Special Report By Monica Sullivan
They don't make mental hygiene films for the classroom anymore, but they still show them at film archives & on Mystery Science Theatre on the SCI FI Channel & on the American Pop show Saturday nights on American Movie Classics. Something Weird Videos has even released several compilations that you can rent at cult video stores like San Francisco's Le Video. Mental hygiene films were designed to educate school age children about vitally important issues like “Marijuana” & “Mealtime Manners And Health” & “Other People's Property” & “Sniffles And Sneezes.” Who would want to watch stuff like this? Well, between 1945 & 1970, just about any kid who wanted a respite from listening to the homeroom teacher. These films are so campy now: Were they ever taken seriously? By educators & Sunday school leaders, yeh, maybe. By kids? Probably not. Anyone with built-in radar for B.S. detection would have seen through these propaganda exercises in a flash.
For example, In 1968's “Marijuana,” narrator & future Congressman Sonny Bono looks & sounds more stoned than anyone else in the movie. Before Jack Webb became preoccupied with Public Enemies Number 1,2 & 3 (Blue Boy & those awful parents who let their baby drown in a bathtub while they dropped acid), he took the “Red Nightmare” very seriously & so did Jack Warner. 1962 was a bit late to be terrorized by the menace of Communism, but Jack Kelly, Jeanne Cooper & Peter Brown grappled with it in “Midtown U.S.A.” & Jack Webb reminded audience members that they HAD "to prevent Communism from consuming the entire free world." Huge stars got their start in mental hygiene films, like, for example, a teenager named Dick York in 1947's “Shy Guy.” Narrator Mike Wallace explained how this geeky kid developed social skills so that he could fit in with an in-crowd of other geeks. Four years later in “How Friendly Are You?,” York explained to Ray, his little brother onscreen, how he, too, Could fit in with the gang. And in 1950's “Last Date,” the future Darrin Stephens plays a reckless driver who kills himself & everyone but his date Jeanne in a car collision. Jeanne is disfigured for life & SHE is the narrator of this sad tale. 22 years later, “The Last Prom” dealt with similar material, but much more graphically.
Ken Smith obviously has affection for Mental Hygiene Classroom Films because he devotes an entire book to the subject. He must have seen every movie in the Rick Prelinger Archives, but he explains that many of these ephemeral curiousities were simply tossed in the trash. In fact, one independent filmmaker built an entire movie around 1951's “The Outsider” after rescuing the discarded film from a dumpster. The resulting comedy “Whatever Happened To Susan Jane?” reveals that the grown-up title character is as much of an outsider as ever, but that her playmates from long ago wound up abusing drugs & hanging in out with drag queens. Since mental hygiene films espoused a wholesomeness that would make even the squeakiest clean 1950's sitcom seem wild in comparison, it's a hoot to imagine all those immaculate role models evolving into goofy screwballs in the 21st century.
© 2001 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 6/14/01
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