Program Notes: The Behavior Offensive




Are You Popular?
With the end of World War II, the wars at home began: women were forced to yield their wartime jobs to men; cities stagnated while suburbs blossomed; friends of the Soviet Union turned their backs on communism; and kids got to be kids again. Like their counterparts in other parts of the world, American youth bore the brunt of the nation's wartime social problems. While parents were shipped overseas or worked long hours in defense plants, kids were often left to fend for themselves. Many dropped out of school and took factory jobs. Juvenile crime and delinquency increased dramatically and were publicized as major social problems. Teenagers indulged in considerable sexual self-expression and made headlines for doing so, especially the "Victory Girls" who slept with servicemen. Finally, the young began to believe that nothing mattered, that the future was not worth living for.

During the war, professional observers -- sociologists, educators, psychologists, criminologists, and the anthropologist Margaret Mead -- closely monitored America's families and youth. Books and journals of the period were filled with musings, plans, and recommendations. Many people were anxious to avoid the kind of social disintegration that World War I was said to have created -- a twenties-type "lost generation" of hedonistic, sexually expressive, alcoholic nihilists. So a nationwide behavior offensive was mounted aimed at restoring family values through education and training. Between 1945 and 1960, hundreds of films about family dynamics, social guidance, etiquette and manners, behavior, and child and adolescent development were produced for the educational market. The films on this disc, selected from over 200 of the genre held in the Prelinger Archives, express both the substance and flavor of this social crusade.

Although the authorities behind these films sought to make the nation a better place for children, there were limits to their vision. Required to produce product that would not offend educators or parents in any state, they constructed an all-Caucasian world where women and men were continually learning their appropriate position in society. And though some families in the films seem to be working class, the setting, values, and aspirations are almost universally suburban middle or upper-middle class. Nor were the fearful fifties as quiet as these films make them out to be. So while the movies appear to offer fascinating evidence about how Americans lived in the nation's recent past, it is helpful to remember that ephemeral films cannot really be called documentaries: they depict a world that never really existed, a vision of what their makers saw, or wanted to see.

However dated, reactionary, and even ridiculous these films may seem today, they were often motivated by idealism. The end of World War II climaxed a long period of social stresses in the United States: the massive familial and personal disruptions caused by the war had been preceded by twelve years of economic depression, which were themselves preceded by the turbulent twenties, a time of economic boom for relatively few people. Perhaps some of the films' extremes can be understood in the context of a single great and not-so-hidden fear: that the American family had become obsolete, a relic.

Although Are You Popular? stands among the funnier artifacts of the postwar era, it portrays a world in which few of us could survive. No room is made for unconventional or unusual behavior. Ruthless cliques govern lunchrooms, extracurricular activities, and social gatherings. Girls, portrayed as either princesses or sluts, "repay" boys who have entertained them with milk and cookies, and are complimented on their observance of social graces. "Look at you, all ready and right on time too. That's a good deal," Wally says to Caroline. Even Caroline's friendly parents seem condemned to a life sentence of introductions and evening newspapers.

Despite its engaging, almost "interactive" title, which recalls other educational films like Are You a Good Citizen?, Am I Trustworthy?, and Are You Ready for Marriage?, Are You Popular? is about much more than the title suggests. In just ten minutes, this little film touches on sexual mores, the limits of appropriate female behavior, cliques and in-groups (the Heathers syndrome), telephone and date etiquette for girls and boys, kinship and the distribution of power within the family, the evils of going steady, and the importance of good physical hygiene. It also offers subtle hints on sucking up to parents and presents many well-crafted vignettes on daily life in middle-class suburbia.

Like many utopias, Are You Popular? is only sketched in and is not constructed with much depth; it has all the subtlety and detail of a textbook illustration. One might call it low-budget, or perhaps low-resolution, realism. The film takes place neither in schools nor in houses, but on a set in the Coronet studios located on the Glenview, Illinois, estate of company head David A. Smart. The backgrounds are kept simple, in order not to detract from the narrative; the actors are neither too attractive nor too ungainly, to encourage all audience members to identify with them. Another subtle touch of realism: Caroline and her mother are, in fact, a real mother and daughter.

Are You Popular? was an early Coronet dramatic production. Despite the characteristic Coronet flatness and simplicity, it became a budget fiasco, largely because it was shot over a long period. No subsequent Coronet production took so long to shoot.

Are You Popular?, though only ten minutes long, told a complete story with beginning, middle, and end. From the outset, Coronet made these short narratives much more frequently than other producers, enlivening such banal subjects as how to make change for a dollar, how to write better business letters, and how to use tools safely. This film was so successful that it was remade with almost exactly the same script in 1957. Educational Screen (May 1948) wrote of it: "A subtle and skillfully-arranged presentation of many details which, taken together, go a long way in determining a person's popularity, this film should be invaluable for stimulating discussion, as well as for presenting information. It could well be used with student groups on the junior and senior high school levels and with parent groups as a basis for discussion programs of several types. Both Caroline and Wally present excellent examples of good grooming, good posture, interest in and consideration for others, good manners both in public and in the privacy of their homes, regard for their parents, well-modulated voices, promptness, and foresight in making arrangements. The cast is well chosen, and the photography and sound are good."

Produced by Coronet Instructional Films, 1947. 11 minutes, 16mm. Originally shot in Kodachrome; released both in Kodachrome and black-and-white. Director: Ted Peshak. Cinematography: Bill Rockar. Written by Robert Chapin and Patricia Kealy. Editor: George Wilbern. Educational adviser: Dr. Alice Sowers, Director, Family Life Institute of the University of Oklahoma. With Marilyn Fisher (Caroline Ames); Bill Fein (Larry); Bunny Catcher (Ellie); Lester Podewell (Mr. Ames); Marilyn Fisher's mother (Mrs. Ames); and Shaya Nash (Ginny). Registered for copyright August 29, 1947. Remade in 1957 with similar script and new cast.

You and Your Friends
"Here we are at a nice, friendly party. Watch carefully everything the people at this party do and say, then ask yourself, 'Would I rate them plus or minus as friends?' Ready? Here we go!"

Unusual for its quality and Hollywood-like production values, which can in part be attributed to the skill of cinematographer Don Malkames, You and Your Friends is also notable as an early "interactive" film. Like the other Art of Living titles and the many films that followed in its path, including Centron's Discussion Problems in Group Living series, this film pauses at key points and poses questions to the audience. You and Your Friends follows a do's and don'ts, "Goofus and Gallant" approach, as do most of the films on this disc -- but with one big difference. Here there is no right or wrong: "None of these youngsters will do the right thing or the wrong every time. It'll be up to you to decide." Yet it would take a pretty dumb kid to miss the point. The right path­wrong path strategy is common to many films designed to influence and/or control behavior. By feigning to present a variety of views, it downplays the seriousness of the conditioning and can also get by on the entertainment value of showing what is obviously poor behavior. Although the strategy goes back centuries -- and perhaps stems from the teachings of the Bible -- its efficacy is questionable. Most readers of Highlights for Children, for example, have probably found the transgressive Goofus a far more compelling figure than the tediously boring Gallant. Today, when early educational films are shown, audiences universally identify with the bad child.

Viewed alongside contemporary educational media, You and Your Friends continues to look quite modern. Like today's discussion-oriented "values clarification" videos, the movie takes place entirely within an adolescent world. Both good and bad behavior are shown, and audiences are asked to discuss them. At a party, kids run the show, without adult supervision. And though adult authority is present in the voice of the narrator and in the title cards, no one prescribes what the kids should think -- unlike other social guidance films of the time, which often listed a "few simple rules." The focus on self-direction rather than rules is important because it indicates that an autonomous youth culture was on the rise (see Shy Guy).

This early social guidance film was part of the Art of Living series sponsored by Look magazine and distributed by Association Films, the motion-picture distribution arm of the YMCA/YWCA. Association Films was itself an offshoot of Association Press, which published numerous books relating to adolescent guidance, including Evelyn M. Duvall's influential guide, Facts of Life and Love (1950), parts of which are included on this disc. Other Art of Living titles included You and Your Attitudes (1948) and You and Your Family (1946).

From the Art of Living series. Presented by Association Films (Motion Picture Bureau, National Council of YMCAs) and the editors of Look magazine. Produced by B.K. Blake Inc., 1946, 8 minutes, 16mm. Director: George Blake. Script: A. R. Perkins. Camera: Don Malkames, A.S.C. Editor: Leonard Anderson. Narrator: Don Goddard.

Shy Guy
If the "shy guy" were living in the nineties, he would be a hero. But hackers, geeks, and bad girls were not popular in 1947 and this movie is all about "fitting in."

Phil, played by Dick York, who was later to become famous as Darrin in the television program Bewitched, is the son of an apparently single father who seems recently to have undergone corporate relocation. Things are not the same here as they were "back in Morristown," and Phil is having trouble fitting in: the kids in the new town are "different"; they wear different clothes ("not jackets like me, but a regular sweater"). Armed only with confusing advice from his father, Phil must change his behavior and make a new home for himself. This is the same kind of moving-is-tough-on-teenagers story that kicked off the television series Beverly Hills 90210 and others like it.

Since social guidance films, especially if they are produced by Coronet, must generally resolve problems before the end credits, Phil becomes the toast of the classroom inside of fifteen minutes: he finds that the "gang" is eager to use his "combination record player and radio transmitter" at the next dance.

Educational film authority Ken Smith points out that Shy Guy indicates a kind of turning point in postwar history. When Mr. Norton advises Phil to "look around him" and see what the other kids are wearing and how they behave, he is conceding parental authority to the "gang" and, ultimately, is helping to legitimize a distinct youth culture built on the principles of group identity and validation rather than the authority of elders. The roots of this youth culture probably stretch back to the wartime autonomy of teens, but as early as 1947 adults were okaying it. The rise of an autonomous youth culture is, of course, one of the key social currents of postwar America and can be traced through the turbulent sixties and seventies.

In October 1947 Educational Screen wrote of Shy Guy: "The film does an excellent job of 'holding the mirror up to youth'; it avoids, in a highly commendable fashion, the effect of being staged."

Coronet Instructional Films, founded in 1939 and now part of Paramount Communications' Simon & Schuster subsidiary, was one of the leading producers and distributors of educational films, selling one million prints of their productions by 1973. Many of the most interesting social guidance films were made at their Glenview, Illinois, studios, frequently with nonprofessional actors who were chosen to provide realistic role models for American children. Dick York, however, was a professional who appeared in over 150 educational, industrial, military, and advertising films, including Combat Fatigue: Insomnia, A Brighter Day in Your Kitchen, How to Read a Book, and The Last Date. In addition to Bewitched, he acted in movies and on Broadway. He lived in Rockford, Michigan, until his death in 1992.

Produced by Coronet Instructional Films, 1947. 14 minutes, 16mm. Originally shot in Kodachrome; released both in Kodachrome and black-and-white. Registered for copyright May 20, 1947. Director: Ted Peshak. Cinematography: Bill Rockar. Writers: Patricia Kealy, Dick Creyke. Editor: George Wilbern. Narrator: Myron L. Wallachinsky (a.k.a. Mike Wallace). Educational advisor: Dr. Alice Sowers, Director, Family Life Institute of the University of Oklahoma. With Dick York (Phil Norton); Franklyn Ferguson (Mr. Norton); Arthur Young (Chick Gallagher); Mickey Hugh (Bob); Bill Fein (Beezy Barnes) and Howard Phillips (Jack Gilbert).

A Date With Your Family
This suburban horror story goes further than all other social guidance films, advising kids to do whatever is necessary -- even lie -- to achieve harmonious family relations. The odd title reveals the film's odd thesis: teenagers should treat a family dinner as if it were a date with someone they really wanted to be with. "These boys greet their Dad as though they were genuinely glad to see him," the voice of authority tells us, "as though they really missed being away from him." And in a world where "the women of the family feel they owe it to the men of the family to look relaxed," there seems to be little reason for "Daughter" to study as hard as "Son" before dinner. "Pleasant, unemotional conversation helps the digestion." Words to live by.

Simmel-Meservey produced a number of films on courtesy, etiquette, and behavior (Let's Give a Tea, Junior Prom, Dinner Party, Obligations, Introductions, and others). All employ an authoritative narrator, though one who is not above trying to crack a wry joke now and then, yet none let the actors speak for themselves. The voice of authority is never challenged. More than other companies' productions, those of Simmel-Meservey play on fear and guilt. A Date with Your Family, which was picked up for distribution by the industry giant Encyclopaedia Britannica Films, was one of their most successful releases.

An early review authored by classroom teachers criticized this film, which appears to have been shot in affluent West Los Angeles, for showing an upper-class family to which many students might not be able to relate. Indeed, A Date with Your Family is so contrived, so controlled and limiting, that it is hard to imagine living, breathing, thinking people producing it. To prove the film was not just a bad dream but an actual event, a few outtakes have been included. Not used in the final version of the film, they show actors rehearsing, trying to get things right.

Produced by Simmel-Meservey (Los Angeles), 1950, 10 minutes, 16mm. Distributed by Simmel-Meservey and Encyclopedia Britannica Films. Originally shot in Kodachrome; released both in Kodachrome and black-and-white. Director: Edward C. Simmel. Cinematography: Harry F. Burrell. Script: Arthur V. Jones. Editor: Miriam Bucher. With Ralph Hodges ("Son").

Habit Patterns
This film, yet another in the Goofus and Gallant vein, compares two teenage girls: Helen, the model citizen in every respect, with Barbara, the slob.

Produced by a New York City­based company, Habit Patterns feels quite different from the Centron, Coronet, and Britannica films of the time. Like such films as Toward Emotional Maturity (also on this disc) and Social Class in America -- - but very much unlike the Coronets and Centrons -- it is set in an upper- or upper-middle-class milieu far from the lives of most American youth. The girls live in large houses, probably in Westchester County, New York, or northern New Jersey, and discuss their summer plans to visit decidedly high-toned places. Barbara's sloppy appearance and social ungainliness mark her as an outcast, someone who simply does not belong -- not merely among the rest of the girls but in "Society" with a capital "S." The narrator underscores this point, informing us that we meet people all the time and they will always talk about us. Yet even as class issues are clearly demarcated, they are never named.

Habit Patterns is crueler than the Coronets but, given teenagers' propensity to be nasty to outsiders, it may be more authentic. The film is also a good deal truer to life, in that Barbara's behavior problems are not neatly resolved in the film's short fifteen minutes. Indeed, the relentless female narrator advises her to sleep well in preparation for tomorrow. Let's hope Barbara's new resolve gets her another invitation to tea.

Produced by Knickerbocker Productions (New York City) for McGraw-Hill Films, 1954, 15 minutes, 16mm. From the Psychology for Living series. "Correlated with Psychology for Living by Sorenson & Malm."

The Benefits of Looking Ahead
"Who are the people most likely to succeed?" asks the narrator of The Benefits of Looking Ahead. Certainly not Nick Baxter. Nick is a senior in high school and a slacker in the making. Whether building a table in shop class or planning his future, Nick is clueless. Unless he gets his act together, the film would have us believe, he is destined to be a bum.

Let's assume for a moment that Nick is a real person. This 1950 film shows him at seventeen or eighteen, which means he was born in 1932 or 1933, the two hardest years of the Great Depression. He is one of the left-behinds, those Depression-era children who did not get to fight in the war. He is a sort of middle child, caught between two generations -- those who lived through the Depression and those who went to war. Is it any wonder, then, that for Nick reality bites? Of course, it is also possible that Nick simply does not understand what it takes to be successful in the fabulous fifties. As Don, another character in the film, tells him: "To succeed in something, you have to have a purpose, and make plans for reaching it, and work at it all the time." Nick's response: "Sounds crazy to me." Nick's friends have gotten the message, and even Nick can see that their futures are pretty much assured. When Don blithely tells him that he is "least likely to succeed," Nick too understands: "That could be me . . . nothing but a bum."

In the school shop Nick finds a fitting metaphor for all his unfinished business: realizing that a plan is necessary to build a table that can stand on its four legs, he decides to make a plan for his life. "Plans, sketches, measurements -- that's what I have to do with my own future. I've got to look ahead and imagine . . . what I want it to be like." Soon he is back on course; he even imagines telling his father that he has been elected chairman of the Community Club. "Yes, I want a future that's something like that," he says. "I want to be happy. Be somebody. Have a good job. Friends. A home. A wife and kids. But how do I get there? If that's my purpose, how do I reach it. How? A detailed plan. How to achieve my purpose. And I'd better be getting at it right now." Although Nick lacks a detailed plan, he already has something much more important: the sense of middle-class entitlement peculiar to the postwar period. The world, he seems to feel, was designed to help him achieve his goals. It is not clear that Nick -- or even Don -- would feel the same in the 1990s.

Above all, The Benefits of Looking Ahead is representative of the culture of vocational guidance that spawned thousands of books, films, and training aids, all of which used visual means to express abstract ideas like "how to plan ahead" or "how to avoid vocational dead ends." But whether the mode is a cartoon outlining the steps to success or a film portraying an adolescent at work in a carpentry shop, the prejudices and assumptions underlying this vocational guidance culture have barely been explored and await the attention of historians.

Produced by Coronet Instructional Films, 1950, 10 minutes, 16mm. Director: Ted Peshak. Cameraman: Dale Sharkey. Writers: George Tychsen and a man by the name of "Peters." Editor: Dick Kirschner. Educational collaborator: Harl R. Douglass, Ph.D., Director, College of Education, The University of Colorado.

Toward Emotional Maturity
"The last big dance of the year is over," the narrator of Toward Emotional Maturity tells us. "It's a lovely warm spring night, the air is so soft, and Hank is such a nice guy." Sally and Hank are out for a drive. Evidently, Hank wants to take the back road, but Sally is not ready to decide just yet.

This film is set in exactly the same affluent milieu as that of Habit Patterns. Indeed, Barbara, the girl with the bad habits in that film, sits in Sally's psych class. The narrator of both films is also the same, although here she expresses herself more delicately, even as the suppressed emotions in Toward Emotional Maturity are finally far more vicious than Habit's chorus of nasty gossips.

The film's action is framed by a sexual conflict: Sally and Hank's negotiation whether to pet or not to pet, which is dramatized by the intersection of a lighted road with a dark country lane. Sally does not feel ready for uncontrollable emotions and Hank, nice guy that he is, lets her be the boss. The unruly, hateful mob, a ubiquitous theme of fifties literature about the youth culture, is also evoked: kids are shown in silhouette dancing before a bonfire, as if they were members of the Ku Klux Klan; a rumor circulates about a teacher, whose house is then stoned by a roving band of adolescents.

Dark forces are at work here: as Sally is fencing with a friend, her emotions get carried away and she strikes as if to attack; nauseated by her actions, she has to leave the gym. Her primal fear of snakes causes her to overturn her desk at school. This kind of material made its way into countless Hollywood J.D. motion pictures of the time but rarely appeared in sugarcoated educational films.

Produced by Knickerbocker Productions (New York City) for McGraw-Hill Films, 1954. 10 minutes, 16mm. From the Psychology for Living series. "Correlated with Psychology for Living by Sorenson & Malm."

What About Prejudice?
What About Prejudice? was part of the Discussion Problems in Group Living series sponsored by Young America Productions. Among the other titles in the series were What About Drinking? (1954), The Griper (1954), What About Juvenile Delinquency? (1955) and What About School Spirit? (1958). This film, however, marked a real departure for Centron Films, the producer of the series. Centron was located in Lawrence, Kansas, famed for abolitionist John Brown and a mere twenty-two miles from Topeka, where, in 1954, the Supreme Court first ruled segregation of public schools unconstitutional. By 1959, local conflict over integration, most notably President Eisenhower's battle with Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus in Little Rock, had been played on television news before national audiences.

The placid surface and relatively trivial concerns of most postwar social guidance films belie the intense conflicts of the period. It is almost impossible to find educational films that contain any serious consideration of or debate about such issues as labor unions, communism, civil rights, or nuclear proliferation. The large educational film distributors, unwilling to produce titles offensive to the conservative sensibilities of some regions of the country, considered these subjects taboo. But in 1959 Centron released What About Prejudice?, one of the first films for teenagers to take a point of view, however vague, on a controversial issue.

"This is the story of Bruce Jones," the narration begins, "who walked in a shadow of hate and suspicion. The shadow of what he was because of his background, over which he had no control." Bruce Jones represents the Other. His face is never shown -- only his feet -- so we cannot know whether he is of a different race, social class, or nationality. Bruce always seems to be getting into trouble. First there is a fight between him and another boy, whose nose is bloodied, then there is an incident involving a missing sweater. Bruce cannot speak for himself; all we know of him and of the incidents in which he is implicated is what we hear from a nasty clique of well-dressed, white bobbysoxers.

Finally, at great personal cost, Bruce redeems himself in the eyes of his enemies. The truth about the fight, about the sweater begins to emerge. "The thing is," one student admits, "it wasn't Bruce at all. I was the one." With Bruce's future hanging in the balance, the other students confront their prejudices and come to appreciate the wrongness of "neatly fitting people into categories because of where they go to church, what their fathers do, or what the color of their skin is. You hear about other people's prejudice, but you never feel guilty until you realize it's you -- you're the one that's prejudiced." Yet Bruce pays dearly for acceptance by the group. It is as if the victim of hatred is sacrificed so the haters can learn not to hate anymore -- an uncomfortable, Christ-like fate for Bruce.

What About Prejudice? does not exactly represent the victory of the enlightened mind over prejudice or racism; rather, the film expresses, with great discomfort, the limits and contradictions of its time. It demarcates the division between the attitudes of the repressed fifties and those of the turbulent sixties, and points the way toward a new kind of social guidance film, one that leaves behind questions of popularity and school spirit and takes up instead urgent, divisive social problems.

Centron shot its social guidance films in and around Lawrence, using nonprofessional actors from the nearby University of Kansas and elsewhere. Its films collectively form an unusually interesting record of the "look and feel" of Lawrence and the surrounding area throughout the postwar years. While Centron, like other producers, avoided explicit regional references in most of its films, it also made no attempt to homogenize the distinctive speech and mannerisms of its prairie-reared talent and, perhaps without intending to do so, made movies that have real ethnographic and documentary value in addition to their declared purpose of social guidance.

Produced by Centron Productions (Lawrence, Kansas), 1959, 12 minutes, 16mm. A Young America Production presented by McGraw-Hill Book Company. Copyrighted April 9, 1959.

including, as collateral materials:

As the Twig Is Bent
As the Twig Is Bent dramatizes the wartime problem of "youth in crisis," and in so doing provides the missing link that explains the origins of the postwar behavior offensive.

10 minutes, 16mm. Produced by an unknown producer for Aetna Insurance Companies. Registered for copyright December 15, 1943.

(c) 1994 Rick Prelinger

Written 1994; revised slightly February 18, 2001