Cartoons, Comedy, and Cancer in 1952

Circulating Now welcomes Guest Blogger David Cantor. Dr. Cantor has published on the histories of cancer, meat, medical film, and the after-life of Hippocrates, the father of medicine. His most recent book, co-edited with Edmund Ramsden, is Stress, Shock, and Adaptation in the Twentieth Century.

When in 1952 the American Cancer Society (ACS) released the movie Man Alive!, it was trying something new. For the first time an educational short about cancer combined cartoons and comedy. Earlier cancer films had had their comedic moments, and cartoon animation had been used before 1952. But Man Alive!a recent addition to the NLM’s Medical Movies on Webwas the first to mix them both throughout. Clowning and cartoons had come to be a way of controlling cancer.

Part of the reason for this innovation was the audience the ACS hoped to reach. The movie was one of a growing number of educational films that targeted men, supplementing the traditional focus of the organization on women. The problem was that the ACS was not convinced that the sorts of motion pictures that worked for women would also work for men, and it began to experiment with new approaches that it hoped would better appeal to its new male audience. Man Alive! was one of these experiments, and its success (it was nominated for an Oscar) helped the ACS come to believe that the antic-humor of cartoon animation was crucial to its efforts to persuade men to accept and adopt its approach to cancer. Movies aimed at women occasionally used animation and humor, but throughout the 1950s only films aimed at men made consistent use of both together.

A shady looking car mechanic grins as he slides out from under Ed's car.

Ed and his wife, Marion, meet Clyde, the dodgy car mechanic.

The movie tells the story of the fictional Ed Parmalee who ignores the warning signs that his car engine needs attention as he also ignores the warning signs of what might be cancer. When Ed’s car eventually breaks down he goes to Clyde, a dodgy car mechanic, hoping to save money. However, Clyde destroys the engine with a grenade, costing Ed more than if he had gone to a reputable car mechanic in the first place.

Ed’s failure to respond appropriately to the early warning signs of car-trouble is repeated in his failure to respond appropriately to persistent indigestion (one of the warning signs of cancer). The movie shows how Ed avoids seeking qualified medical attention much as he had previously avoided seeking qualified mechanical help for his car. He is afraid of what the doctor might find, and makes many of the same mistakes he had earlier made with his car. He follows bad advice, takes dubious remedies, and considers turning for help to a disreputable “quack,” who looks remarkably like Clyde, the dodgy car mechanic. Ed pretends to have knowledge of the cars and human bodies, but all too often he is taken advantage of by sleazy men such as Clyde and the quack.

Ed looks at a advertisments for a shady looking quack doctor.

Ed is tempted to see the quack J. Kirkham Headstone. Note the family resemblance to Clyde, the dodgy car mechanic.

Many of the messages in Man Alive! were not that different from those of other ACS films about cancer. Like earlier movies it tried to persuade viewers to go to a regular physician at the earliest sign of what might be cancer. It warned against delay in seeking competent help; against going to “quacks”; against listening to the unreliable advice of friends; and against turning to home remedies. It taught viewers to recognize the “danger signals” of cancer, encouraged them to go for a regular health check-up from a recognized physician, and urged them to seek medical attention the moment cancer or its possibility was identified.

But Man Alive! also did something new in addition to its use of humorous cartoon animation. It focused on the psychology of cancer. Many films before 1952 had warned viewers that fear of cancer and its treatment might prompt them to delay seeking help. But no cancer education film before Man Alive! had dealt with the psychological consequences of fear in such detail. The movie not only taught its male audiences about the early warning signs of cancer (such as an upset stomach), but also about the warning signs that fear might be clouding their judgment (signs such as denial, sarcasm, icy disdain, and unreasoning anger).

Ed’s fears rule his life. They prompt him to mistreat his wife (who offers sage advice), spend money on useless remedies (for his car and his body), and seek the help of know-nothings and swindlers. He is a suburban innocent tempted by the perilous urban world of Clyde and the quack, where his pretensions to knowledge are always exposed as sham. Man Alive! was thus about much more than cancer. It was also about the dangers of the city, and the pleasures and pains of suburbia, car ownership, and companionate marriage. In the new post-war world of suburban affluence and married life, Man Alive! suggests, men had to identify and confront their inner fears, listen to the calm commonsense of their wives, and turn to reputable professionals when necessary, be they mechanics or physicians.

More information about Man Alive! can be found on the NLM’s new Medical Movies on the Web site, a curated portal that features selected motion pictures from the world-renowned collection of the National Library of Medicine. You can watch the film on NLM’s YouTube channel.