DVD Reviews: The Educational Archives

The Educational Archives, Volume 1: Sex & Drugs (Fantoma)

The Educational Archives, Volume 2: Social Engineering 101 (Fantoma)

Some of you might remember those Jurassic school days before VCRs, when clattering projectors would unreel old, cheesy, square and often unintentionally hilarious educational films in darkened classrooms. Many, if not most, of these films have disappeared forever, a situation Skip Elsheimer hopes to alleviate. Elsheimer runs a Raleigh, NC, organization called A/V Geeks (www.avgeeks.com) that not only shows these films to live audiences but releases the films on videotape, the newer format helping preserve the older format it almost killed. Now an even newer format has arrived, as the Geeks release possibly the first two DVDs ever devoted to these celluloid wonders, all scratches and bad splices captured in their pristine digital glory from the original 16mm prints. (Face it, even the most beat-up film looks richer and more detailed than the best shot-on-video production.)

Besides offering campy laughs for contemporary viewers, these films from the 1940s to the 1970s provide a fascinating look at a bygone past, at fashions and language (“Gosh!”) and especially the establishment mindset. Educators sincerely believed these films could mold students into productive, patriotic, nonrebellious citizens, a hope ever more futile as the 1960s progressed.

Volume 1’s films try to dissuade young people from drinking, drugging and premarital sex—you know, fun activities. Unfortunately, seven of the twelve films here appear in “condensed” (i.e., edited) versions. In an e-mail to me, Elsheimer wrote that Fantoma had doubts about how well this DVD series would sell and asked him to cut allegedly “repetitive” material to increase audience appeal.

The cut versions are still entertaining, particularly those two narrated by future TV icons. In Social-Sex Attitudes in Adolescence (1953), we hear Lorne Greene promote honest sex education for young people and see the most explicit drawing (not of, or by, Lorne) that would appear anywhere in mainstream Fifties cinema. And in Marijuana (1968), an exceedingly laid-back (nudge, nudge) Sonny Bono wears a gold lamé suit and warns about the “unpredictable and unpleasant bummer” that can afflict even casual “weedheads.”

The five uncut films include LSD: Case Study (1969), an anti-drug film produced by Lockheed Aircraft (talk about flying high!) in which a female acidhead puts on “pink Capris” and hallucinates that her hot dog has transformed into a screaming Troll doll; and The ABC of Sex Education for Trainables (1975), a serious look at teaching you-know-what to the mentally disabled, with eye-burning fashions and scenes straight out of a Todd Solondz flick (“Meat! Ding-dong! Wand!”).

The ten films (all uncondensed) in Volume 2 offer social guidance, making sure our youth keep healthy in mind and body and have pleasant interactions with others. Lunchroom Manners (1959), a classic seen on Pee-wee Herman’s 1981 HBO special, uses the rude, crude puppet Mr. Bungle to help elementary-schoolers remain Stepford children. (“No one here was a Mr. Bungle, and no one wanted to be.”) Soapy the Germ Fighter (1951) opens with the “Nutcracker Suite” and stars a giant cake of soap wearing a puffy shirt four decades before Seinfeld. Speaking of TV, Shy Guy (1947) features two more future TV icons, as narrator Mike Wallace recounts “the awful loneliness” of teenage electronics geek Dick York. And in another manners-in-school film, Manners in School (1959), a chalk-drawing stick figure named Chalky comes to life and teaches a grimacing young James Cagney soundalike named Larry not to throw paper airplanes in class or complain about cleaning the chalkboard.

Only a Mr. Bungle would fail to find anything fun on these two discs.

Previously-unpublished reviews from February 25, 2002/March 15, 2002.

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