Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: safety films

An American in the Making (1913)

This short industrial safety film was produced for US Steel by Thanhauser, and contains some unusual narrative elements, some of which are hinted at in the title. Obviously intended to speak to new immigrants and unskilled laborers, part of the purpose was to reassure them that their employer cared about them and their aspirations.

The movie begins in the “old country,” where a young peasant (Harry Benham) receives a letter from a brother in America, who has saved enough money to get him passage to come to the USA. We see him at work in the field, and then he is called into the house by his aging parents who show him a letter written in a non-English (apparently Slavic) language. The next we know, he is arriving on Ellis Island, an awkward insert shot showing him with a tag pinned to his jacket identifying him for the customs officials. He walks out into the streets of New York and to Pennsylvania Station, still with the tag attached, and rides to Gary, Indiana, the “model workers’ city” established by US Steel. His brother meets him at the train and removes the tag from his jacket. They go into the city and the brother steers him away from a saloon and to the impressive edifice of the YMCA for off-hours entertainment.

Soon, he is at work, and we see safety signs in four languages, at least two of which are Eastern European. At this point the fictional narrative essentially grinds to a halt as the film strives to demonstrate various safety precautions and devices used on the job. We see a “universal symbol of danger” (in black and white it is a dark circle on white paper; I assume it’s meant to be red), a device for safely derailing oncoming trains when someone is working on the line, safety goggles, a guard for a table saw, and a large hand-protecting device that resembles a catcher’s mitt. We now see a variety of safety badges that workers can earn on the job. Then we see some depictions of the steelmaking process: large cauldrons with molten metal, a blast furnace, and crucibles pouring the lava-like substance into molds. It’s very visually dramatic, but loses both the thread of the story and any awareness of safety.

How do you work with this thing on?

Finally, we return to our immigrant hero, who is taking company-sponsored English classes. He is excelling, and his diligence has caught the attention of the pretty young teacher (Ethyle Cooke). She lets him walk her home and in the next scene we discover that they are happily married with a child, living in a pleasant suburban home on his fine wages (we don’t know whether she still works, one tends to assume not). Their son goes to a “model school” and plays in a playground built by the company. The movie ends with their smiling faces showing how a foreigner has found happiness in his new land.

Is this thing safe?

It’s pretty hard to make a safety film with an interesting story, but Thanhauser gave it a shot, and wound up making two movies that don’t hang together very well. The narrative part of the story demonstrates how a sober, hard-working young man from another country can assimilate in the United States, when encouraged by a benevolent employer like US Steel. The second movie is basically a series of safety demonstrations, in which the protagonist of the first film plays at best a supporting role, and is forgotten completely for some of the time. It’s interesting how much of the movie was shot on location, and that many of the unpaid “extras” stare openly at the camera or the performers. Part of the intention probably was to show off Gary and its pleasant working and living conditions.

The oddest part of the narrative for me was the ending, which seems to imply that there are enough single female schoolteachers in America to supply wives for all of the workers, and that an educated native-born woman would be readily available to an unskilled immigrant laborer. I had found myself wondering only moments before this sequence started what the prospects for meeting women in the apparently all-male society of Gary were like at the time, and the rather outlandish resolution only emphasized this further. I tend to think that the writers at Thanhauser found themselves written into a corner and did their best to fight their way out of it, but it only works with considerable suspension of disbelief. Still, it’s nice to see a movie from this period that seems to celebrate the “melting pot” concept rather than expressing xenophobia about immigration.

Director: Carl Gregory

Camera: Carl Gregory

Starring: Harry Benham, Ethyle Cooke, Leland Benham

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Cost of Carelessness (1913)

This early educational short was aimed at children in Brooklyn, and produced by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. It depicts a variety of unsafe activities to try to caution children to be careful in traffic, and, incidentally, to exculpate the streetcar company from responsibility for accidents.

The movie begins by showing us the educational work that the company is engaging in, including setting up Safety Patrols (student crossing guards) and showing films in a classroom. Reversals are used during a lecture to show the reactions of some students to the presented material, and a double exposure allows us to see both the students watching the film and the film in progress at the same time.  After showing a parade of schoolchildren marching out of their school to take up positions on the Safety Patrol, the real meat of the movie gets going: depictions of unsafe behavior and the accidents that result.

The first behavior we are warned about is “hitching” by jumping onto the fenders of moving vehicles to catch a ride. We see two children do this on a streetcar, ignoring a warning from a conductor. When one leaps off, he runs in front of an automobile and is run over. Next, we see a group of children playing a game in the street that seems to involve hitting a piece of wood into the air and catching it. The kids pay little heed to the traffic in the street, focusing on their game and one another, then moving aside at the last minute as cars or streetcars go by. One waits too long and is run over, but he’s OK because of the “wheelguard” the company uses. The conductor fills in a report on the incident, but the child grins sheepishly throughout. When the streetcar moves on, the group gets ready to start up the game again, but the recent victim suggests moving to a nearby vacant lot, where no traffic is likely to come by. He gives a brief speech (via Intertitles) about looking both ways and not playing in the street.

Now the subject switches to adults who also need to be cautious. We are shown the right and wrong ways to disembark from a streetcar, with a pratfall as the result of the latter. We also see a man trying to leap onto a moving streetcar, which is prevented by the new “safety doors” that close when the streetcar is in motion. This is displayed by a series of reversals from inside and outside of the streetcar, in rather advanced editing for 1913. They also demonstrate the new “no-step” entryway to modern streetcars, which reduces the likelihood of tripping. Finally, we see some “bad drivers” who fail to give right-of-way, ignore traffic cops, and veer all over the road. One of these winds up side-swiping a streetcar and crashing. We then see the wreck, and the bodies of the driver and his passenger being pulled from it.

The urban environment was becoming more dangerous in the early twentieth-century, in part due to the introduction of the automobile, but also because of crowding and a lack of outdoor spaces for children to play in. I was surprised that the streetcar company would openly advocate trespassing on a vacant lot as a safer alternative to playing in the street, but presumably Brooklyn neighborhoods had few parks at the time. That shot, by the way, is fascinating, because behind the lot we can see a row of tightly-packed townhouses with laundry lines, something rarely caught on film at the time. In fact, despite all the production going on in New York, this is a rare look at Brooklyn residential areas (we’ve had some Coney Island movies in this project, so it isn’t our first trip to Brooklyn, but it’s very different from that).

Fans of the later era of “scare films” for driving safety, like “Red Asphalt” and “Mechanized Death,” will be interested to know that there was such an early precursor to these movies. While the accident-victim-footage shown here is comparably tame, it does appear that the actors were put at risk to make convincingly frightening reenactments. Directors showing car accidents in narrative films at the time were relatively cautious by comparison, sometimes to the point of undercutting the illusion, as in the case of “The Ex-Convict” and “Police Chasing Scorching Auto” where the “rescued” children appear to have been at no risk whatsoever. I was also impressed by the advanced use of editing in this movie, which made it livelier than such a plotless movie would normally be. The commentary from the “Treasures III” disc notes the very naturalistic acting of the performers, this is especially true compared to the wooden line-reading of educational films from the sound era, but catching naturalistic performances from children was always easier when they didn’t have to memorize lines.

Director: Unknown, possibly Eugene C. Clarke

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.