In 1938, in the pages of Educational Screen, Arthur Edwin Krows began to chronicle the production, distribution, and exhibition of films for schools, businesses, and churches, a viewing public that was called “nontheatrical” back then and still is today. “Motion Pictures–Not for Theaters” exists as an awesome piece of media historiography that would unfurl in 57 lengthy articles between 1938 and 1944. Educational Screen was a magazine that advocated for visual instruction generally. As the editors stated, the magazine was “not the official organ of anything or anybody.”
The first installment began by lamenting that other histories of conventionally significant cultural figures might feature more dramatic heroes and martyrs but that “this strange story of pioneering will still be worth the telling as a revelation of human persistency in battling great odds.” Krows weaves together personal anecdote about personalities and the network of film laboratories, wayward cinematographers and directors, and small studios beginning with the invention of movies and the designation of nontheatrical educational film circuits, and concluding with Erpi developing sound films for church audiences. He describes in aching detail which powerful entities crowded out the 16mm market, the growth and demise of small business concerns, and the “outsider” filmmakers whose short films of educational worth struggled to reach a wider public. Because he believed that were it not for his work, history would forget the individuals who worked in this sector, his storytelling stands as an invaluable account for those seeking to analyze the commercial and organizational contexts of “useful cinema.”
Until the publication of Anthony Slide’s Before Video: A History of the Nontheatrical Film or those lucky few whose libraries purchased Rick Prelinger’s Our Secret Century CD-ROMs, the detailed history of nontheatrical film would remain accessible only to a few. This document is not official history because of the advertorial context in which it was published. And we should take note of Krows’ method, a paradoxical historical mode of emplotment: things happened which were designed and produced to be forgotten about. It is close to the only unifying record that we do have of nontheatrical industrial personnel, and being able to work with it now in digital form, perhaps new methods of analysis will draw new conclusions about whether Krows’ romance of obsolescence will stand the test of time.