Studying American Propaganda Films

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:50

    Mental Hygiene by Ken Smith (Blast Books, 240 pages, $24.95) I went into driver's ed with a head full of stories my sister had told me about the horror films they'd be showing us?Highways of Agony, Mechanized Death, Last Prom and the like. We'd get to see real pictures of real human brains splattered across shattered dashboards. That's what driver's ed was all about. Unfortunately, in the five intervening years since she sat in the same classroom I was headed for, Highways of Agony had disappeared, the mangled bodies replaced by sterile, bloodless crash-test dummies. Instead of real mashed heads to illustrate what going through the windshield was like, we just saw some guy scraping a grapefruit over broken glass.

    That was no fun at all.

    But I remember those earlier films, which tried to teach us home safety, table manners and the horrors of drug abuse?and I remember that one afternoon a year when all the girls were herded into a room and shown a mysterious film we boys weren't allowed to see.

    Jiminy Cricket showed us how to avoid spreading a cold all through the town. We learned why smoking and drinking were things only evil people did, and why eating from the four food groups would make us all good Americans. Thing is, maybe just because of the times, the films never really had the effect on us they were supposed to. They always made the same mistake the Hollywood features did?the bad seeds, the delinquents, the addicts, all seemed to be having much more fun than the buttoned-down kids who played by the rules. Until, of course, they died horrible deaths.

    While we saw plenty of films about science, math and history, in the end, regrettably, I saw only a handful of the true mental hygiene films?those 10-minute, 16 mm behavior-modification films that rattled through aging projectors in classrooms throughout the country from the late 40s to the early 70s.

    Ken Smith (author of Raw Deal and Ken's Guide to the Bible) has seen more than his share. In fact, Smith became a little obsessed. Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films, 1945-1970 represents the culmination of a decade's worth of research.

    "I can identify all the films with the Coronet candy machine in it," he confesses.

    Smith first became hooked on classroom films while working at the Comedy Channel, where part of his job involved editing the commercial bumpers?many of which included clips from the likes of Dating Do's and Don'ts. It was Smith's job to find the funny bits in the original films and edit them together.

    "I wasn't at it for more than a couple weeks before I realized that this was a lot of weird stuff," Smith says. "And the more you watch these films in their entirety, and not just in 30-second clips, [the more] you recognize the dark quality that a lot of them have?the obsessive, fearful nature that they convey. I said, 'Wow, who made these? What's the reason all this stuff exists?' To me it just seemed natural to want to find out. And of course, there was no place to find out. Nobody knew anything. Nobody cared."

    Someone who did was Rick Prelinger, founder of the Prelinger Archives, home to the world's largest collection of educational and industrial films. It was Prelinger who was providing the stock footage Smith had been working with. While Prelinger himself had been trying for some time to create a larger project out of his collection, he was having difficulty finding people who took the idea seriously until Smith came along.

    The first problem with researching the history of mental hygiene films is the fact that, as Smith pointed out, so little information existed. "There was no source material," he said, "There's no paper trail. It's all gone?everything's been thrown away."

    In fact, only about half of the films themselves still exist.

    "A lot of that 'half' is one print," Smith told me, "and it's all chewed up. Are You Popular? is a fairly common clip to see. Rick had a print of it, but he can't use it anymore...He showed it at a festival, and it got chewed up in the projector. This stuff is very fragile, and a lot of it is 50 years old now. They start to get brittle."

    The next problem was tracking down some of the responsible parties?directors, producers, actors?anyone at all who was involved with the companies?like Coronet or Centron?who put these things out. Once again, Smith asked Prelinger.

    "Rick...knew a couple of them. He said, 'Oh, I know the guy who starred in Dating Do's and Don'ts. I was like, 'Really? He's alive?' So I gave him a call, and he remembered the man who'd directed some of his films. He was still alive, too, and he remembered a few people, and that was the whole Coronet thing... They were close-knit organizations. They were small groups of people who were really into making films. They worked together long hours, cranking this stuff out at an amazing pace. So they all kept in touch with one another."

    The films theoretically taught kids how to behave, how to fit in with the crowd, the importance of good grooming. They taught them that planning ahead was necessary if you didn't want to become "a drifter or a bum," that smoking a joint inevitably led to heroin addiction in a matter of weeks, and that goofing around would land you in the hospital. The acting?usually by friends or neighbors of the director?tended toward the wooden; the direction and camera work not exactly on a par with Orson Welles. But that wasn't important?these films were out to teach a lesson, not entertain.

    It would've been very easy for Smith to openly mock these films?as has been done so effectively on The Simpsons?but Smith isn't looking at these films for their camp value. He's placed them, instead, in a particular historical and social context. He looks at the films with the eyes of an adult viewing them with hindsight?and while he sees them for what they are, he also looks at what these films were trying to do, and why. There was something more important, and much more sinister, going on beneath the goofy, naive surface. These films were tools of social engineering in a postwar era when American values were being turned on their heads?and parents were suddenly terrified of what their children were capable of.

    "That's what really makes them interesting. If you look at this stuff as just a source of cheap laughs, it exhausts itself fairly quickly, because not all of these films are as funny as Dating Do's and Don't's. They just aren't. If you get yourself out of that mindset, you realize that what's going on here is funny, but funny in a really dark way."

    Though the films seem cheesy and harmless today, they were taken very seriously by the people who made them. While some film companies made kindhearted, innocent films whose sole purpose was to give kids a good example to follow, others berated and terrified schoolkids into proper behavior. In Habit Patterns, for instance, the adult narrator snidely comments on everything our slovenly young heroine does from the moment her alarm goes off in the morning until she goes to bed?constantly comparing her with Goody Two-shoes next door. Even after our heroine is publicly humiliated at an after-school get-together, the narrator doesn't let her off the hook. "...And remember, people often talk about other people when they're not around...and they don't concentrate on their good qualities." It's pretty brutal. I asked Smith if he thought these films were effective; that is, as a result of mental hygiene films, did kids stop running with scissors and stay away from drugs?

    "Certainly Coronet and companies like Encyclopedia Britannica really tried. They were probably the strictest in terms of the whole educational theory of making films as innocuous as possible. Using the techniques of Hollywood, but very subtly. Having character development, editing and a plot, but always being very careful to show only good behavior, according to the theory that if you show bad behavior, the kid would imitate it. You kept music and fancy camera work to a bare minimum. You didn't want to infuse it with any sort of thrill or emotion... They were closely tied in with educators and theorists and sociologists. Then someone like Centron came along. Their mission was to make dramas, which would make people ask questions. Actually, it's probably better education than the Coronet films?Coronet was more about propaganda. They guided you to a specific conclusion?and a conclusion favored by the people who sponsored the project."

    That's one of the central theses in Smith's book: these films were made by adults who portrayed "good kids" as they'd like kids to be, and "bad kids" as they feared they really were. What's more, he argues, many of the films place the blame for everything that had gone wrong with America squarely on the shoulders of the children watching the movie. Kids didn't get into trouble (falling off cliffs, getting hooked on heroin or making our nation's highways little more than asphalt-covered deathtraps) because their folks weren't around to counsel them or because automakers were skimping on the safety features?they did so because they were plain rotten kids.

    I asked Smith if he thought kids were too sophisticated for simple scare tactics like this to work on them.

    "Yeah, definitely," he replied. "If you're going to have guidance films, show them to adults, not the kids. Adults need more guidance on how to talk to their kids than kids need. That's why these films didn't work. You can't make 10-minute films about complex social problems and show them to kids expecting to have solved the problem. It doesn't work that way."

    It remains perhaps a bit too simple, though, to say that the adults who were making these films were trying?if subconsciously?to shift the blame away from themselves and onto their kids.

    "It's a double-edged sword. The idea that you should teach a child to be responsible for their actions is valid?it's part of teaching children... But when you try to execute it on comes off too heavy-handed, there's obviously a pro-adult, anti-kid bias there... We're still afraid of our kids. We still think of them as punks, and that if we leave them to their own devices, they'll go crazy and all of society will come crashing down."

    Smith admits there was a time when these films might have done their job, in the earliest years, the late 40s. "There was no competing media," he explained. "There was nothing to judge it by. Then television came in, and rock 'n' roll, and there was all this group bonding you could do around a given image. Then those films lost their effectiveness. Kids could suddenly see that it was phony. It only worked in this closed universe, where there wasn't anyone else coming in and saying, 'Hey, look at this!' That's why they failed."

    You'd almost expect a book like this to be just another work making fun of bad movies, but it's not. He freely admits that many of these films are unintentionally hilarious, but he also traces patterns?the rise and fall of the drug film, say, and the highway safety movie?or the role advertisers played in making those menstruation films after no other educational film company would broach the subject. He profiles specific genres and companies and personalities?and fills the second half of the book with capsule descriptions of hundreds of mental hygiene films (where he gives his sense of the absurd full rein).

    "Before anybody laughs too heartily at these films," Smith warns, however, "they should take a look at what they're wearing. You might look like a walking billboard for several large corporations. Mental hygiene is still with us. And the scariest thing about it is that now it's not in the hands of well-meaning people. It's in the hands of large corporations, and politicians... It's still in the schools, but now it's Channel 1, with Coca-Cola sponsoring lunch hour. That, to me, is the most frightening thing of all?that this notion of trying to shape people's beliefs and attitudes transparently is still with us. Imagine 50 years from now, when people look back on this time, and say, 'My God?you people were fucked up."

    From Sat., Jan. 8, through Sun., Jan. 23, Smith hosts a 12-part series of mental hygiene films at the American Museum of the Moving Image (35th Ave. at 36th St., Astoria; call 718-784-0077 for info). The book and accompanying videotape are available at