Movie day

Mental Hygiene:
Classroom Films 1945-1970

By Ken Smith
Blast Books
240 pages, $24.95

It's hard to imagine even the most overworked, nicotine-craving faculty-lounge habitué loading some of the short flicks discussed in Mental Hygiene into a projector without experiencing some slight pang of conscience. Aside from emphasizing societal norms and espousing conformity (in the world of Cold War-era classroom films, there's nothing more dangerous than the anarchy of free-thinking individualism), author Ken Smith argues that these "social guidance" treatises had little or no value as educational tools.

Initially considered to be a benchmark of progressive curricula in schools throughout the country, these snippets of celluloid not only gave many a baby boomer a brief reprieve from the classroom grind, but lectured them on sticky subjects most teachers were hesitant to tackle -- dating, grooming, etiquette, safety, driving, and substance abuse. In these films, no topic was considered too banal (didactic no-brainer flicks instructed kids on how to wash their hands, pay attention to their surroundings, or make friends) or too extreme (highway-safety films featured real-life carnage from accident scenes) for student consumption.

Smith points out that while classroom films were convenient and utilitarian -- they were the PSAs and after-school specials of their day -- they often reflected the biases of their producers. Social-guidance cinema was unchecked propaganda for the status quo: sensationalistic, inflammatory, and -- more often than not -- riddled with inaccuracies. How else to explain films such as 1951's infamous Duck and Cover, which floated the notion that a mere desk would provide adequate shelter from a nuclear blast, or unintentionally hilarious films like Keep off the Grass (1970), Drug Addiction (1951), and Marijuana (1968), in which pot is wrongly credited with having the trippy, narcotic muscle of PCP, heroin, and LSD. (If weed was that exciting, why would the films' protagonists bother switching to harder drugs?)

Some of the genre's most outrageous specimens were created by an independently funded polemicist named Sid Davis, whose films relied on scare tactics and raw shock to "educate." In the Davis oeuvre (which is probably ground zero for every urban legend that's been in circulation for the past 30 years), children are routinely burned, scarred, molested, and otherwise maimed (off camera, of course) because, it's implied, they weren't careful, they weren't alert, or they simply didn't listen. There are no "victims" in Davis' world -- everyone's a perp. Elsewhere in his book, Smith charges that in driving-safety films, local governments and the auto industry were complicit in placing the blame for car crashes solely on the driver, in the years before safety features were compulsory in vehicle construction.

While the author's examination of classroom films in Mental Hygiene seems a little glib and short on incisive cultural analysis (bottom line: the postwar era was culturally repressive -- yawn), Smith's painstaking efforts to research and document this previously dustbin-bound area of film study are laudable. Perusing the book's exhaustive synopses of more than 100 rare shorts may be twice the homework you're used to, but Smith's biting, zingy wit makes reading Mental Hygiene seem more like you're ditching last period.

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