By Sarah Owen and Sarah Eilers
“Sanctuary, refuge, hospital….The doors are locked, but it’s not a prison that we enter….This is his job, his living. This ward is his work world.”
The film Man to Man (1954) takes the viewer inside the day-to-day job of ward aide Joe Fuller, who supervises and tries to connect emotionally with a group of men undergoing treatment in a psychiatric hospital. The men are hurt, and Joe takes a parental role in caring for them. In the ward, patients recover through occupational and recreational therapy, relearning communication and life skills. Joe uses “one of the most important tools at his disposal”—time. Through his continued patience and effort, he earns the trust of one resident, Mr. Rusk, an older man who is catatonic. Joe encourages Mr. Rusk to smoke his pipe, something that used to give him pleasure, and to play checkers with Joe. Initially, Mr. Rusk won’t so much as touch the checkerboard. Joe simply waits. He is present for Mr. Rusk.
One day on the ball field, Mr. Rusk speaks, calling Joe by the name “Harry.” Joe takes the initiative to find out who Harry is, and learns that he was Mr. Rusk’s son, killed in World War II. Joe redoubles his gentle efforts with the man.
The arrival of an unsympathetic new aide, Mr. Harve, challenges Joe’s approach. Harve acts as a foil to Joe, declaring that he doesn’t go for this modern stuff. He resorts to physical means to control patients, or he belittles them.
Despite their differences, Joe and Harve develop a rapport. Like Harve, Joe, a former radio repair shop owner, fell into psychiatric work for lack of other opportunities. The two discuss leaving the job and finding new careers. When Harve gleefully tells Joe he’s found a position in a factory, Joe jokes, “Well. Some people get all the breaks.” Mr. Rusk, working nearby, overhears the conversation and begins to regress, refusing to talk or cooperate with Joe. Their fragile friendship breaks down, and Joe is angry at himself.
This film both challenges and conforms to gender roles and expectations common to the era. Joe is a nurturer. Mr. Rusk is a father paralyzed by grief, institutionalized, while his wife, Mrs. Rusk, is at home, carrying on. Nurse O’Malley, a veteran registered nurse and the only woman in the film, is the medical expert. Mr. Harve is tough—but also ineffective, taking what some might call a counter-productively masculine approach to handling the patients.
After Mr. Rusk regresses, Joe questions whether or not he’s suited for this work, and it’s his masculine qualities that Nurse O’Malley emphasizes to encourage him to stay on. She persuades Joe that in fact, these qualities and his ability to apply them gently make him uniquely positioned to help men such as Mr. Rusk “man to man.” He may be as “patient as a mother,” but he also uses it like a “tool,” as a man would. His masculinity allows patients like Mr. Rusk to relate to him.
Man to Man was produced as a training film, and Joe and Mr. Harve’s experiences in the ward parallel those of some employees at Fairfield State Hospital in Newtown, Connecticut, where it was filmed. Like many mental hospitals across the country, Fairfield was perpetually overcrowded and understaffed. It opened in the 1930s, and by the late 1950s, only eight of the fifty wards had a registered nurse. Staff turnover was high, personnel transferred often among wards, and rarely did they develop strong relationships like that of Joe Fuller and Mr. Rusk. But as the film teaches, it was not impossible, and it could be critical to a patient’s progress.
Man to Man is one of several films in a professional education series sponsored by the Mental Health Film Board, an organization founded by Irving and Alberta Jacoby in 1950. The Mental Health Film Board also sponsored the Emotions of Everyday Living series, presented in an earlier blog post.