Yes, it’s December 21st once again! This time around Balladeer’s Blog presents a look at assorted short films to go with today’s “shortness” theme.
THE MEANEST MAN IN THE WORLD (1954) – This heavy-handed United Fund short was probably effective in its day. Back then people may have felt they were being too callous by openly laughing at the antics in this public service message.
Our central character, “Jim”, comes home late at night after a marathon work day. He startles his wife, who, in typical 50s fashion sleeps in a separate bed. In fact he startles her SO much you get the impression she had a man on the side who may have left her bed a little too close to Jim’s homecoming for comfort.
Jim’s got even bigger problems, though. Money is tight, so tight that Jim tells his still-paniced wife that this year they won’t be able to afford their usual contribution to the United Fund. Our hero then falls asleep, while the disgusted narrator of this ham-fisted production sneers at his alleged callousness.
Now the real fun begins. This joyously tasteless production tries to equate being unable to afford a United Fund contribution to monumental acts of deliberate cruelty. Jim’s dream counterpart stalks up to a hospital and viciously KICKS THE CRUTCHES out from under a poor crippled boy, then STANDS THERE LAUGHING HYSTERICALLY while looking down at his fallen victim.
Other patients, in wheelchairs and sporting other signs of injuries, look on with what they must have felt were expressions of horror on their faces. Instead, though, they seem strangely unaffected by what they’ve just witnessed. If they had calmly muttered “seen it before” and yawned it would be showing the same level of concern.
Jim, like a proto-Freddy Krueger, now shows up at the Salvation Army, where he gleefully strips clothing off the backs of the needy and disdainfully throws those clothes to the floor in another unintentionally hilarious display of cruelty.
Jimbo moves on to a day nursery for children from homes where both parents must work. He contemptuously regards the children while they eat breakfast, no doubt reproaching them in his mind for not going out and finding jobs, then steps forward and literally SWATS a glass of milk from the hands of one little girl in mid-drink. She and the other children seem to take it in stride, though, making the viewer laugh some more and wonder what kind of treatment these unfortunate kids endure on a regular basis at the day nursery if they can handle this outrageous behavior in such a blase manner.
The Jimster hovers menacingly over the little girl for a few moments, looking like he’s just DARING her to try to do something about what he did to her. Then he moves on to an orphanage, where it’s nighttime all of a sudden and the children are all sleeping. Jim the Dream Demon barges right in, flashlight in hand, and wakes the slumbering urchins up by hammering a sign on the wall.
The roused orphans gather around Jim and read the sign he’s nailing to the wall. It says “All children without parents must get out and shift for themselves. This place is closed!” The plucky orphans are as emotionless about this as Jim’s other Vulcan victims, although one (oddly smiling) little girl tugs beseechingly at Jim’s suit-coat, giving him the opportunity to regally smack her hand away before he stalks off.
Rising to new heights Jimbo moves on to the site of devastation from a tornado in Oklahoma. Disgusted at the wimpy doctors and nurses dispensing medical care to severely injured survivors our protagonist knocks medical supplies and charts out of the hands of some of the medical staff. He’s just getting started though, and in the most surreally tasteless scene in the whole short he grabs a pair of scissors and literally SNIPS THE I.V. LINE OF AN UNCONSCIOUS PATIENT!
While the viewer is convinced they must be imagining this whole astonishing thing by now Jim follows this up by grandly washing the patient’s blood from his hands Pontius Pilate-style in a nearby bucket.
Jim glides along to a doctor’s office to unwind and get a few laughs from a doctor telling his patient and the patient’s wife that the man is dying from cancer. Jim, apparently regretting the lack of an accompanying laugh track, provides his own chuckles, smiling even more broadly as the M.D. tells his unseen patient that he could have been saved if not for decreased contributions to the United Fund. The smile vanishes when the camera pans around to reveal, to the surprise of no one, that the unseen “patient” is Jim himself.
Jim wakes up, but thankfully isn’t screaming “NOOOOOOOOO” like people usually do on the screen. He repents, recalling all the mayhem inflicted by his astral alter ego in quick flashback scenes. The recollection of knocking the milk from the little girl’s hand is ineptly shown via A BAD TAKE from the scene, one in which the milk goes flying and splatters the camera lens.
Thoroughly chastened, Jim realizes (in the twisted view of this short) that not donating to the United Fund means he “might as well” have been committing the atrocities he did in his dreams. He and his wife, called only “honey” throughout the short, surrender to the ham-fisted guilt trip inflicted by the producers of this short and decide to make their annual contribution to the United Fund no matter HOW tough times are.
Here’s a look at Be Your Own Traffic Policeman, an educational short about pedestrian safety. This little honey clocks in at barely 10 minutes and was produced by Portafilms, an outfit that was neither as prolific nor as enjoyably frantic as, say, Sid Davis or Dick Wayman.
When Davis or Wayman clubbed you over the head with a message you were laughing far too much to mind.
This traffic safety short is narrated and hosted by Officer Maxwell, known to all of us bad safety short fans from Helping Johnny Remember and Holiday From Rules. Officer Maxwell is accompanied by two children who mindlessly agree with everything he says, obviously fearing for their lives from the unintentionally sinister-seeming Maxwell. After all, at any moment he may take out his silver hammer and bring it down on their heads.(rimshot)
Since adults can’t always be around when children need to cross the street Officer Maxwell preaches his OWN brand of vigilante law enforcement: “Boys and girls who want to be considerate of others and avoid getting hurt must learn to be their own traffic policeman.” You’re never too young to learn that harsh but time-proven fact of life, I guess.
Anyway that lesson is conveyed by cartoons that feature blobs which are barely discernible as kids and cars. Whenever the cartoon children with large, mutated heads (clearly this is a post-nuclear war world) doltishly try to jaywalk, skate on the street or other assorted traffic faux pas an equally large-headed traffic policeman appears to them and hollers at them to wise up and obey traffic rules.
I’m guessing that Be Your Own Traffic Policeman was followed by Be Your Own Vice Cop and Be Your Own Nuclear Safety Inspector.
IT’S WONDERFUL BEING A GIRL (1966) – This 22 minute educational film about menstruation features one of my all-time favorite lines from female hygiene shorts. That line is “You CAN have fun while you’re menstruating!” To me that remark is even more fun than the line from Molly Grows Up which goes “Menstruating girls should avoid square dancing.” (That’s good advice for anybody, really, even if they’re not menstruating.)
Mom is about to introduce her 12 year old daughter Libby to the facts about “that time of the month”. When Libby states that she’s not sure if she’ll like it Mom reminds her “You said you couldn’t wait to grow up.”
Soon Libby has a virtual PhD in menses as Mom uses Modess Sanitary Napkins (the sponsors of this short, to the surprise of no one) to prepare her daughter for the future. “See this blue polyethylene on the side? That’s a special moisture-proof shield!” she tells Libby with WAY too much enthusiasm.
By film’s end Libby is experiencing her first period (insert your own hockey joke here) but thanks to Mom and Modess Sanitary Napkins she doesn’t have to miss out on a roller-skating trip with her friends.
A METRIC AMERICA – (1978) – Category: A classically campy educational and/or safety short In the late 1970s the notion that the United States was going to convert to the metric system by 1980 was being pushed. This thought was causing a panic of almost Y2K proportions as government bodies and the educational system frantically hastened to prepare citizens and students for the massive change in systems of measurement.
High school and middle school students were being made to feel that they risked being left behind in the “futuristic, all-metric” world of the 1980s if they didn’t adequately master their metric conversion tables. Metric system educational shorts were distributed and they are gems of cultural kitsch.
I don’t understand why these shorts are not as well known and laughed at as the old “duck and cover” style educational shorts from the Cold War era. A Metric America was, in my opinion, the campy masterpiece of this short-lived genre.
The film began with the requisite Man In A Suit addressing the camera and reciting this priceless dialogue to the camera:
“By 1980 many of you will be old enough to drive, and you’ll be purchasing gasoline measured in liters, not gallons, and observing speed limit signs instructing you how many kilometers per hour you should be driving.”
He continued in the usual vein for these films, pushing the panicky notion that students would be unemployable and as helpless as children if they failed to comprehend the metric system. After that “light-hearted” intro, the film proper began.
The hero of this live-action story was Chip, a Rip Van Winkle- like character who fell asleep in the 70s and, after waking up in the 1980s found himself completely bewildered by the “Metric America” that greeted him. The film became a study in one-note, heavy-handed didactics as our hero came face to face with uncomfortable situations that would have been easily handled, the film incessantly reminded us, if only he had properly studied the metric system.
As it is this moron just doesn’t get it and is baffled and confused by everything around him – a road sign reflecting how many kilometers back to town, a grocer selling meat by the kilogram, a counter-man at a pizzeria asking him how many milliliters of soda he’s buying, etc. And needless to say temperature conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit practically causes his head to explode (“If it’s only 30 degrees then how come I ain’t cold!?”).
By the end of the short Chip is headed for some serious re-education courtesy of what must be America’s Metric Commissars of the 1980s.
These metric system short flicks are hilarious cultural relics that deserve to have the same huge following as all the other wonderfully outdated educational films of the past.
When you consider the fact that in America the only lasting cultural impact the metric system had was the 2-liter bottle of soda I get a huuuuuuge kick out of the ideas and situations presented in A Metric America and all the other films of its kind.
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