I dearly love watching and writing about classroom films of the 1950s and 1960s. I’ve written about them here and there, and decided to collect my far-flung bits into a Short of the Week feature. Because why not.
Kicking off is one of my absolute favorites, Habit Patterns, from 1954. It’s a fifteen-minute exploration in shame and conforming, wrapped in a veneer of grooming and time management instruction.
Our film starts ominsouly. We open on ponytailed, sweet-faced Barbara clutching a scarf and sobbing in her bedroom, while a stern female voice declares, “It’s a little late for tears, isn’t it Barbara?” It’s like my last job.
The source of Barbara’s upset is revealed in flashbacks. She oversleeps. Her room is sloppy. Her sweater is stained. And when she receives a very important invitation to a very important classmate’s house, her manners are not up to speck.
It’s a tough day for Barbara.
To top it all off, the narrator continually compares Barbara to her neighbor Helen. Helen, taller, well-groomed, and “with a pleasant word for her parents” is on time, gets plenty of sleep, and most importantly, uses “taste in selecting her clothes. She’s able to match the right skirt with the right sweater.” Barbara will never live up to Helen. She knows this. Her mother knows this. The narrator knows this.
So, Barbara gets through her day at school, running late for everything and with barely combed hair. In short, she stands out, and if there is one thing you do not do in a classroom film from 1954, it is stand out. When Anne Tolliver, apparently the social doyenne of this particular Junior High invites Barbara over after school, it is cause for celebration – Barbara has been chosen! – and for panic -her sweater is stained! Her hair is a mess! How can she possibly fit in?
There’s also a real feeling of class stratification here. The girls at Anne’s gathering, which resembles more of a conversation salon than adolescent girls hanging out (where is the giggling?) speak with what seem to be some kind of affected east coast accents (“the trouble with me is getting STAHTED with something new…my mother had to DRAHG me to the museum.”) Barbara does not. They talk of literature, visiting museums, attending the symphony, and summer homes. Barbara looks pained in her middle-class, museum-less shame.
She desperately tries to fit in by jumping into a conversation about summer homes and pretending she has one. But the narrator is not about to let this one slip by: “you only went [to the lake] once, didn’t you Barbara? Once you start fibbing, you can’t stop.” Oh, the narrator is relentless in her shaming. And I’m pretty sure poor Barbara can hear her, because the end result is that she feels increasingly uncomfortable and leaves the party, but not before she hears Anne and some of the other girls talking about her:
“Maybe she felt shy?”
“A stained sweater isn’t shyness. And BAHD MAHNNERS are BAHD MAHNNERS no matter what you call them.”
Barbara runs home to cry alone, in her room, and we’ve come back to the beginning. Mrs. Narrator (you know she’s a Mrs.) continues on the offensive. “In all society, at all ages we know people are going to talk about other people,” she reminds Barbara, urging her not to dump her creepy friends, but instead to work on not giving them anything to snark about.
The gossiping girls are off the hook, and we spend the next seven minutes going through a litany of neighbor Helen’s good habits in hopes that Barbara might learn from them. Here’s where I get a little mesmerized by the complicated rules for putting away clothes and washing your face (“hang today’s skirt in the back of the closet to rest the fabric”). It’s also where I get totally distracted by Barbara’s adorable mid-century bedroom. But don’t worry, Barbara pays better attention, and by the end she is forming the “good habits approved by custom and accepted by society.”
Thank goodness. But what will Anne and her minions talk about after the next conversation salon?