`Mental Hygiene': The Dos and Don'ts of the Doo-Wop Age

New York Times
January 2, 2000

Sarah Inman stares out her kitchen window. Her hands mechanically dunk a plate into a sink of soapy water. "Those, those apple-polishers," she says, scornful of her classmates.

"I don't like them!"

"Punkin!" her father snaps, grabbing a dish towel. "All these people you don't like, aren't they happier than you?"

The camera locks on Sarah's eyes filling with tears as Dad's last words echo on the soundtrack: "Aren't they happier than you . . . happier than you . . . "

This domestic vignette is from "The Snob" (1958), one of more than 70 classroom films to be presented at a series I curated called "Mental Hygiene: Social Guidance Films 1945-70" at the American Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens, beginning Saturday and continuing through Jan. 23. It is the largest retrospective of such films, and the first public screening of many of them in more than 30 years.

Anyone believing that the 1950's was a time of innocent fun, or that social coercion is a tactic exercised only in despotic, faraway lands, will be disabused of the notion after viewing (or re-viewing) some of these movies. Guidance as well as scare films, they cover a broad swath of everyday social behavior, from mealtime deportment ("Lunchroom Manners") to drug use ("The Terrible Truth") to teenagers' reckless driving habits ("The Last Prom").

Generally less than 15 minutes long, these short films serve as both a lesson in the pathology of the American psyche and a deliciously dark form of entertainment. This is not a retrospective for the irony-impaired.

Over four decades, millions of public school children saw these films, which had the blessings of contemporary social scientists. The movies thrived in the climate of confusion and nervousness in America between World War II and Watergate, when moral codes and social norms were being increasingly challenged and disobeyed. To cope with this tempest, parents and educators embraced the mental hygiene film. Ham-fisted, dogmatic, frequently brutal, these films preached the joys of domesticity and uniformity.

A popular assumption is that mental hygiene films are cinematic junk. But they vary in style and quality, depending on the studio (Coronet and Centron were two) or the director, Sid Davis and Emily Benton Frith among them. Flashes of dramatic technique often pierce the low-budget fog: the film noir of "Right or Wrong?" (1951); the frantic cross-cutting and melodramatic zoom of "Last Date" (1950); the dizzying hand-held camera work in "Narcotics: Pit of Despair" (1967).

Of course, mental hygiene films rarely met traditional standards of film as entertainment or art, nor did they aspire to. Rather, they took their cues from the training and propaganda films of World War II, and thus sought to portray everyday life as realistically -- that is, as mundanely -- as possible. A classroom audience was not supposed to watch a mental hygiene film and be enthralled by its direction, cinematography, acting or editing. The students were supposed to believe that what they saw was real and to adopt the film's point of view.

The creators of these films were, for the most part, anonymous, valued more for their ability to grind out product than for their filmmaking artistry. Crews were spartan, sets were cobbled together, equipment was minimal and actors were often just young people from the neighborhood.

Education theory held that young people were social mimics who would imitate whatever behavior they saw acted out onscreen; hence the protagonists in these films were usually well-mannered, polite -- and one-dimensional.

The approach may have calmed the fears of mid-20th-century educators, but it plays havoc with our notions today of what life was really like in, say, 1952. "Are You Popular?" (1958) and "Friendship Begins at Home" (1949) present a vision of an innocent, idyllic past, but it bears remembering that there would have been no need for mental hygiene films if the young really had behaved so pleasantly. Productions like "Mind Your Manners!" (1953) and "What Makes a Good Party?" (1950) depict life not as it was but as the films' adult creators wanted it to be.

Ultimately, of course, students charted their own courses heedless of the beacons offered by these films. And their disobedience spawned more mental hygiene films, intended to scare the rebellious. These films are the focus of several programs in the Astoria series: "The Dark Side," about the consequences of bad behavior (Jan. 9), "Highway Safety" (Jan. 15), "Drugs" (Jan. 22) and "Troublemakers" (Jan. 23).

The dark themes were the mainstays of independent filmmakers like Sid Davis and Dick Wayman. Mr. Davis, a Hollywood stand-in who yearned to direct, found his niche making films about topics no one else would touch: date rape ("Name Unknown"), substance abuse ("Keep Off the Grass"), childhood death and injury ("Live and Learn").

He prided himself on being able to make a film, from idea to master print, for only $1,000; such low budgets necessitated flat visuals, which Mr. Davis overlaid with often bombastic narration to convey the drama that the images could not. Nevertheless, Mr. Davis's films occasionally display flashes of visual dynamism and artistry not found elsewhere in this genre: a traveling shot of teenagers barreling down a California freeway in "Seduction of the Innocent" (1961) as they pop pills and swill 7Up; a lovingly composed shot of a police investigator, a receding ambulance and an overturned car at the end of "What Made Sammy Speed?" (1957).

There are no concessions to art in the films of Dick Wayman, whose "Wheels of Tragedy" (1963) will be shown on Jan. 15. Wayman, an executive with the accounting firm Ernst & Young, used a portable 16-millimeter movie camera to record the bloody aftermaths of fatal highway accidents, then spliced them together into loosely constructed safety films intended to shock. It was a triumph of "reality" over the carefully made fiction of studio films, an approach that gained favor with educators as the 1960's themselves grew more violent and confrontational.

Thousands of mental hygiene films were produced, yet only a handful survive. Schools showed them over and over until they were worn and shredded.

Prints that escaped destruction were tossed into the trash when they became out of date or when school audiovisual departments shifted to video. When mental hygiene production companies went out of business -- as they all eventually did -- their master prints were thrown away, along with almost all information about the films' creators, casts and costs. Preservationists showed little interest in saving what remained. At least half of all mental hygiene titles have vanished, and many survive today as only a single, battered print.

Mental hygiene films conveyed the opinions of their creators. Some would call this propaganda, others guidance. To Ted Peshak, however, who directed hundreds of these movies for Coronet, "mental hygiene films boiled down to a compromise between real life and life as it ought to be."


Document URL: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~afilreis/50s/hygiene-films.html
Last modified: Thursday, 31-May-2007 09:42:20 EDT