In the varied universe of educational films–titles like Facts on Film, which we’ve featured on “Now See Hear!”–few have achieved a wider cultural resonance than the 1947 Coronet Films classic Are You Popular? It’s pretty much the epitome of the type of “social guidance” film that to modern audiences can seem unintentionally hilarious in their earnestness, yet provide us with valuable insights into the codes and mores of a specific time and place.
Are You Popular? has been viewable online from the (Rick) Prelinger Archives via the Internet Archive for many years now and–as a web search will attest–has been embedded many, many places. The IA version is in black-and-white, but our 16mm print we received through copyright is in glorious Kodachrome.
There’s a lot to be said about Are You Popular?, and one of the best pieces of writing I’ve seen is Rick’s notes for his long out-of-print Our Secret Century series of CD-ROM releases. Our Secret Century is a fascinating trip through mid-20th century America as told through the kind of ephemeral films Rick helped restore to public consciousness; Are You Popular? was featured on “Volume 3, The Behavior Offensive.” His notes are worth repeating at length, and with thanks to him for granting permission to do so:
During the war, professional observers–sociologists, educators, psychologists, criminologists, and the anthropologist Margaret Mead–closely monitored America’s families and youth. Books and journals of the period were filled with musings, plans, and recommendations. Many people were anxious to avoid the kind of social disintegration that World War I was said to have created — a twenties-type “lost generation” of hedonistic, sexually expressive, alcoholic nihilists. So a nationwide behavior offensive was mounted aimed at restoring family values through education and training. Between 1945 and 1960, hundreds of films about family dynamics, social guidance, etiquette and manners, behavior, and child and adolescent development were produced for the educational market.
Although the authorities behind these films sought to make the nation a better place for children, there were limits to their vision. Required to produce product that would not offend educators or parents in any state, they constructed an all-Caucasian world where women and men were continually learning their appropriate position in society. And though some families in the films seem to be working class, the setting, values, and aspirations are almost universally suburban middle or upper-middle class. Nor were the fearful fifties as quiet as these films make them out to be. So while the movies appear to offer fascinating evidence about how Americans lived in the nation’s recent past, it is helpful to remember that ephemeral films cannot really be called documentaries: they depict a world that never really existed, a vision of what their makers saw, or wanted to see.
However dated, reactionary, and even ridiculous these films may seem today, they were often motivated by idealism. The end of World War II climaxed a long period of social stresses in the United States: the massive familial and personal disruptions caused by the war had been preceded by twelve years of economic depression, which were themselves preceded by the turbulent twenties, a time of economic boom for relatively few people. Perhaps some of the films’ extremes can be understood in the context of a single great and not-so-hidden fear: that the American family had become obsolete, a relic.
Although Are You Popular? stands among the funnier artifacts of the postwar era, it portrays a world in which few of us could survive. No room is made for unconventional or unusual behavior. Ruthless cliques govern lunchrooms, extracurricular activities, and social gatherings. Girls, portrayed as either princesses or sluts, “repay” boys who have entertained them with milk and cookies, and are complimented on their observance of social graces. “Look at you, all ready and right on time too. That’s a good deal,” Wally says to Caroline. Even Caroline’s friendly parents seem condemned to a life sentence of introductions and evening newspapers.
Despite its engaging, almost “interactive” title, which recalls other educational films like Are You a Good Citizen?, Am I Trustworthy?, and Are You Ready for Marriage?, Are You Popular? is about much more than the title suggests. In just ten minutes, this little film touches on sexual mores, the limits of appropriate female behavior, cliques and in-groups, telephone and date etiquette for girls and boys, kinship and the distribution of power within the family, the evils of going steady, and the importance of good physical hygiene.
Are You Popular? (Coronet Instructional Films, 1947)
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