By Sarah Eilers
“Daddy, you kicked George!”
Paul, a small boy who’s been playing happily in the bath with his pet turtle, George, looks up at his father standing in the doorway, ready to hand him a towel and his teddy bear. Preparing to dry himself, Paul sets the turtle on the floor. Father steps into the bathroom, then does a dramatic slip and stumble as he nearly crushes George. “That infernal turtle!” A foot swings into the frame and George sails into a wall of porcelain.
This anger-infused scene unfolds in a film titled Fears of Children, one of several commissioned by the Mental Health Film Board in the 1950s as part of its “Emotions of Everyday Living” series. The Mental Health Film Board was created as a division of the National Committee for Mental Hygiene, founded in New York by a group of psychiatrists and a man named Clifford Beers, who had been institutionalized for mental illness several times. This decade saw a movement to better understand mental health and illness as well as predictable human emotions, including those of children who, psychiatry had begun to recognize, were not miniature adults.
Paul, the boy in the film, is overprotected by his mother, who fears constantly for his safety, and wary of his father, who is impatient and critical. As a result, the film suggests, Paul is easily frightened, resentful, and uncommunicative. But he knows what he’d like to do. Following the turtle-kicking, Paul attempts to drown his teddy bear in the bathroom sink.
Film and television historian Paul Mavis notes in a review of Fears of Children that director Francis Thompson offers “attention to the mise-en-scene that’s almost unheard of in films like these….[he] uses a series of menacing, low-angled shots and extreme close-ups to forcefully get across the plight of poor Paul.”
The National Library of Medicine holds another title in the “Emotions” series. Angry Boy was directed by Alexander Hammid and written and produced by Irving Jacoby, who was involved in several of the films, and along with his wife Alberta Jacoby, helped found the Mental Health Film Board. Angry Boy features Tommy, who’s been caught stealing from a teacher’s purse. Rather than simply punish him, school administrators respond with helpful sympathy, referring Tommy and his mother, Mrs. Randall, to counseling. We learn that Mrs. Randall has problems with her own mother, and that image and propriety are important to her.
Sprinkled chronologically throughout the film are drawings by Tommy, giving the viewer insight into his struggles and his progress. Examining the drawings early on, his therapist comments that there’s “an awful lot of hate in them, and in the boy.”
The therapist then conducts a “picture story test.” He shows Tommy a photo of a woman, a boy, and a police officer talking in the doorway of what is presumably the home of the woman and boy. He asks Tommy to think of a story that might go along with it. Bizarrely, Tommy comes up with, “She doesn’t want to let [the boy] into the house, because she’s ashamed of him because he killed the neighbor’s dog and she’s going to have to pay for it.”
Meanwhile, Mrs. Randall feuds with her mother and reacts negatively to Mr. Randall’s news that he’s been offered a promotion that might require a temporary relocation, scolding him that he can’t just wander around the way he did when was single. But she wilts when herself scolded by her mother, who is displeased with Mrs. Randall’s incompetent washing of lettuce leaves for salad.
In both of these films, the responses of children to difficult outside pressures are treated as understandable, and worthy of compassion and help. So, too, are the parents worthy, even as their flaws are made clear. In both films, trained professionals are central to turning things around.
Other titles in the “Emotions” series (not held by NLM) include Roots of Happiness, about a Puerto Rican family, The Steps of Age, about the physical, social, and familial challenges experienced by elderly people, and Farewell to Childhood, about the dynamics between adolescents and their parents.