(Educational) Film of the Week: Biography (TV Series, 1961-3)

Educational films and TV programs very often center around great events, artworks, books or historical figures, subscribing to a model of historiography that Matthew Arnold summarized as “the best that has been thought and known in the world.” It is thus not surprising that the Internet Archive’s collection of educational films includes many examples of biographical portraits of great men (and they are almost always dead white men). Prominent among these shows was the long-running “Biography” series, hosted by the late Mike Wallace, that ultimately spawned the creation of an entire network of the same name (recently revived as “FYI.”)

Multiple episodes of the original run of the TV series from 1961 to 1963 (comprising a total of 65 half-hour shows) have been digitized from 16mm prints that were circulated among schools and universities after the original airing of the syndicated show.

In contrast with later iterations of this series, the original run focused on deceased, historical figures without the focus on the entertainment industry and celebrity that was prominent later on.

It goes without saying that in profiling figures like Spanish dictator Francisco Franco or Soviet leader Josef Stalin the program does not stand up to any scholarly standard of objectivity; it is very much a reflection of the cold war sensibilities that produced it. The choice of subjects, too, reflects a bias toward statesmen (including even politicians like Fiorello Laguardia who no longer have the name recognition they once did) and figures of American history and culture like Mark Twain and Clarence Darrow. However, the episodes do include a variety of rare archival footage that functions as a primary historical document, making them still valuable from a pedagogical and scholarly point of view. Another aspect of the series that remains useful today is the larger argument it presents about the relationship between an individual life and the course of national and global history.

Films in the Internet Archive’s educational film collection thus provide a window not only into history but also the way in which it was recorded, whether in written or audiovisual forms, which in turn had a great influence on the way history was taught and learned throughout the twentieth century.