AT THE CULVER HIGH OF MY YOUTH, SOPHOMORES Approached driver-education class with fear and dread. Not of getting behind the wheel, which to Southern California kids felt as natural as breathing; not of the intellectual rigors of the course, which was run by shop teachers. What freaked us were tales of the films we were going to have to watch, films intended to terrify us into being good drivers, with titles like The Last Prom and Red Asphalt and such graphic, grisly scenes of death by auto that each semester kids supposedly fainted, threw up, ran from the room.
What we didn't know then — what I didn't know until a week ago, when I read Ken Smith's Mental Hygiene — was that our immersion in gore was part of “a uniquely American experiment in social engineering.” This short, fascinating book is a guide to the exceedingly weird genre that was classroom “instructional” film, circa 1945 to 1970. Around 3,000 of these films were made, about half no longer exist, and thanks to archivist and social historian Rick Prelinger, who owns “the world's largest collection of old industrials and classroom productions,” Ken Smith has seen the rest.
Shorts like Appreciating Our Parents, A Date With Your Family and Benefits of Looking Ahead (all made in 1950) were born in the spasm of social reaction and retreat that followed the end of World War II. Filmmakers and educators, says Smith, saw them “like a polio sugar cube or a measles shot . . . conceived as preventative medicine.” The “disease” in question was youthful rebellion. During the war, with Dad off fighting and Mom working in the munitions plant, American youth had gotten a taste of autonomy — and liked it. But now it was time to set things right. Just as working women were being reminded that their true destiny was in the home, kids — now known by the new term “teenager” — had to be re-taught to knuckle under to parental (and societal) authority. Film, which had won widespread acceptance during the war through its use for training troops and boosting morale at home, was seen as an innovative and modern way to do it. “Kids would watch . . .” says Smith, “and learn that being selfish, arrogant, undemocratic or delinquent would make them unhappy, or, depending on the producer, dead.”
Mental-hygiene films, produced by companies in the Midwest, using unknown actors and on minuscule budgets, came in several basic, though overlapping, categories. “Social guidance” or “life adjustment” films were the first, and largest, genre produced; they taught everything from manners to grooming, dating etiquette, career planning, social skills and gender roles. In all, though, one theme comes through: the value of preserving the status quo, fitting in, and adopting bland, conformist behavior.
In A Date With Your Family, for instance, Smith notes, “Daughter is expected, apparently every day, to help cook a multicourse dinner, set an elaborate table and then change into something 'festive' to look 'more charming.'” She is also forbidden from making “unkind comparisons about your standard of living,” while “Brother” is stopped from discussing “unpleasant topics such as gruesome sights or sounds.” In Manners at School (1956), a narrator assures anyone who might be thinking of a little activism, “If we mind our own business, people will like us better.” Some social-guidance films encouraged compliance through reward: Kids who followed the rules got boyfriends, fun, bigger allowances. Others were viciously punitive: Teens who drink end up on Skid Row; those who dare to have sex face pregnancy or worse. “I got some sort of sore — down there,” a high school boy who made it with a floozy gasps to a friend in The Innocent Party (1959). A stern, disapproving doctor gives the diagnosis of syphilis, and it turns out that the boy's girlfriend, who gave in to desire, is diseased and disgraced as well.
A number of business-sponsored films promoted products in the guise of celebrating the American way of life. (Menstruation instruction was turned over to the corporations, because no one else would touch it.) Highway-death dramas became the best-remembered mental-hygiene films after their gore level began taking off — in 1958, Canadian producer Budge Crowley became the first (but not last) to insert footage from real accident scenes in them. What's perhaps most interesting about these films today is their insistence that such tragedies were caused by reckless teens. As Smith points out, the 1950s and '60s were a time of incredible roadside carnage — but primarily because Detroit was manufacturing increasingly powerful cars without any safety devices whatsoever. (In 1950, a year after the introduction of the V-8 engine, highway fatalities jumped 20 percent.) It wasn't until the 1965 publication of Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed and subsequent laws requiring seat belts that the death count began to diminish.
By the late '60s, the mental-hygiene industry also had started taking on drugs, usually with hilarious results. For years after, Sonny Bono's solemnly intoned “Why do ya think they call it dope?” in Marijuana (1968) was good for a laugh, especially if you were stoned.
WHAT DID THESE MIND-CONTROL FILMS ACTUALLY ACcomplish? Smith, noting that we can't travel back in time to know “if their audiences found them enlightening or just dumb,” isn't sure. But all you have to do is ask a few members of those audiences to know that both were true. (One of my friends, raised in Queens, recalls howling as he viewed dating-advice flicks in the early '60s, but my own spouse says he was so affected by the images of the encroaching Red Menace he viewed in a film while in elementary school that he raced back to his bedroom in suburban Fort Worth and put a loaded BB gun by his bed.) Clearly, however, they failed to stop history. Anti-“establishment” protest happened, feminism happened, sex, drugs and rock & roll happened, and by the early '70s, says Smith, “Reported cases of syphilis and gonorrhea were at their highest level since the introduction of antibiotics.”
But of course mental-hygiene films are less interesting for what they did or didn't accomplish than for what they say about their era, about the terror of difference and desire that lay beneath the blandness of the 1950s and early '60s, about a need for rigid control that seems simultaneously evil and utterly pathetic. During the same years that “life adjustment” films teaching kids to be popular through denying their individuality were proliferating, so was tranquilizer use — over 569 tons were prescribed in 1959 alone.
Connect the mental-hygiene movement to what was going on in the wider culture, and there's a rich lode to be mined. You won't find it in this book, though. Again and again, Smith glosses over critical analyses or offers simple-minded throwaway lines: “There is no 'right way' or 'wrong way' to live your life. Nevertheless, these films tried to tell us that there was.” In fairness, it's clear he never meant to offer more than a glimpse, a giggle and some social commentary lite. But there's room for more. An analysis of the mental-hygiene movement alone may not be enough to support a long, serious work of nonfiction. But an incisive documentary that interspersed history and commentary with footage from the films themselves — for even the wittiest description can't compare with the real thing — would be delicious.
MENTAL HYGIENE: CLASSROOM FILMS 19451970 | By KEN SMITH | Blast Books 238 pages | $25 paperback