Writes of Spring
Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970by Ken Smith
Blast Books, 240 pp., $24.95 (paper)
In "Shy Guy," a teen portrayed by a young Dick York is playing alone in the basement with his ham radio. Dad wanders downstairs, to ask Son how things are going at high school. Son confides that he feels he doesn't fit in. Dad's advice is for Son to watch the other kids, and copy them.
Instructional films like "Shy Guy" praised hard work, streamlined appliances, and chaperones. In his new book, pop-culture critic Ken Smith (Raw Deal: Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans) conducts the first written tour of what he calls mental hygiene -- a long, awkward moment in postwar America's cultural history. Although instructional films covered everything from heavy industry to personal grooming, Smith chooses to focus on classroom films. Hundreds of examples are described in detail (be sure to check out the exclusive video offer inside), along with histories of the leading production houses and interviews with the influential filmmakers of this short-lived genre.
Are You Popular? Are Manners Important? What Makes a Good Party?
Anyone born after 1970 may have a hard time imagining an era when titles such as "Control Your Emotions," "More Dates for Kay," and "Why Take Chances?" were as commonplace as the 48-star flag. However, mental-hygiene films encompassed a broad variety of topics that Smith categorizes thus: "Fitting In," "Cautionary Tales," "Dating," "Girls Only," "Drugs," "Sex Ed," "Bloody Highways," and "Sneaky Sponsors." If you're over 30, you're probably able to recall the popular driver's ed gore-fest "Mechanized Death" or the Communism scare flick "Red Nightmare," featuring Jack Webb. Or "What To Do on a Date," which advises, "Find out whether your girl would like a skating party or wienie roast. If she opts for the latter, politely state that that is just what you wanted to do."
The author pays gratitude to media archivist Rick Prelinger, who in 1996 released a 12 CD-ROM document, "Our Secret Century," containing 160 instructional films. (If your time is limited, pick up Prelinger's terrific single-CD companion piece called "Ephemeral Films.") For Mental Hygiene, Prelinger opened his archive to Smith, a real coup for the author, who also tracked down several directors, writers, and actors.
It's interesting to note that the late David Smart, whose production company Coronet Films pioneered the idea of character development for the genre, was fascinated with Nazi German film propaganda. Smart produced Coronet's many tributes to neatness, hygiene, and manners all while suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. He never shook hands with another person without first putting on a glove.
Created specifically to shape behavior, these films boiled down to real life versus life as it ought to be, circa 1950. And while their cornball innocence and low-budget appearance today evoke Leave It to Beaver or Plan 9 From Outer Space, that is far more an accident of time than intent, according to the author.