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