History Thread: A Brief History of Coily the Spring Sprite

Jamison “Jam” Handy was a remarkable man. Born in Philadelphia, Handy relocated to Chicago in his teen years where he worked variously as a reporter, cartoonist and advertising man. In his youth, Handy was an accomplished swimmer and athlete; twenty years after winning a Bronze Medal in the 1904 Olympics, he returned to the games with the US Polo Team and earned another Bronze. Handy remained a passionate swimmer to the end of his days, earning induction into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1965 and starring in television ads supporting the US Olympic Team in the late ’70s, showing that his breaststroke hadn’t slowed in over seven decades.

Yet Handy gained notoriety not as an Olympic athlete or businessman, but for his unique film studio. While working for the Chicago Tribune in the 1910s, Handy became fascinated by advertising techniques and discovered how many ordinary Americans had no idea how to use everyday machines and appliances. Along with John Henry Patterson of the National Cash Register company, he founded a company that produced films, filmstrips and slideshows training corporate employees on how to use equipment. Their business was a success, and soon branched out to educational films aimed at general audiences. In 1935, Handy moved his business to Detroit, which was hoping to establish its own film industry, and took over an old church at 2900 East Grand Boulevard where he established the Jam Handy Organization.

Jam Handy (left) (source)

Often mocked today for their hyper-specific focus, Handy’s work was remarkably innovative for its time. Determined that “learning should be a pleasure and not a pain in the head,” Handy made tens of thousands of short films distilling everything from car motors to electronics to cooking into easy-to-use instructional narratives. Eschewing simplified and often dull how-to guides, Handy employed a mixture of formats (animation, stop motion and live action), narrative devices and even immersive techniques like audio-visual training aids that allowed viewers to imitate a skill they’d seen onscreen. Perhaps it’s overstating things to claim, as one writer does, that these “Student Participation Devices” presaged modern video games; certainly, though, there wasn’t much like it in the ’30s and ’40s.

During the height of his popularity, Handy boasted major sponsors like Chevrolet (whom he continued working with through the 1970s) and the Edison Electric Company, who often hired him for elaborate sales shorts, training films1 and advertising campaigns. In 1935, Handy produced Master Hands, a short praising General Motors’ treatment of their workers (the message didn’t take, as GM became the site of a monumental sit-down strike the following year). During World War II, the US government commissioned Handy to produce educational films; between 1942 and 1945 Handy made at least 7,000 movies, from instructional films for servicemen to newsreels and technical guides.

Handy spared little expense for his films, hiring a team of talented filmmakers, writers and animators to craft his shorts, along with a small stable of rotating actors. Music director Samuel Benavie provided musical compositions and classical tracks with a specially hired orchestra.2 Handy also courted such big names as Rube Goldberg, who briefly worked for the company, and Max Fleischer; the legendary Popeye animator created his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1948) cartoon for Handy, in one of his relatively few noneducational works.

Among Handy’s most reliable collaborators was animator Rockwell Barnes, a pupil of Max Fleischer who created dozens of films for the Organization. His most famous work is Down the Gasoline Trail (1936), a Chevrolet-sponsored short detailing how an automobile engine works, using an anthropomorphic droplet of gasoline (“Mr. Octane”) as it travels through the engine of the latest model Chevy. Full of whimsical imagery, a clever mix of live action and animation, it’s one of the best short films of its type and a solid demonstration of Barnes’s style.

Down the Gasoline Trail became the rare “industrial film” to break out of its medium, earning positive attention from critics for “visualizing the invisible” and even being screened on an experimental television broadcast in 1939.3 It also kicked off a long-running series of Direct Mass Selling advertisements, which Chevrolet used both to promote new model cars and demonstrate the features of their automobiles. The “Nicky Nome” series, a collection of Technicolor, fairy-tale themed car-related vignettes styled after Disney’s Silly Symphonies, followed suit and earned the ire of Walt Disney.

Jam Handy wasn’t the only provider of industrial films, of course. Companies like Centron, MPO and Telamerica produced similar promotional shorts which expanded upon Jam Handy’s narrative documentary format. His format soon took root in educational films for schools, many of which were produced by the same companies. Such films were directed by name directors like Herk Harvey, who made dozens of travel and industrial films for Centron before directing Carnival of Souls (1962). Or Frank Capra, whose Hemo the Magnificent (1957) (part of a series commissioned by Bell Laboratories) exploring the circulatory system inspired the “Mr. DNA” sequence in Jurassic Park. Some featured famous actors like Walter Pidgeon and Ricardo Montalban, or soon-to-be-famous actors like Darren McGavin and Dick York.

Historian Jonathan Boschen explains how such industrial films were viewed and distributed:

“Exhibition of these films usually occurred at non-theatrical events, in places such as community clubs (i.e. rotary club events), at school assemblies in school auditoriums or gymnasiums, factory cafeterias, etc. and occasional theatrical showings at movie theatres. Non-theatrical screenings would have highlighted the selected Direct Mass Selling short film as the main attraction of an event, while theatrical screenings would have incorporated the film as a selected short subject into a theatre program. All of the non-theatrical screenings, and some of the theatrical screenings, were planned and booked by a local Chevrolet dealer in a community and distributed to various venues by the Jam Handy Organization; For non-theatrical exhibitions in venues that were without 35mm projection booths (i.e. such as a dining room or gymnasium), Jam Handy would send out a 35mm ‘suitcase projectionist’ to exhibit the film. In addition to theatrical screenings the Direct Mass Selling films also received mainstream distribution by Audio-Cinema Incorporated (from 1935 and into 1937) and later Monogram Pictures (from 1937 through 1942), allowing interested cinemas to book the films without having to go through a Chevrolet Dealer.”

Today, Handy’s most famous – or infamous – short is arguably the one hardest to identify as an advertisement. In 1940, as a follow-up to several earlier shorts on springs, Handy produced an eight minute subject entitled A Case of Spring Fever designed to promote the comfortable spring system in the 1941 Chevrolet Special DeLuxe Sport Sedan. Compared to others in the Direct Mass Selling series it’s rather crude on a technical level and not especially clever or inventive, though it’s certainly memorable. But the strangest thing about Spring Fever – besides its unforgettable protagonist – is that it barely registers as an advertisement at all.

Spring Fever follows the travails of one Gilbert Willoughby, a grumpy middle-aged man who groans that he’s fixing his couch instead of playing golf with his buddies. Gilbert moans that he wishes he’d never see another spring again…summoning a cackling demon named “Coily the Spring Sprite” who grants his wish. Over the next few minutes, Gilbert recognizes that so much of his daily life revolves around springs, from watches to telephones to doors and car pedals. In case the lesson were too subtle, Coily materializes after each failed springing to cackle “NOOOOOOO SPRIIIIIIIINGS!!!” while a curious “bweep-bwoop” whistles on the soundtrack.

Gilbert finally takes back his wish, affirming to Coily that he’s learned his lesson. The short then takes an even more bizarre turn as Gilbert, finally joining his friends at the golf course, starts ranting about the many, many, many uses for springs in his day-to-day life. This alternately bores and irritates his friends, who fall asleep on the ride home, cushioned by the DeLuxe’s spring-cushioned seats. At the conclusion, one of Gilbert’s friends wishes never to see another spring himself, only to be cut off to the approval of Coily, who cackles merrily at the lesson he’s imparted to his human familiar.

If not for the research of Boschen and archivist Rick Prelinger, one couldn’t easily identify Spring Fever‘s intent. Jam Handy often practiced the “soft sell” approach in its corporate advertising, downplaying the actual brand while demonstrating the utility of the product in question or an aspect of its function. Gasoline Trail, for instance, only explicitly mentions Chevrolet as a sponsor in its opening credits (though it’s hard to avoid the automotive thrust of the short). Spring Fever takes this approach to the extreme, however; Chevrolet isn’t even mentioned in the credits, and while a decent chunk of the short involves Gilbert’s car, nowhere is the make or brand named. Instead it plays like a demented diatribe about springs, fit perhaps for an especially bored middle school science class or a henpecked loser who can’t fix his own couch.

Granted, this “soft sell” makes more sense considering Jam Handy’s typical distribution methods. If Handy screened Spring Fever, as suggested, at trade shows, car expos and dealerships it’s likely that the intended audience didn’t need the context explained. But the cartoon apparently made its way into theaters as well, with B-movie studio Monograph Pictures showing it before several of their features from 1940 to 1941. Pity the poor moviegoer who went to watch King of the Zombies, only to endure eight confounding minutes with Coily the Spring Sprite.

Rockwell Barnes: Coily’s creator? (source)

If one didn’t know better, one might even assume Spring Fever was a parody. Its relatable Everyman protagonist is a crabby loser who is mocked by his wife, unable to repair a couch and whose friends barely tolerate him. Like many an advertising character whose one-note life revolves around fabric softener or soft drinks, Gilbert can only find solace in springs. Yet even this provides little true comfort: after all, Gilbert isn’t advertising springs but Chevrolet, yet doesn’t once utter the name of his benefactor, as if Coily forebade him to utter their name. And his friends grow so tired of his rambling that one barely restrains himself from beating Gilbert with a golf club.

It’s hard determine who actually created Spring Fever. Handy did not credit individual creators for his films, attributing them instead to the Organization, and no one seems especially eager to claim credit for this one. It appears that Barnes worked on or at least supervised creation of the movie, although Coily is a remarkably crude piece of work by his standards (he appears animated on a cel superimposed on a still image, rarely in the same frame as Gilbert). Others credit the film to another well-known animator, Jim Tyer, a former Disney collaborator (and later head animator at Terry Toons) who worked for Handy and contributed to the Nicky Nome shorts. Similarly, one can’t easily track down the actors who appear in the film, although IMDB credits legendary voice artist Pinto Colvig (the original Goofy and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit) as voicing Coily.

Regardless, A Case of Spring Fever gained a life of its own, first through teachers who repurposed the film for science classes, transforming from unique (if questionably successful) advertising short to the archetypal Boring Instructional Film. Later, many creators who saw Spring Fever in this manner parodied its hyperfocus on mundane objects. Films and TV shows from Kentucky Fried Movie to The Simpsons seized upon its “world without X” format for laughs. Coily received the ultimate tribute (or mockery) by Mystery Science Theater 3000, who featured the short in one of their final episodes.

Jam Handy continued its work through the 1970s, producing increasingly elaborate short subjects and promotional films for Chevrolet and other sponsors, never failing to keep pace with increasing technical advancements. Handy died in 1983, bequeathing an outsize legacy on instructional filmmaking, corporate or otherwise, that belies his reputation as something of a punchline. His old studio remains in use as an art gallery and performance space. Today, Coily enjoys memetic status even among those with no firsthand memories of his use as an advertising or educational tool. Not a bad legacy for a sentient spring demon.