The last time the U.S. economy was this topsy-turvy, American automakers turned their attention to film-making. They produced a variety of short documentaries in the 1930s that boosted consumer confidence and promoted what the Japanese call monozukuri (the art of making things). Perhaps it’s time for Ford and General Motors to go back to the past and develop some up-tempo manufacturing films for the 21st century.

The last time the U.S. economy was this topsy-turvy, American automakers turned their attention to film-making. They produced a variety of short documentaries in the 1930s that boosted consumer confidence and promoted what the Japanese call monozukuri (the art of making things).

Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. excelled at the practice. Classic GM films from the period include Master Hands and From Dawn to Sunset (both films are posted on YouTube). Ford films ranged from Rhapsody in Steel and The Ford Rouge Plant to Symphony in F and The Harvest of the Years. In films such as Master Hands and Symphony in F, classical music was choreographed to moving parts and assemblers to create some dramatic scenes.

The films were widely circulated to schools, libraries, women’s clubs, scouting groups and other civic organizations. During the heyday of “industrial propaganda” films, many other manufacturers, such as General Electric Co. and International Harvester Co., churned out similar documentaries that explained how stuff was made. They attempted to humanize assembly lines and clean up the public image of factories. The Prelinger Archives (www.archive.org) preserves quite a few of these films online.

Ironically, the same year that Master Hands was produced (1936), Charlie Chaplin released his iconic Modern Times. In that satiric movie, Chaplin works on an assembly line in which humans are enslaved to machines. The Tramp is whisked away by a fast-moving conveyor and ends up inside a machine, riding through a maze of huge gears and flywheels, in the movie’s most famous scene.

And, a few months after Master Hands debuted, sit-down strikes crippled GM’s huge Flint, MI, plant that was heroically portrayed in the film. But, that didn’t stop the automaker from producing other films gushing with self-promoting images and boastful narration that stirred demand for its products.

Perhaps it’s time for Ford and GM to go back to the past and develop some up-tempo manufacturing films for the 21st century. Posting them on YouTube, Hulu, MySpace and other social media sites would be a great way to tell the American public that manufacturing ain’t dead in this country. It would also provide a nice opportunity to showcase some of the state-of-the-art technology that goes into making cars and trucks today.