A re-post from my other blog, “At The Matinee.”
The first one was “Popular Science,” based off the monthly scientific periodical of the same name. Narrated by actor and radio commentator Gayne Whitman (1890-1958), “Popular Science” showcased many scientific breakthroughs, along with practical and bizarre inventions.
Innovations shown in the series were the introduction of contact lenses (known as “invisible glasses” then), the first answering machine, early experiments on solar energy, bandleader Fred Waring and his electric blender, Philo Farnsworth’s early television demonstrations, a tour of Max Fleischer’s animation studio, the Northrop “Flying Wing” jet aircraft, the introduction of frozen “TV dinners” and much more.
The second series, “Unusual Occupations,” showcased persons that had unique and unusual career prospects. The series premiered in 1937, originally under the titles “That’s Their Business” and “It’s a Living.” Radio announcer Ken Carpenter (1900-1984) narrated the “Unusual Occupations” shorts.
The series included a “Scribble Fortune Teller,” a “Toothpick Bridge Builder,” a “Cellophane Straw Artist,” a “Chewing Gum Artist,”, and a Hollywood “scream” artist for motion pictures. Various hobbyists, collectors, pacesetters, and trailblazers were also featured, including a collector of vintage Edison Cylinder Phonographs, a “wild west museum” proprietor, and Adeline Gray– who achieved fame as the first person to make a test jump with a parachute made entirely out of nylon.
Several personalities were featured in “Unusual Occupations,” including Gene Autry and his horse “Champion,” John Barrymore and his collection of “oddities” and the appearance of a young Theodore Geisel- better known to the world as iconic children’s author “Dr. Seuss”.
“Speaking of Animals”
A third Fairbanks-Carlisle series (for Paramount) came out in 1941, called “Speaking of Animals.” It was produced in collaboration with noted cartoon animator Tex Avery. This short film series combined live-action footage of animals with animation, giving the featured animals the chance to talk or sing popular tunes of the day. While “Popular Science“ and “Unusual Occupations“ were filmed in color (first in two-strip Cinecolor, then in Magnacolor), this series was filmed in black and white.
“Popular Science” and the Second World War
As the United States entered the Second World War, Douglas MacArthur, five-star general and a good friend of Fairbanks, communicated with the producer over the phone. MacArthur suggested that the theater-going audience at home should know that when the nation’s brave men and women go into battle, that they should be well prepared. This would give the “Popular Science” series unlimited access to behind-the scenes preparation for battle, along with advancements in United States military technology.
Throughout the combined series’ theatrical run, Fairbanks won numerous Academy Awards along with a special commendation for “Popular Science“ from the U.S. War Department for covering developments on military technology.
The demise of the Fairbanks-Carlisle Paramount shorts
After the end of World War II in 1945, Fairbanks decided to expand into television production, in addition to producing industrial films. Co-producer Robert Carlisle had left at the time, leaving Fairbanks to produce solo. Seeing that television would threaten motion picture exhibition and distribution, Paramount gave him an option- to abandon the idea of television production, or that his short subjects would no longer receive Paramount release. Fairbanks chose to go with television and industrial production in 1949, bringing an end to the three series he produced for Paramount. Only one would be reformulated into a television series in 1950, as Fairbanks filmed a pilot episode of “Popular Science.”
The resurgence of the Fairbanks-Carlisle Paramount shorts
Jerry Fairbanks would re-acquire the rights to his old Paramount film series later on, and the rights to the three series would pass on to the hands of Shields Pictures, Inc. – operated by film preservationists Mark Punswick and Mary Riley.
The films appeared (with original opening/closing Paramount titles from the original 35mm nitrate materials) on American Movie Classics in the mid-1990s. That’s how I was exposed to these classic short subjects. After AMC’s demise in late 2002, these shorts have never been seen on television. The company still offers the short subjects to major producers for stock footage elements.
In 2007, the company released a “best of” compilation of the Popular Science series on DVD (which is now out of print). In 2010, The Epoch Times wrote an article on the company’s film preservation efforts.
During that same year, the company launched an app for the Apple iPhone/iPad- containing the 1938 Popular Science Fleischer Cartoon Studios tour short subject (sourced from a high-definition transfer of the original 35mm nitrate print). Animation historian Jerry Beck wrote a piece about the company’s app, featured on the Cartoon Brew website in June 2010.
Since they have been working on HD transfers of the classic Fairbanks-Carlisle Paramount short subject series, let’s hope that these classic shorts will return to television- and hopefully will be released on Blu-Ray/DVD (or on some streaming platform) in the near future.
Update: Framepool now represents stock footage sales for the Shields Pictures library of Paramount/Fairbanks/Carlisle short subjects.
The “Mystery Science Theater 3000” Version of Jerry Fairbanks’ “Century 21 Calling…” (riffed by Mike Nelson and the Bots, from Episode #901, “The Space Children”)
Questions? Comments? Drop a line at the comments section!