"Are you like Mr. Bungle? Mr. Bungle is ashamed because he spoils lunchtime. Don't be like Mr. Bungle."—"Lunchroom Manners"
In the second volume of its "Educational Archives" series, Fantoma presents an entertaining look back at the classic "behavior offensive" films that shaped generations of children, though probably not as the creators intended. If you recall our Deep Focus discussion of "classroom scare films," a concerted attempt was made during the 1950s to stem the perceived tide of bad behavior among Baby Boom children by forcing conformity through film. Through the work of archivists and scholars like Rick Prelinger (who provided Mystery Science Theater 3000 with a ton of these great shorts) and Ken Smith (author of the excellent Mental Hygeine), many of these films have been preserved as a testament to this lost era.
These days, we tend to look on these films as examples of a restrictive pedagogy that tried to mold kids according to the Eisenhower era notion of moral behavior: the capitalist work ethic happily displayed in an all-white, suburban world where everyone knows their place. The films on this disc, made between 1947 and 1972, are simultaneously scary and funny. But they are also often sincere attempts to teach kids things that kids really need to know: how to keep clean, how to make friends, how to show reasonable judgment. Unfortunately, many of these films also couch these lessons in stiffly acted, awkwardly structured narratives that rely more on preying on the nervousness of children than in trying to talk to kids on their own level. The condescension in such films as "Shy Guy," where all the popular teens are also the most clean-cut and well-behaved ones (was it ever like that at your school?), often drips off the screen. Real kids in real classrooms probably found themselves more amused than appalled by the antics of bad boys like Larry in "Manners in School." Nevertheless, these films still persist in many classrooms, where teachers in need of a break can always appeal to children's desire to watch TV by popping in a video on study skills or reporting sexual abuse.
The histrionics of the great age of social engineering may have given way to a more low-key approach in recent years, but we still have these classic examples of the genre to look at in amusement. Fantoma presents ten shorts of varying lengths, mostly from the 1950s, along with a filmstrip. As you might expect, some of these shorts are not in the best condition. Most are moderately scratched, although a few have suffered more wear and even have a few jump cuts. Oddly, this enhances the sense that you are watching some old 16mm reel in the classroom that has been passed around too many times. Most of you probably do not remember the days of those old, jumpy film projectors, but I do, and I can attest that most of the real films were in this condition when they were shown in my elementary school class.
"Lunchroom Manners (1959, 12 minutes): After a puppet show, all the children mock the naughty puppet Mr. Bungle, who looks like a wooden Joan Rivers. Phil, a perky Aryan clone child, decides that Mr. Bungle is a bad role model and practices good hygiene. Phil seems altogether too easily swayed by puppet shows.
"Soapy the Germ Fighter" (1951, 10 minutes): This is the story of Billy Martin and how he developed his fetish for cleanliness. One night, he hallucinates a talking bar of soap who teaches him that it is not "sissy" to be clean. Soapy wears a wedding ring, but we never meet Mrs. Soapy. Soapy also shaves his legs and refers to Billy as his "partner" in germ fighting. If you have similar nightmares, consult your physician. We also get to see brave Health Department officers dressed as G-Men, fighting against the bacteriological menace around us.
"Appreciating Our Parents" (1950, 10 minutes): Tommy, who wears too many maroon bowties, wonders who mends and cleans while he is off in school. And where does Tommy's allowance come from? One night, Tommy sneaks out of bed to discover Mommy and Daddy—washing dishes! Yes, you can learn to "play on the family team" just like Tommy.
"Shy Guy" (1947, 14 minutes): One of the first great social engineering epics, "Shy Guy" features a very young Dick York (with a wavering, nervous voice), who haunts his basement tuning his electronics like some ancestor of Crispin Glover. "I'm different from the guys in this town," he moans, but soon he learns to study the popular kids and imitate them. Thus, he learns a valuable lesson in social conformity. The familiar voice of the narrator belongs to newsman Mike Wallace.
"Why Doesn't Cathy Eat Breakfast?" (1972, 4 minutes): Well, you will not get an answer from this short. Instead, the National Dairy Council busts into Cathy's bedroom to ask her intrusive personal questions about breakfast, while she gets dressed for school. Look for the subtle product placement (lots of dairy goods everywhere) and the message about Cathy's broken home life.
"Right Or Wrong?" (1951, 10 minutes): In the real upshot of "Shy Guy," Harry succumbs to peer pressure and breaks a window with his gang of friends. We see lots of "moral decisions" by various participants, accompanied by noir-style voiceovers. The local policeman and youth minister play good cop/bad cop to get Harry to squeal on the bad kids. Will he? The film asks you to decide what Harry should do. Clearly, William Castle took a lesson from this when planning Mr. Sardonicus.
"Personality and Emotions" (1954, 13 minutes): Surprisingly serious and balanced overview of how we develop emotions and learn to use reason to balance them. Some dry psychology is livened up by a frantic-sounding narrator and some animation (although the audio has a lot of hiss). Emotions are "primitive biological reactions," but overall, this is more honest about negative emotions and traumas, even in adults, than you might expect. Kids probably found it dull.
"Why Vandalism?" (1955, 16 minutes): Look out for those "feelings that have become twisted and warped!" Jeff (who looks like Sal Mineo) and friends have "open wounds" in their souls: empty homes without love, social alienation, and resentment. So they cause trouble, trashing a classroom and accidentally killing a cute bunny rabbit. This film is surprisingly liberal for the time, blaming lack of love and understanding for juvenile delinquency, and recommending social programs, educator sympathy, and family love as solutions.
"Manners in School" (1959, 11 minutes): Mr. Soapy's evil cousin Chalky, a talking stick figure on a blackboard, warps little Larry Carson. Junior hellion Larry has a quick change of heart and wants to learn good manners. Could Chalky have saved Jeff and his friends in "Why Vandalism?" before they killed that poor bunny? Although this short is in the worst condition of the lot (many jump cuts), it is one of the funniest.
"The Outsider" (1951, 12 minutes): Another variation on "Shy Guy," this time featuring a teen named Susan Jane frightened by the hick Southern kids at school. Susan parts her hair a little too severely and seems confused by chocolate ice cream. This short features more of the perspective of the other kids as they try to be nice to Susan Jane, while she misreads their signals in her paranoia. Of course, things always work out by the end in these movies.
Although the text blurbs before each short do not offer much insight, Fantoma does offer a nice bonus: a filmstrip (scroll through with your arrow buttons) called "Your Fight Against Fear." It tells us that "fear is natural" and targets the usual teen fears of the future. But it leaves out the unspoken fears of the Cold War: nuclear annihilation, Commie invasion, and juvenile delinquency. But remember, "you can help yourself in the fight against fear by having the gumption to face difficult situations ahead."
These films are a treat to finally have on DVD. Fantoma has also released a disc of sex and drug education films, and collections of driver's ed and job-training films are due in May. Let's see plenty more of these! Rick Prelinger has already posted 900 of them on the web, and Fantoma has its work cut out for it delivering these movies in a portable format. This is one of those cases where our "Scales" here at the Verdict do not do justice to the disc: these films are scratchy, badly acted, badly written—and a complete joy to watch.
Mr. Bungle does not buy funny DVDs, because he does not understand that our own film history is more amusing and reveals more about our culture than a thousand cheesy Hollywood comedies. Are you like Mr. Bungle?
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