If you love old movies, you love Frank Capra’s films: Big stars like Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper in feel-good flicks with happy endings — often remade decades later by producers whose ideas weren’t as good. Jimmy Stewart carried Capra’s two most famous, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life.

But Mr. Capra led a double life away from the feature film business. Not only did he produce a series of propaganda films designed to rally the nation during World War II, but after his biggest hits had run their course, Frank Capra became a producer of classroom science shorts.

Capra’s work was funded by Bell Laboratories and fronted by a professorial guy known as “Doctor Research.” His real name was Frank Baxter, and he was a real professor ... of English literature at USC. Through a series of classic productions in the late fifties and early sixties, the two Franks taught millions of classroom kids their first lessons about the bloodstream, physics, DNA and more. The series also ran nationwide on network TV (CBS), pretty much where you can find stuff like Dancing With the Stars and Fear Factor in the more sophisticated 21st century.

In addition to confirming the message that bald guys are the smartest people on earth, Dr. Research took some fairly heady science concepts and boiled them down into descriptions that a fourth grader could understand. Or maybe even the parents of a fourth grader. YouTube is loaded with Bell Labs excerpts today:

Thread of Life includes straightforward explanations of DNA, human reproduction (the clean, 1950s version, anyway), cell division and Mendel’s discoveries on genetics. The genetics sequence alone might be enough to get the film banned in a few public school systems today.

Gateways to the Mind gave an early look at brainwave patterns through an oscilloscope, and using animations worthy of a late 1960s LSD flick, showed what might happen as a result of extreme sensory deprivation.

The Alphabet Conspiracy dissects language difference, and a film called Hemo the Magnificent explains our blood system.
In Our Mr. Sun, we see (via a healthy plug for Bell Labs) how silicon is turned into “solar battery chips” — the ancestors of our still-imperfect solar industry.

Half a century later, Capra’s and Baxter’s work shines brightest in a piece called The Unchained Goddess. The English lit professor gives us a forecast of rising carbon dioxide levels from industry and auto emissions, and how it may some day wreak havoc with our climate.

In each of the films, Dr. Research deftly and authoritatively fields questions from a sidekick. In one, it’s Eddie Albert, who later became famous as the guy in Green Acres. Another is Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. In The Unchained Goddess, the guy lobbing questions at the good Doctor is Richard Carlson, whose previous brush with science was as the leading man in the sci-fi classic Creature From the Black Lagoon.

It’s easy to find imperfections in these old films. Despite what were then cutting-edge production techniques, it’s impossible to escape that campy, slightly goofy 1950s approach. The plugs for Bell Labs, and the unbridled faith in science as a cure-all, are a bit heavy handed.

Those are nitpicks, though. This stuff is classic, timeless and prophetic.

Frank Capra died in 1991; Frank Baxter died in 1982, but not before winning several Emmy awards (he also hosted network shows on the arts and on Shakespeare), and getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Not bad for a fake scientist.

I always counsel people who write or produce material on science and environment to shoot for the goal of looking smart 20 years from now. Dr. Baxter, Frank Capra and Bell Labs look smart 50 years later, even though the global warming segment may not have the usual Frank Capra happy ending. I think Bill Nye is one of the few pop-culture science/environment guys who stands a chance of meeting even the 20-year standard today. I’d be surprised if Shark Week or the MythBusters guys will be able to say that.


Peter Dykstra, the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit is currently a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. He writes three columns for MNN: Media Mayhem on Mondays, Political Habitat on Wednesdays, and Green States on Fridays. (Yes, he writes a lot.)

It's a wonderful life?
If you love old movies, you love Frank Capra’s films: Big stars like Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper in feel-good flicks with happy endin