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Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970 Paperback – November 19, 1999
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Today, in our enlightened 'post-modern' era, it's easy to laugh at the staid and conformist world these films both illustrate and reinforce. Yet, as Ken Smith argues, the filmmakers didn't set out either to produce comedy or to crush their children's souls. 'The people responsible for these films were driven by a sincere desire to guide young people toward behavior that they felt would make them happy. It's no fun to be lonely or physically unattractive. Nor is it enjoyable to be a heroin addict or have your face torn off in a car wreck' (p. 13).
Moreover, 'they [the films] were made by some of the most liberal and progressive-minded people of their time. Their goal was noble: to help children become well adjusted, happy, and independent (within limits). The films look corny and manipulative to us today, but not because the people who made them were evil and stupid' (p. 30).
All this to say, this book's not only entertaining, but is also an insightful sociological study of the attitudes and ideals of these films' era. The section on the genres of films is fascinating, though I also found myself nauseated by some filmmakers' practice of showing actual, bloody, mangled accident victims in some highway safety movies. That one is a particularly sobering chapter.
Once that's out of the way, though, it's on to the rollicking fun as Smith deconstructs 250 or so of these films, including several recognizable to any MSTie.Read more ›
I mostly bought the book to be amused, but I learned a lot about the social history of the immediate post-war period, and about the extent to which these movies were created and shown in classrooms.
In addition to warnings against sex, reckless driving, and drugs/alcohol, there are films about manners, conformity (always a good thing), growing up (i.e. menstruation!), dating, grooming, and what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. Women will especially enjoy being condescended to in the films about home economics, proper behavior in the workplace (in which the goof-offs seem to be the only ones enjoying their jobs), how to be a good secretary, and the joy of appliances ("A Holiday for Mother").
There are a few pictures which may have been better left out of the book, mainly in the syphilis section ("I've got a sore--down there!"), as well as a couple shots of actual dead accident victims that the most graphic director, Sid Davis, used to shock youngsters into driving carefully.
You will laugh uproariously, but what is most interesting is the commentary about WHY these films were created. The period after 1945 apparently was not the rosy "Leave It to Beaver" world we have always been led to believe, and these films were just one method to try to restore order out of the chaos of atomic bombs, coffins on wheels (cars before safety features were included), drug addiction, and failed attempts at making jelly.
I expected the book to make fun of the films and condemn the filmmakers' obvious authoritarian attempt to control teenagers. But in giving a social history of the films, Ken Smith actually paints a sympathetic picture, explaining that these films were made in an attempt to deal with postwar social turmoil and anxiety. He clearly thinks the films are funny as hell, but he also has a lot of respect for the filmmakers, and that comes through.
In the second half, he gives hilarious synopses of his favorites. This is clearly a man who devoted a lot of time and attention to his project. Not only does he spot returning actors, he even points out props that were re-used. This is truly an indispensible guide for any fan of these campy classics.
One correction (or update) to the book... Ken Smith writes that you can't see these films anywhere unless you go hunting for the original 16mm versions. I actually found a website that sells video compilations, including many of the films Smith mentions. if you do a Yahoo search on "mental hygiene films" you should turn it up fairly easily.
also, if you *do* want to track down the 16mm originals, they're available on online auction sites.
Most Recent Customer Reviews
The best way to use this book is to turn to the actual descriptions of the films in the second half of the book. Read morePublished 24 months ago by Molly McGee
For anyone with a fondness for the old "mental hygiene" films, you can't go wrong with this book. The book makes you wish you had the films to watch, too. Read morePublished on June 17, 2013 by Sandy
The shorts were some of the best parts of MST3K episodes, and Rifftrax continues to perfect the short-form riff. Read morePublished on July 24, 2012 by Douglas Glassman
I'm not sure why this seems to be marketed as a comedy book, and I'm frankly kind of mystified by the reviews that found this tome to be hilarious. Read morePublished on November 16, 2011 by Cranky Reader
Since I'd seen several of the Centron educational films on YouTube, I wanted to find out more about them. Read morePublished on September 15, 2011 by Andrew Sherwood
Not the comedy book I thought it would be, however it is an extremely well-written and insightful look into why these films were produced and the drive behind them. Read morePublished on April 18, 2011 by Molly D Hansen
Ken Smith has offered a fine chronicle on the history of a unique-for-its-time learning device: the educational film. Read morePublished on October 10, 2010 by Chuck Donegan
Ken Smith has tapped into a vein in the American cadaver with this clever and respectful survey of one of the most freakishly commonsensical forms of propaganda ever conceived. Read morePublished on October 9, 2004 by Seamus McManus