The scary thing is how many of these shorts I remember seeing in school.... Kino Classics has released Classic Educational Shorts, Volume 6: Troubled Teens, a single disc collection of 18 educational/social guidance shorts from the 1950s through the 1980s (teens weren't troubled in the 1940s, apparently), focusing this time on how to explain to young Johnny why he shouldn't speed, why he should brush his teeth, why he shouldn't beat people up―and most importantly―why he suddenly feels funny in his bathing suit area. Selected by A/V Geeks founder Skip Elsheimer (who provides the informative, amusing "film notes" for each entry that I've reprinted below), the short films included in these Classic Educational Shorts collections were shown to American school kids like myself on noisy, squelchy 16mm projectors right up to the 1980s. As I wrote in my Volume 5 review, if you were a movie-crazed kid like I was, the Friday afternoon announcement that your teacher
was fried after a long week of trying to control her little bastards and needed 15 measly minutes of peace and quiet had found an interesting educational film that the class might enjoy, was a cause for peripatetic excitement ("can I pleeeeeeeeze thread the projector and run the movie?"). Thanks to MST3K, most people now watch these public domain social guidance films for the purpose of snarky, self-satisfied derision, I suspect―admittedly something I do, as well (wait till future generations of smart-assess get a load of the crap you take seriously today...). I do, though, have a genuine fondness and even respect for these little orphaned films (as I'm sure lots of other movie lovers do), perhaps born largely out of nostalgia, that makes a collection like Classic Educational Shorts, Volume 6: Troubled Teens a cinch for a DVDTalk "highly recommended" buy. Let's look very briefly at each entry.
AS BOYS GROW
"A wonderfully open discussion for boys on the subject of puberty and sexual reproduction. These types of films were a substitute for a coach's lecture, which ultimately is a substitute for a parent's lecture on the subject. When shown today, the film always elicits giggles from the audience, who soon realize that its frank yet sensitive approach to sex education is refreshingly honest and better than what they learned in school."
Medical Arts Productions 1957 B&W 16 min.
Two semesters of deadly dull high school Health Class, condensed into 16 speedy, informative minutes. I don't know if gym instructors like Coach Pete are even allowed anymore to have impromptu (and quite detailed) rap sessions about sex education with young boys, but this sure beats the book my parents gave me when I was in fifth grade (A Doctor Talks to 9 to 13-Year-Olds). No-holds barred discussions, including wet dreams and masturbation ("It's something normal," Coach Pete calmly states...as all those PTA/Junior Bake Sale members previewing the movie fainted), and of course the obligatory pay-off: understand your body and you'll get to go swimming with a couple of pretty stacked babes (look out girls―those dopes know what they're doing now...). A rare example of a vintage educational film that holds up perfectly well today.
"Educational film superstar Dick York (Bewitched, Inherit the Wind, Shy Guy) plays a speed demon teenager whose new car and devil-may-care driving style are a hit with the girls. Last Date was named Best Non-Theatrical Picture of 1949 by the National Committee on Films for Safety. The Lumbermen's Mutual Casualty Company actually coined the term "teenicide" in the late 1940s to address the epidemic of teenager-related traffic fatalities that plagued the United States after World War II."
Wilding Picture Productions 1950 B&W 18 min.
Lumbermen's Mutual Casualty Company
The greatest Edgar G. Ulmer movie he never directed. Dizzyingly crammed with more melodrama and action than some highly regarded 50s noirs, the doom-laden Last Date deservedly is a classic of the calamity-filled, "you're gonna die, teens" social guidance genre. From the creepy, shadow-filled, funereal opening shot of Jeannie, her back to the camera as she almost sobs, "Who would want to go out with me now?", to the beautifully concise exposition as Jeannie makes her choice between square killjoy Larry and leering speed freak Durweed (we know what Jeannie knows, too, when Nick spits out, "I'm always in a hurry, honey!"), to the horrifying conclusion ("I've had my last date," she cries as she smashes her mirror, saving our breakfast by sparring us the sight of her disfigured face), Last Date is a marvel of pinpoint scripting, expressive direction from Lewis D. Collins, and perfectly-matched performances. As a deterrent to speeding, I'm not so sure (when you take a tragic situation and turn it into ghoulish, lush romanticism, isn't there a small, weird part of you that actually enjoys the on-screen suffering?), but as macabre melodrama, the lightning-fast Last Date is as good as it gets.
WHAT MADE SAMMY SPEED?
"Filmmaker Sid "King of Calamity" Davis offers up his take on reckless teen drivers with this film. Mental Hygiene author Ken Smith noted that, 'in this film (Davis) had the budget to make it look good.' The film has a similar plot line to another Sid Davis short, Bicycle Clown, in which a detective tries to figure out why a boy was being so reckless on his bike."
Sid Davis Productions 1957 Color 10 min.
Shot and told in semi-Dragnet style (complete with beefy, quasi-Ben Alexander juvenile officer clone), What Made Sammy Speed? just needs some gory real-life shots of actual roadkill mayhem to put it over into the top echelon of producer Sid "King of Calamity" Davis' efforts―we don't even get a peak at Sammy under the sheet. A whole litany of pop psychology triggers are trotted out to explain Sam's reckless driving, including low self-esteem, insecurity, juvenile rebellion (and my favorite Freudian saw: sublimated rage at good old Dad's own reckless driving, as well as his controlling nature masked by amelioration, when Dad gets Sammy off with the cops). However, once we're told that Sammy tells "women drivers" jokes, we know he's a goner. Nice 50s grainy color look to this one.
A QUARTER MILLION TEENAGERS
"A look at the epidemic scourge of teenagers beginning to experiment with unprotected sex. Churchill Films periodically updated the film―first to Half a Million Teenagers, then Half a Million...Plus, and finally A Million Teenagers in 1985―as the number of infected teens increased and other sexually -transmitted diseases were added to the tally, including herpes and AIDS."
Churchill Films 1964 Color 16 min.
I'm pretty sure I remember seeing some version of A Quarter Million Teenagers back in high school, because those cool charcoal and watercolor drawings during the opening credits came right back to me. The photos of syphilis sufferers are pretty tame (join the service and you'll see the ones you never forget), but I loved the strange Satan Bug animation that happens whenever those charcoal characters cross each other: ugly green crosshatches appear over their nether regions. In today's world of drug-resistant superbugs, the movie's confident "penicillin will knock it out" viewpoint is grimly humorous.
"A very strange film about drugs in our society that features no narration or dialogue. This was part of a series of films made for Lockheed Aircraft. Our guess is that the films were made for managers and employees of the company, to educate them about the growing epidemic of drug abuse among their workforce and the workers' children."
Lockheed Aircraft 1969 Color 13 min.
A super freak-out trigger film with no narration, Drug Attack is a pretty weird little movie that seems to be trying to say something about modern society and drugs...but what the filmmakers are trying to say seems hopelessly muddled. Hep cat jazz/rock music blasts over endless shots of modern life-in-motion, until we get incongruous shots of empty playgrounds as smashing Elmer Bernstein-like music blares on. There's a cinema verite-inspired drug bust in the park, and everything is frantic, baby, like an extended version of the assassin recruiting film in The Parallax View, until things calm down and a doctor silently examines the detained teens (I knew the brunette was a hype...). Um...what? Very cool and completely pointless.
VIOLENCE AND VANDALISM
"TV actor Hugh O'Brien talks about the factors behind vandalism and actually mentions it as a form of political expression―something other vandalism films shied away from. Unfortunately, showing kids gleefully trashing the school probably trumped the film's anti-vandalism message."
Directions Unlimited Film Corp. 1972 Color 14 min.
TV's Wyatt Earp says it's cool to be upset...but don't blow your cool. O'Brien, who's well known off-screen for his long-term commitment to youth-oriented volunteer work, makes for a believable, down-to-earth spokesman here, and his message is fairly even-handed. He allows that, while TV and the mass media may not cause violence, they do bring it into the home and make it commonplace (how many guys did he plug on that Western?). He acknowledges that we all feel like lashing out at times, even out of simple boredom, but that "freedom requires responsibility," and that grand-stand plays of "the excitement of violence" never help society. Whether any of this matters to the punks watching this is up for grabs (it doesn't help that those vandals look like they're really enjoying "the excitement of violence"), but his final point is the best: keep enforcing the stereotype of the violent, marauding teen, and nobody is going to pay taxes to support you...a now-quaint notion of the self-determining taxpayer-as-free-citizen, don't you think?
"'Teeth. Why not?' The American Dental Association gets hip and tries to appeal to the young teen generation with the film's quick edits, a rock and roll soundtrack, and hip slogans such as, 'Avoid the dental gap!' and, 'The "in" thing with dentists is keeping teeth in!' While possibly connecting with the young audience, the film risked becoming outdated very quickly as fashions and music within youth culture change so quickly."
Cal Dunn Studios 1973 Color 12 min.
American Dental Association
Or, The American Electrical Dental Banana Experiment. A now-amusing Laugh-In-style groove that looks like it was already five years behind the times when it bowed in 1973 (it has that filtered, Brady Bunch look of sanitized hippie culture that you knew was bullsh*t when you first saw Greg as Johnny Bravo). Lots of strobe lights and dancing teens flashing their pearly whites, before some obnoxious little jerk tries to break the fourth wall and deadpan, "Ho hum...now a short pause for the message." If Teeth's message is to brush, brush, brush, it gets lost in all the generic "happening" music, the mugging, the jokes about girls always being late, and that final groovy dune buggy date (sigh...). The kind of educational film that causes some viewers to take all educational films as hopeless goofs.
"Lucy looks at the life of a fifteen-year-old mother who is trying to make a life for herself and her baby in a crowded apartment in the projects with her nine siblings. The message in this film is clear. If you do get pregnant from having premarital sex, there are options for the teenaged parents, but dancing in a discotheque and leisurely walks with your boyfriend in the park won't be among them."
Perennial Films 1975 Color 12 min.
A pro-life educational film...from Planned Parenthood? Once you get your head around that, Lucy is an admirably straight little drama that respects its characters and storyline. Told in first-person narration, attention-starved Lucy, looking for anything as a distraction from her crowded life, explains how Joe was "outta sight, he was my guy!", before the too-young couple quickly progress to sex. Her idyllic, fantasy romance is shattered, though, when she becomes pregnant, but Lucy doesn't give up on Lucy, showing how she tries to make a better life for herself through typing lessons and a new-found maturity that at least gives her the value of some hard-won wisdom: "If only Joe and I hadn't been so dumb." To its credit, Lucy resists the temptation to glamorize or romanticize any aspect of teen pregnancy (ask MTV about that one...); any girl watching this in 1975 at least got that message. Whether it stopped any of those girls is another story.
THE PARTY'S OVER
"Produced as part of the 'Jackson Junior High' series, The Party's Over begins with a teacher leading a discussion with his students about under-aged drinking and what they think the drinking age should be. Then we see the kids at a party dealing with those very issues. The teacher was played by Richard Sanders, a year before he portrayed newscaster Les Nessman on TV's WKRP in Cincinnati."
Northern Virginia Educational Telecommunications Association 1977 Color 14 min.
U.S. Department of Health
Oh my god we saw this in high school...but it was after WKRP in Cincinnati was a hit, and everyone kept muttering, "It's Les Nessman―dork." Cringe-worthy today for me at least because it brings back all those completely pointless, waste-of-time hours spent in those 70s Free to Be You and Me "discussion groups" so highly praised by the teachers who didn't really want to "teach" anything. Mom and Dad, out-of-touch in evening gown and tux, are understanding liberals here who value the schools branching out into social science...until they find a wino party at their own home and Dad starts yelling, "What the hell is going on here?" Classic. Of course it's the sensible girls who first smell danger at the party, but we knew all along that pizza-faced Freddie with his striped Hanna-Barbera® slacks, was trouble just waiting to happen. Come to think of it...all the kids are obnoxious here.
THE DAY I DIED
"The Day I Died tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy under the influence of alcohol, who is killed in an automobile accident. The pacing and narration of the film are so excruciatingly melodramatic that it was sure to alienate its target audience. A companion film, All My Tomorrows, was aimed at teenage girls who abuse barbiturates, and shares this film's grim, slow motion pace, creepy voice-over, and music."
Gordon-Kerckhoff Productions 1978 Color 14 min.
One of my all-time favorite social guidance films, which I remember seeing in my seventh grade social studies class like it was yesterday. All the elements that Skip Elsheimer finds objectionable―the dreamlike, funereal slow-motion; the whacked-out narration and fish-eyed direction, and the increasingly hysterical tone of the piece―are all the things I love about The Day I Died, then and now. More horror show than anything else, with our narrator speaking from the grave, The Day I Died starts off like a vaguely unsettling entry from The Twilight Zone, with the viewer hoping there'll be some kind of twist or "it was all a dream" ending...before certain doom settles in and our dead teen is laid out in a coffin (that shot gave me nightmares), pleading with his family, "Please don't put me in the ground!" as the rest of the zombies slo-mo out of frame. Classic moment: check out Dad's face when Mom comes with him to I.D. his dead son's body...he looks like he's inspecting a small dent in his Bonneville's fender. Along with Last Date, worth the price of Classic Educational Shorts, Volume 6: Troubled Teens alone.
BONUS SHORTS: A TEACHER'S GUIDE
"Mike hides all his inadequacy and self-esteem issues by being negative about the upcoming school dance. Can this bizarre little film, with its surreal imagery, help us figure out how to get over such feelings? And will the fact that Mike's classmates know of his insecurity issues make them go any easier on him? Probably not."
Knickerbocker Productions 1954 B&W 11 min.
McGraw-Hill Book Company
Cracker-barrel psychology unfortunately takes over from the movie's promising, surreal opening. When Facing Reality opens with this bizarre, almost frightening image of a two-faced woman turning around and around in a circle of other teens, one might be forgiven in assuming the movie is going to be something special. However, Facing Reality quickly regains its conventional bearings, and we're given a litany of facile Freudian reasons why Mike is a pain in the ass. Apparently, it all started when he dropped that glass at the malt shop.... Pretty standard after the interesting opening, with a good performance by deeply sublimated Mike.
A CASE FOR BEER
"Fascinating training film made for convenience store employees on how to spot under-aged drinkers―not an easy task at a time when most ID cards didn't have a photo and could easily be modified. The interesting twist with this short is that the film stresses not to totally alienate the young customers as they will be of drinking age soon enough, and you don't want to lose their business."
Kansas State University 1970 Color 10 min.
Falstaff Brewing Corporation
Did you see what five bucks and change could buy you then? A six-pack to start, some hot dogs...a real party. A pretty interesting instructional film that isn't concerned at all in condemning underage drinking―only in stopping it at the convenience mart level so owners don't lose their licenses. Most of the comedy is awful ("Well...he checked everything but her age," winks the narrator after a young clerk eyeballs one of Dino's Ding-a-Ling Sisters), but it is cool to see how lame I.D.s used to be―was everyone getting away with murder back then? Talk about being off the grid. No apologies, either, in those last golden days of guilt-free living, in linking Americans enjoying their leisure time and getting totally blasted.
TALKING TO YOUR TEENAGER ABOUT VD
"This film tells parents that venereal disease is 'not a crime, it's a disease'. We see a group of teenagers explain that they don't want to talk with their parents about their sex lives, even though open communication could help prevent exposure to disease. The rap session is intercut with scenes of a doctor explaining the facts about VD transmission―just in case a parent does actually converse with his or her teen!"
West Glen Films 1972 Color 19 min.
Ugh...see The Party's Over above. Dirty, smelly hippies bitching and whining about how Mom and Dad are clueless idiots ("Mother's national pastime is worrying," and "They just don't get it,"), mixed in clumsily with drops from a doctor detailing how much fun it is to get V.D.. The funniest line (today) is the kid moaning about his parents, "they grew up in the dark ages,"―guess what today's kids think of you, Shaggy? If this was meant for parents, to show them the concerns and fears of their own teenagers, in the hopes that these uncommunicative parents would reach out to them...it pretty much fails on all counts: Mom and Dad aren't given much slack by the ungrateful punks (and thus making the adult viewer a tad...defensive), while the kids seem to need not so much understanding as a big, soapy brush and a kick in the ass.
CONDOMS: A RESPONSIBLE OPTION
"Produced during the AIDS epidemic, this film lightheartedly tackles the issue of 'safe sex.' It also dramatizes the idea that if you have unprotected sex, you'll be having sex with all of your partner's previous partners. We like the film because of the assembly line footage of condoms being manufactured and tested."
Landmark Films 1985 Color 10 min.
The best part of Condoms: A Responsible Option comes in the very first shot: the company's logo, Landmark Films, is a huge phallic obelisk. It's all downhill from there, as an instantly detestable theatre group of woefully marginal "actor types" (imaginatively monikered, "The Group") enact the equivalent of a bad lab theatre assignment about sexual freedom in the age of AIDS. The black pharmacist raising his eyebrows in appreciation at the girl buying condoms, and the outtake shots of the condom testers screwing around at the factory, are pretty funny, though. Plays like one of those hysterically funny, deliberately bad sketches on SCTV, like Libby Wolfson's play I'm Taking My Own Head, Screwing It On Right, and No Guy's Gonna Tell Me It Ain't...only Condoms: A Responsible Option is bad, but not deliberately, and not even remotely funny.
SOCIAL SEMINAR PROMO
"This short introduction to NIMH's Social Seminar series provides insight into the difficulties faced by teachers when addressing drug abuse among young people. These approaches were almost completely forgotten in the 1980s, with the rise of the Just Say No and DARE anti-drug education programs."
National Institute of Mental Health 1972 Color 8 min.
Tough to evaluate because it's just a series of jumbled-up promos for other educational films, largely absent of their context. What you can decipher out of it, though, looks dodgy (one of the movies features that single most useless psycho-babble goof of all time: role-playing). I'm not sure these last three excerpts were the best things to include on this disc, even if they are considered (bogus) bonuses.
"With its 'Teenage' series, the Christian film company Family Films attempted to address some of the problems faced by Christian teens. While most of the films dealt with peer pressure, this film addresses the conflict between fact and faith. A boy and his siter―who are having trouble reconciling their traditional Christian beliefs with the marvels of modern science―are shown that Christian ideology and science are not incompatible. The film features Hayden Rourke (I Dream of Jeannie)."
Family Films 1960 B&W (excerpts)
When Dr. Bellows says, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom," I expected Major Healey and Master to come barging in. Interestingly, after Hayden Rourke's rather strident statement, Teenage Conflict turns around and basically condemns it as out-of-touch―not what you'd expect from a Christian short from 1960. With Dr. George, the newly-minted scientist-in-Christ, Rourke's teen son explores his doubts about religion and science, with the writing coming in as fair and thoughtful―at least as much as can be gleaned from these excerpts. When Dr. George asks the kid how much he loves his mother, and then asks him to scientifically measure it, Teenage Conflict comes up with an instantly graspable―and mildly compelling―analogy for its case of science and religion being compatible (and this from your godless, atheistic movie reviewer, dear reader). Too bad we can't see the whole thing.
WHEN I'M OLD ENOUGH, GOOD-BYE!
"Hip, heavy-handed and dramatic (imagine a classroom film directed by Elia Kazan or John Cassavetes), this film shows that a high school boy's decision to quit school and get a job isn't as liberating as he expected it to be."
New York State Employment Service 1962 B&W Excerpts (4 min.)
Louis De Rochemont Associates
In the above "film notes," Skip Elsheimer hits it right on the head with When I'm Old Enough, Good-bye!, an overwrought, overheated Method exercise in operatic angst that's so teasingly intriguing one wishes the whole movie was available. Big-screen quality lighting, suitably tortured, "internal" performances, and a general air of self-satisfied, artsy-fartsy self-importance (just look at that title), make this entry, even in excerpts, a beautiful example of content completely swamped by over-zealous execution.
"When a school is vandalized by teenagers, outraged community members gather to blame the crime on gang activity, but gradually come to accept their share of responsibility."
Again, as with the two previous bonus shorts, it's difficult to get an accurate or fair bead on The Gang since only excerpts are shown here. Expressionistic in design (the group has its expensive conference table plunked down in the middle of a dilapidated slum dwelling), with a few surprises here and there (the angry young black man is called a "Tom" by the even angrier young black man), and the expected inanities (when the sensitive, clueless older white guy expresses hope for reaching out to minorities, the dim-bulb woman blankly states, "That's beautiful,"). According to the first title card, some of these characters are real victims of violence, and to them, our hearts go out...but that mitigating factor aside, everyone's performance is set at "11" here.
L.A. County Board of Supervisors 1983 Color Excerpts (9 min.)
Expect the worst, and you'll be okay with Classic Educational Shorts, Volume 6: Troubled Teens. Lots of scratches and dirt and faded color here from the full-screen, 1.33:1 transfers of the original 16mm elements. But who cares?
The English mono audio track is equally harsh, with lots of hiss. But at least you don't hear that clanking projector....
I'm not counting those eight "bonus" shorts as true bonuses (especially the last three excerpted ones). It's an eighteen disc collection.
What I wrote in my Volume 5 review applies equally to this collection: whether you're watching these orphaned educational/social guidance films for laughs or for insight (better be careful on that last score....), it's impossible not be taken in by the charm of their melodrama, their unintentional humor, their at-times inexplicable wrong-headedness, their sometimes surprising deftness and understanding, and especially their ineptitude. Classic Educational Shorts, Volume 6: Troubled Teens scores an easy DVDTalk "highly recommended" rating.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.