RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARCHIVE: Human Growth (Written by Lester Beck, Directed by Sy Wexler, 1947/1962)

We’re headed Back to School again this week and tackling that most interesting and uncomfortable of classroom topics: Sex Ed. Raider/Contributor Phil Oppenheim takes a look at the late 40’s and early 60’s in-classroom, let’s-watch-a-film-on-that approach to this topic from the University of Oregon and it is quite curious (frustrating? enlightening? stereotype-izing?) to see the differences between the two and, even more so, between then and now. On top of that, in a state with such a (forgive us) well developed animation industry, it’s also great to see such early roots for that particular art form even if it is at the expense of poor Aunt Sarah (who might have have a few questions to answer about her hateful niece’s origins).

You can see and experience it all for yourself here:

This is where our story begins…(1962 version).

How did you learn about the birds and the bees?

If you were an American adult before the ‘50s, there’s a good chance you picked up what you could from the streets, the old-fashioned way — or, if you were a more adventurous sort, you skulked down to a seedy neighborhood movie theater to catch a tawdry exploitation film masquerading as “education.”  The odds are pretty good that you’d have seen the amateurish teen-sex scare film Mom and Dad, directed by B-picture hack William “One-Shot” Beaudine and road-showed all over the country by the sleaze-entrepreneur Kroger Babb, and drifted home afterwards feeling like you needed a shower (although being no better informed than you were when you bought the ticket).

Lester Beck, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, was having none of that, and wanted to make sure that the next generation, who would later become the Baby Boomers, who be wiser than their parents.  In 1947 — Happy 70th Anniversary! — Beck wrote and supervised Human Growth, a noble effort to pull human biology out of the gutter and into the schoolroom, creating the nation’s first sex education film intended for classroom use.  The short film sets a conversation about maturation within a nuclear family (Mom, Dad, pesky brother and precocious sis), jumps to a classroom lesson about the same subject, and cleverly begins a film-within-a-film, an animated short shown to the classroom’s boys and girls that matter-of-factly explains some of the nuts-and-bolts of human reproduction.  After the film is over, the lights are flipped back on in the classroom; the teacher engages the kids in a round of Q & As and then boldly and effectively breaks the fourth wall to engage us — the kids watching the film in real-life classrooms on the other side of the screen — to join in the conversation.  It’s a brilliant piece of audience engagement, and though it’s dated in its visual details (unless you dig midcentury furniture and clothes), the narrative structure and directed audience-play still works.

But did the film work as pedagogy, helping to free kids from future ignorance?  In 1950 the Saturday Review thought that the film did, that it offered “something quite new for the public to see and hear,” while recognizing that its release and distribution was “a mild quake felt throughout the educational world.”  The film’s appropriateness for classroom use was debated from coast to coast, and the United Press summarized its strategy: “Children should learn the reproductive processes in the same above-board manner that they learn long division or geography.”  If the goal was to encourage understanding and minimize salaciousness, the film succeeded, with the UP concluding that it wound up being “about as lurid as a table logarithm.”  Human Growth became boffo in the blackboard biz, and was successful enough to spawn (ahem) a remake in 1962 and 1976 (full disclosure: that’s the one I grew up with).

Watching the 1947 and 1962 versions in rapid succession results in some curious observations, revealing just how provocative Human Growth really was (and thanks to the University of Oregon on-demand channel, you can watch and download both of them, although the newer one is missing a color print).   They’re nearly identical — a family discusses human “growth,” in a sophisticated cut the daughter continues the conversation with her class, the teacher plays the film, and engages her students — and us — in more dialogue.  In the earlier version, though, the mom looks older and more square (dad’s pretty L7 in both versions), while the teacher, Miss Baker, is younger and more inviting; in ’62, the mom looks hipper, while the teacher, now a married MRS. Baker, seems older, more matronly, and more distant.  Did Beck realize that the original version structured the narrative as the story of a potentially threatening interloper pulling kids from the (ignorance) of their family unit into the enlightenment of the state-run social space?  Might he have been sensitive to potential charges of Ideological State Apparatus social engineering?  Interestingly enough, the classroom setting suggests some progressivism afoot, as the children are slightly more multicultural in ’62 than they were in ’47. 

Who’s the Unfairest of them All?

On the other hand, though, conventional mid-century gender roles are emphasized and normalized throughout the film: as children progress through adolescence, girls feel more “womanly” and men more “manly,” and they dress and comport themselves to attract the opposite sex, “which are perfectly normal feelings.”  Unsurprisingly, these films embrace the most stereotypical and culturally approved versions of family relationships.  Normal, too, seems to be a girls’ frustration at not measuring up to cultural standards of beauty, baking in feelings of physical inadequacy that still resonate throughout our body-shaming, heteronormative consumerist culture.  As part of the archeological record that demonstrates how we came to better understand our bodies and what to do with them in the years before the Sexual Revolution, Human Growth is a fascinating document.

As for entertainment value, though, Human Growth may strike modern viewers as lacking.  Because I have somewhat dubious standards of taste, though, I can confess to enjoying a few small highlights.  For example, when Miss Baker decides to augment her lesson with a slide show, she asks the kid in the AV squad to change images; he bears an unfortunate name, given the slide’s content: “Dick, it’s Slide 11” (about 16:24).  Proof that I’m not the only idiot who snickered at the line rests in the 1962 version, which edits out the AV kid from the scene (and hence renders the sequence Dick-less).   

Dick, Future AV Club President (1947 version).

A little more nostalgically and personally, though, I’m in love with the film’s sympathetic portrayal of curious and polite middle school students, partly because it forces me to consider the Health Class experiences of my own youth, and the goofball awkwardness, barely stifled giggles, and mass embarrassment of Sex Ed film screenings.  When Human Growth’s film-within-a-film shows full-screen cartoon images of the naughty bits (as we called them, thanks to PBS’s import of Monty Python) I am brought immediately back to the snickers of my red-faced classmates, remembering how we all squirmed for these films to conclude and end our communal torment.  And what always made the moment worse, and excruciatingly interminable?  The post-screening Q&As, menacingly prompted by the end of the film. 

I Love this Smirking Goofballs (1947 version).
I Love this Smirking Goofballs (1962 version).

Lester Beck tried his best to take immaturity out of Human Growth, but in the hormonally fueled classrooms I remember, it proved much more difficult for him to take the immaturity out of the students (or out of the grown-up Raider, for that matter).  Watch the sequences in which a baby is shown squeezing its way out of the birth canal, during which “the muscle walls of the vagina expand to make room, and the baby’s head begins to move out of the mother” (as the narrator explains) — and see if you, too, hear the faint screams of your middle-school classmates still wafting in the air.

Visit: Lester Beck scholar Elizabeth Peterson is the Senior Librarian and Curator of Moving Images at the University of Oregon Library in Eugene; the blog to which she contributes, 16mm Lost and Found, reveals some fascinating archival work.  Her excellent and persuasive essay arguing for the inclusion of Human Grown in the National Registry is much better than everything I’ve written above.

Read: Elizabeth Petersen and fellow UO scholar Michael Aronson’s “No Birds, No Bees, No Moralizing: Lester F. Beck, Progressive Educational Filmmakerwas published in the Spring 2014 issue of The Moving Image journal (unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall).

Read: To read more about Lester Beck in a terrific survey that places his work in the context of Oregon’s “Minor Cinemas,” see Ann Richardson’s essay here.  Richardson is an indefatigable researcher and she wears many hats, among them that of the Director of the Oregon Cartoon Institute (OCI) and the organizer of the annual Oregon Film History Conference. OCI is dedicated to the investigation, preservation, and celebration of Oregon’s rich film, animation, and print cartooning history. OCI creates interdisciplinary programs and resources which deepens understanding and improves access to information for scholars, for educators, and for the general public.

Read: Eric Schaefer’s mammoth study of the Exploitation era, Bold! Daring! Shocking! True!: A History of Exploitation Films, 1919-1959 deserves a place of honor on the bookshelf of every fan of American sleazy movies. 

Watch: “Human Growth” (1947 version) and “Human Growth” (1962 version) on the U of O Channel.

  • Written by Phil Oppenheim
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