Tuesday, March 31, 2009

The Junk Drawer: Spotlight on Mental Hygiene Films

Starting in the 1940's and ending in the mid-1970's, countless milions of America's young people sat through an endless stream of educational short subjects. Often referred to now as "mental hygiene" films, these quick little flicks, lasting from up to 5 minutes to an hour, covered every topic under the sun--and I do mean everything. There were shorts dedicated to safe driving, how to sew your own clothes, improving your table manners, keeping your home accident free, avoiding strangers, walking quietly in the halls, making friends, becoming a better speller, throwing a dinner party, even how to take a proper bath.
Educational shorts were a by-product of World War II, which required the massive mobilization and training of troops and civilian workers to defeat the Axis powers. During this time, motion pictures became a way to instruct people quickly and efficiently on any number of war time realities: combat, industrial, VD and how to spot a foreign agent on American soil. The success of the American war effort seemed to prove movies could be teachers as well as entertainers.
It was with this philosophy in mind that progressive educators decided to turn their attention to the country's young people and used film to inform, guide, influence and shape their behavior for the better. No aspect of daily life was without an educational short to call its own. Even such benign subjects as avoiding illness and playing with your toys were covered.
However, where it was hoped mental hygiene shorts could do the most good was in educating young folks about the dangers of modern life: drug and alcohol addiction, premarital sex and poor socialization skills. Just how effective they were is unclear. The tone of a lot of these shorts is ham-handed and paranoid; they seemed more intent on scaring kids that honestly discussing complex issues. But they were an admission on the part of adults that their kids would be living in a very different world than the one they lived in as kids.
Like the very best of junk cinema, mental hygiene films had lofty goals and inspired to greatness, but were under cut by their minuscule budgets, amateur actors, Victorian prudishness and basic cheesiness. Below are just a few examples of the cornucopia of mental hygiene short subjects.

  • "The Home Economics Story"(1951)--High school senior Kay doesn't know what to do after graduation. Luckily, she sees the light after attending an "all girls" assembly on the glories of studying home economics in college. It's there Kay will learn to prepare herself for a "wonderful future" in such jobs as tea room manager. The curriculum home ec majors are subject to is pretty intense: physics classes where the gals learn to make tomato soup and study the inner workings of a blender. Later, a bunch of home ec majors are forced to live in the "Home Management House" where they cook, shop for groceries, clean house, do the laundry and baby sit. Kay aces all her classes, graduates in no time and quickly finds a job. I'm sure she lived happily ever after.

  • "Mr. B Natural"(1957)--Nerdy, socially inept Buzz Turner just can't fit in. While the other kids are dancing at Jeanne's house, Buzz is home working on a history essay. Who should then pop into his room but Mr. B Natural, who wants Buzz to know about "the spirit of fun in music". Buzz is clearly terrified and no wonder: Mr. B Natural is played by a woman dressed up as a cross between Peter Pan and a Smurf. Bouncing off the walls and shrieking like a dental drill, Mr. B Natural tells Buzz that "a clarinet is not just a clarinet; it's a happy smile!" Browbeaten into submission, Buzz takes up the instrument and soon becomes the toast of the town. His/her work done, Mr. B Natural flits off in search of other lost souls to save and God help them when he/she does.

  • "Are You Popular?"(1947)--Are you a bad girl? Do you park in cars? Do you kiss on the first date? Sure, you might think acting this way will make you popular, but as the narrator of this flick explains,"Girls who park in cars are not really popular." A better example of female popularity is personified by Caroline Ames, who hasn't been touched by a breath of scandal. Caroline's popularity is cemented when the equally popular Wally asks her to go skating. "Are You Popular?" was made for a whooping $11,000 and was praised in Educational Screen for presenting "excellent examples of good grooming" and "foresight in making arrangements".

  • "The Story of Menstruation"(1946)--I actually saw this film in the fifth grade. It's a cartoon starring a gal with a big head and a tight sweater who learns the joys getting her monthly period. No mention of PMS, bloating, headaches, weight gain and weird chocolate cravings, this flick explains why menstruation is necessary to have a baby, but it never explains how women get that baby in her tummy. It also urges young girls to buy Kotex sanitary products to meet their monthly needs. Other advice? "Don't be droopy! Good posture is important!"

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