"No sane person would deliberately expose himself to it!"—"Narcotics: Pit of Despair"
Imagine yourself back in school. Those cramped wooden desks, the teacher in her pinched and pointed glasses, a picture of President Johnson on the wall. All you want to do is rush home to watch television (maybe "Batman" or "The Herculoids" are on!), but that darned teacher wants to show another movie. So she goes out for a smoke, tells that pudgy kid to start up the projector…
And you are treated to a world of swirling colors and jazzy music. Hip kids dancing and running wild! Great clothes! Wow! Even though a stern voice keeps telling you that this is bad stuff, that those pills the kids are taking will ruin your life, all you want to do is jump into the screen. This looks great! You've got to try some of those pills…
Fantoma's "Educational Archives" series kicks off—pun intended—with at anti-drug and sex education films. As noted in our look at the second volume, Social Engineering 101, it is through the tireless work of archivists like Rick Prelinger and Ken Smith that many of these films still survive, long after their usefulness as educational tools has faded. We think of the 1960s as an innocent time for children, shielded from the turmoil outside their classrooms. But these films were attempts to frighten children into behaving, into conforming to society's sense of what is right. These social codes seemed, for the most part, directed toward a distinctly white, middle-class, male-centered morality. Looking at this collection of classic scare shorts, we can see the real irony: that kids chafing under the grip of middle-class mediocrity might find these movies more amusing—or even appealing—than terrifying.
Many of these films, because they are overloaded with dull exposition, have been trimmed by Fantoma to show the good parts (for example, "Marijuana" is missing 12 minutes from its original running time). Most are scratchy and a few have jump cuts. Their well-used condition only adds to the bizarre atmosphere, as if we are sneaking a peek into a sordid world our parents are warning us away from.
"LSD: Case Study" (1969, 4 minutes): The first of a series of brief anecdotes narrated by wayward teens traumatized by the evil drug in question. All were sponsored by Lockheed Aircraft—yes, the defense contractor. This must have been a nice tax deduction for them. In this one, a girl who is way too old to be a teenager (standard procedure in these films) tells about her bad acid trip. Speaking over gooey lava-lamp effects and sepia-toned photographs, she relates how her hot dog screamed at her. The photo shows a troll doll in the hot dog bun! It makes me want to try acid too, which I am guessing goes against what the filmmakers intended.
"Human Growth" (1962, 12 minutes condensed): Meet nerdy George and Josie. George learns from a book that clothing among primitive tribes is a sign of sexual maturity. Josie knows all about this: she saw a movie in class on human growth. The next day, the teacher, Mrs. Baker, shows the movie to George's class, and nobody snickers. We learn through comfortable animation that heterosexuality is a "normal feeling," and that real sexual and emotional maturity only comes after graduation, getting a job, and marriage. After the movie, Mrs. Baker answers questions from her students. Somehow, the movie manages to avoid talking about sexual reproduction itself, which is likely to make students even more curious about experimentation.
"Narcotics: Pit of Despair" (1967, 12 minute excerpt): Drug pusher Pete, who sports a freaky Amish beard, tries to recruit John (a very young Kevin Tighe, who has a scary overbite). There is no dialogue, but a pompous voice-over narration explains everything that is going on, just in case we are too dim to figure it out. Lonely John, shirking his responsibilities, goes to Pete's dope party, where all the participants conspire to hook him on marijuana. In full Reefer Madness mode, a couple of puffs is all it takes. The narrator's slang is quaint and outdated for 1967—"Shake this square world and blast off for kicksville!"—like he has watched too many beatniks on television. The clip here ends very abruptly (with 17 minutes of running time left in the original version), so we never get to see John's descent into crime, squalor, prison—and ultimately salvation.
"Know For Sure" (1941, 13 minutes condensed): A classic film used to scare soldiers into avoiding prostitutes, this product of the U.S. Public Health Service and Hollywood hacks tells the story of a grotesquely stereotypical Italian immigrant named Tony whose infant son is stillborn from tertiary syphilis. Tony learns this terrible news from a doctor who smokes furiously—remember, these were the days when cigarette ads got medical endorsements! There is lots of melodrama, as Tony and other men learn the penalties of syphilis. Do not fear: modern science can cure anything. As a doctor tells Tony, "With proper medical treatment, you can be cured. Then you can have all the bambinos you want." Look for the poster on the wall that reads, "Make our men as fit as our machines!" I picture an army of happy robots. I am sure the U.S. Health Department in 1941 did too.
"Barbiturates: Case Study" (1969, 2 minutes): Zippy music and fast editing make downers seem like uppers! Remember, according to anti-drug films, marijuana is a perilous gateway drug that will lead you inexorably down the path to "red devils" in no time flat.
"It's Wonderful Being a Girl" (1968, 17 minutes condensed): It is also wonderful being a shill for Johnson and Johnson. Learn all about how Modess will help you feel better about the "curse." Libby learns all about her "icky" feelings from Mom, who teaches her how to use Modess sanitary napkins, which in those days required a special belt—and "sanitary panties!" Ah, the mystery and humiliation of women's bodies. Any hope this movie had of making young girls comfortable with menstruation goes out the window as we watch Libby and her friends proudly boast of their bleeding to one another. But in this pastel world, nobody seems to get cramps and swimming and bowling are a breeze. Later, the teacher (who has an indeterminate accent) shows a movie to the girls about "how you got to be a girl." She also reminds them to look pretty and "keep busy and active as always." As Libby learns, "You can have fun while menstruating!" Insert your own punchline here.
"Marijuana" (1968, 22 minutes condensed): Quick—who jumps to mind as the most authoritative spokesman to teach kids to avoid drugs? Sonny Bono! When a group of groovy kids get busted at a party by the fascist police, they yell that grass is not harmful and cry for freedom. Sonny, looking a little buzzed himself, promises the facts without moral judgments. He debunks the myths about marijuana, while discussing alcohol and cigarettes, the psychology of addiction, and other issues. Check out the encounter group of pretty female heroin addicts—where do I sign up? Other teens complain about their anxiety over "the war" (Vietnam, naturally), and Sonny blames "unstable" people for abusing pot and making things bad for everybody: "Would you rather your pilot just finished a joint or a cigarette?" This is one of those films that tries so hard to talk to teens in their own language that it ends up sounding wishy-washy about its subject.
"Amphetamines: Case Study" (1969, 3 minutes): A teen gets diet pills from his doctor and "feels groovy," then moves up to meth. He stays awake for a week at a time. I have a friend that does the same thing on coffee and gets paid good money for it.
"Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence" (1953, 17 minutes condensed): With a title like that, you know the filmmakers are not going to be any fun—intentionally, at least. Dry text in the beginning clues us in that this is going to be a long ride. Lorne Greene narrates the tale of Bob and Mary, newlyweds destined for happiness because they learned "good sex adjustment" as children. Their parents taught them all about sex (in 1953, no less). While Mary's friends learn about sex from books and dirty jokes, Mary pedantically lectures them on the facts. Although Mary's mother worries for a while that her daughter might be a lesbian (watch Lorne dance around the word without saying it), Mary soon discovers she likes boys. Meanwhile, Bob learns that masturbation is a mental problem and worships his football coach. Mom steers Mary's dating habits, while Bob focuses on school and career. Soon, they meet and develop a "deep and spiritual" love. Hooray for manipulative parenting! You will hear Lorne Greene say the word "sex" so many times that you will never be able to watch Bonanza again without laughing.
"LSD: Insight or Insanity?" (1969, 15 minutes condensed): Narrator Sal Mineo, who was so cool in Rebel Without a Cause, seems condescending here as he mocks teen fashions. Scientists reading cue cards try to harsh your buzz with tedious history and medical lessons about LSD. Hip kids tell you that "LSD is a vitamin for your brain." Whose side are you on? Worse still, Sal sings at the end! At least Sonny Bono spared us that in "Marijuana."
"Heroin: Case Study" (1969, 4 minutes): A guy gives in to peer pressure and tries some heroin while high on pot. "It gives you more confidence than crystals," he tells us, but then he gets arrested and has to kick from a jail cell.
"The ABC of Sex Education for Trainables" (1975, 20 minutes): This is the flip side of all those sex education films directed at children. This well-meaning short teaches teachers how to handle sex education for "retardates," or the developmentally disabled. Narrator Richard Dix offers the term "trainables," in the hope that these educational methods might work. Why should we teach trainables about sex? Just watch the opening scene, where a Ron Jeremy look-alike lures a retarded girl into his car. Teachers can learn how to list a dozen words for penis without laughing, talk about wet dreams with a "calm and accepting" manner, and explain intercourse. The lessons also cover social skills and avoiding sexual exploitation. Directed toward educators, this short tends to be quite graphic compared to the others on this disc, and it tries very hard to take its subject seriously. Nevertheless, it comes across as very surreal.
Apart from some blurbs by archivist Skip Elsheimer, little historical information is offered for any of these films. But try out the bonus filmstrip from Jam Handy's "We Grow" series, called "Growing Things." The growing thing in question is little Johnny's baby sister, and five-year-old Johnny, a badly drawn cartoon child, learns that he was a baby too. He sees pictures of how food, fresh air, and sunshine (is he a plant?) made him grow big and strong. And Mom promises, "You will grow to be a man." There are no scientific facts or real details on sex development here, which suggests that this is targeted to very young children.
Looking at the films on this disc from a chronological perspective, we can see the desperation in the minds of educators who perceived an increasing problem with sex and drugs among their children and thought that pushier lessons were needed to drive the point home. In the 1950s, these films featured dry exposition bookended by clean-cut children, as if the sight of well-behaved role-models would encourage dissatisfied kids to tag along. But this herd mentality never quite caught on, perhaps because kids could sense the undercurrent of tension eroding the middle-class utopia of the Eisenhower years. As the Cold War, then Vietnam, simmered in the background—not to mention racial, class, and gender conflict (so many anti-drug movies of the era, none included on this disc, blamed the drug plague on the ghettos in a clear inversion of cause and effect)—the young increasingly rejected the staid conservatism of their parents, sometimes reaching towards drugs and sex as a reaction against the establishment. So, by the 1960s, educators tried to speak to teens as if they knew the language and could capture the activity of the youth culture. But it seemed so incongruous, these messages about avoiding social evils while celebrating the very culture teens were drawn towards. Maybe educators thought that by showing wild parties and weird psychedelic effects, teens would see these things as the adults saw them: as scary and confusing. But this only widened the communications gap. Did teens ever think of Sonny Bono as one of their crowd, or was he merely a wannabe hippie?
Sex education films suffered a different dilemma. In the early days, discussing sex was taboo, so the notion that parents might instill knowledge, like in "Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence," was a novelty. But by the late 1960s, especially among women, the new question was not how you would learn about sex—gender liberation movements had covered those bases—but what products you would use when it came time to practice. By the age of the VCR, sex and drug education for teens had retreated from visual media for the most part, only surfacing (as I pointed out in my Deep Focus column on classroom scare films) as safety films for elementary age children.
My major criticism with this disc is how much material was edited from these shorts. "Narcotics: Pit of Despair" alone is missing over half its length, with so much hysteria and melodrama left to go. With so many of these drug and sex education films available, I am surprised that Fantoma tried to squeeze both subjects on one disc. Nevertheless, these films are priceless, and I hope to see more of these available soon. More discs in this series (driver's ed and job-training films) are due in May. Where's "A Date with Your Family?" "VD: Truth or Consequences?" "Dating Do's and Don'ts?" Come on Fantoma, get moving!
Fantoma is ordered to get off those evil pills, put some pants on, and release more of these movies as soon as possible. Case dismissed.
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