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Compilations of instructional and educational films have always been fascinating. In grade school through high school in the 1950s and '60s, our teachers dragged the 16mm projector out at least once a week, perhaps to give themselves a needed break from trying to hold our attention all day. Usually there'd be some science item, about the atom or gravity, and then perhaps a Disney 'educational' short -- often culled from the animated introductions to Disney's classic edu-tainment TV shows. One teacher liked animated fairy tales -- which at age 11 even I spotted as the work of Ray Harryhausen. I attended mostly white-bread middle class schools where discordant problems were kept quiet, so flagrant episodes of vandalism, alcohol abuse and drug use didn't seem to proliferate before the high school level. Therefore we were never subjected to the classroom torture of being forced to watch movies about behavior, moral values or avoiding getting a police record. I do remember (who could forget?) a couple of completely unnecessary gore-horror automobile "safety" epics, which are in a category of their own.
We caught up with most of these pictures later. For me it happened when going through stacks of film donated to the UCLA film library. Most were spliced up so badly they would hardly go through a projector. Then they started showing up as laugh-getters on Saturday night cable TV shows looking for hip content.
Archivist Rick Prelinger dubbed this new semi-genre as 'ephemeral films' for an early Criterion laserdisc set. They were lampooned in other comedy venues, such as John Landis' Zinc Oxide and You segment in Kentucky Fried Movie. Their appeal goes beyond mere unintentional humor. Everybody seems to have made these things -- they range from lazy productions ground out by companies with fat state contracts, to small outfits that really care, or by artists that happened to know the program director doling out the production funds. We laugh at the stiff direction and the non-actors trying to be natural, often overdressed for the part by their mothers. One film set in a grade school must have been shot on a weekend, perhaps after Church: all the girls are wearing Sunday dresses and just-so hair, and carry little purses between classrooms.
The fun for diehard film fans is mentally reverse-engineering the whys and wherefores of these shows. Who made the picture? Is it a cookie cutter production or does it try something special? What message is it trying to get across, and how effective is it?
Kino's latest compilation discs (sold separately) of 'Classic Educational Shorts' are Rules for School & Troubled Teens. Each has about fifteen short subjects spread across the decades from the late 1940s to the early 1980s. They were curated by an authority on the subject, Skip Elsheimer.
Spend a few minutes watching Volume 5, Rules for School, and you'll be thinking about the relationship between 'educational' films and visual propaganda. The post-war years introduced something new to the post-war educational landscape: child psychologists. These little movies were tailored to specific problems, to influence and alter student conduct without resorting to the old methods of corporal punishment. The idea was clearly to get the message across to the tots as early as possible. School Rules: How they Help Us seems like a desperate plea to reach kids with no notion of good behavior. The sweet, courteous and disciplined tots in How Quiet Helps in School are surely a principal's dream of how things ought to be. Centron's clever Manners in School benefits from a feisty performance from its Dennis The Menace-type leading kid, who learns from a chalk drawing on the blackboard that his darling of a teacher needs a little cooperation. Jam Handy's Take Your Choice unwisely gives kids the chance to choose between calm and chaos in the classroom.
Most of the Rules for School films are from the 1950s. The 1982 entry Rescue Man appeals to kids to be aware of bus safety by inventing a boy who daydreams that he saves his fellow bus-riders, while costumed as a superhero. Back in the '50s, we assumed that anything on film had to be the truth, an idea that kids rejected flat-out sometime in the late 1960s. That gave commercial filmmakers a bigger challenge -- commissions for educational films attempting to "reach" children needed a gimmick, a built-in interest hook.
The collection contains five bonus shorts intended for viewing by Teachers only, called "A Teacher's Guide". I imagine that any thoughtful teacher would feel insulted by these, whereas slacker teachers would ignore them. What goes for the kids goes for the adults as well. From way back in 1947, Maintaining Classroom Discipline shows how a hotheaded teacher who lets troublemakers get to him soon makes every student hate him, and loses total control of his classroom. Unfortunately, the film doesn't acknowledge that teachers have personalities that aren't always so adaptable. Civil Defense in School demonstrates the proper procedure for an atomic attack drill. The way the little kids march in orderly lines into the central hallway, and duck and cover their heads, must have been the template for the corresponding scene in Joe Dante's nostalgic Cold War comedy Matinee. Other films announce their subject matter in their titles: When Should Grown-Ups Stop Fights? and Adult Guards for School Crossings.
The movies aren't intended to inculcate conformist ideas, but that's pretty much what they communicate, if only because the classrooms shown are optimized. There was always some kid who was quiet or unkempt, or maybe showed up drunk (at age 12) or with obvious signs of being beaten or abused. He'd quickly disappear and never be heard of again. I hope the school authorities were kind. Because the 'cures' being shown in the films are simplistic, it's too easy to dismiss them outright. Yet several show what are obviously real & caring teachers doing their jobs well. Nobody appreciates these essential public employees these days.
More vital kicks and thrills are to be had in Volume 6,Troubled Teens. The range of offerings here is quite different, with the earliest picture carrying a 1954 copyright and the majority not coming along for several years thereafter. This time the subject matter is slightly more desperate. The problems being 'examined' are drug and alcohol use, reckless driving, vandalism, teenage pregnancy and the most squirm-worthy school films of all, sexual hygiene epics.
I assume that these same problems troubled educators back in 1890, but prudishness and denial kept educators from addressing them way into the 1950s. A Quarter Million Teenagers shows crowds at a giant stadium to impress kids with the vast numbers of their peers infected with venereal disease. Lockheed's Drug Attack is a rambling 1969 opus that seems to think that any crazy montage to rock music will suffice to get the attention of the kids ... after about eight minutes we finally see some live action of a carload of teens busted for various illicit substances. In the same mode, 1973's Teeth uses already-obsolete psychedelic imagery to sell the idea of good oral hygiene. It's painfully hilarious.
Scoring much higher on the "teens might actually watch this" meter is 1975's Lucy, the rather touching story of a sad-eyed pregnant girl realizing the gravity of what is happening to her. The Party's Over is a little forced, but illustrates well the elements behind an evening where a group of teens get bombed on booze when the parents are away.
Several other short subjects cover sex-related educational efforts, some doing a decent job and others only making things worse. We know what we're in for with titles like As Boys Grow and Talking to Your Teenager About VD. I still remember that day in the 5th grade, where all the girls were taken out, shown some movie presumably about menstruation and given bags of samples of some kind; we boys were shown a stupid film strip about soap and clean thinking. I asked one of the girls, a friend, what was going on and got a really hostile reaction, as if whoever had talked to the girls counseled them that boys were now the enemy. But teenage Savant loved a challenge...
Probably the best Camp items in Troubled Teens are the films about crazy or drunk driving. There are million of these things; Elsheimer has found several winners. 1978's The Day I Died is a laughable 'ghost' account of a fatal day for a kid, who talks in dreamy flashback-speak while everything we see unfolds in slight slow-motion. He succumbs to peer pressure when his friends pass some booze around on the beach and gets behind the wheel of his car. Before you know it he's relating his horror story from the inside of a coffin being lowered into the ground. Anyone probing the close relationship between horror and comedy needs to check out this slice of Teen-Poe morbidity.
What Made Sammy Speed? investigates a kid's death from reckless driving, and finds every possible excuse except admitting that he was a total idiot. The policemen that must scrape the remains of these kids off the highway know the score, so I'm not doubting that Sammy's dad encouraged his irresponsibility, and that the poor clod was compensating for other problems in his life. Yeah, I'm glad there wasn't a Mack truck out there with my name on it, because at 17 I was compensating for not being James Bond... I certainly asked for trouble.
The pinnacle of this annihilating genre is the ultra-classic The Last Date, a not bad creep-out drama with a preposterous script and good acting from Dick York (TV's Bewitched) and Joan Taylor (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers). It's not to be missed, and Kino's print has only a couple of splice breaks. Someone needs to find a perfect copy of this gem - York's look of crazed speed-lust and Taylor's horror are priceless. It's from way back in time, 1950.
The films meant for adults in this set are a little more complicated, and perhaps controversial. Condoms: A Responsible Option wouldn't sit well with many audiences for obvious reasons. Teenage Conflict doesn't hint that the conflict involved is between science and faith. Don't worry, the ultimate message affirms that Protestantism rules the universe: Daddy Hayden Rourke asserts that, "fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." Facing Reality tries to illustrate psychological points with weird stagecraft, people wearing masks, etc.. And the excerpts we see of When I'm Old Enough... Goodbye, starring a young Barry Primus, make it look as if the filmmakers hijacked the show to produce an audition reel for the male leads, both of whom overact like James Dean on a hotplate.
The Classic Educational Shorts neatly bridge two concerns. They're important historical and cultural documents, and also great entertainment for the hordes of irony-starved viewers that wish MST3K were still on the air.
Kino's separate DVD releases of Rules for School & Troubled Teens have quick access menus to the best available copies of these pictures. I'm sure that most are 16mm so none are things of beauty, and the color films can look pretty sour. The sad fact is that nobody kept elements for films of this kind: that's why they're called "ephemeral". Once they became obsolete, most were junked, so we're lucky that these archivists could locate decent copies.
Viewers with some experience of film school or film editorial rooms will love the lack of editing style, or in some cases an inappropriate style hammered onto the wrong subject. Personally, I freaked out when Drug Attack used a stock music 'action' cue I associate with an ancient TV show from the 1950s, Rescue-8. At age five I thought that show was scary, and whattaya know, when the pounding main theme came on during the drug bust, that long-forgotten nervous sense memory instantly bounced back. If I can get close enough to my 'inner method actor', I too will be able to play hyper-emotional roles, like the jumpy teens of When I'm Old Enough... Goodbye!
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Rules for School & Troubled Teens rate:
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T'was Ever Thus.