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August 29th, 2000

Mental Hygiene: Sex, Drugs, and Driver Safety

Recently I began reading an outstanding book about a forgotten era of American cinema, Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films, 1945-1970 by Ken Smith. So-called “mental hygiene” films were born indirectly from Nazi propaganda films when the originators of the genre realized how powerful of a mind-melding medium movies could be.

Like their Nazi counterparts, mental hygiene films attempted to shape young minds and convince them that what they were seeing on screen was an accurate replication of real life. Unlike the Nazi films, though, mental hygiene films generally had good intentions. Most mental hygiene films dealt with one of four topics: sex/dating, drugs, health/hygiene, and driver safety.

The sex and dating films were usually among the most entertaining, as they featured near-perfect teens demonstrating how to be attractive to the opposite sex. Paradoxically, while they instructed women that they shouldn’t be “loose,” they encouraged young men to not limit themselves to a single girl. According to Ken Smith’s book, some the better dating titles are “Dating Do’s and Don’ts,” “Are You Popular?,” “Junior Prom,” and “What to Do on a Date.” A famous actor that got his start in dating films: Bewitched‘s Dick York.

The drug films used a lot of scare tactics and poorly constructed logic to convince kids to avoid the dangers of marijuana and such. In these movies, even one toke of a joint can send an unsuspecting teen into a world of weird hallucinations and spiral his social life out of control. Recommended films: “Don’t Smoke Pot,” “H: The Story of a Teen-Age Drug Addict,” “Keep Off the Grass,” and “Narcotics: Pit of Despair.” Famous person that used to tell kids that there’s “no hope in dope”: Sonny Bono (against a psychedelic backdrop, no less).

The sex/health films were the ones teachers showed in split classrooms — you know, guys, when they took the girls into a separate room to watch, um, girl movies. These movies had everything from crude drawings to Wonder Years-like gym teachers to show children what sex was like. From the looks of it, these films left a little too much to the imagination. Among the better titles: “The Innocent Party” and “Summer of ’63.”

Lastly are the infamous “bloody highway” driver safety films. The makers of these films often used real footage from car wrecks on state highways to hammer the point home to viewers. Unfortunately, most of these films blamed irresponsible teenaged drivers for most of the wrecks in the country without bothering to mention the extremely unsafe nature of cars in the middle part of the centry (Ralph Nader was right when he said “unsafe at any speed”). Among the most well-known films are “Last Prom,” “Mechanized Death,” and the bizzare “Tomorrow’s Drivers” which used kindergartners in mini-cars in a mini-town to teach driver safety.

Ken Smith’s book is a fascinating read, as he doesn’t approach these films from a “so cheesy they’re good” standpoint (though, often, they are), but rather as a sociological look at the directors who made these films, the schools who bought these films, and the kids that were forced to watch these films for over twenty years. The first half of the book covers the history of mental hygiene films, the genres, and the studios that cranked them out. The second half is packed with capsule reviews of dozens of mental hygiene films, complete with pictures and dialogue samples. The one I most want to see after reading the reviews: “Boys Beware,” where the narrator warns about a man named Ralph: “What [the boy] Jimmy didn’t know was that Ralph was sick. A sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious. You see, Ralph was a homosexual.”

While I don’t remember any of these specific films (I think they stopped showing them by the time I was in school), I do remember some similar films shot in the 1980’s (sometimes as made-for-TV movies or “Afterschool Specials”). The one that sticks out most in my mind was one we saw at least twice in health class starred Scott Baio as a diver got into trouble drinking and driving. It’s a pretty obscure film (it isn’t listed in the IMDB) titled All the Kids Do It. You can read a bit about it here.

If you’re interested in obtaining mental hygiene films, you should know that more were destroyed or thrown out than remain, but a good number are still in existence. Bizarre Videos has a two-hour tape with some good Sid Davis films, there’s one available from the publisher of the book, and you can get a good selection from, although I’ve been waiting almost a month for the two tapes I ordered from them. -ram

Posted in Television, Movies, and Music

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