How to Be a Man and How to Be a Woman (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Michelle Kelley
How to Be a Man: Instructions for Proper Male Behavior from Classroom Films of the 1940s–70s
DVD, color and B&W, 183 min. Released by Kino International.
Titles on the disc include:
Fears of Children (International Film Foundation, 1951, B&W, 27 min.)
Am I Trustworthy? (Coronet, 1950, B&W, 10 min.)
Act Your Age (Coronet, 1949, B&W, 12 min.)
The Other Fellow's Feelings (Centron, 1951, B&W, 8 min.)
Your Body During Adolescence (McGraw-Hill, 1954, B&W, 11 min.)
The Show-off (Centron, 1954, B&W, 11 min.)
Planning For Success (Coronet, 1950, B&W, 10 min.)
Moment of Decision (Sid Davis Prods., 1961, Color, 10 min.)
Car Theft (Bray-Mar, 1956, B&W, 14 min.)
Dance Little Children (Centron, 1961, Color, 25 min.)
The Decision Is Yours (Calvin Productions, 1970, Color, 30 min.)
How to Be a Woman: Instructions for Proper Female Behavior from Classroom Films of the 1940s –80s
DVD, color and B&W, 195 min. Released by Kino International.
Titles on the disc include:
You're Growing Up (Bailey Films, 1955, Color, 10 min.)
The Wonders of Reproduction (Moody Institute, 1958, Color, 11 min.)
Let's Make a Sandwich (American Gas Assoc., 1950, Color, 4 min.)
Why Study Home Economics? (Centron, 1955, B&W, 10 min.)
As Others See Us (Social Science Films, 1953, Color, 10 min.)
Growing Girls (Film Producers Guild, 1949, B&W, 12 min.)
Improve Your Personality (Coronet, 1951, B&W, 10 min.)
Pattern for Smartness (Hartley Productions, 1948, Color, 18 min.)
Girls Are Better Than Ever (Douglas Film Ind., 1967, Color, 13 min.)
You're the Judge (Crisco, Circa 1960s, Color, 18 min.)
Worth Waiting For (Brigham Young University, 1962, Color, 27 min.)
Saying No: A Few Words to Young Women About Sex (Crommie & Crommie, 1982, Color, 16 min.)
Attack (Taft Broadcasting, 1966, B&W, 14 min.)
An overhead establishing shot introduces the viewer to the town of Oakdale, accompanied by the warbling notes of stock orchestral music and the calm intonations of the male voice-over narration. A series of pans and fades show us the town. We see nineteenth century row houses regally overlooking tree-lined streets, an older gentleman in a top hat (rather anachronistic for 1961, the year in which the film was released), a school and children playing, as well as a modern housing development of the Levittown variety, comprising identical low-lying houses and adjacent back yards. The image track is slightly scratched, and the color has drained from the images; the voice-over narration sounds a bit muffled. Yet, rather than detract from the film, these imperfections heighten its essentially nostalgic vision. Absent from the idyllic community depicted are the modern vices that will subsequently fill the frame—images of youthful promiscuity, sexually explicit magazine spreads and pulp paperback fiction, and the sounds of rock and roll and revving motors at the drag races. “There are towns like this town of Oakdale all across America,” coos the narrator, “Thousands of communities with decent, hardworking citizens, unconcerned and unworried.” Suddenly, the narrator’s tone changes; unbeknownst to the citizens of Oakdale, disaster awaits. Cut from the modern housing development to a rapid close-up of a newspaper headline: “Cases Here Spotlight Need of Venereal Disease Check.”
This opening sequence of Dance, Little Children (Centron Corporation, 1961)—one of several educational films on How To Be a Man: Instructions for Proper Male Behavior from Classroom Films of the 1940s-70s, the first volume of Kino International’s two-disc series of films from the A/V Geeks Film Library—establishes the stark dichotomy of utopia and dystopia that film scholar Donald Crafton has argued is characteristic of the sponsored film in mid-twentieth century. Dance, like other educational and sponsored films of the era, depicts an idyllic, vaguely nineteenth-century world, defined by traditional American values such as republican virtue and rugged individualism, that almost immediately gives way to a modern, vice-ridden dystopia. The Cold War educational film is often deeply nostalgic— it imagines a mythic past that once was and could perhaps be again (given proper audio-visual instruction) but is not now. As Crafton notes, in the world of the sponsored film, “we are still on this side of paradise,” for if the utopia depicted was actually achieved, there would be no need for the educational film to address society’s perceived social ills.1
Viewing post-World War II educational films like the ones included on How to Be a Man (HTBAM) and the second volume, How To Be a Woman: Instructions for Proper Female Behavior from Classroom Films of the 1940s-80s (HTBAW), today, one can imagine the excitement of teachers, filmmakers, and religious leaders as they embarked on the decidedly modern project of educating American youth through film. Yet, the films also suggest an antimodernist anxiety on the part of adults, as the vestiges of traditional American virtues like self-reliance and productivity seemed to give way to “outer-directedness” and aimless consumption. In Dance, good-girl Lynn, the teenage daughter of a seamstress, is infected with syphilis by the dissipated Hal Grover, paragon of the leisure class. Although modern medicine allows those infected with syphilis to be easily treated, the disease is nevertheless associated with the corrupting influence of all things modern—after all, as the narrator informs us, it is the sexual permissiveness of 1950s youth culture that prompts teenagers to engage in sex, and their access to automobiles facilitates the disease’s spread, preventing health officials from containing the outbreak. Although in many ways socially progressive, post-World War II educational films can be understood as the product of efforts by adults to take an apparatus of contemporary mass culture—the film camera and 16mm projector—and anchor it firmly in traditional American values of productivity and craftsmanship, self-reliance, and civic responsibility. By so doing, it was perhaps felt that the dystopian dimensions of the modern, mass-culture and consumer-oriented society could be abated.
In an interview accompanying HTBAM, Skip Elsheimer, founder of A/V Geeks Educational Film Archive and curator of the series, defines the educational or classroom film as a small-gauge—usually 16mm—film distributed to schools, government agencies, and social organizations to instruct and inform youths on a variety of subjects. Although Elsheimer claims that HTBAM comprises films belonging to the educational film subgenre of the social comportment film—that is, short films addressing the niceties of etiquette and interpersonal relations—the films on HTBAM and HTBAW are also representative of other, often overlapping subgenres.These include the sex hygiene or puberty film, such as the minimalist, semianimated Your Body During Adolescence (McGraw Hill, 1954) and the discussion film, such as Centron’s open-endedThe Other Fellow’s Feelings (1951). Corporate sponsored films, like the American Gas Company’s Let’s Make a Sandwich (1950) are also represented, as is the instructional/safety film and the mental health and hygiene film.
In addition to films explicitly addressed to youths, each DVD features bonus instructional and sponsored films for adults, like HTBAM’s internal training film for the salesmen of Caprolan nylon rugs, From Rugs to Riches (Thomas Craven Prods., circa 1960s), and HTBAW’s Redbook…Eighteen to Thirty-four! (JEG Hess, 1977).Redbook…, which professes the popularity of the magazine among women in the eponymous age group, was exhibited to advertisers in an effort to persuade them to market products for young women in the pages of Redbook magazine. Also included on the discs are Elsheimer’s notes on the films, which state the premise of each and provide general observations and bits of trivia (for instance, the note for Moment of Decision [Sid Davis Prods., 1961] informs us that the film’s voice-over narration is provided by Timothy Farrell, narrator of the infamous Glen or Glenda? [Ed Wood, Jr., 1953]). An interview with Elsheimer accompanies each DVD in which he discusses the value of educational films as cultural-historical documents and provides insight and information regarding specific film texts.
Notably absent from the two DVDs is the social problem or intergroup relations film, a subgenre of educational film produced by social welfare and religious organizations in the post-World War II period to combat prejudice and promote ethnic, racial, and religious tolerance. Many of these films, such as Make Way for Youth (American Jewish Committee and the National Social Welfare Assembly, 1947) and What About Prejudice? (Centron, 1959) were set in schools and depicted children as either free from the xenophobia of adults or obliquely addressing the irrationality of racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry. Absent, too, are any films that make overt reference to twentieth- century political events. Of course, an enormous number of educational films were made between 1945 and 1980; it would be impossible to include examples addressing all subjects. And, as the DVDs’ titles suggest, the films included mostly focus on gender-specific social behavior among youths. Several of the films, however, such as Improve Your Personality (Coronet, 1951) are in fact not gender-specific, while others, such as Attack, do not address social comportment. During the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s the public school was at the center of conflicts surrounding civil rights, and, as the history of safety education programs such as “duck and cover” suggest, it was a site of intense Cold War anxiety. Thus political and social conflict were central to the lives of American youths during the period the DVDs cover. The inclusion of films addressing such subjects, however limitedly, would have helped to historically contextualize the process of becoming a man or woman in Cold War America in a way that the other films do not.
Recent years have witnessed the growth of the critical study of small-gauge, nontheatrical, sponsored, and educational films and filmmaking practices, a development that perhaps influenced Kino International’s decision to collaborate with A/V Geeks on the release of the two DVDs. Since 1999, Professor Dan Streible of New York University has spearheaded the Orphan Film Symposium, a biennial gathering of academics and archivists, curators and collectors dedicated to the preservation and study of maligned, forgotten, and abandoned films, including educational and sponsored films. In 2006, Rick Prelinger, founder of Prelinger Archives, which was acquired by the Library of Congress in 2002, published The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, an exceedingly useful index of historically significant films sponsored by private and public, for profit and not-for-profit entities and organizations for the purpose of education, instruction, and corporate-institutional (rather than product-specific) advertising. The academic journalFilm History devoted its fourth issue of 2007 to the subject of nontheatrical film, with articles on small-gauge, classroom, and family films and film practices in Europe and the U.S. Most recently, a special orphans issue of the Association of Moving Image Archivists journal The Moving Image was released (Spring 2009), furthering the burgeoning field of nontheatrical film study with scholarly articles on state and federal government sponsored films, union films, and home movies.
The films included on HTBAM and HTBAW raise significant questions concerning the history of educational film form, questions that Elsheimer broaches in his film notes and interviews, but that should be subject to further inquiry. For instance, in the notes accompanying The Other Fellow’s Feelings and in his interview for HTBAM, Elsheimer posits that Centron Corporation, an educational and industrial film-production company based in Lawrence, Kansas, pioneered the use of the unresolved ending in educational films. He states that this strategy, in which a character—often a child—directly addresses the student viewer and inquires what he or she would do in a situation such as that presented in the film’s narrative, was not widely used in educational film practice until the mid 1960s. There are reasons to question Elsheimer’s claim, however. For example, the 1951 launch of the American Library Association’s nationwide discussion program, the American Heritage Project, indicates that the vogue for participatory learning predates the 1960s. In a 1955 article published in the audiovisual education journal, Educational Screen, titled “Do Films Help Discussion,” Leonard Freedman of the Heritage Project assessed the use of films in promoting discussion of political, social, and economic problems in U.S. society, citing a film titled Room for Discussion as particularly useful for the Heritage Project’s purposes. Unfortunately, Freedman gives no indication of the formal or stylistic devices that it or any of the fifty other discussion films held in the American Library Association’s collection deployed in an effort to promote conversation and debate among participants. Further research is therefore necessary to determine if Centron Corporation’s “Discussion Problems in Group Living” series in fact pioneered the changes in educational film form that Elsheimer suggests.2
The educational films on HTBAM and HTBAW are often approached by viewers today as kitschy relics of a simpler time—the acting and dialog are staid, the narratives either formulaic melodramas or little more than a dull series of events, and the voice-over narration is often laughably grave. Cold War era educational films, however, can also be viewed as efforts on the part of educators to translate the most sophisticated psychological theories and pedagogical practices of their day into the language of film. In his interview for HTBAM, Elsheimer argues that the participatory learning strategies employed by the Centron Corporation’s discussion films facilitate “a more valuable learning experience,” presumably compared to that afforded through the use of other, nonparticipatory educational film strategies; and in the interview on HTBAW Elsheimer criticizes the concept of the “teaching machine”—that is, the idea that the 16mm projector (or the interactive computer game or the Internet) can teach the student effectively and at maximum efficiency. As Elsheimer argues, most educators agree that individualized instruction—rather than the bells and whistles of the teaching machine—effects the most successful learning outcome. Yet the emphasis on participatory learning that Elsheimer champions was in fact central to the psychological school of behaviorism from which the teaching machine emerged and which advanced a theory of learning that underpins even the most ostensibly didactic films on the two DVDs.
In the film Car Theft (Bray-Mar, 1956), two teenage boys make the ill-fated decision to steal a convertible outside a municipal building, sneering at their reluctant friend Joe who stays behind. Following the theft, Joe sees the vehicle’s owner emerge from the building and scan the empty parking lot for her car. “What do you think he ought to do?,” inquires the male voice-over narrator. “What do you think he will do?” The film does not provide an unresolved ending—in fact, its action moves inexorably from minor thefts (a toy car, a beatnik’s hat), to the larger theft of the automobile, with catastrophic consequences. Such ineluctable progression from petty crime to tragedy arguably disallows the viewer from actively contemplating the ethical dilemma presented to the boys—the question of whether or not to joyride in a stranger’s convertible is presented as no question at all. Yet the voice-over narration does prompt the spectator to actively contemplate Joe’s options. Thus, Car Theft demonstrates its indebtedness, however indirect, to the learning theory of Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner.
In “Teaching Machines: A Primer,” an article published in the January 1961 issue of Educational Screen, Fred M. Newmann afforded a functional definition of the teaching machine and attempted to sketch out the parameters of Skinnerian theory of learning behind it. Describing the latter as a device that provides an item of academic content to the student and elicits his or her response, he notes that, “Learning consist in making various responses in the presence of given stimuli. To learn a response the pupil mustmake it when the stimuli are present. He must be active to learn, i.e. he must actually respond in a behavioral fashion [emphasis in the original].” The 16mm projector and educational film might not qualify as a teaching machine according to the strict Skinnerian definition of the term. By using students’ own capacities for individual decision making, however, the discussion film acted like one. It did not teach the spectator how to cook or sew a dress from a pattern, like the instructional films You’re The Judge(Crisco, circa 1960s) and Pattern for Smartness (Hartley Prods., 1948); rather, it functioned to inculcate specific civic and social values in viewers, including the classical liberal values of independent thought and individual autonomy.
Political theorists and Cold War scholars, however, have argued that the virtue of rugged individualism, with its ties to economic liberalism, and that of civic duty that defines the democratic ethos are perhaps fundamentally at odds.3 The films on HTBAM and HTBAW take aim at this potential contradiction, attempting to steer youthful behavior in such a way as to avoid its destructive consequences. At the opening of The Show-Off, female student Kay Reynolds speaks directly to the camera, displacing the disembodied “voice of god” narration commonly associated with 1950s educational film. Despite her character’s intended similarity in age and middle-class lifestyle to the films’ student viewers, she addresses differences; “I know you and I go to different schools,” she acknowledges, “but I think you and I have the same kind of problems.” Commencing the film not with a directive, but rather a plea for assistance from the student viewers, Kay proceeds, through a series of flashbacks, to describe the escalating problem of Jim Brewster, the eponymous showoff. Jim constantly draws attention to himself—falling down in class, mocking the romantic role-playing of fellow students during play tryouts, and even raising a banner on the façade of the high school proclaiming “Yea Juniors!,” Jim is “really a pretty smart boy, I guess,” observes Kay. It is later suggested that he could have been a talented actor. Thus The Show-Off does not condemn Jim’s assertive individuality; rather, it professes its inherent value, but disapproves of its manifestation in aimless, nonproductive behavior. “Why do you suppose these people show off?,” inquires a befuddled teacher. “Don’t they have enough to do?,” asks another. Kay laments the fact that Jim’s antisocial behavior overshadows the productive labors of the junior class, citing “the fine play we put on, the important things we learned.” Clearly, Jim’s individualism—despite its positive, prosocial potential—upsets the delicate balance of autonomy and civic virtue demanded of American citizens, particularly in the delicate political climate of the Cold War.
At the conclusion of The Show-Off, the junior class officers are instructed by the school’s principal to meet to discuss how they themselves might address Jim’s behavior. In his note on the film Elsheimer comments that this course of action is “a more democratic solution [to the problem], but probably wouldn’t fly with today’s school administrators.” Yet by requiring the students to solve the problem themselves, the principal employs a pedagogical tactic similar to that of The Show-Off and of the discussion film generally. In the film’s concluding shot, Kay solicits the advice of the student viewer, “What would you do about the show-off?” This appeal to the spectator not only contributed to a “more rewarding learning experience” as Elsheimer contends, it also abetted a specific, highly fragile constellation of the virtues of individualism and social responsibility. The Show-Off’s objective is to steer students to engage in proper, prosocial behavior, to channel potentially disruptive impulses toward socially useful ends. In promoting the student’s capacity for individual decision-making, however, the film also seeks to inculcate in him or her the value of individual autonomy. By encouraging students to make their own—albeit highly directed—decisions, The Show-Off and other discussion films aimed to control behavior while celebrating the freedom and independence of the young American citizen. They thus sought to reconcile potentially conflicting values, values that were widely thought to be indispensable to the American way of life during the Cold War.
As an analysis of films like Dance, Little Children and The Show-Off suggest, the films included in How to Be a Man and How to Be a Woman need not be approached merely as kitschy relics of bygone times (though such an approach does have its pleasures); they can also be viewed as vestiges of the efforts of adults in the United States during the Cold War to engage with mass and youth cultures, to benignly—albeit forcefully—channel youthful impulses toward prosocial ends,4 and to reconcile the potentially contradictory values of American capitalist democracy.
- Donald Crafton, “This Side of Paradise: The Research Value of Sponsored Films,” (paper presented at the Fifth Orphan Film Symposium, “Science, Industry and Education, Columbia, South Carolina, March 22-25, 2006).
- Leonard Freedman, “Do Films Help Discussion?” Educational Screen, May 1955, 212.
- See Leerom Medovoi’s Rebels: Youth and the Cold War Origins of Identity, Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2005.
Michelle Kelley is a PhD candidate in the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University
Copyright © 2010 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.