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Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970 Paperback – November 19, 1999

4.6 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In Mental Hygiene, Ken Smith takes a look at the endearingly gooney safety and "social guidance" films produced for classroom use between World War II and the early 1970s. Everything from dating to drugs to auto safety is covered in this lovingly compiled book. Smith even takes the time to discuss the stylistic differences of the various studios and analyze the peculiar obsessions of their auteurs. Though its subjects are bizarre ("Healthy Feet"), corny ("Teen Togs"), and often ineptly made ("Red Nightmare"), Mental Hygiene is no mere excuse to mock these films. Smith is careful to note bursts of good (or at least interesting) filmmaking and makes a convincing case that in their day these classroom movies were considered the new wave of liberal education. The films, catalogued at the end of the book, teeter between unintentionally hilarious ("More Dates for Kay") and just flat-out disturbing ("Boys Beware"). Most take the stance that teens who drive too fast or don't mind their manners deserve their horrific fates. For example, the auto safety films tend toward subtly titled epics like "Mechanized Death" and "Wheels of Tragedy," while the "image building" shorts mercilessly taunt their misfit protagonists. ("It's a little late for tears, isn't it, Barbara?") A thoroughly enjoyable read, Mental Hygiene is both funny and informative, but not so informative that it will put you to sleep in class. --Ali Davis

From Booklist

Among the most pervasive and pernicious forms of 1950s cultural indoctrination was the mental hygiene film, extolling proper behavior to captive audiences of schoolchildren. Blatantly and crudely designed, the genre's products instilled proper dating practices and showed the consequences of failing to avoid drugs and of car wrecks. No social problem was too big for them, not even juvenile delinquency and the atom bomb. Mostly, as Smith shows, they aimed to maintain conformity. Evolved from World War II training films, they flourished from 1945 to the early 1960s, when the growing sophistication of their target audience rendered them ineffective. Smith synopsizes well more than a hundred leading examples, from Act Your Age (1949), which offered tips on emotional development, to the seminal Youth in Crisis (1944), which exposed "the grim story of what the war is doing to America's youth!" Most mental hygiene films have vanished, discarded when their message grew dated, but they live again through Smith's diligent research and witty write-ups, more fun to read than watching them ever was. Gordon Flagg

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Blast Books; 1st edition (November 19, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0922233217
  • ISBN-13: 978-0922233212
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 0.7 x 10 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #805,335 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Andrew S. Rogers VINE VOICE on April 3, 2002
Format: Paperback
As a dyed-in-the-wool fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a TV show that once featured many of the films discussed in 'Mental Hygiene,' I approached this book as a catalog of MST could-have-beens. Turns out it is that (especially in the thumbnail reviews of the films themselves), but it's also much more.
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.
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I read this book because I had to watch some of these films in school when I was a kid. I always wondered about how they had come to be made. This book answers that question, and provides lots more information about the history of hygiene films. The second half of the book, with the synopses of the films themselves is outrageously funny, especially if you don't think too hard about the kids who had to watch this stuff as serious classroom activities. The first half of the book is extremely detailed and non-judgemental, sort of a "this is what they did and why" exposition of the history of these films.
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.
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As a die-hard devotee of MST3K "shorts", I was delighted when I came across this book. While the entire book makes for good reading, my favorite part was the section listing all the classroom films, with a description of each. Here, you will read about such films as "The Cautious Twins," featuring a pair of Nordic tykes who seem to live in a town peopled only by themselves and perverts, "Boys Beware", with its warnings that "public restrooms can be a common hangout for the homosexual," and "More Dates for Kay", in which desperate, hungry-eyed Kay roams the halls of her high school using frantic ploys to get a boyfriend.
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.
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what a terrific book! I laughed, I cried, I spent the whole weekend reading aloud Ken Smith's synopses to my roommate.
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.
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