By Andrew Leal | Monday, May 31, 2010 at 10:11 pm
In an industry in-joke, Rowlf’s sales territory is expanded to include an office building, only the camera trucks in to reveal the name “Sperry-Rand,” the early IBM competitor behind the Univac. By 1967, however, the company had become embroiled in a lawsuit with Honeywell and was diminishing in importance. Still, based on his track record, sending Rowlf to sell IBM products to a competing company might be construed as an act of corporate sabotage! In addition, the acknowledgment that IBM wasn’t the only fish in the pond differed from the period in the 1940s and 1950s when corporations were afraid to acknowledge competing companies (and long before the Mac/PC ads).
Among the other highlights are a series of amusing commercial spoofs made by Rowlf. One parodies a then-current series of Timex durability ads featuring newsman John Cameron Swayze. Another, referencing Wrigley’s Doublemint Twins ads, has twin Rowlfs chanting “Double your output, double your speed! With IBM MTS MT/ST” and then typing on dual machines.The MT/ST (Magnetic Tape Selectric Typewriter) would feature far more prominently in the next film, The Paperwork Explosion.
That film –whose title was a common term in the 1960s and perceived as a side-effect of the information explosion–eschews Muppets for a more serious but still creative presentation. It’s not dissimilar in its rapid cuts and use of animation to Henson’s earlier, Oscar-nominated short Time Piece.
The Paperwork Explosion (made concurrently with a same-named print campaign) uses a talking heads approach, as various office workers and/or IBM employees discuss the problem and its solution. The cast consists of a mix of New York commercial and character actors, Henson Inc. employees (a young Frank Oz can be glimpsed smoking a cigarette and Henson’s voice is briefly heard), and actual IBM people (including David Lazer).
The short’s music was by Raymond Scott, who had worked with Henson before but is best known as the composer of that Looney Tunes staple “Powerhouse,” usually played during assembly-line scenes. Scott’s synthesizer score is perfectly matched to the subject matter, presenting both an insistent feel to the initial problem (businesses overwhelmed by paperwork in every facet) and then to IBM’s mechanized solution.
The soundtrack and pace gradually slow to a more comfortable rhythm, as the previously shown office folks begin to investigate the ways IBM products can help, especially the MT/ST. IBM’s print “paperwork explosion” ads described it further, as “a rather remarkable typewriter that takes a secretary’s rough draft and types it back error-free at the rather remarkable rate of a page every two minutes.”Also shown in the film is the IBM Selectric Composer, an advanced typesetter used to prepare copy which would be photographed for print ads and which allowed for a choice of font. Dictation machines are presented as ways to record the office staff’s thoughts more efficiently than freehand transcription or the best secretary.
These products may look quaint and amusing today, but in the 1960s this was futuristic stuff. And the mantra, reiterated by the chorus of talking heads, is that IBM office equipment and other machines will help do the work, leaving people more time to think.
Forty odd years later, it’s not clear that technology and our increasingly digital world have freed up time to think (though unquestionably they’ve given us more to think about). Outside of deeper messages, the film is very effective salesmanship and a fascinating mixture of techniques and look at the 1960s business world (or one version of it). As with his personal films, it proves Jim Henson could do more than wiggle frogs and dogs.
Once work had been completed on these films, Henson and IBM ended their partnership. But the collaboration’s impact continued to be felt, and the relationship between the Muppets and technology continues to this day:
And Jim Henson himself? He continued to toy with computers for as long as he lived, from making “Scanimation” films for Sesame Street to hiring engineers who created some of the earliest motion-capture CGI puppetry. And after his passing, one of the most memorable tributes he received came from a computer company. No, not IBM. It was Apple that prominently featured Henson (and Kermit) among the notable minds in its famous “Think Different” campaign. Jim Henson did indeed think differently, as these early films attest.
(Andrew Leal is a freelance writer in El Paso, Texas. A lifelong Muppet fan, he serves as administrator at Muppet Wiki and contributed to the book Kermit Culture. He’s also an animation historian, with selections in the books Animation Art and The Animated Movie Guide. He completed this article without the aid of an IBM Composer.)
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