They Lost It at the Movies

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

Smith was so intrigued that he eventually went to work for the owner of these films, Rick Prelinger, in his archives. This experience solidified Smith's status as an authority on social guidance films, and gave him the material for his 1999 book Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970. The book, which features good old Don and Betty on the cover, introduces the term "mental hygiene." "Mental hygiene films are ones that scrubbed your brain clean," Smith explains. "The kind that wash away all those bad thoughts, all those rebellious thoughts. Makes you a good obedient member of society."

Often, the titles tell the whole story: The Prom: It's a Pleasure!, My Daddy Is Seventeen, Are Manners Important?, Exchanging Greetings and Introductions, Too Young to Burn, The Story of Menstruation, Soapy the Germ Fighter, The Show-Off, More Dates for Kay, Posture and Personality, The Other Fellow's Feelings and Keep Off the Grass.

These films preached the idea that those kids who upset the status quo would end up unhappy or, in some cases, dead. Also important was understanding your "place" in society, Smith says, citing Social Class in America, from 1957, as a prime example: "It's about how if you're rich, you run things. If you're middle-class and you work really hard, then you can hang out with rich people. If you're poor, just get a job."

Third graders at Uthoff Valley Elementary School watch Count Floyd get educated about fire safety
Charlotte O'Donnell
Third graders at Uthoff Valley Elementary School watch Count Floyd get educated about fire safety

Even though the bob haircuts and poodle skirts are gone, the idea of shutting up and fitting in still dominates the agendas of today's guidance films. Phoenix's Heartland USA, filmed in Wentzville in 1997, stars high schooler Anne and her adopted Korean brother, Lee. Anne is a dancer, Lee is a football player, and their family has recently moved from Pennsylvania to Missouri. Starting a new school is hard, but Anne faces the challenge head-on.

"I always thought of myself as a leader, not a follower," she tells the camera. "But the first thing I did when I got here was look around and see how the other kids were dressed."

"Sports are good. Especially football," adds Lee.

Heartland USA is not intended to indoctrinate American children so much as it is intended to indoctrinate kids in countries like Japan, Germany and Norway, who are shown the film in English classes as an example of what life is like for typical American children.

And that life? A consumerist paradise. Lee's favorite place to hang out is the mall, and Dierbergs blows his mind: "In a store this size, you can get just about anything you want. They have a butcher shop, bakery, salad bar and deli, video store, pharmacy and a small bank."

Smith calls the film "social engineering at its finest. I've spent some time in Asia, and I know they love our culture of stuff. They don't love our politics -- but they want our stuff. It's pretty easy to show stuff; it's harder to get across ideas of liberty and democracy."

In the world of social guidance films you have happy, capitalist drones, but you also have raping, pillaging boys. In Girls Beware, from 1961, a police officer tell stories of "careless" girls who are killed, impregnated and gang-raped.

And guess what? Forty years later, not much has changed. The Phoenix film Red Light, Green Light -- also filmed in Wentzville -- features Craig, a typical Missouri boy who carries his books in a bag that hangs down to his knees and who loves playing video games. Unfortunately he doesn't know the difference between "red-light people" and "green-light people," so when a sketchy pervert in an SUV tells him he has "every video game ever made," Craig almost gets in. Lucky for him classmates Jamie and Whitney are around, and alert. They scream at him to get away from the car and the discovered pervert drives off.

Later Jamie recalls another close call with a red-light person, a woman.

"A woman?" Craig asks incredulously. "I thought it was only men who did bad things!"

"She said she wanted me to help her find her dog in the woods," Jamie reports. "I kept my distance from her, but when she kept moving towards me I got scared and screamed, 'No!' and ran as fast as I could to the library."

The dystopian paranoia of these films doesn't reflect a kid's reality, Smith says, but adult society. The end result is the "creation of a culture of fear."

A big part of this culture of fear is the demonization of drugs and drug users. Ever seen that film about young Sally, a churchgoer and volunteer at the local homeless shelter, stricken with glaucoma at a young age who, to ease her pain, smokes a fat blunt every night while she crochets? Of course not. That's because kids in guidance videos who try drugs inevitably tumble down a fiery garbage chute of despair, their brains frying like an egg in a "Just Say No" commercial.

"We pretty much try to tell you that drugs are bad no matter what," affirms Kathy Longsworth, vice president of market development for Phoenix.

Yet Smith contends that these morally monolithic films don't work. "They make drugs seem scary for sure, but then at some point you try pot and you say, 'Hey, this isn't so bad.' The only way it works is if you never try pot, which I guess is what they want. It's a really false world. Kids are smart. They talk to other kids; they're not living in a bubble. You can't treat a kid like a robot."

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