Friday, January 27, 2006

Baltimore Guide Reviews "Classroom Scare Films"

Below is a reprint of Mary Helen Sprecher's review of my "Classroom Scare Films" program at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. It originally appeared in the January 27, 2006 issue of the neighborhood newspaper The Baltimore Guide.

Run for Cover but be Polite—
Classroom Scare Films Return

by Mary Helen Sprecher

It’s a celebration of movies, but it doesn’t feature a red carpet. Nobody will show up tottering around on skyscraper-height stiletto heels and dripping designer jewels while wearing a gown that stays up despite its blatant defiance of the principles of physics. And if there are any VIPs in attendance, they’ll be there in spirit only.

VIPs like Soapy The Germ Fighter and his protege, Billy Martin. Mr. Bungle, the puppet of rudeness. Woody, the socially inept student. Bert The Turtle who could survive nuclear catastrophes only because he was prepared. And all the other characters used by educators in an attempt to keep students neat, clean and out of trouble.

It’s all waiting at the Classroom Scare Film Festival, to be presented on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2 p.m.-4 p.m. at the Enoch Pratt Free Library at 400 Cathedral Street.

A classroom scare film, by definition — well, there is no real definition. At least not the kind one would find in Webster’s. But it’s the kind of film students are shown over the years in order to teach them good hygiene, proper posture, acceptable manners, sex education, safe driving, and so many other important lessons in life.

“I think ‘classroom scare films’ is just a fun, convenient term for cautionary/instructional/educational films that attempted to indoctrinate captive audiences in the proper ways of mental hygiene and physical safety,” says Pratt librarian Tom Warner, who developed the film fest.

The films, he adds, were made to teach the behaviors that could make children into better citizens and, as a result, into responsible adults. “They just cut to the chase rather quickly and bluntly because young audiences are impressionable and have short attention spans.”

The common denominators? Bad acting, laughable fashions, terrible special effects and sometimes, completely incomprehensible messages.

Which only makes them even more appealing to Warner.

“I collect these things,” says Warner, who works in the Media and Audiovisual Department of the Pratt. “They have a real kitsch value now.”

Warner refers to his collection as “ephemeral films” — things that touch the lives of students without making a lasting impression on culture.

“I remember seeing the sex-ed films,” he says. “We had to relate to why we were watching pigs coupling. “

Most of the classroom scare films came from a bygone era in education when fewer teachers or schools were comfortable with providing direct instruction in taboo subjects like sex or hygiene. The films, therefore, were an easy way to satisfy the requirement of providing an education in a nonconfrontational manner.

“I think (scare films) are still being made today, but they are not as blunt and corny as they were before. It’s an evolving genre,” says Warner.

These days, safe sex, political correctness and good hygiene are topics that students become intimately familiar with at a much younger age, and many of the so-called educational films have gone by the wayside.

Or they’ve wound up in the collections of aficionados like Warner. Many of the films, he notes, are now in the public domain, and are available for sale, or on the Internet.

“A lot of them,” he adds, “have become culturally significant. Remember Dick York from “Bewitched?” He was in (a classroom scare film entitled) “The Last Date.” It was where he got his start.”

In “The Last Date,” made in 1949, York played a reckless, fast-driving bad boy whose blatant disregard for the principles of road safety led to a new fad the film’s narrator referred to as ‘teenacide.’ (Yes, that Dick York, who played the buttoned-down ad exec who routinely got appalled when his witchy TV wife Samantha wiggled her nose).

Something all classroom scare films have in common, says Warner, is their philosophy that risky behavior invariably begets bad results.

“If someone runs with scissors, they’re going to fall on them. If someone has a B.B. gun, they’re going to shoot their best friend’s eye out. If someone works around machinery and is careless, they’re going to lose a finger. If someone drives fast, they’re going to get killed.”

And if someone doesn’t wash his hands, he’s going to wind up getting a late-night visit from Soapy the Germ Fighter. In “Let’s Be Clean and Neat!” (1951), a young boy named Billy Martin was introduced to a talking bar of soap who showed him that good hygiene wouldn’t make him a sissy, and that the two could become partners against slime.

Most of the films are 10 to 12 minutes long, with some being as short as three minutes. One entry, “Stoned: An Anti-Drug Film” (1980) was an ABC After School Special (remember those?) that has been edited down to 30 minutes. (Bonus fact: It features Scott Baio of “Happy Days” and “Charles in Charge” fame as a high school nerd who turns to marijuana in order to achieve popularity — with predictably near-tragic results.)

The camp factor, says Warner, cannot be underestimated. In the 1959 classic, “Lunchroom Manners,” for example, children learned how not to behave through the bad example of a puppet named Mr. Bungle. In “Dating Do’s and Don’ts” (circa 1949), an announcer with a sonorous voice instructed Woody the socially clueless nerd on the fine art of asking a girl for a date.

And then there are the movies that can be described only as a product of their time. In 1951’s “Duck and Cover,” Bert The Turtle showed school children survival skills to be used in the event of an “atomic attack.” (Curl up under your desk in a fetal position and protect your head with your hands).

Another film, “One Got Fat,” was, according to Warner, “just the strangest bicycle safety video ever made. It was these kids riding around on bicycles and they were all wearing ape masks. You didn’t really know what it was about. It was like a Devo video or something. At the end of the film, the message is ‘Don’t monkey around with bicycles,’ but you don’t really get that while you’re watching it.”

(Oh, and the significance of the title, “One Got Fat?” Well, in a nutshell, a group of kids all pedal out together with the goal of having a picnic lunch in the park. Along the way, they (yes) monkey around, disregarding the rules of bicycle safety and one by one, fall down a manhole, are run over by a steamroller, hit by a car, ram a pedestrian, etc. — leaving the one safety-conscious child to eat the entire picnic lunch alone).

“The great thing about the classroom scare films or mental hygiene films is that they are a period piece, I believe,” says Warner, “in the same way you had the silent era, talkies, screwball comedies, epics, travelogues, and so on. They were of their times, a time of Cold War paranoia, of post-war middle class affluence when families believed in the American Dream of manners, affluence, prosperity, health — the whole social utopia that came with the end of the war.”

The two-hour-long film fest, says Warner, is something he has wanted to pull together for a long time. And it’s not all he has up his sleeve.

“I’m thinking of doing an April Fool’s Day special,” he says. “It’s going to be a series of parodies.” His voice starts to gain enthusiasm. “You know, movies like ‘Hardware Wars.’ It should be a lot of fun.”

Note: The Classroom Scare Film Festival is held at the Pratt Central Library, 400 Cathedral Street, in the Wheeler Auditorium, on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2 p.m.-4 p.m. Info: 410-396-5430.

Related links:
Classroom Scare Films program guide
Baltimore Guide
Ben Korman's Blog Review


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