“Dating: Do’s & Don’ts”: Good Ol’ American “Mental Hygiene” Propaganda

By on April 26, 2015

1949’s Dating: Do’s and Don’ts is one of the earliest examples of the so-called “mental hygiene” 16mm educational films — and a rare Kodachrome color example at that — made for the purpose of targeting adolescents from middle class suburban families and teaching them life lessons — in this case, basic dating skills —but we dug into it a little bit deeper for you and uncovered some interesting background factoids.

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First, we should start by telling you that Coronet was a major producer of these short-lived classroom training films, which were purposefully designed to teach traditionally social conservative values to high school students, beginning in 1946 (they began tapering off by the mid-50s, although Coronet actually lasted until the mid-70s).

Coronet dominated the educational film market, in part, because it had its own Hollywoodesque production studio, located in Glenview, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, which can only be described as prolific in its output, cranking out approximately one film every four days, a pace unmatched by its competitors (which included even larger companies, like Centron Corporation for Young America Films, and occasionally by better-known companies such as Ford Motor Company, Ford Motor Company, Encyclopædia Britannica and Crawley Films (for the McGraw-Hill Book Company).

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These educational films were aimed at constructing and influencing various social norms or attitudes among teens in the post-WWII era, a time when youthful Americans of a certain age had never known prosperity and peace in their lives, having grown up in the shadows of both the end of the Depression and World War II.

The people in charge of making these films, and distributing them, knew that these teens would soon be a powerful consumer group and a tremendous cultural and economic force, but along with that upwardly-mobile movement came the awareness of certain Cold War-era fears, particularly the problem of rampant juvenile delinquency, which flooded the daily thoughts of parents and teachers and civic leaders across America.

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There was a perception at the time that teens during the war had enjoyed too much personal freedom, and they were now becoming rebellious about not wanting to conform and be the kinds of citizens that their parents had wanted them to be — every generation since then has gone through this same scenario, in fact, but the late 40s may have been the first generation to have been so vocal about it — and everyone in a position of authority was afraid they were going to have a major problem on their hands.

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Films like Dating: Do’s and Don’ts were the cutting edge of social coercion in their day. Their goal was “attitude adjustment” and and their approach was subtle: to create an imitation world of malt shops, classrooms and suburban homes and populate it with average-looking teens acting the way parents wanted teenagers to act. Only, the problem was, teens didn’t identify with characters they saw in these mental hygiene films.

The boys in particular saw themselves more similar to Marlon Brando’s character Johnny from The Wild One, the 1953 movie directed by László Benedek. While mental hygiene films preached clean thinking, good grooming, lawfulness, togetherness, sobriety and safety, teenage boys wanted nothing more than to be sloppy, reckless, sullen, high, dirty-minded, independent delinquents.

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Coupled with this rebellious nature was the fact that this generation coming of age were the first ones to own cars of their own, which meant they were suddenly able to leave their parents homes, away from their ever-watchful eyes, and disappear into the night. Dating pretty much changed overnight, and so did sex.

These Coronet mental hygiene films — with sections are separated by the use of dividing title cards — were one way to show high schoolers what was thought to be proper or correct etiquette and behavior, and further used to support the underlying message that girls should repress their sexual desires, and “save themselves” by remaining virginal, not wear red nail polish or “inappropriate” blouses, while boys — the primary target for these films, in fact, was young males, ages 13 to 18, or middle school and high school age — were given instructions on how to be respectful and no pressure their dates for sex, in addition to avoiding “loud” sports shirts.

The narrator (the incredible Ken Nordine!) even makes a point to say that the boy must choose the right “type” of date, emphasizing that once you pick the girl — and this really shows how the older generation at this time treated women as contestants to be “chosen,” rather than equal partners — then you must learn how to ask for a date, being careful not to be too cocky but also not being too shy. Then, once the date is over, there are further instructions on how to say goodnight, the narrator intoning to not be too aggressive but also make sure you let your date know that you enjoyed yourself.

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These instructions, if followed correctly, show how being polite and responsible is not only the right thing to do, but it will make the young man look respectful to his older (and more handsome) brother, whom he looks up to, and to his father and mother, who will also be proud of their son.

It’s rather incredible to imagine that there might have been a time in the United States when teens had to be instructed in life lessons in high school, sitting in darkened classrooms to watch films like this, instead of getting these lessons passed down in the family home, from father to son, and mother to daughter, as they had for generations before then. The thinking now is that these films were thought to represent a “perfect world” where the issues and conflicts of real life are isolated and separated out so that there are no questions about how society is supposed to function.

Ted Peshak was the house director for Coronet, directing over 30 films from 1947 until 1959. Peshak was a former director of army instructional videos before he began working for Coronet. Peshak was actually making a new film for Coronet every two weeks, turning out as many instructional videos as there were social topics to educate young students on. He had served in World War II in the Army Signal Corps where he also received his intense training in the field of photography. Afterwards, he attended an Army motion-picture college where his training was expanded to “attitude-building films.”

It’s interesting to note that the man who would be later responsible for creating films with behavior modification in mind had learned his craft from the people who originated influential or “inspirational” filmmaking, to make sure randy GI’s knew how they were expected to behave.

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This particular film, however, the 12-minute Dating Do’s and Don’ts, was directed by Gilbert Altschul “with the assistance of Reuben Hill, Research Professor of Family Life at the University of North Carolina, at Chapel Hill.”

Let’s take a look at Hill then, for a sec: first of all, Hill, born in 1912, would have been 37 years of age in 1949, but by then he’d already been very busy. In his twenties, he’d been a Mormon missionary in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Germany, and he’d earned a BS in Sociology from Utah State University, and a Masters and PhD in Social Psychology (with an emphasis on Economic statistics, and a labor economics minor) from the University of Wisconsin. He had taught social education there, and had moved a bit around during the latter half of 1940s, eventually heading up the Sociology department at the University of South Dakota, then taking a job as an associate professor job at Iowa State, and finally, as “research professor” at the University of North Carolina, by the end of the ’40s.

Hill had become a specialist on the family somewhat accidentally, getting drawn in initially in response to Wisconsin student demand in the context of the provision of lectures on “marriage preparation.” (The Mormon emphasis on the family must surely have supported this direction of his research work.)

As a result he was asked to produce something in the area for the education program for GI’s; that course proposal was rejected because it mentioned sex and birth control (apparently GI’s fighting on behalf of their country were not yet being treated as adults), but it was eventually published as a college textbook (Duvall and Hill 1945), which had great success.

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By now, the U.S. government was getting involved, seeing the benefits of spreading this kind of propaganda message to high school kids, and they began backing the production costs of these Coronet films, which would soon expand from teaching sexual attitudes to school-age kids, but also how to study, how to land a job, how to perform their societal and filial duties, how to bathe, good eating habits, going steady, etc.

And that sort of effectively makes them propaganda films, doesn’t it?, filtered through Hill’s own Mormon beliefs, and presented as proper etiquette and behavior, essentially stamped with the approval by the U.S. government the same way they’d made GI’s watch training films before going off to war.

The over-arching Coronet Films message was clear: they wanted you to act the way they’d like for you to act — when you’re out on a date, for instance, in the case of Dating Do’s and Don’ts — and if it meant propaganda was needed to spread the word, then so be it.

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Every Coronet film, however, was made with its own purpose, though, addressing a perceived problem — from teenage delinquency, venereal disease, and drug addiction, to bicycle safety, dental hygiene, and the proper operating procedures of a specific industry — and those problems remain constant topics in educational and industrial films. Looking closer only reveals that they revealed our government’s fears that the youthful generation coming of age in the 1950s were going to be in trouble. Big trouble.

You may note that the actors in these films are largely unremarkable in their appearance: that’s by design. It was thought that it was better to have rather ordinary dull-looking boys and girls in the film so it would further enhance that what they were learning was actually acceptable behavior for everyone, and not just lessons meant for those who were particularly good-looking, athletic (jocks) or popular (cheerleaders, etc.).

The actor who plays Alan “Woody'” Woodruff here, John Lindsay, was a regular of many Coronet films, and we think it’s safe to say he probably wouldn’t have made it in a career in Hollywood, although some of the actors who appeared in Coronet films did eventually transition to regular TV and film roles, like Dick York, later Darren on TV’s “Bewitched,” from an earlier black & white Coronet film, Shy Guy (1947).

It’s interesting to note, that if you click on his name in the IMDB profile for Dating: Do’s and Don’ts, it takes you to a John Lindsay who had a long history working in the porn industry. Is it the same John Lindsay? No, it’s not the same one — but wouldn’t that just be great if it was?! — because the real John Lindsay dropped out of acting and became a successful Chicago commodities market trader.

Night Flight would often air these mental hygiene films during regular programming, and they started to become popular again, but for their kitsch value and as fodder for solid late night laughs. They also appearing at festivals, during the 70s, like Filmarama in NYC in 1979, and later on, they were shown on TV shows like “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” & the cable TV show “Mystery Science Theater 3000″ (MST3K) which mocked the films’ production values and underlying messages (and later, they were riffed on by “Rifftrax,” a successor to MST3K, created by former MST3K cast member Michael J. Nelson.)

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Today, mental hygiene films appear silly and ineffective, and it’s easy to recognize them for what they were then — good ol’ American propaganda, filtered through conservative religious beliefs and U.S. Army brainwashing techniques. While created and made to influence children in seemingly positive ways, to dismiss them as trivial or, by today’s standards, simply nonsensical, would be to do them a disservice. Their implementation of various techniques amidst a growing and complicated social context offers insight into the power and capabilities of propaganda, particularly in film.

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.