Are Dr. Frank Baxter and those wacky Bell Science films ready for a comeback?
By David Templeton
IT WAS NEARLY 18 years ago--late January of 1982--that a soft-spoken, bespectacled bald man named Dr. Frank C. Baxter suffered a fatal heart attack in San Marino, Calif. For so doing, the 85-year-old retired English professor was quickly rewarded with a 50-word obituary in Time magazine. He'd taught literature at the University of Southern California, the brief notice informed the world, and throughout the 1950s he'd been the host of a popular television show, a series of "lively lectures on the Bard," called Shakespeare on TV.
He won several awards for that show, including seven Emmys.
And then he died.
To those who remember Dr. Frank Baxter, the Time obituary makes one thing perfectly clear: the writer of the piece had no idea who Frank Baxter was.
On paper, the Emmy awards for the long-forgotten Shakespeare show must have seemed the most significant thing about the newly deceased, decidedly obscure gentleman. So Time ended up giving Dr. Baxter his final honor without offering a single word of reference to his most significant accomplishment, the one phenomenal achievement that has propelled the good doctor into the pop cultural subconscious of an entire generation of baby boomers while making him a childhood hero to an army of now middle-aged, publicly educated science nerds.
If the Time writer had only known--and had the editors felt Dr. Baxter deserving of more than 50 words--the obituary might have read: "Dr. Frank Baxter, 85, beloved star of the strange, unintentionally campy Bell Laboratory Science Series, eight perversely earnest educational films--including Our Mr. Sun, Hemo the Magnificent, and The Alphabet Conspiracy--that have been the source of unexpected entertainment in classrooms for over 30 eye-opening years.
"He was best known for wearing glasses and having no hair."
Says Geoff Alexander, a San Jose-based film collector and exhibitor, "Whenever I get into a discussion of educational films, somebody always asks, 'Hey, does anyone remember that funny bald guy, with the glasses, who used to do those weird science films?' I'm usually the only one who can say, 'You know, he'd probably rather be known as Dr. Frank Baxter.' "
Alexander, the founder of Cine16, a long-running, weekly exhibition of old 16mm films, speaks eagerly of Dr. Baxter's place in the annals of educational film.
"He's the guy!" Alexander exclaims. "He's an icon. Anyone who went to school had to sit through at least one of those movies. People might not remember Dr. Frank Baxter's name, but they remember him."
Jok Church, creator of the "Ask Beakman & Jax" comic strip and the Beakman's World television show, goes even further.
"Frank Baxter is responsible for the image our culture has of scientists," says Church. "You say 'scientist' in this culture and that's where we go, he's what we think of."
What's funny about that is that Dr. Baxter--a professor of literature--was never a real scientist. He just played one on TV. Funny, too, that an icon like Baxter could exert so much influence and yet remain so completely anonymous.
"The influence of the Bell Science films is almost a subliminal one," says Wallace Stevens. A former purchasing agent for various Southern California school districts, Stevens recalls buying the Bell Science films, a quirky mix of animation and live action, for many of the schools he represented. But after all these years, even he was hard-pressed to recall the name of the series, or of Frank Baxter. Yet he still carries unshakable images from the films themselves, mainly the exposed hearts of animals and the booming voice of the animated Mr. Sun.
"It's almost like they've been absorbed into our subconscious mind while bypassing our memory," he says.
The films are seldom used in schools today, mainly because of their old-fashioned (and undeniably hilarious, in an ironic way) combination of science, pro-capitalist propaganda, and blatant religious moralizing. Several even begin with a recitation of Scripture.
But there are still a handful of educators who occasionally pull the films from the mothballs, aware that the films do one thing very well: they make science understandable.
"Kids love them," says Dale Ahern, a fifth-grade teacher at Valley Vista Elementary School in Petaluma.
Every now and then, Ahern will pull Our Mr. Sun from the archives of the Sonoma County Office of Education.
"It's a wonderful science film in the way it breaks down all the facts in a way that kids will actually listen to," he says. "They tune into the details, so afterwards, when we talk about the movie, the students remember things. They actually tell me that the sun is 93 million miles from the earth."
Alexander wholeheartedly agrees.
"These films have been unjustly ignored," he insists, though he also admits with a chuckle, "Some of them contain some of the most blatant pro-religious propaganda this side of Gene Scott."
"That stuff goes right over the kids' heads, though. They don't even notice it," argues Mike Pesutich, a sixth-grade teacher at Valley Vista who occasionally shows parts of Hemo the Magnificent for its illustrations of the human circulatory system. "It's a great science film. It really hits the mark. The kids pay attention--and they especially like to see the bit with all the exposed beating hearts of all those birds and animals. It's just gross enough for modern kids."
It may be no surprise that, here at the end of the millennium, when the debate between science and religion seems to be heating up again (think of all the recent brouhaha about the Kansas Board of Education's decision to remove evolution from the mandatory curriculum), Dr. Frank Baxter is making a quiet comeback.
According to Rhino Home video--which released the eight films on video four years ago--the series is selling slowly but steadily, mainly on Amazon.com and other Internet retail sites. Alexander, who has already exhibited one of the films at his Cine16 showcase, is planning a Bell Science retrospective. Several fans have already hosted their own Bell science film festival in living rooms and workplace cafeterias.
THE FILMS were made over a 10-year period, beginning with Our Mr. Sun in 1955. Produced for television by Bell Telephone Laboratories, they were one series out of many that were sponsored by a major corporation. In the early days of television, such corporate sponsorships of programming was a common occurrence, resulting in such prime-time delights as G.E. Theater, Campbell Playhouse, and The Ford Star Review.
The Bell Science series was envisioned as a groundbreaking, state-of-the-art introduction of scientific ideas to the popular culture. The project was offered to film director Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), who hoped to use the films to restart his career after a post-McCarthy backlash he incurred for his defense of the infamous anti-communist witch-hunts.
Capra ended up writing and directing the first three--Our Mr. Sun (about solar energy), Hemo the Magnificent (all about blood), and The Strange Case of the Cosmic Rays (on the very trendy subject of radiation)--and producing a fourth, Meteora: The Unchained Goddess (about weather), directed by horror movie star Richard Carlson.
Mr. Sun debuted on CBS in 1956 at 10 p.m., making it clear that Bell Labs was not aiming at an audience of children, but at adults. The others came along, one per year, until Capra left the project. After a hiatus of three years, five more Bell Lab films were aired: Gateways to the Mind (about the five senses), The Alphabet Conspiracy (about the history of language), Thread of Life (about DNA), About Time (self-explanatory), and a Disney-produced final entry, The Restless Sea.
Except for the last one, all of the Bell Science films starred Dr. Frank Baxter, who was introduced each time out as Dr. Research--and displayed a great knack for explaining complicated things in simple language. Perhaps a bit too simple. Critics at first applauded Capra's creative use of animation and humor, but many soon tired of the films, complaining that they oversimplified science.
Tellingly--from a historical viewpoint--there was, at that time, no mention at all of the series' religious content, most overt in the Capra-made films. When the animated Hemo launches into a self-promoting tirade, he proclaims, "I am the song of the lark, the blush of the cheek, the spring of the lamb; I am the price men have paid for their freedom, I am the wine in the sacred chalice," and during those final two remarks, Capra shows a panorama of a U.S. military graveyard, and a quick shot of Jesus passing the cup at the Last Supper.
BY THE TIME Capra had left and the Bell Science series continued with Owen Crump's The Alphabet Conspiracy--a similarly quirky phantasmagoria in which the ever-patient Dr. Baxter dissuades the Mad Hatter and the March Hare from setting off a bomb under the English language--the experts had taken command. Not a Scripture was uttered in any of the final films.
By that time--the last Bell Science program aired in 1964--the films had already begun their new career as a classroom staple in schools throughout the country.
It is precisely because of the aforementioned anachronistic eye-openers that the films are so much fun today, if viewed with a sense of humor. Dr. Baxter's prediction of an all-solar America by the year 2000 is enough to make an environmentalist weep, and modern American girls are sure to snicker when shown an animated pre-feminist housewife and told, "This lady's parasol has one and one half horsepower of sunshine continually poured on it, enough to power her washing machine, her sewing machine, her refrigerator, and her vacuum cleaner."
And the sequence in which Hemo displays the beating hearts of various animals, concluding with a perspiring, palpitating human heart, is gross enough to appeal to any modern preteen mind.
"THE HUMAN heart-t-t-t is divided-d-d-d into four-r-r-r chambers-s-s-s, two atria and two ventricles-s-s-s," intones Bill Cheswick, giving a dead-on impersonation of Dr. Baxter, complete with the underwater warble of old audiovisual systems.
"I was a big fan of Frank Baxter," says Cheswick, who now works for Bell Labs in New Jersey overseeing the Labs' Lucent mapping project. His Web page lists Dr. Baxter as his childhood hero.
"When I was in school, I drank up and swallowed everything Dr. Baxter said," Cheswick recalls. "The movies were so cool. I remember seeing Hemo the Magnificent and running home to brag to my parents that I'd seen an open-heart operation."
When Cheswick first arrived at Bell Labs, he discovered the old films in the company's archives and began hosting lunchtime film festivals. Aside from the camp value of these screenings, he was surprised at how well the science held up. "I was impressed by how many times I sat there thinking, 'Oh, yeah. I knew that. I guess I must have learned it from this movie--and remembered it for 30 years. That's pretty cool."
To Denise Cushing, a Marin County office manager, the appeal of the films was the line-drawing cartoon characters that helped Dr. Baxter bring the scientific principles to life.
"Mr. Sun is my favorite," she says with a grin. "A very warm childhood memory. I was one of those twisted children who grew up watching Warner Bros. cartoons, so any cartoon would get my interest. The Bell Science films had such a sense of quiet innocence and wonder that it stuck with me my entire life. My own sense of wonder about the world may have started right there."
It's that sense of wonder about the future--and especially the future of America--that some claim was not as benign as it seemed.
Jok Church--whose high-energy Beakman TV series is as indicative of its own time period as the Bell films are of theirs--talks of being "spoon fed" on the Bell films and other 1950s corporate-sponsored technology films.
"I grew up with an image of the future that was largely created by the automobile companies," he says. "My favorite was 1999, by the Filco Ford company. It was a day in the life of this futuristic family, with a hover car, a closet that dry-cleaned their clothes, and nuclear-powered weather beams that could simultaneously make snow for Billy and sunshine for Betty. That shit was all sold to us as reality. We believed that was our future.
"So when everybody in the 1960s found out that a lot of their life was bullshit, and that things weren't working out so well, what we were reacting to, in great part, was that entire myth that was embodied in those films," Church says.
Not that he thinks the films had no merit, or that they should remain in obscurity. In fact, he says he's happy to hear they've been released on video for a new audience.
"I don't think we should put anything on the trash heap of history," Church says. "You only know where you are by knowing where you've been. These films were a big part of our path as baby boomers, informing what we believeÑand in many instances what we've rejectedÑand the fact that they were such a big part of our lives is significant in and of itself."
Geoff Alexander agrees, and he's glad that the films are beginning to receive attention again.
"I think we're going into a new era, in terms of cinema," he says. "I predict that people will start paying more and more attention to these films, as history, as cinema. Then we will realize that these movies were not only a reflection of their time and cultureÑthey helped shape it."
As Denise Cushing succinctly concludes, "It's just too bad that Dr. Frank isn't here to see that he's made it to video!"
That's true. He might even be able to explain how to set a VCR.
From the September 23-29, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.