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Points for good behavior

The Egyptian Theater is screening a series of mid-century 'mental hygiene' films made to help mold teenagers into model citizens.

May 16, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Driving around with strangers = bad. Being popular = good.

Planning party games = good. Having a beer with friends = bad.

Saying "no" to "petting" = good. Living outside the United States = bad.

Welcome to the black-and-white world of "mental hygiene" films, a staple of high school classrooms from 1945 to 1970. Way before teenagers had MTV, CDs, SUVs and PDAs, educators hoped to mold them into model citizens with these short films touching on everything from dance cards at the prom to delinquency in pool halls.

Examples of the genre will be shown tonight and Saturday at Hollywood's Egyptian Theater, hosted by Ken Smith, author of the book "Mental Hygiene Films 1945-1970." The films, stiff and chipper dramas showing nice results for good behavior and dire consequences for rule breaking, bear titles such as "Mind Your Manners!," "What Makes Sammy Speed?" and "What It Means to Be an American."

The educational films evolved from World War II military propaganda films at a time of dawning youth rebellion and parental reverence for expert opinion and quick fixes, says Smith, who culled his program from the collection of San Francisco archivist Rick Prelinger. "So your kid doesn't know how to ask for a date? You don't have to worry about that! Show him a 10-minute classroom film!" Smith says.

Although the movies improved on the scare flicks of the 1930s, such as the theatrical cult classic "Reefer Madness" (1936) in which marijuana smokers went insane, the filmmakers' earnest attempts to enforce conformity, morality and patriotism seem wistfully hilarious by today's standards.

In fact, the filmmakers were considered educational radicals in their day, Prelinger says. "They were like the people who believe the Web is going to change things. They believed film would change everything."

Prelinger became interested in the films in 1982 as research director for "Heavy Petting," a Norman Lear-financed documentary intended to illuminate the nation's sexual and romantic history through archival footage in the same way "The Atomic Cafe" had told the history of the atomic bomb through civil defense films. Fascinated, Prelinger, an amateur historian, eventually collected more than 1,100 films, pulling some from school dumpsters.

Prelinger met Smith, a nonfiction writer and raconteur, in 1990 when they were both working for the Comedy Channel, making comedy clips out of archival footage. What started as a humorous database of synopses became the basis for Smith's book. But Smith took the project further, locating filmmakers and actors and extrapolating the films' social significance, Prelinger says. Last fall the Library of Congress acquired his collection, which is available free to the public at

"They are a wonderful way to understand how we've become who we are. The films are filled with insight. Not just casual, camp insight; they're full of real, thick descriptions of issues of gender, social class, what it was like to be a worker, how we became a consumer society, how major institutions worked hard to maintain social consensus, why we think the way we do," says Prelinger.

Some films have a crackly amateurish visual quality combined with the sort of melodramatic musical scores heard on television playhouse dramas. But they will be an undeniable boon to social and cultural historians -- the bathing suits alone will surely inspire comparisons to military hardware.

In "What Makes a Good Party?" filmmakers urge hosts to be alert for guests who fail to take part in group activities, like a hatmaking contest. "If anyone should forget this," the narrator intones, "well, anyone, even another guest, can help get the entire group together again."

Some films even mock victims of violence, as well as their too-lenient parents, for having made stupid choices. ("And now, Mrs. Hanson, it is time to worry, but I'm afraid it's too late to do any good after letting your daughter drive away with a stranger.")

In "Name Unknown," a jowly man with thick glasses and a comb-over, identified as Los Angeles Juvenile Court Judge William B. McKesson, talks to parents and a weeping girl who is being sent to a "detention home" after running off with a man who broke his promise to marry her. Edie, he says, will have plenty of time to think about whether a few minutes of "showing off or feeling sharp is worth a lifetime of regret." Staring into the camera, McKesson tells viewers, "If you're willing to risk that, you're not the American men and women I think you are. Don't be a sucker."

Randy Delling, 50, principal of North Hollywood High School, remembers "laughing hysterically" at atomic bomb films that wanted kids to "duck and cover" in the event of an attack. Still, he says, even if kids laugh at safe-driving, anti-drug or pregnancy-prevention videos these days, it doesn't diminish their value. "Many of our best lessons stick with us because of the humor," he says.

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