Thursday, July 24, 2014 - 70°F

Chicago Stories Header
Those Films You Saw in School Banner

Those Films You Saw in School

Remember the old black-and-white educational films of the 1940's and 1950's, with titles like, "Dating Do's and Don'ts," and "Appreciating Our Parents?" Nowadays these films, known as "social guidance" or even "mental hygiene" films, are considered campy and simplistic, but in their day, they were the ideal teaching tool used in schools.

The originator of this genre was Coronet Films in Glenview. To company founder David Smart, the postwar 1940s cried out for educators to guide students through their youthful distress by teaching values. Beginning in 1947, Coronet produced scores of films offering just such advice, like "How Do You Know It's Love?," "Improve Your Personality," and "Good Table Manners."

Other local filmmakers including Encyclopedia Britannica quickly followed Coronet's lead, shooting many of their productions on the streets of Chicago and neighboring suburbs.

These products of Chicago filmmakers helped generations of American children grapple with serious personal issues. Were they idealistic?-yes. Impractical?-again, yes. But, did they offer wisdom? Indeed, these shorts contained distillations of practical Midwestern sensibility. Without being preachy, they offered models in proper living. Whether accepted or rejected by youthful viewers, the basic message of these Chicago filmmakers endures: how to find a comfortable balance between the demands of the individual and the society.

Media archivist Rick Prelinger released in 1996 a 12 CD-ROM set, "Our Secret Century: The Darker Side of the American Dream," containing 160 instructional films. (There's also a less overwhelming single-CD companion piece called "Ephemeral Films.") "They're far more important than feature films," Prelinger argues.

When Chicago Taught the Nation By J. Fred MacDonald

At first glance, the school films made in Chicago in the 1940s and 1950s may seem hopelessly unrealistic. The Pleasantville world they project is predictable and therefore easily repairable. It is a Caucasian fantasy of small towns and suburbs where families are idealized, young people respect their teachers and elders, and towns are communities where friendly people constructively interact. Here, children strive to improve themselves: their studies, their manners, their interpersonal relationships. There is minimal disharmony in this worldview, except, of course, for the problem that prompted the making of the film-but, that incivility is resolved in about 10 minutes.

In retrospect, it all seems so campy: an awkward lunge for that goodnight kiss, a boisterous preacher excoriating nicotine, a girl warned against red nail polish because it would accentuate her stubby fingers. Amusing, yes-but not to be ridiculed. These films embodied the voice and value-system of American parents in the first decades of the baby boom. Using the inexpensive, ubiquitous medium of 16mm film, Coronet , Encyclopedia Britannica, and the other Chicago movie companies communicated that parental consensus, assisting American educators in their roles both as teachers of subject matter and as civic agents operating "in loco parentis."

To be commercially attractive to schools and libraries throughout the nation, school films in the 1940s and 1950s could not challenge social mores. They were not instruments of social transformation. These films would change only if and when American society changed--and that would have to emerge from debate within the society itself.

Still, despite their simplistic contexts, school films communicated socially-responsible messages. And these messages are still being taught in homes and schools many decades later. What parent does not want a dating daughter treated with respect by her escort? Children still require instruction in proper table manners and the fundamentals of good grooming. The drug problem has only worsened since the 1950s requiring even greater adult intervention than the old films proposed. "Stop, look, and listen before you cross the street" or "teenicide" may sound amusingly quaint today, but abuse the rules of the road as a pedestrian or driver and you have a good chance of being struck by an automobile.

So, laugh at their superficial gloss, as one might snicker at clothing styles worn in earlier times. But beneath the surface, much is unchanged. Laughing at school films from our youth does not mean they were wrong-or that we have solved the problems they recognized. It does not mean that society in middle of the last century was "square" and today we are "way cool." Style changes, but social dilemmas endure. And so we are left with the realization that those school films did not--perhaps could not--solve the problems of their era; and that we must fashion our own style in addressing most of those same problems because we have seen the past and it is us.

Dr. J. Fred MacDonald is Professor of History, Emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. He holds Bachelors and Masters degrees in History from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Doctorate in History from the University of California at Los Angeles. He wrote and produced the "Those Films You Saw in School" installment of Chicago Stories.

Your $40 Gift Membership will include:

  • A one-year subscription to the Guide.
  • The WTTW11 Card – your ticket to a variety of members only discounts.
  • The great feeling of a gift that keeps giving.
  • Much more!

Learn more about membership!

Explore Stories