They Lost It at the Movies

Classroom films have come a long way from those cheesy old duck-and-cover flicks. Or have they?

Back in the mid-1960s, Harper Barnes took a vacation to Florence, Italy. He was, at the time, a graduate student in English at the University of Kansas, a handsome young American eager for some Old World culture. One day he went to visit the Uffizi gallery, where he quickly lost himself in the lush canvases of Botticelli. He stood for a long while, lingering before the voluptuous curves of Venus rising out of the sea.

And then his reverie was punctured by a woman who approached him, a bit sheepishly. "I'm sorry to bother you," the fellow American said. "But aren't you the guy in that venereal-disease movie?"

Barnes didn't understand her at first. His thinking, as he recalls, was something along the lines of: What the hell is she talking about?

Tom Carlson
Harper Barnes at home in the Central West End at 66
Jennifer Silverberg
Harper Barnes at home in the Central West End at 66

Then, in a rather unpleasant rush, it came back to him. Six years earlier he had starred in an educational film produced by the Kansas State Board of Health called The Innocent Party. And his role had been anything but innocent: He played a syphilis-carrying cad.

"Yeah," Barnes said softly. "That was me."

The woman, it turned out, was a junior high school teacher from Berkeley, California. She had shown The Innocent Party to her classes numerous times. She called her husband over and the two of them gushed over Barnes like a celebrity. The spell cast by the Botticellis was, at that point, pretty effectively broken.

Ironically, Barnes says, he wasn't even an aspiring thespian when he was tapped for the role. Instead, he was chosen because "I looked innocent and they wanted to sully me." Barnes was offered 200 bucks to star in The Innocent Party, as a small-town everyteen named Don. The plot is as follows: One night Don goes to Kansas City with his best friend, Nicky, and the two of them hook up with a couple of shady brunettes, smoking both literally and figuratively. Unknowingly infected with syphilis, Don goes out with angelic blonde Betty the next night.

The two go for a drive, exchange vows of devotion, and pull over to the side of the road. The screen gets misty, and implied bonk-shicka-wonk-wonk follows.

There's just one problem: The next day Don discovers he's got some sort of sore -- down there! Nicky urges him not to worry. ("It's probably just a pimple or something.") But Don goes to the doctor and gets the bad news. He eventually tells Betty, who cries because she feels like a slut. Fortunately they've caught the disease early and they're going to be all right.

The same couldn't be said for Barnes' cinematic rep. Just a few years after his trip to Italy, in fact, his younger sister was shown The Innocent Party in her Kansas City junior high classroom. "She didn't tell anybody it was me, she was so embarrassed," Barnes remembers. Indeed, to the hundreds of thousands of others who saw the flick -- schoolchildren, soldiers, Peace Corps members and public television viewers -- he will forever be remembered as a flickering, syphilitic image.

Barnes, however, is unperturbed by his odd brand of fame. "The movie apparently filled some need in society," says the writer, formerly of St. Louis Magazine and the Post-Dispatch. At 66, Barnes has white hair but has maintained the baby face and youthful exuberance of his STD glory days. "Apparently all of the old venereal-disease movies had been shot after World War II and featured German prostitutes luring poor GIs into the bushes. In a way The Innocent Party was sort of daring; they were at least admitting that American teenagers were actually sleeping together -- as horrible as that may sound -- and suffering the consequences."

Daring is not a word most folks would associate with social guidance films, an odd subset of the educational film genre. Still, they remain as much a part of the American educational experience as baseball, apple pie and, well, venereal disease. Who doesn't have fond memories of these movies? They beat the hell out of films having to do with history or Spanish; you'd be tested on those. All you had to do when the teacher put on a social guidance film was kick back and laugh at the doofy kid actors starring in vehicles such as It Must Be Love 'Cause I Feel So Dumb and How to Become an Alcoholic (see sidebar). The teachers, meanwhile, got to zone out on a Virginia Slims break.

As goofy as these films may seem, they are part of a cottage industry that is alive and thriving in St. Louis, one that boasts a rich and varied history, and an agenda that's often anything but goofy. Where Hollywood serves up a steady diet of vapid sex and violence, social guidance films are all about instilling piety into today's youth. Or, as some would argue, scaring kids into conformity.

Social guidance films first began production during World War II. With Dad off fighting the Japanese and Mom sewing the nation's overalls, kids had more free time to cause mischief. Educators, in turn, began to see the power of the film medium as a way of encouraging youngsters to stay out of trouble.

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