the last few weeks buying old movies from another source – Amazon Prime Video, everywhere.
That’s right, your Amazon Prime subscription comes with Cold War propaganda, sexist educational movies and thoughtful detergent jingles from the 1950s! Unlike YouTube, which relies on algorithms and drifts between unrelated videos, Amazon compiles similar tapes into one or two hours of collection. It’s easy to browse Amazon Prime and watch back-to-back drive-in movie ads while cooking, cleaning or running around on a laptop – something that is easy for my quarantine brain to appreciate.
Drive-in movie ads? I know it sounds boring, but everyday stock footage can give a better glimpse of the past than books or movies. A 20-second animation where hot dogs make cakewalk can tell a lot about early advertising techniques, the dollar’s inflation and the material interests of Americans during the post-war economic boom. It’s easy to watch these ads with a critical eye, and it’s interesting to see occasional PSAs about the death of “Free TV” or the illegality of stealing drive-in speakers.
Drive-in ads are only a small part of Amazon’s archive breakfast table, but they echo the basic attitudes and values you find in most general 1920s-50s general fluff. There are obvious things, such as sexism, racism and fear of social inequality. And then there are the plots behind, which are interesting, disturbing and hidden in a simple sight.
One point I still come across is technology. It’s hard to find an archive girl who does not dazzle her audience with washing machines, cars, robots, cameras and war instruments. This technology is usually a Trojan horse for consumerism or military pride – two things that the government was forced 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 film entitled Westinghouse New York World Fair: The Middleton Family covers much of what I’m talking about. In it, Middleton visits the 1939 World Fair to see Elektro, the world’s first voice-controlled robot (really). Electro is quite the spectacle – he can crack jokes, count to number five and even smoke cigarettes. Electro’s charm inspires the Middleton family to spend more money, look to the future and kick a sleazy communist out of their home. Hi, my favorite smoking robot does the same thing!
New York World Fair, which came out at a time when unemployment was quite high, seeks to unite goods and apparatus with American pride and modernity. The film advertises some appliances from Westinghouse, including a dishwasher, and suggests that women who do dishes by hand are not feminine. Like the other archive tapes on Amazon, New York World Fair contains quantities, although it is a bit boring.
I could go on with stock footage all day, but I would probably sound like a broken record. All I know is that I like the stuff and that it is available on Amazon in nice little packages. I still have a question you can help me with – where did Amazon find all this movie?
Most of the stock footage on Amazon is published by a company called Sprocket Flicks, which does not appear to exist outside the Prime Video website. The images themselves are of low quality with lots of digital noise, which suggests that Sprocket Flicks draws its content from DVDs or the internet, not from original tapes. Does anyone download archive footage from YouTube, compile it into short films, and sell it to Amazon? If so, why did I not think of doing so first?