The Wonderful World of ’50s School Movies… by Steve Safran

I have come across one of those finds that makes the internet a not-horrible place, but a delightful and nostalgic oasis. The Internet Archive has several films directed at a teenage audience– teenagers from the 1940s and ‘50s. They are wonderful. And by wonderful, I mean enjoyable-and-cringeworthy-at-the-same-time.  These are Coronet Films. A bit about this company:

“Coronet Instructional Films were shown in American schools starting in about 1941. The company… was owned by Esquire, Inc. Owner David Smart (who) was deeply interested in visual education and the power of the film to teach and convince, and (he) built a full studio on his estate in Glenview, Illinois.”

Let’s appreciate for a moment that these films were the product of the owner of Esquire Magazine, who must have thought “I’m making enough money on the girlie mag. Maybe I should do something for the kids.”

Watching these films through a 2022 lens, bad advice abounds. A narrator tells a young man to avoid “girls who can get a reputation.” One wonders what a girl had to endure to obtain one in that era. The archive has about 150 of the thousands of films that were made and are like a time capsule of conventional wisdom of the times. To save you a few hundred hours down a rabbit hole of teenage advice from a bygone era, I watched them for you.

Some highlights, along with my grades:

Dating: Do’s and Don’ts (1949): A rare color production. A young man named Woody gets an unexpected ticket (!) to a party. So the screen asks “How Do You Choose A Date?” Off the top the narrator says: 

“One thing you can consider is looks. Woody thought of Janet and how good-looking she was…. Yes, he really would enjoy that except Janet always acts so superior and forward.” 

Holy crap. Wonderful. Who wants a girl that’s – gasp – “forward?” Onward… 

NARRATOR: “What about Ann? (They show her eating cotton candy.) She knows how to have a good time. And how to make the fellow that’s with her feel relaxed. That’s fun, too. Yes, that’s what a boy likes.” (Your correspondent seconds the motion.) 

The rest is actually rather sweet. Woody’s parents are supportive of the young lad going on a date and tell him to be respectful. And the film even shows Woody how to say a polite goodnight to the fetching young Ann. I have hope for these crazy young kids. B+, Woody is a sweet little nerd.

Communism” (1952):  They pretty much nailed this one, especially for the time. I expected something campy, but it’s very straightforward, and downright timely right now. It even defends taxes to pay for our defense which, agree or not, is the best way to pay for defense. No talk here of deficit spending. A-, only because they use some incorrect file footage.

What About Juvenile Deinquency? (1955): One knew the phrase “What’s the matter – you chicken?” was going to pop up eventually, but it is only a minute and 10 seconds into this one. This film is exactly what you expect. Four “punks” dressed in matching letterman sweaters drive a convertible Genericmobile with the top down, talking in the language of “American Graffiti.” The punks have greased, barbershop haircuts. They bump a car ahead of them in traffic, and attack a 40-something businessman. This being the ‘50s, the businessman sustains a cut to the head. Of course, his wife tends to him, the poor businessman.

SURPRISE TURN: The businessman’s kid is in the gang. Even though his son wasn’t there, turns out he has the same sweater and his poor choice of friends is revealed. Don’t join a gang, kids. Not one with matching outfits, anyway.

SPECIAL OVER-REACTION: High school kids in hallway the next day shrieking: “Have you heard about the special session of the city council is having this morning? All the things they’re considering doing like doing a curfew and upping the age of a driver’s licenses, cancelling football games, the parties, the dances and everything else!”   A+, for foreseeing every terrible ‘50s movie and “Footloose.”

Getting Ready Morally (1951) They brought in the National Catholic Education Association on this one. And FINALLY, a movie that starts with a white guy in a suit, leaning on a desk, talking directly to the camera! 

This is about preparing yourself to go into the Navy. And the overwhelming theme is “You’re gonna meet non-Christians who will mess up your moral ways.” It warns you against the guys who want to visit bars, pool halls, and hookers rather than staying in the bunks doing drills. Every ensign loves drills.

As with most/all of these films, “Getting Ready Morally” does not show a single ethnic person, even though it strongly hints at their influence; “He was thrown in with men who had different ideas and ideals.” Oh, just say “Jews and Black guys who want to bring you to prostitutes” already. Our hero Breaks Bad, starts playing slots, drinking, playing pool… you know – being in the Navy. 

ACTUAL GOOD ADVICE: “’The Test of Common Sense.’ If you have the ability to do something worthwhile, doesn’t it make common sense to live up to the best that’s in you?” Yes. That’s good advice.

MORE GOOD ADVICE, JUST A LITTLE DATED: “Some men may scoff at taking your troubles to the chaplain. Let them.” Include with “chaplain” a rabbi, an Imam, or even a psychiatrist, and it’s solid advice.  

Entertaining, but B-for leaving out the Jews.

I can’t emphasize enough what a great site and total time suck this is. The Internet Archive is the home to a great many resources. These movies are brilliant in their artlessness, lovable in their amateurish direction, and outstanding in their stilted acting.

If all else fails, remember to Duck and Cover.

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