I few years ago, I requested – and got – Ken Smith’s book Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970 as a Christmas present. Needless to say, I spent a few hours on Christmas morning nose deep in a book, grinning widely in anticipation of searching out some of the harder to find films I hadn’t yet seen. Yes, that is my idea of a good time.
By the time I went through my formative school years, social guidance films were almost a thing of the past. I was sixteen before I first encountered one – Red Asphalt, still reigning as the king of the dangers of driving films, was already dated, but its reputation preceded it. Not every driver’s ed class still showed the film at that time. Like the victims of auto accidents it showed, you could already hear the cautionary film’s death rattle. And so, it became a sort of rite of passage to find a driver’s ed teacher who still showed it. Classes, by that time, weren’t even given at my school. I learned the rules of the road in a tiny office downtown and took actual road lessons in a Dodge Neon (shudder) after school.
Like a lot of things that happen in high school, Red Asphalt was ultimately a let down. The “gore” mental hygiene films had started decades before in the late 60s and early 70s. It may have been shocking then, but after the 80s slasher genre and movies like Faces of Death, the intended audience was probably a little harder to make an impression on. Honestly, at that point, the looming written DMV test scared me a lot more than the graphic representations of what would happen if I didn’t wear my seat belt.
The idea behind mental hygiene (social guidance, classroom films, social engineering films, etc.) is nothing new. But like a lot of things that happened mid-century, a few things had to happen for things to perfectly distill into the films we like to poke fun at today. First, the intended audience of most of the films was a new species of animal called the American Teenager, which was just starting to become closely studied during and after the Second World War. Ken Smith makes a good point in the introduction of his book – one I happen to agree with. In 1946 teenagers were coming off of years of upheaval: depression, the institution and revocation of Prohibition, and a world changing war. How to set things on the straight and narrow again and get the needle back in the groove of status quo? Manipulation through film. This was nothing new. Our soldiers, seamen and Marines had already been sent off abroad after film screenings to teach them the art of the bayonet and the horrors of syphilis. And who better to manipulate than the young, the bright future of America?
Of course that makes it seem so subversive and seamy, but it was done with the best intentions. And looking back at these films from afar, although they seem naive and silly, don’t they really make us yearn for a time when life was so uncomplicated that the worst we had to fear was bad posture and whether to kiss your date goodnight? Yes, these films are hilarious. Also, the acting is atrocious and the topics can be mundane. However they set the stage for years to come. By the time I was a teenager, we had the After-school Specials and the Lifetime movies still dealing with the same topics of unwed mothers and drinking and driving. They’ve gone out of vogue, which is sad, but could they come back? I’d like to think of future generations rolling their eyes and making fun of films about the dangers of drunk texting and naked iPhone pics.