J. Fred MacDonald, film historian and pop culture prof, dies at 74

SHARE J. Fred MacDonald, film historian and pop culture prof, dies at 74
SHARE J. Fred MacDonald, film historian and pop culture prof, dies at 74

He owned the old movies that made you laugh out loud during school health class.

J. Fred MacDonald, who taught history for 27 years at Northeastern Illinois University, built a vast film archive with reel upon reel on how to avoid social diseases, drugs, alcohol, homosexuals and Communism.

Unintentionally funny movies were only one ray of his magic lantern.

Not only was his collection one of the largest amassed by an individual, it was so diverse, he provided footage to TV networks, researchers, the BBC and documentarians such as Ken Burns, Syracuse University Professor Robert Thompson said.

The archive “ultimately has benefitted the entire nation,” said Rick Prelinger, a film professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

“It is truly astonishing in its variety, including musical shorts, post-WWII era newsreels created for African-American audiences, television programs and commercials, educational/industrial films, and even some Hollywood features,” said Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress, which bought the collection in 2010 for $2 million.

Mr. MacDonald, 74, died April 9 at his home in Los Angeles.

His vaults included searing works such as “Harvest of Shame,” Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 documentary that showed the wretched lives of migrant workers before many Americans gave a thought to who was picking their lettuce and grapes. He had clips of police clubbing protesters at Chicago’s 1968 Democratic convention, and rare footage of Native American tribes.

The 50,000-piece collection contained 40,000 reels of film and 40,000 hours of radio broadcasts. Mr. MacDonald put it together from studios and libraries that were getting rid of old movies, and from underground collectors, estate sales and storage lockers. He had a color home movie from Nazi Germany with a Coca-Cola truck passing by. He stored floor-to-ceiling stacks of film cans in a warehouse near Northeastern.

The old TV commercials in his collection are gasp-inducing for their sexism. A 1967 ad for Eastern Airlines, called “Presenting the Losers,” shows a cattle call of “girls” trying to become the 1 in 20 selected to be Eastern flight attendants. “If this isn’t the most sexist TV commercial ever, it’s close,” Mashon blogged. The women get rejected by a male voice calling them “Honey,” with pronouncements including “She wears glasses,” or “She’s married.”

Some artifacts are unsettling reminders of Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase, “the banality of evil,” involving blind Nazi obedience and the trial of SS leader Adolf Eichmann. A driver’s education film from 1930s Germany contains warning after warning about driving dangers to the social order. Closer scrutiny shows the demonstration car is flying a jaunty pennant with a swastika.

His collection was a bottomless well of oddities. “One of my colleagues sent me a picture she had taken of four films that came out of Fred’s titles,” Mashon said, “ ‘Scotch Songs,’ ‘Drunkenness, ‘Deep-Fat Frying’ and ‘Improve Your Personality.’ ”

Mr. MacDonald was born in Nova Scotia, the son of a coal miner who moved to Los Angeles to be a painter at 20th Century Fox, said his wife of 42 years, Leslie Waldrop MacDonald. He earned a bachelor’s degree in French history at UC Berkeley, a master’s and doctorate in French history from UCLA, and was a Fulbright scholar in Paris in the 1960s.

He was proud of the 450 films he collected on Native-American tribes, which were awarded to the University of Arizona and its American Indian Film Gallery. “This would have been a landfill, if it had not been for our rescue efforts,” he said in footage shot by Groundswell Educational Films. “Put them up on the air, put them up on the Internet, let people have access to them. Download them . . . use them in classes.”

Mr. MacDonald built a lucrative business with earnings from film licensing fees. But he was also a generous mentor who sometimes shared movies for the price of the videotape used to copy them.

“If he liked your project and you didn’t have money, he would donate the footage or give a very low price,’’ his wife said.

And he was an innovator who helped introduce college campuses to the study of broadcasting and pop culture. “Now, you can’t spit without hitting a university that’s teaching a comic book course, a television course, a ‘Buffy the Vampire [Slayer]’ course,” said Thompson, director of Syracuse’s Bleier Center for Television & Popular Culture.

“It was always like a magic carpet ride to visit Fred” and his archive, said Jeff Spitz, an associate professor at Columbia College. “He would transport you to anywhere you wanted to go in the 20th century.”

Mr. MacDonald, once president of the Popular Culture Association, wrote six books, including “Blacks and White TV: African Americans in Television Since 1948”; “Television and the Red Menace: The Video Road to Vietnam”; and “Don’t Touch That Dial! Radio Programming in American Life from 1920 to 1960.”

He also is survived by a brother, Scott MacDonald. No services are planned.

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