Studying American Propaganda Films

Written by Jim Knipfel on . Posted in Books, Posts.

Ken Smith

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

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
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

"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

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 film…it 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

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