Ken Smith is an interesting writer. Prior to Mental Hygiene I’d read his The New Roadside America, Ken’s Guide to the Bible, and Raw Deal, and liked all of them.
The New Roadside America and especially Ken’s Guide to the Bible are uproariously funny at times, in a smart alecky way. Raw Deal, arguably the most mature work of the three, has its moments of quirky humor, but also plenty of genuine pathos that is at least as effective as the humor.
Based on the subject of Mental Hygiene I anticipated it would be all snarky humor, like The New Roadside America and Ken’s Guide to the Bible, but in fact it is more like Raw Deal. It has more humor than Raw Deal, but it makes more serious points than the other two.
Mental Hygiene is about the social engineering-type classroom films shown in schools to indoctrinate kids into the preferred attitudes concerning sexuality, morality, capitalism, patriotism, etc. (I assumed “Mental Hygiene” was a comic term of Smith’s, but he notes that it actually is a term that was used by some of the creators of this type of film.) Clips of some of these films were shown on the sometimes great Night Flight show on the USA network decades ago, and I’m sure numerous other places. Nowadays you can see some of them on YouTube. Needless to say, they can be unintentionally hilarious.
Mental Hygiene discusses films of this nature made from about 1940 to the early 1970s, with occasional mention of one before or after that (though the book’s subtitle specifies 1945-1970). As Smith describes them, “Mental hygiene films were deliberately made to adjust the social behavior of their viewers. In general, they’re preachy and melodramatic. They come from a time when concepts of right and wrong were rigidly defined, and they were primarily used to guide kids toward behavior that was considered proper by adults.”
He spent several years researching these films, finding all he could collecting dust in various schools and libraries around the country. No known prints survive of most of them, as they have long since been discarded.
Smith first provides useful background on this form of indoctrination, how it came to be used, what the motives were behind it, etc. He makes several interesting points.
He notes that while there’s good reason to laugh at these films today, that shouldn’t preclude also giving them serious sociological attention.
One error people make when they look at corny old material like this is to think that that’s how life was during the era in which it was made. But of course it wasn’t. In the 1950s, extremely few families much resembled what you see on Leave it to Beaver or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, nor did people behave like in these school films. Mental hygiene films were normative, not descriptive, intended to influence kids toward (admittedly dubious) ideal behavior, not accurately depict reality.
The social world we see in mental hygiene films was a world where kids did what (adults think) is best for them (or were punished with disastrous consequences if they did not). Whereas in the real 1950s, just like any era, older people were convinced that kids were out of control. Kids were—according to the alarmism of the time—obsessed with motorcycles, alcohol, truancy and dropping out, unsafe driving, and worst of all sex. Thus the perceived need for mental hygiene films.
There was a tension in these school films, Smith points out. On the one hand, there was almost always an endorsement of conformity and a distrust of any kind of individuality, rebellion, or independent thinking. Ideal youths were extroverted and popular. They fit in with their peers and were appealing to the opposite sex because they shared the same attitudes, interests, hobbies, etc. They did well in school and eventually with employers because they had a persistently positive, cooperative attitude toward those institutions, and they were eager to find their place in them. Similarly, they were patriotic cheerleaders for their country.
On the other hand, the same youths were warned about the dangers of going along with the crowd when it came to things like sex, crime, drugs, daredevil driving, etc.
Smith observes that the only permissible solution to social problems in these films was changes in individual behavior. So for instance when it came to driving safety, by far the most significant factors that have made driving safer over the years have been changes in automobile manufacturing, like mandatory seat belts and airbags. But since the automobile industry has always bitterly opposed changes like that, and they’re often the ones paying for these films, in the world of mental hygiene films the only way to make driving safer is to scare teenagers into not behaving so much like teenagers when they drive.
It’s also worth noting that the messages of the films were not always conservative. At least relative to the times they were made the films were sometimes quite liberal. The few that addressed diversity, for instance, came down on the anti-racism side. On the whole, they were perhaps closest ideologically to the philosophy of liberal to moderate Eisenhower Republicans.
Smith divides mental hygiene films into eight categories:
Fitting in: The sooner you embrace conformity, the happier you’ll be.
Cautionary tales: If you go against the adult value system, you’ll pay the consequences.
Dating: Don’t have sex.
Girls only: There’s this thing called menstruation that you need to know about.
Drugs: Don’t do drugs.
Sex education: Here are the dry, biological basics of how things like pregnancy work. Oh, and don’t have sex.
Bloody highways: If you drive like the typical crazy teenager, you’ll die in horrible, grisly ways.
Sneaky sponsors: Whatever this film seems to be about, notice all the product placement, and be sure to make life decisions that put more money into the pockets of the industry that paid to have this film made.
He follows this with a section about the companies that made the bulk of these films. (Not completely without value, but of all the sections in the book this feels the most like filler.)
Finally he gives very brief descriptions and reviews of hundreds of the mental hygiene films he was able to find and watch. This is where his snarky humor is most evident, but it’s not as consistently sharp as in some of his other writings. I had the sense that a certain fatigue set in writing about so many similar films. I mean what clever quip can you come up with to include in your twentieth review of a safe driving film that you haven’t already used?
He notes the occasions when one of the actors in a mental hygiene film went on to have a career in real movies or TV. The thing is, virtually none of them did. The only one who had more than the obscurest of careers in Hollywood was Dick York of Bewitched.
Of course it’s a lot funnier to watch these films than to read a description of them. I found More Dates for Kay (about a girl named Mary who learns that the secret to successful dating is being as extroverted and social as possible like Kay, and insinuating yourself into the lives of as many guys as you can) online and gave that a try. It was every bit as disturbing and comical as I expected, though actually I laughed hardest at some of the helpful advice from YouTube commenters. (“Jesus, Kay, don’t be so transparent about how much you want dick.” “Well if Mary would let her hair grow longer and look less like a hag, she’d have more dates.”)
I was in elementary school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and then in middle school and high school in the ’70s. That would be the tail end of the period Smith is talking about, though he says these films continued to be shown in schools with diminishing frequency for many years after they were no longer being made in significant numbers.
For the most part, though, I don’t remember films like these from when I was a kid. Reading this book did bring back to me memories that in elementary school we had films, film strips, and film strips with an accompanying synced audio track (shown with the “Dukane”), and that typically two students were designated to retrieve the needed machine and bring it to the classroom when one of these was to be shown. But I don’t recall this material being mental hygiene films.
What was it instead? I vaguely remember we were shown conventional, dry, dull, short documentaries on things like history and science, but I’m not sure.
And then beyond elementary school I don’t remember films and film strips being used at all, though it has been so long I could easily be mistaken about that.
Actually I do remember seeing one film mentioned in Mental Hygiene in my childhood. That was Mechanized Death, which is one of the horror films about unsafe driving that consists of lots of real life bloody footage of dead and dying people involved in automobile accidents.
It was a part of our driver’s ed class, traditionally shown on the very last day of class. It had quite a reputation at my school. People spoke of it with great anticipation throughout driver’s ed, repeating all the things they’d heard about it from those who had taken the class in prior years. The anticipation, and the reaction once they did see it, was about 90% humor and enjoyment and about 10% fear.
I remember that common perception, but I actually remember almost nothing about the film itself. Maybe that’s because at the time I was very self-conscious about wearing glasses despite my abysmal eyesight, and so virtually never wore them at school, meaning something like a film would have been little more than a blur to me.
I do recall, though, that everyone’s favorite line was, “This boy thought he was pretty sharp!” said by the narrator as one of the bloody bodies is pulled from wreckage. There was much speculation over whether it was an intentional pun or not (a possible reference to “sharp” metal slicing into the kid’s face or partly slicing his head off).
Especially nowadays when the Internet allows you to see some of these films for yourself, Mental Hygiene—especially the long section at the end listing and describing hundreds of films—isn’t as valuable as it would have been when the book came out, but it still has enough humor and makes enough serious points about the historical context of these films to be worthwhile.