The Birth of the Trailer

The history of book trailers dates back to the arrival of broadband Internet access and personal computers, for good reason—how else would you watch them? But there were a few outliers: TV spots for mass market blockbusters back in the early days of cable, and, apparently, some on film as well. Remember those odd shorts produced to fill time before the movie started? Most of them were cartoons, or newsreels, or weird little comedies, but at least one, as it turns out, was a proto-book trailer.

In 1973 Houghton Mifflin Harcourt put together a promotional film to market its newest edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, and it’s… weird. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About: Sects, Sets, Sex, prefix, frankforts, Waldorf, idle, American, peanuts, gin, Heritage, cabbage, Dictionary, Rasputin, bassoon, cohort, rum, putty, rotor, usage, coquette, alfalfa, zipper, Mississippi, … etc.: But Were Afraid to Axe!! is definitely a child of the ’70s, halfway between hokey vaudeville and unhip psychedelia, something both your grandparents and your teenagers would have rolled their eyes at.

It begins with a strange French horn soundtrack and couple of people in white rabbit suits—a nod to Grace Slick?—and spends the next 16 minutes discussing pronunciation, meaning, usage, and spelling via a series of skits filled with bad puns (“the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five: a, e, i, o, and u”), painfully dated jokes about secretaries, butlers, and Brooklyn accents, and a DIY sensibility that’s almost shocking in these days of Photoshop and iMovie—by the end of the decade Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update would have shown us how to fake a newsroom decently with minimal resources, but the newsroom here has cutout paper letters saying “NEWS CENTRAL” glued to the wall, the ubiquitous teletype sound effect, and not much else.

Still, everyone’s clearly having a fine time—it was obviously a welcome break in the workday for the Houghton Mifflin employees who made up the film’s cast—and it’s good dumb fun. I was ultimately won over by the man-on-the-street feature analyzing the correctness of “bit” versus “bitten”:

“Our usage panel, consisting of Margaret Mead, Truman Capote, Katherine Anne Porter, and the like, voted 88-42 that the boy was bitten by the dog.”

“I don’t think its right, I don’t care what the usage panel thinks. Dogs shouldn’t bite people.”

I’m not sure how many people got up after their showing of The Sting or The Exorcist or Mean Streets or god only knows what it preceded and ran out to the nearest bookstore to pick up a copy of the American Heritage Dictionary. Then again, how many people are going to buy the books advertised in this year’s batch of trailers, which probably don’t even have a person in a slightly tatty bear costume walking off with a chair when asked to take a seat? Or a secretary calling the doctor to report that her boss swallowed a dictionary and she can’t get a word out of him? It’s a dying art, I tell you.

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