MENTAL HYGIENE
by Greg Sorenson

I went to three programs of Mental Hygiene movies over two days. They were hosted by Ken Smith, author of the book Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films, 1945-1970. Some of these made it onto MST3K tapes, others are available on DVD through Fantoma, and nearly all of them are at the Prelinger Archives.

Shy Guy (1947)

Progressive in its day, this one put Glenview, Illinois' Coronet Films on the map. Dick York, looking somewhat like a lanky, nerdy David Boreanaz, is Phil, a new transfer student trying to fit in. After dad gives him some vague advice, Phil uses his interest in building radios as a conversation starter. Mike Wallace narrates. York is good, and the goofy dad, always in a three-piece suit, even when he brings Cokes to the kids in the basement, is a hoot.

Beginning to Date (1953)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, also based in Chicago's northern burbs, had its name to trade on, but turned in this funny mess. George, a tiny fellow, wants to take Mildred, who is at least a head-and-a-half taller, to the Winter Frolic. While discussing his cold feet with his chums, the diving coach overhears and urges George to"take the plunge." So they go to the Winter Frolic, where the children dance to music performed on piano and a lone snare drum -- sort of a proto-White Stripes. The best part is when George and Mildred are walking to the dance, in a medium two-shot. George considers conversation topics, which magically fill the ample space above his wee head -- topics such as Mildred's New Dog and Comic Book. Priceless! Oh, and the diving coach? A young Studs Turkel.

Cheating (1952)

Once given the MST3K treatment. John sits alone in a dark hallway, a nearby clock ticking ominously. He is sitting near a phone, waiting for a call that will decide his fate on the Student Council. through flashbacks we learn that he's been caught cheating on his algebra test. The film is intended to elicit classroom discussion, and so ends with a big question mark. Cheating attempts to throw some creative filmmaking into the works -- noirish, expressionistic shadows, that damn clock. From Centron studios in Kansas. Director Herk Harvey, of Carnival of Souls fame, worked at Centron for years, doing about 400 films.

Cindy Goes to a Party (1955)

Another Centron production, this one less arty and more whacked-out. Tomboyish Cindy is hurt when she hears about a party she's not invited to. But then her fairy godmother appears and gets Cindy all gussied up and into the shindig. There the F.G. dispenses party etiquette tips, which appear in large letters with a wave of her wand. Cindy has a grand time, but it turns out to be a dream! Cindy awakes to find that she does have a party invite after all -- the hostesses older sister (the fairy godmother!) was late in delivering it. All is well.

Live and Learn (1951)

Low-budget wizard Sid Davis was a one-time stand-in for John Wayne. His social guidance and safety films were relentless affairs, full of dire consequences for boys and girls who have it coming. Live and Learn may as well be Chutes and Ladders: The Movie. It's a series of vignettes of Kids Who Should Know Better suffering Horrible Consequences. A young girl (played by Sid's daughter) uses scissors inappropirately and is impaled on them. Kids start fires with gasoline, get their eyes shot out with BB guns, and so on. Definitely an audience favorite.

Molly Grows Up (1953)

Okay, you boys, get to go to the gym and play dodgeball. Now girls, this representative from Modess (TM) has a film to show you, and she can answer any questions you may have. Important thing to note here is that one should only do moderate square dancing while having one's period. Got that? Moderate sqare dancing. The appearance of the napkin belt inspired knowing laughter or bewilderment, depending on the age pockets in the audience.

Make Mine Freedom (1948)

This slick color cartoon, funded by the pro-business Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, features people representing Labor, Management, Farmers, and Politicians quarreling until they meet Dr. Utopia, a snake oil salesman who offers them everything they're looking for in a bottle of "ISM." Fortunately, John Q. Public comes along and warns the would-be dupes to read the fine print. Capitalism wins.


©2004 Greg Sorenson
CineScene