< Kept it at the Movies


Friday, November 04, 2005

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ted Peshak died last month. If you came of age soon after World War II and ever sat through a classroom screening of a cautionary tale about the dangers of shyness or the virtues of soap and water, odds are Ted Peshak directed that film. They were called "hygiene films" and Peshak was the master of the genre. [FILM CLIP]

MAN: Ginny thinks that she has the key to popularity, parking in cars with the boys at night. When Jerry brags about taking Ginny out, he learns that she dates all the boys and he feels less important. [END FILM CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was from a film called "Are you Popular?," which seems like nothing more than a bit of Eisenhower-era kitsch, but for Ken Smith, the author of the oral history Mental Hygiene, Peshak's 10-minute filmic gems, like "Clothes and You" and "Friendship Begins at Home," applied new techniques to an old problem, best summed up as "the teen years." Ken, welcome to the show.

KEN SMITH: Glad to be here, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how were you introduced to these instructional films and what about them drew you?

KEN SMITH: Well, I was working as a continuity writer for The Comedy Channel back when it first started, and they had a collection of these films. One of my many jobs was to cut them up into 30-second clips that they could run when a commercial dropped out. So I started to watch them, obviously, to find the funny bits, and it didn't take long before I realized there was a lot more going on in these films than just, you know, bad haircuts and really, really stilted acting. So I started asking around and nobody knew anything. I mean, nobody cared. The educational establishment hated these films because they considered them an embarrassment and the film community hated these films because they considered them an embarrassment. And when you think about it, more people saw these films than any other film. I mean, millions and millions of Baby Boomers had to sit - I did. I had to sit [CHUCKLES] through these films when I was in school. To me, it was amazing that no one cared.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So who was Ted Peshak?

KEN SMITH: Ted was an ex-Signal Corps cameraman out of World War II and he was bitten by the film bug, as a lot of servicemen were during the war. And when they got out, there was a gentleman by the name of David Smart, the publisher of Esquire, a multi-multi-millionaire. And in 1936 he had gone to Nazi Germany to the Olympics, and he saw how the Nazis were using film, especially in classrooms, to brainwash kids. And he decided he would take his money and create good classroom films, positive classroom films, democratic classroom films that would teach American kids how to be good citizens.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That is a bit worrisome, though, taking your cue from the Nazis.

KEN SMITH: Well, and David Smart was Jewish, too. But he built this huge studio on his estate in Glenview, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago, and poured millions of dollars into the idea that a film can be used to "adjust attitudes," I believe, was the operative phrase at the time. The theory was what they called the "substitute peer group." You would sit down and you would see these kids who were nicer than nice. They would look like you and they would talk like you and they would live in the same kind of neighborhood you did and they would have the same problems you did. And so that when you were confronted with a moral dilemma, you would remember the film that you saw and you would remember what Chuck or Betty or Carolyn did in the film and you would follow their example rather than the example of your friends. [FILM CLIP]

MAN: Some fellows seem to think that petting's the wrong [?] thing to do.

WOMAN: And some girls think that they have to permit it for date insurance. [END FILM CLIP]

KEN SMITH: David Smart hired Ted and one other guy, Gil Altschul, and between them they each directed 25 films a year for the next 15 years. Each would take a film every other week, they'd shoot it, and then they'd spend a week cleaning it up and cutting it and editing it and then getting ready for the next film. And they would do that, you know, 50 weeks out of the year and get 2 weeks vacation. And he said he got so good at the end, he actually shot an entire film in a day. And he was really proud of that.


KEN SMITH: And he was telling me, he said, "If we had just kept going, I bet I could have done two films a day." And he - you know, that's the pride he took in being able to grind this stuff out so fast.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you mentioned "attitude adjustment."


BROOKE GLADSTONE: But what sorts of adjustments were they going for? I mean, Smart was a mentor to Hugh Hefner. He was a very progressive guy for his time.

KEN SMITH: Well, yes he was. The people who made these films were among the more liberal-minded of their time. The conservative people were against these films because they felt that school was not a proper place to teach morality. They felt that that was the domain of the church and the home, the family. Classroom films have been around since the 19-teens, believe it or not. I mean, Edison invented film as a tool of education, not as a tool of entertainment. But the films back then were more what we would regard as an illustrated lecture. It was - [TWO AT ONCE]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: How a bill becomes a law.

KEN SMITH: Right. So when Coronet came along and they used the techniques of filmmaking - they used plots, they used music, they used atmospheric lighting - I mean, that was really revolutionary for the time, using the tricks of Hollywood and applying them into a classroom, which again, was very, very frightening to a lot of conservative parents and school boards.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've written that both parents and educators were worried that the '50s were going to be a repeat of the lost generation of the '20s. Were these films an attempt to allay parents' fears?

KEN SMITH: And that was one of the ways they sold these films. You've got parents and you've got teachers. They don't know how to talk about sex or substance abuse with their kids. They still don't know how to talk about sex or substance abuse with their kids. So you've got a film. Okay, this film is supposedly created by experts. It's the perfect advice frozen in celluloid. You wheel it into the classroom, you turn it on, the kids watch the film. You don't have to think about it. The film has solved all your problems.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Up until this point, what were the images available to teenagers that spoke about their lives? We had "Rebel Without a Cause." We had some big Hollywood productions.

KEN SMITH: But they didn't come along till 1955. We're talking 10 years before that that these films really dominated the scene. Hollywood played a big role in shifting teen attitudes from that point on. Certainly rock n' roll came in in '55 too. There were a lot of forces that were working on teenagers that these films couldn't control. Again, when these films first appeared, they were it. You imagine a classroom in '52. They wheel a projector in and all of a sudden they're showing a film with you, supposedly, up on the screen. That had to have been a powerful thing at the time. I don't think we appreciate that monopoly these films had - [OVERTALK]


KEN SMITH: - for a good period of years.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So as the '50s gave way to the '60s, did these films keep pace with the times?

KEN SMITH: No. Mental hygiene films couldn't. Their whole theory was based on this sort of subtle imaginary world manipulation. And kids could see that that was not the real world any more, and the films couldn't issue these kind of dogmatic moralistic pronouncements in light of things like the civil rights movement and Vietnam and the whole drug culture of the '60s. It's just, you couldn't do it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, Ken, do you have a favorite moment in a favorite film?

KEN SMITH: Oh, golly. I would say probably the end of "Shy Guy," where Phil is in the basement surrounded by his friends and the music swells up, and you realize that he's going to be accepted by the gang. I mean, that really kind of sums it all up. It was just a beautiful, very touching early 1950s moment of conformity. Like, "Yay, he was accepted by the gang!" [FILM CLIP] NARRATOR: Well, one shy guy is on his way. Not that his worries are over. He'll still have his moments of doubt, of hesitation, of fear that he might do something wrong. But he can face these problems now because he knows that he's not really different. [END FILM CLIP]

KEN SMITH: Again, we laugh at the concept, but back then it was - the geeks of today were considered the delinquents of tomorrow. You know, somebody's sitting in their basement all by themselves. Uh-uh-uh. That's bad. That's very, very bad. You got to get the guy out of the basement and into dating girls. That was the solution. You know, and - [BOTH AT ONCE]

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And now the geeks of today are the millionaires of tomorrow.

KEN SMITH: I know. I know. It's interesting the way these things work out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken, thank you so much.

KEN SMITH: You're very welcome, Brooke.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ken Smith is the author of Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films 1945-1970. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]

BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jami York and Mike Vuolo and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Katie Holt and Kevin Schlottmann. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and find free transcripts, MP3 downloads and our podcast at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at onthemedia@wnyc.org. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.


copyright 2005 WNYC Radio