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    Mental Hygiene

    Kitsch of the Day

    Author Ken Smith presents unintentionally hilarious "Mental Hygiene" films made in the 1950s to help schoolkids, factory employees and housewives become right-thinking, clean-living Americans.


    Not popular at school? Try dressing more like the other fellows. And if you're a girl, don't park with the boys — that'll only give you a reputation!

    Collected by the Prelinger Archive, presented by Ken Smith, author of "Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970."

    Related links: Prelinger Archives | Blast Books | Ken Smith's "Roadside America"
    Ah, it's back to the '50s, give or take a decade, as author Ken Smith shows some of the best of what he calls "Mental Hygiene" films — instructional films, advertisements and propaganda pieces designed to help us live better, happier, cleaner, more American lives. An extensive series of these unintentionally hilarious films was shown last month at the American Museum of the Moving Image (when a significant fraction of was on vacation), and Smith will reprise a choice selection at Maxwell's in Hoboken on Tuesday.

    Smith is the author of the new "Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970" (Blast Books), a wry history of these films. After a 10-year association with Rick Prelinger — creator of the Prelinger Archives in New York, which collects the films — Smith wanted to share his fascination with this formerly ubiquitous but little-known art form.

    Mental Hygiene  
    "The more I watched them, the more I realized just how strange they were. And the more I asked about them, the more I realized nobody knew about them — and nobody cared," he says. "Of course, educators threw these things away because . . . they're embarrassing. And as far as film educators are concerned, they're of no interest. These are not masterpieces."

    But they do have their own kind of brilliance, if only in capturing the sanitized and sexless postwar America that an adult establishment intended the well-adjusted younger generation to grow up into. There may have been lust and alienation in the era of Elvis and Kerouac, but teens in the films' neverneverland would rather go to a weenie roast or bowling party. "Baseball games and taffy pulls — I think they're swell!" gushes Kay in "What to Do on a Date."

    Just don't ever cross the pre-feminist, pre-sexual-revolution line like the tarty Jenny in "How to be Popular" — or you'll pay the price. As some high school friends decide who can sit at the popular table at lunchtime, the narrator instructs us:

    Jenny thinks she has the key to popularity: parking in cars with boys at night! When Jerry brags about taking Jenny out, he learns that she dates all the boys — and he feels less important.

      Mental Hygiene
    What about Jenny? Does that make her really popular? Do the boys and girls like her? Is she welcome to join this group? No! Girls who park in cars are not really popular — not even with the boys they park with.

    And don't try to be different from the other kids, learns Dick York (later to become Darren in "Bewitched") in "Shy Guy" (narrated by Myron Wallace, later to become Mike Wallace). The Shy Guy is in his basement tinkering with electronics when dad interrupts to find out why his boy isn't more popular with the teen set. "Pick out the most popular boys and girls in school and keep an eye on them," dad suggests. "Try to figure out why people like them — not that you'll ever be just like them."

    To my mind, the films reflect more the parents' anxieties about losing social control than the kids' actual innocence. But Smith believes there was a time when these propaganda films — on behalf of capitalism and consumer goods as well as good, clean adolescence — were taken seriously as lessons for life.

    "They were made before the age of irony that we live in now, where everything has a double meaning," he says. "We live in a society in which information is always manipulating us — so much of it is public relations. The transparency is gone."

    FEBRUARY 18, 2000

    Reader comments on Mental Hygiene:

  • purchasing old films   from ty, Dec 23, 2003

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