Saturday, October 4, 2008

Jerry Fairbanks and Popular Science films

Most of us remember the "educational" films from high school usually geared as truly instructional films [such as the popular Hume and Ivy physics lectures] and the vocational selections of selecting a trade be a carpenter or Linotype operator. There was even the highly popular series from Bell Labs that garnered television success. Buried in the assortment was a series of short films [usually under fifteen minutes] focused on popular science subjects and shown in theaters.


Popular Science (1935-1949) was a series of short films, produced by Jerry Fairbanks and released by Paramount Pictures.

The Popular Science film series is a Hollywood entertainment production - the only attempt by the movie industry to chronicle the progress of science, industry and popular culture during the first half of the 20th Century.

The series, filmed in Magnacolor, was the first to profile: father of television Philo T. Farnsworth (1939), Frank Lloyd Wright and his architectural school (1942), building Hoover Dam (1935), building the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge (1936), Academy Award-nominated Moon Rockets (1947), the Electron Microscope (1942), Jet Aircraft (1946), the birth of Plastic Surgery (1937), Telephone Answering Machine (1936), Fuel from Corn Cobs (1949), Rust Heinz and his Phantom Corsair car (1938), world's first X-ray machine (1936), the "Mechanical Brain" Computer at UCLA (1948), Contact Lenses (1936), the Northrop "Flying Wing" (1948). The series also promoted Paramount with a tour (1938) of the then-new Fleischer Studios facility in Miami, Florida, which produced animated cartoons for Paramount.

The series was created by independent Hollywood film producer Jerry Fairbanks in May 1935. Produced with the cooperation of the editors of Popular Science magazine, the series introduced its audience to advances in medicine, aviation, science and technology, television, home improvement, planes, trains and automobiles, as well as an assortment of strange and whimsical inventions.

During its 14-year theatrical run, the Popular Science film series was honored with numerous awards and acclaim, including 5 Academy Award nominations. The Popular Science series also received a Special Commendation from the US Department of War in 1943 for its unparalleled coverage of American military technology involved World War II.

This film series has been a staple on television for decades, most recently shown on the American Movie Classics cable network, hosted by Nick Clooney and Bob Dorian. The series, as well as the rest of the Jerry Fairbanks film library, is owned by Shields Pictures.


Gerald Bertram Fairbanks (November 1, 1904, San Francisco - June 21, 1995, Santa Barbara, California) Fairbanks survived the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and began his career in film as a cameraman on silent movies such as John Barrymore's The Sea Beast (1926). This was followed by work on early sound productions such as Howard Hughes' film Hell's Angels (1930) in which he participated both as a biplane pilot and aerial cinematographer for the extensive World War I dogfight scenes.

His first foray into producing involved an innovative color series of theatrical short subjects for Universal Studios called Strange As It Seems (1933-1934). Based on the success of these productions, he was able to sell Paramount Pictures on three new series of short subjects entitled Unusual Occupations, Speaking of Animals, and Popular Science. The latter series was produced with the cooperation of the editors of Popular Science magazine and ran from 1935 to 1949. Films in the Unusual Occupations and Popular Science series were made in Magnacolor and showcased a vast assortment of groundbreaking wonders from the world of science and industry. In 1945, Fairbanks won the Academy Award for Best Short Subject, One Reel for Who's Who in Animal Land, and was nominated again in that category in 1948 for Moon Rockets.

In the mid-1940s, Fairbanks was intrigued by television and became one the first film producers to create filmed programs specifically for this new medium. However, Paramount, seeing TV as the great rival to its continued success, issued an ultimatum to Fairbanks in 1949 — either stop making shows for TV or his association with Paramount was at an end. Fairbanks chose television and continued his success with his Popular Science films in the new medium of TV.

Fairbanks also broke new ground in television by inventing the multiple-camera setup of production in 1950, assisted by producer-director Frank Telford, which is still used by sitcoms today. Desi Arnaz and Karl Freund are often cited as the inventors when producing I Love Lucy, but Arnaz himself gave credit to Jerry Fairbanks as the originator of this system. The only enhancement Arnaz made was to use 35 mm film instead of the 16 mm film which Fairbanks employed.

Fairbanks also gave a young actor named James Dean his very first performances on film, first in two Pepsi Cola TV commercials and then as John the Apostle in the Father Peyton's Family Theater TV episode entitled "Hill Number One" broadcast on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1950.

Among other later projects, in 1956, Fairbanks directed "Down Liberty Road" (aka "Freedom Highway") with Angie Dickinson, and in 1967 he produced one of the more engaging sci-fi films on UFOs of that era, written and directed by Frank Telford, "Bamboo Saucer," starring Dan Duryea.

In his personal life, Fairbanks was twice married before meeting in 1945 his life-long love, actress Marjorie Freeman, a protege of Max Reinhardt. Fairbanks actually became a Roman Catholic convert so as to wed Ms. Freeman. In the 1980s the two re-located north to Santa Barbara, California, where they graciously hosted their many visiting friends, and Jerry continued to work on new projects for Hollywood.

Fairbanks predeceased his wife Marjorie (still living in 2008) on June 21, 1995 at the age of 90. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6384 Hollywood Blvd.

These films have not made the repositories of public domain films but are available for purchase.

35mm Silver Nitrate Magnacolor - Film Library Inventory

DVD offerings from Shield Productions

Here is a documentary on the Jerry Fairbanks production facilities.

An Old Chinese Proverb: One Picture Is Worth Ten Thousand Words  


Here is a sample from Jerry Fairbanks Productions.

Century 21 Calling  


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