12 Vintage Instructional Films Worth Watching

by Brett & Kate McKay on January 28, 2013 · 31 comments

in A Man's Life, On Etiquette, On Virtue, Personal Development

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Maybe you’ve seen the classic Civil Defense film “Duck and Cover” as part of a documentary about the postwar period, a clip of an unintentionally hilarious hygiene film while watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, or a vintage film we ourselves included in a post like this one.

Have you ever wondered where these short instructional films from the 50s and 60s came from?

After World War II, filmmakers pitched a new kind of movie to schools. Films that had formerly been used in classrooms were dull and static – dry lecture dubbed over still shots and documentary-style footage and images. Progressive educators believed that films with more drama, emotion, action, and personality could better capture students’ interest, aiding the learning process and shaping their behavior. The idea took off, and from 1945 until they petered out in the 70s, new studios that were dedicated to the purpose churned out tens of thousands of low budget instructional films that were watched by millions of schoolchildren. Titles ranged from Insects Are Interesting to Learning About Your Nose.

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A small subset, about 3%, of this new genre were known as “social guidance” films. Social guidance films had their heyday from about 1945-1960, and were born from filmmakers’ genuine concern for the happiness and well-being of the rising generation. It’s sobering when you think that a fifteen-year-old in 1945 had known nothing but the Great Depression and a World War since their birth. Adults were worried that the young people who had faced such hardship would end up like the Lost Generation that emerged after WWI – cynical, jaded, and amoral. Filmmakers wanted to provide young people with some helpful guidelines that could aid them in socializing, finding happiness, reaching their potential, and becoming involved citizens who were able to navigate an increasingly complex world. The films touted the benefits of responsible, clean-living both for the individual and for society as a whole. Having just won a war by pulling together as a nation, people were highly optimistic about the virtues of civic-mindedness and solidarity.

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While the films can seem naive, preachy, and conformist (and the ones aimed at girls, sexist) to a modern viewer, they were not made by hand-wringing fuddy-duddies. Their producers were liberals and progressives in their day; it was conservative parents who thought moral instruction should be left to parents and that schools should stick to the three Rs. Instructional filmmakers, on the other hand, thought that “Hollywood-style” films would add needed reinforcement to the advice kids got at home. Each film was made with the guidance of an “educational collaborator:” professors, sociologists, and psychologists who provided input in the hopes of making the advice more “academic” than knee-jerk. The use of charts and graphs was popular.

Interestingly enough, the founder of the most prolific and famous social guidance film studio — Coronet Films — was David Smart, who also created Gentleman’s Quarterly (GQ) and Esquire. Smart was a big believer in the power of instructional films and took the money he made on his magazines and poured it into building the Coronet studio in a suburb outside of Chicago. With two sound stages, the million-dollar studio was the largest east of Hollywood.

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Social guidance films might seem hilariously corny today, but their producers sincerely wanted to reach young people who were searching for how to be a good person and live a satisfying life. The films were the first ones to depict everyday life from the teenagers’ point of view, and believe it or not, the producers’ goal was to make them as realistic as possible; the films couldn’t change behavior, they believed, unless the viewer identified with the characters. (We don’t really know how students reacted to them at the time, but their widespread use for a decade suggests they were at least not laughed out of the classroom). Most films begin with a young person facing a dilemma or difficult situation, and over the course of about ten minutes, he learns something new, does some self-analysis on how he can change, and then turns things around for himself; the films were novel in that they showed the characters developing as opposed to being strictly one-dimensional.

By the 1960s, the earnest style of social guidance films no longer fit into the changing culture, and instructional film studios limped into the next decade by producing pieces on driving safety and drugs before shuttering altogether. Some instructional films are owned by modern education companies and live on in university archives, but hundreds were thrown away and are lost forever.

Happily, in the age of YouTube, those that have survived are being given new life by being posted online. Are they sometimes pretty cheesy, unintentionally funny, outdated, and a little slow-moving for our frantic attention spans? You bet. Despite this, I’m an unabashed fan of these old school social guidance films. I appreciate their earnestness in a time of tiresome irony. I appreciate the idea that there is a right and wrong way to do things, and that we all have a role in choosing the former and strengthening society. And I appreciate the idea that nobody learns these kinds of things naturally – they have to be taught, and reinforced as often as possible.

I’ve watched several dozen of these films, and below I offer twelve of my favorites. Twelve films that are worth watching and can impart a few kernels of wisdom if you’re willing to swallow your cynicism for ten minutes and roll with the cheesiness.

PS – Last year AoM experimented with making a modern social guidance film in the retro-style, and hope to make more this year.

Developing Self-Reliance (1951)

A kindly teacher helps Alan understand how to become more self-reliant. Encouraged to figure things out for himself and take personal responsibility for his actions, Alan starts to make his own choices, like deciding to wear a tie on a date without asking for his folks’ input. Dad helps Alan’s progress along by giving him a copy of Emerson’s essay on the subject.

Takeaway: “It’s hard work to become self-reliant, but these are the steps: Assume responsibility. Be informed. Know where you are going. Make your own decisions.”

Snap Out of It! (Emotional Balance) (1951)

Howard is hoping for an “A” in history class but when he gets his report card, he’s angry to find he got a B. “I worked for an A and I should have gotten one!” Howard grouses.  His principal talks to him about how when you expect too much, it can lead to disappointment and “emotional upset.” Instead of thinking, “What’s the use?” when he doesn’t get what he wants, Howard learns to “channel your emotional energy into a direct attack on your problem!”

Takeaway: “It’s one thing to set high goals for yourself. It’s quite another to be emotionally upset each time you miss your goal.”

You and Your Work (1948)

This film answers the age old question: “How can you do a job well if it isn’t interesting?” Frank takes his first job at a shoe store, but he doesn’t like the monotony and the annoying customers and can’t understand why his boss is mad that he often shows up late. When Frank gets fired, he asks his guidance counselor to find him a new job. The counselor wisely tells him that if he had problems at his previous place of employment, then he’ll have problems at his next one too, and then helps Frank to understand how you can find satisfaction in any line of work.

Takeaway: “Any job, pounding a plane or selling shoes, is as important as you make it. If you think it’s not important, whatever it is, you’ll soon become bored with it and do it poorly. To enjoy your work, you need to find something more than money. You need personal satisfaction, pride of accomplishment, a sense of importance to others, whether it’s a part-time job after school or a lifetime career.”

The Benefits of Looking Ahead (1950)

Nick, all-American lunkhead, doesn’t think about his future; he doesn’t know what he’ll be doing next week, much less next year. His classmate gives it to him straight: he’d be voted least likely to succeed and is on his way to becoming a drifter and even an all-out bum! After envisioning his future bum-life, Nick sees the light while working on crafting a table; he realizes how important detailed plans are for something to come out right, and how he needs to stop drifting and start looking ahead to what he wants his future to be like.

Takeaway: “To succeed in something, you have to have a purpose. And make plans for reaching it. And work at it all the time.”

Your Thrift Habits (1948)

Jack wants a new camera, but he’s always eating up his scratch with deluxe Peach Super Delight sundaes. So he learns how to set a budget, keep track of his spending, create a graph towards his goal, fix things to make it work, and not to buy cheap, which is never a true bargain! By doing without extravagances, finding inexpensive ways to have fun, and fixing things and making them last, Jack soon reaches his goal and learns the satisfaction of being thrifty.

Takeaway: “When you want something hard enough, you can find ways to save for it.”

How Honest Are You? (1950)

A group of students gather in the office of the high school athletic director to discuss the fallout from what one student thought was an episode of dishonesty. As the students each present their perspectives, we learn that in being “honest you have to find the truth, and that’s not always easy.”

Takeaway: “When you have a problem involving your own honesty it will help you to remember these three points. Know yourself: be sure of your intentions — the motives behind what you’re doing and saying. Find the truth: test it in the light of past experience and by checking it every way you can. And express the truth: make sure you say what you mean to say and make sure your meaning is clear to your listeners.”

Self-Conscious Guy (1951)

How can you get over being self-conscious? Whenever he’s in social settings, Marty feels like there’s a spotlight on him, that everyone is scrutinizing him, and he freezes up. He learns to overcome his self-consciousness by practicing and putting the spotlight on others and the situation as a whole, instead of thinking of himself as all-important.

Takeaway: “If I could become skillful, I wouldn’t be so scared of it…I’d forget about myself, and just think of doing it well.”

How to Keep A Job (1949)

Ed’s been laid off and is applying for a new job. He complains to the interviewer about how rotten his last employer was and how he was never promoted or given a raise, but that it hadn’t been his fault! The interviewer helps break through Ed’s state of denial by getting him to see things from the employer’s point of view and painting a contrast between two employees — the Goofus and Gallant of the workplace.

Takeaway: “As long as times are good, there will be jobs for fellas who just barely do enough to get by. But to keep a job when the going gets rough, you need to insure your job — make yourself so valuable your employer can’t let you go.”

Act Your Age (1949)

When Jim carves his initials into his desk, he’s sent to the see the principal, who offers him a lesson on growing up. They discuss the fact that a lot of young men are still acting like little boys because while some parts of their personalities have matured, other parts are still immature, and produce an “infantile reaction” when things don’t go their way. Jim shrugs off the barbs from a saucy janitor, evaluates and rates how “old” different aspects of his behavior are, and commits to bringing those ages up to match his real age. You should take the behavioral age survey too!

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Takeaway: “Different parts of our personalities grow at different rates.”

Mind Your Manners (1953)

This film follows Jack, a golden example of well-mannered young manhood, as he demonstrates his good manners at home, school, and with his friends. Jack is warm and polite to his family, diligently takes phone messages, pays attention in class, and even picks lint off his sister’s dress. The film reminds the viewer that “your manners are showing all day long,” and that manners make life better for everyone. And remember: “Girls, let the men help. They enjoy it.”

Takeaway: “Everywhere you go your manners are with you, and they leave their mark. They help you feel sure of yourself too, and they make an impression on people — on everyone you meet.”

What to Do On a Date (1950)

Nick, of “The Benefits of Looking Ahead,” is having another planning problem — how to decide what to do on a date. Nick discovers that group dates make excellent first dates, as they provide a comfortable way of getting acquainted with someone, and that the best kinds of dates are inexpensive and aren’t too involved or have to be worried about in advance — ones you can carry though comfortably. He also learns that you should always plan an activity the gal will like! If you’ve ever wondered how to ask a girl out to a weenie roast, this is the film for you.

Takeaway: “There are lots of things to do on dates if you know how to look for them, if you plan them with the other person in mind, and if you really try to make sure each date is a good time.”

Better Use Of Leisure Time (1950)

It’s the plaintive cry of every young person: “I’m bored!” Ken doesn’t know what to do with himself when he has free time. A guide helps him to reflect on how much more leisure time he has than his forbearers did, and that leisure time is a privilege and not a problem. Ken also gets a look at how his parents and friends use their leisure time, which inspires him to take up photography.

Takeaway: “A good use of leisure time should give you a change, should help you learn things, and it’s a good idea to have a long-range goal for your leisure time activities.”

Honorable Mentions

Am I Trustworthy? (1950). Eddie learns that “people have to show they can be trusted with little things, before they can be trusted with big things.”

Are You Ready for Marriage? (1950). A young couple goes to see a marriage counselor to determine whether they’re ready to get hitched, and he dispenses advice backed by some awesome charts and checklists.

Dating Dos and Donts (1949). A campy Coronet classic.

 

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Source:

Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970 by Ken Smith

 

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Shawn January 28, 2013 at 2:07 pm

For those that happen to own a Roku streaming video player, there is a free channel available on there called Pub-D-Hub that contains tons of these old videos from the 50s and 60s, that are now part of the public domain. While some are laughable today, there really is a lot of good stuff available from that age.

2 tsherry January 28, 2013 at 2:23 pm

What to do on a date (and maybe some of these others) have been lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GVytXppIFw0

3 tsherry January 28, 2013 at 2:25 pm

Are you ready for marriage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ZqI80KnU6w

4 Ken January 28, 2013 at 2:36 pm

As a kid in the seventies, I remember the films the teachers would show. One in particular was a film about what to do incase of a nuclear attack, it instructed the students to curl up in a ball under your desk. Also remember those old schoolhouse rock cartoons on Saturday morning. Great post Brett!

5 Anthony January 28, 2013 at 3:51 pm

I like the self – reliance video. Growing up without my dad and not being very commited to anything i had to learn things the hard way. Thanks Brett for your helpful tips and advice.

6 Andrew January 28, 2013 at 4:10 pm

I would say that those “pass it on” ads we see on tv are the modern day instructional films only shortened down.

7 Jeremy January 28, 2013 at 4:58 pm

I just watched the AoM retro-style video called “Do it Now” and then realized I don’t have time to watch all these.

8 Jonathan Sheldon January 28, 2013 at 7:09 pm

I really enjoy these old instructional videos. And I’m excited to hear you might make more of your own. I really enjoyed the Do It Now video you made and it actually inspired me to start using that principle in my own life.
Honestly I think that film and tv were a lot better back then than they are now. But I also grew up watching the old Disney shows like Davy Crockett, The Swamp Fox, and Texas John Slaughter that my parents had recorded on tape before I was born so I guess I’m prejudiced.

9 Vincent January 29, 2013 at 5:56 am

The Fixers Collective would like to submit “Why Study Industrial Arts” for consideration. We can only find the version by MST3K: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUPXVtFcl5U

10 CoastRanger January 29, 2013 at 10:39 am

I have a TV writer/producer friend who pretty much has made a career of mocking this kind of thing. But I really love these corny, dated films becasue they are rooted in decency and virtue. I wish our culture could have just kept going in this direction, rather than being hijacked by critical theory and progressivism in 1968.

11 Brittni January 29, 2013 at 10:58 am

Many of these videos can be found on Rifftrax.com with really funny commentary done by the same guys who once did Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

12 Xlar January 29, 2013 at 12:17 pm

So far I’ve only had time to watch the first one but I really enjoyed it and I’ve realized that I’m not as self reliant as I could be in my own life. I’m going to try to do more things for myself instead of constantly asking other what they think I should be doing. I also think I’m going to get a copy of Self Reliance by Emerson!

13 Perry January 29, 2013 at 12:56 pm

Improving yourself means improving the world in which you live.

14 Pedro January 29, 2013 at 2:49 pm

Really cool! People back then had a very good sense of day-to-day psychology instead of all the new age crap we see on self-improvement articles these days…

15 Arthur Hovey January 29, 2013 at 7:06 pm

I agree with Perry (above.) It all begins with ourselves to make this world nicer.

16 Brandon Wall January 30, 2013 at 8:46 am

Thanks for collecting these. I started getting into these about a year ago. I think my son and I will have to watch these tonight!

17 locutus83 January 30, 2013 at 1:19 pm

Even though these videos may SEEM outdated and corny, the values being taught are timeless and very relevant even today (and maybe required more.)There is nothing “conservative” or “anti-liberal/regressive” about these videos. These are guidelines for leading a healthy, happy, successful life by anyone, anywhere. Who cannot appreciate the value of honesty, self-reliance, maturity, equanimity, professionalism, civility?

I really enjoy watching these kinds of videos. Besides trying to instruct values and character, they also offer a window to the recent past and help us see how society has changed over the last few decades, and where we may be headed.

My only gripe may be against the dating/marriage videos where some of the advice is a bit outdated and may seem restrictive.

18 Brandon January 30, 2013 at 11:18 pm

These really are the types of things we should be playing for our kids in high school……maybe when I’m a teacher I will haha

19 Mike C. January 31, 2013 at 10:20 am

There’s a good book called “Mental Hygiene” that looks at the history of these films. Problem is that these films became outdated very quickly and lost their appeal for kids. As adults we see them and think, “Wow, what timeless messages!” but kids see them and think, “This is 50 years old! I can’t take this seriously! This is too corny!”

There were other issues, like how some films had corporate sponsors and threw in mentions and product placements at every opportunity, and some were just outdated or reflected a view of society that few hold. The infamous “A Date with Your Family” which was mocked on MST3K is a shining example of that; it’s so constrained and enforces various rules and roles that were already passe. The film was derided even by educators for being out-of-date when it came out!

Dating films were problematic as they presented a view of how adults wanted teens to date, and didn’t reflect how teens REALLY dated at the time, and were the most ineffectual films of the lot.

But there is wisdom to be had in some of them, although all too often you have to get past poor acting, clumsy scripting, and cheap production. But look up a film called “The Snob,” which is actually very well-acted by the young lady at its center, and very well-scripted, capturing the torment of a troubled yet sympathetic teen. It’s memorable and really touches on timeless subjects that hit home for many.

20 Paul January 31, 2013 at 12:38 pm

I’am very much enjoying these video’s, particularly the one on self-reliance.

I’ve moved to a new place with my Pop, and I can slowly feel myself losing my self-reliance over the last few months. I’m feeling the itch to take on more responsibility, and to try out a little more on my own.

I’ve already lived by myself, so I know what self-reliance is. However, a friendly reminder every so often doesn’t hurt either! :)

21 Kate McKay January 31, 2013 at 1:17 pm

@Mike C.-

You’ll notice that Mental Hygiene is listed as the source of this post at the end. However, I do not recommenced the book. It’s the only one available on this subject, and has some interesting information, but from a scholarly point of view it comes off as quite biased and slanted. Much of what the author presents as facts, are simply his opinions and own feelings about the films, and are not backed up by sources or evidence.

22 dennis January 31, 2013 at 3:30 pm

good stuff

23 Gina January 31, 2013 at 6:39 pm

These are great! Thank you!

24 Mike C. January 31, 2013 at 10:50 pm

Kate: Yup, I spotted that on my second perusal; rather embarrassed that I missed that when I commented! (blush)

I’ve read some other stuff about instructional films, though, plus I had some insider info, as my mom was a teacher and had some dealings with these things, both as a student and as a teacher. She told me about seeing a movie as a student that claimed that “girls who park in cars aren’t really popular” and having to bite back laughter, as the most popular girls in her school were the ones who parked!

There’s another good book that tackles another lost classroom tool, the filmstrip. Track down “Change Your Underwear Twice a Week” and prepare for a few chuckles.

25 Andrew T February 3, 2013 at 8:47 am

There’s a subtle message at the end of the self reliance video; if you look in the back ground the french reads “Help yourself, the sky will help you”

26 John February 6, 2013 at 1:12 am

60 thousand free films, including many of the Coronet training films like the ones above, can be found in the Prelinger Archives.
http://archive.org/details/prelinger

27 St. Vital Kid February 8, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I instruct adult students in a variety of subjects related to broadcasting. In a two week introduction to broadcast sales, I always start by showing “Selling as a Career”, which is a Coronet production from 1953.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZVs_2Lswfg
While the clothes, cars and technology are quaint, the manner in which the sporting goods salesman featured in the film builds rapport and nurtures relationships with his clients is still entirely relevant to what our course teaches about how commission selling and customer service are supposed to work.

28 tye February 10, 2013 at 12:16 am

http://youtu.be/K4JhruinbWc
Best explanation I have found.

29 Jagmeet Singh Hanspal February 12, 2013 at 11:26 am

+1 to John (above) for the link to the videos… Here is one specific to Coronet: http://archive.org/details/coronet_instructional_videos

30 Nick Savides March 3, 2013 at 9:41 pm

I watched all the videos and the AoM one on YouTube. As a filmmaker, I found it refreshing to see that other filmmakers in the past took an interest in improving society.

That idea has sadly gone out of fashion, but seeing the deteriorating state of our civilization, it is an idea that I hope returns to prominence. Thank you Brett and Kate for doing your part to help with that. Cheers!

31 Leia April 28, 2013 at 9:05 pm

The film on being thrifty is my all-time favorite and I watched both the self-reliance and the “What to Do on a Date” videos…they’re on my favorites list along with the thrifty one. I have to admit that my parents were well-informed with these films while they were in school during the early ’60s (Dad turned 66 in January and Mom turns 66 on May 25th.) I’m glad that The Art of Manliness and some Youtube channels have found the merit in watching these, even though times have drastically changed since then, both social-wise and economic-wise.

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