They Lost It at the Movies

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

Oct 1, 2003 at 4:00 am
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?

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.

You and Your Family, perhaps the first social guidance film, was originally shown to New York City teenagers in February of 1946. Teenage daughter Mary has been invited to a dance, but Mom and Dad think she's too young to go. Mary throws a tantrum at first, but in the end comes up with an alternative plan. "Why couldn't I have the gang over here tomorrow night? We could all play the radio and dance and make sandwiches!"

"Hey! That'd be swell!" cries brother Bill.

The concept of educating kids through film picked up steam. In some respects, the rise of social guidance films through the '50s was an effort to combat flicks such as Rebel Without A Cause and The Wild Ones, which offered a more ambiguous take on teen rebellion.

The industry, such as it was, was centered in the Chicago area, where most of the big textbook companies, like Coronet and Encyclopedia Britannica, were based. The biz is still based in the Midwest, partly because Hollywood stars don't want anything to do with these low-paying films. (Actually, the producers of social guidance films don't want recognizable actors anyway, because kids don't consider them peers. The biggest "star" to ever appear regularly in guidance films was Dick York, who later played Darrin Stephens on Bewitched.)

St. Louis is a major industry hub, and the biggest player in town, by far, is Phoenix Learning Group, Inc., which relocated from New York City a decade ago, swallowed up Coronet and now controls more than 6,000 educational titles. Phoenix vice president and controller William Copeland will not get too specific about the company's annual revenues, placing them in the "low millions." Phoenix titles go for about a hundred dollars a pop, which includes public performance rights for schools. One thousand copies sold of a title is a big hit, but because an individual copy may be viewed by tens of thousands of children, the influence of Phoenix films can't be measured in profits. The company sends films to schools all over the world, from the Bible Belt to the Middle East; though its best-selling films may never outsell Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, their influence has surely been greater.

Phoenix does produce a small portion of its own films, but the movies are made off-site. Its headquarters -- a nondescript, brown brick building off Page in Maryland Heights -- looks more like a business office than a film studio. Avatar Studios in St. Louis, on the other hand, is a little piece of hoosier Hollywood. A full-service film and video studio, among other things it does production work on social guidance films and makes in-house training videos for Anheuser-Busch employees -- think salesmen and truck drivers. Avatar's office, just off Jefferson and Highway 40, is like Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory for sound and video engineers. The walls are wild pinks and greens, and the facilities include a music library with thousands of licensed music CDs, seven video-editing suites, two audio-editing suites, and a full-size soundstage capable of multicamera live television feeds, recently used by Dick Gephardt for an appearance on Fox News.

Still, Avatar president and co-founder Bill Faris talks a lot more like an engineer than a Hollywood mogul. The John Ritter lookalike favors collared shirts, blue jeans and black loafers and is full of starchy quotes ("Our portion of the process is, really, the technical side"). But he has clearly found a way to accessorize Avatar with some Tinseltown decadence. The lobby boasts pinball and popcorn machines and three satellite-fed TVs. It doesn't hurt that his company is pulling in $4 million per year since its inception in 1999.

Avatar doesn't make many educational films from start to finish. Instead, they touch up old ones for new generations. An older film about American natural wonders, for instance, featured New Hampshire's "Old Man of the Mountain" rock formation. Last year, though, the Old Man collapsed. So Avatar removed the old audio track, recorded a new track bearing the bad news, and stuck it back in there.

Ken Smith watched hundreds and hundreds of social guidance films in the '90s. Working for the Comedy Channel, he was assigned the dubious task of spinning the dross of social guidance films into comic gold. But then a funny thing happened: He started to see their deeper meaning.

Smith, who's now 45, already had a long-standing fascination with these films. He saw them in elementary school, but by the time he entered high school a new wave of hippy-dippy guidance films had come into vogue. One, Feather, was particularly arresting.

"It was just shots of a feather floating along on the wind, with light music playing in the background. You were supposed to just watch the film and think about something. I was like, 'What does that mean?'" Smith says. He preferred the earnestness of social guidance films. His gig at the Comedy Channel allowed him to renew his fascination with the genre.

"It didn't take long before I realized there was a lot more going on than bad haircuts and really bad acting," Smith recalls enthusiastically, from his home in New Jersey. "It was obvious that they were well-intentioned, they weren't made to make us laugh. The people who made them obviously weren't stupid, so that intrigued me, got me interested in the whole field."

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."

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."

Michael Apple, John Bascom Professor of Education at the University of Wisconsin, agrees. "Kids have a huge amount of information about this stuff already," Apple observes. "For example, many kids that smoke pot are acing their SATs. So you have to connect this stuff with better videos and better discussions."

Apple objects not just to the message, but in many cases, to the style. The earliest mental-hygiene filmmakers were nervous about emulating Hollywood in style. "They didn't want to be too much like Hollywood, because Hollywood was part of the problem. Hollywood was bad!" Smith notes. But starting in the '50s, directors such as Art Wolf (The Bully, The Outsider and Gossip) began to ape the Hollywood formula that reigns today: more drama, less nuance.

"We live in a culture that sponsors the notion that if it's not entertaining, it's not important, and where surface counts more than depth," Apple says. "'Give it to me fast, make it seem like TV, I don't want to spend a lot of time understanding the subject in detail.'

"The anti-drinking videos -- that show the actual bodies after an accident where underage kids have been drinking and partying -- can be extremely powerful to kids," Apple continues. "But unless it's followed up with serious discussion, it can become like one more horror movie."

Kapree Graves, guidance counselor at Adams Elementary School in south St. Louis, counters that the flashy style is often necessary in order for many kids to learn.

"Videos capture their attention, and that's what you want. Because if you don't get their attention, nine times out of ten they're not going to get the main idea. You have to capture their attention with some animated colorful video, because they won't get it from a book, or if you're just sitting there talking about it."

But, Graves says, the end of the tape shouldn't be the end of the story. "An issue may be glossed over if a teacher just leaves a video on to teach -- you can't do that. I show it, and then we discuss it, so if there is anything that was glossed over, hopefully it'll come back up in our discussion." She says most teachers make sure to follow up films with some discussion.

Betsy Foy, assistant director of student health and counseling at Washington University, believes guidance films can play a useful role in education, alongside live speakers and other resource materials. When she comes across good films, ones that present sound information in a responsible manner, she snatches them up. But she admits they're few and far between.

That's not to say that good social guidance films don't get made. Phoenix's Molly's Pilgrim won an Academy Award in 1985 for best live-action short. The film, about a Russian Jew who comes to the United States to escape persecution, stresses the importance of religious tolerance. Not surprisingly, Phoenix employees seem especially proud of Molly's Pilgrim, perhaps believing it to be proof of the genre's artistic legitimacy.

J. Gary Mitchell didn't set out to become a social guidance filmmaking god. The producer and director of the Sooper Puppy films -- some of Phoenix's top sellers -- moved to Hollywood in the early '60s to be an actor. Although he studied with Leonard Nimoy, he soured on the profession when he "realized that actors don't have any self-determination."

In the back of his mind he hoped to direct, but he didn't get that chance for a few more years, after a chance meeting -- while rock-climbing, of all things -- with a producer who had his own educational film company. The producer hired him for $100 a week and set him up with some equipment. "He gave me a script, a Bolex camera, a tripod and ten rolls of film and said, 'Here. Go make a ten-minute movie,'" Mitchell recalls.

The scripts he received had titles like How to be Good, How to Not Get into Trouble, and Riding Your Bicycle Safely. He found local kids off the street or in schools, filmed them and got their parents to sign waivers. He then turned his footage over to the producer, who added the voice-over narration. The work perfectly suited his desire for self-determination.

By 1969 Mitchell was producing his own films, using cameras borrowed from a friend. But he never saw this work as his ticket back to Hollywood. "I never got to a place where I felt like I had that much important to say," he explains. "I liked educational films, because they're short and sweet. You get an idea, you get it together and if everything goes well, you can have a finished fifteen-minute product ready to send to the marketplace in four months."

With the Sooper Puppy series, Mitchell, now 65, set out to create a character that could be used to educate across a spectrum of issues, from self-esteem to drinking to recycling. Thus was born Baxter, a lovable puppet mutt in a red cape. Sooper Puppy: Flying High deals with what happens when good puppies get mixed up with bad puppies carrying baggies. The film opens with Baxter talking with his grandfather, who tells him he can do anything he wants if he sets his mind to it. Baxter bounces around the neighborhood announcing his desire to fly.

Enter Grizzle, a thug puppy with a black leather-studded collar and orange mohawk. "You wanna fly?" he asks Baxter, holding up a baggie. "I got stuff here that'll make you giggle for a week!" He offers to trade the baggie for a steak or two.

Sooper Puppy runs off to Grandpa, who lectures him: "There's real fun and there's fake fun, and you'd better know the difference. Real fun is when you like yourself enough to realize you can have fun being who you are. Fake fun is when you do risky things like taking drugs."

Mitchell's Sooper Puppy series, now in its third decade, is a classic example of what could be called the "soft sell" method of social guidance filmmaking, one that uses Sesame Street-style characters to discourage drug use. Mitchell says he recognized that in order for kids to listen, he had to speak their language.

A self-described "new-agey left-coaster" who admires Ralph Nader, Mitchell believes that anti-drug films are appropriate for youngsters, so long as they don't use scare tactics and intimidation. Though he confesses to having done some anti-drug spots "for the money," he is careful to stress that he's not just a camera for hire. He recently opted out of making a film about bullying, for instance, citing the U.S. military involvement in Iraq. "We were bullying them," he says. "I didn't want to be hypocritical."

In fact, Mitchell can afford to be choosy, at least in part because his films -- the Sooper Puppy and his What Tadoo child-abuse prevention series in particular -- continue to fly off the shelves. The titles are older than many of the kids watching them.

Others in the industry can't afford to heed such ethical considerations. Scott Betz, a senior editor at Avatar, remembers working on a pro-smoking film for a major tobacco company back in the '80s. The in-house film gave "talking points" for the company's employees at a time when the industry was under fierce assault from anti-smoking advocates. He didn't feel great about working on the film, he says, but wasn't about to risk his job by refusing to do so.

"A group of actors -- and they specifically hired actors who knew how to smoke -- were sitting around a round table, all just puffing away like they've got extra lungs to spare, and one of the actors says, 'You know, they've never actually proven lung cancer was caused by smoking. There was speculation, certainly, but they've never proven it.'"

Betz laughs. "So, the idea was that if you're stopped on the street, you're puffing away, and somebody says, 'You know, that causes lung cancer,' you can say, 'Well, that's never been proven.'"

In contrast to Hollywood, where Jeepers Creepers 2 is at the top of the box office one week and gone from the public consciousness the next, social guidance films have incredibly long, stodgy lives. Because it's cheaper and easier to stick with the old films, they get a kind of de facto syndication on classroom Magnavoxes. The Innocent Party, for instance, makes no mention of condoms, yet it was still being shown decades after it was made.

"If it works, why change it?" author Ken Smith says. "Teaching is a big pain in the ass, so, like any job, if you find something that makes your job a little easier, you stick with it."

Which might be okay if the films in question are made by a "forward-think filmmaker," as Mitchell describes himself. Still, even he finds the trend of using the same films year after year troubling. "Information changes. You always need to update everything," he says.

Most teachers say they are allowed to use whichever films they want to in their classrooms, within reason (no porn). Most in St. Louis get their films from the Cooperating School Districts, an educational consortium that supplies educational films to nearly every school district in the city, and whose catalogue is stocked in part by Phoenix. Teachers also buy films from regular video stores, from mail-order catalogs or from advocacy groups. Generally, they're expensive.

"Nobody can afford to buy new videos every year," says Graves, the guidance counselor at Adams Elementary, who shows anti-drug videos to some of the kids she counsels. "When new things come up, I just check out a video. That way I can have a variety." She rents films from the city's public film library downtown, from the school's library and from anywhere else she can get her hands on them.

Whether the films are worth obtaining at all is doubtful, according to New School professor Elizabeth Ellsworth. In her essay "Educational Films Against Critical Pedagogy," Ellsworth argues that the narrative structure of many guidance films "could be described as that of a son learning at the knee of his father. [The viewer is] positioned optically and narratively at the side of the already knowledgeable, white, male, paternal narrator."

But seriously. Sooper Puppy is not the enemy. The influence of social guidance films pales in comparison to the new media that dominate kids' lives. In a culture so saturated with visual images, where kids are understandably confused about whether The Sims or The Bachelor offers a more authentic version of reality, social guidance films are the least of our problems. In fact, kids don't generally learn their morality from guidance videos anymore, Ken Smith says.

"A lot of guidance young people receive nowadays is through television," Smith says. "It's commercials, it's music videos. That's where kids learn how to dress, the lingo, what's cool. That's what Barney's all about, Sesame Street, after-school specials. It's all been privatized. Think about Nike commercials, or Gatorade commercials. They've got a social message: 'Act this way.'" The way Smith sees it, product placement has essentially entered educational video through the back door via Channel One programming, part of a program that offers free multimedia equipment to schools in exchange for broadcasting its advertisement-heavy content.

In an odd way, Smith feels nostalgic for mental hygiene videos. He recognizes that they were didactic and awkward, of course, even excruciatingly so. But he'll take Don and Betty over the consumerist media hailstorm that kids are bombarded with today. "It's kind of frightening, when you think about it. A lot of it is about consumption, buying things. At least the mental hygiene films weren't about trying to get you buy McDonald's."