Aug 4, 2012

The Outsider (1951) - The Snob (1958)

One of the best and most prolific studios who produced those educational films we used to watch in public school, was Centron, based in Lawrence Kansas. Founded in 1947 by Lawrence H. Wolf and Russell A. Mosser, Centron’s educational films often stood apart from other studios producing mental hygiene movies, because they approached the material visually, as though they were making commercial movies. They didn’t rely so much on stagnant devices like talking heads and narration to enlighten the student body. Rather, the message would be wrapped up in narrative stories, and despite the meager budgets, these ten-minute epics were often well-produced little movies.  It is for this reason that many of their films even today are still worth seeing for their engaging storytelling and visual ideas.

Mind you, the subtext of these pictures (like many educational films in general) emerge today as being rather corny for their really square protagonists, but in truth, it may be that these movies already felt that way when they were originally released back in the 1940s and 50s. As youth became more prominent with each new generation, Victorian values began to change, and the white picket fence mentality that pervades many mental hygiene films seemed too squeaky clean for its own good.

By far the most important genre in all of educational films is that of social engineering. It manifested the number one reason that educational films were ever made: FEAR! Further, the social engineering films cleverly illustrated their scare tactics by showing the dire consequences of deviating from the social norm. In other words, such things as not making the bed would ostracize one from the rest of society. These pictures are often troubling today for their implicit social conditioning and sexual stereotyping (witness how subservient females are to males).

ABOVE: The Outsider. Note the framing, the lighting and even the positioning of the American flag, to suggest how Susan Jane is ostracized from the rest of the status quo. 

Many of the social guidance films that still do feel contemporary are by Centron. Their pictures, produced in conjunction with Young America Films, would follow their formula of being well-produced mini-movies, but would also have an open, unresolved ending, which would force the class to discuss what they had seen, and perhaps what would-should happen next. Many classroom films felt like cheats for their lazy unresolved conclusions. The Young America – Centron films on the other hand, had psychologically complex stories that would offer much discussion afterwards.

Of that remarkable output, two of the best are The Outsider (1951) and The Snob (1958), both featuring the gifted young actress Vera Stough.


The Outsider (1951)
Director: Arthur H. Wolf
Writer: Margaret Travis
Producers: Arthur H. Wolf and Russell A. Mosser
Cinematographer: Norman Steuwe
Centron; 12 min; B&W

Vera Stough (Susan Jane)

This is one of the best social guidance films, because it actually invests a lot of investigation into why the character Susan Jane is such a social misfit.  This little girl tries to fit into the social norm, but her attempts at doing so often fail due to misunderstandings.  To her credit, she makes the effort of going to them instead of waiting for them to come to her, by sitting with all the kids at the ice cream parlour.  But when the other kids order an ice cream, instead of the root beer she ordered, she interprets this as a signal of non-acceptance and runs off crying.  Later, in a neat shot that is reminiscent of a split-screen effect, she overhears two girls in the hall talking about not inviting someone to Marcy’s party on Friday night, and mistakenly believes they are talking about her.  Marcy goes to Susan Jane’s house to personally invite her to the party, and our heroine vows to work hard to fit in, from proper dress to not talking about herself.  The film ends on the ambiguous note, of course, just before she is to leave for the party, and title cards ask the audience what they think the fate of Susan Jane would be, and if our group has ever known anyone like her… or for that matter, if we are like her. 

This film was surprisingly made with a lot of care, even with attention to neat visuals.  The final scene heavily uses mirrors to give double images of Susan Jane, causing one to reflect just before she makes that crucial moment to fit in to the norm.  Unlike many of the “What do you think?” school of educational filmmaking, The Outsider paints a complex portrait of a shy individual, and offers suggestions that both outside factors and even her own awkwardness are contributing to her being out of the in-crowd.  Someone wisely thought to include a scene of Marcy asking her friends if somehow they are responsible for the girl’s not being able to fit in.  This question of course is not answered in the scene—that is left open for the viewers to discuss later.


The Snob (1958)
Director: Herk Harvey
Writer: Margaret Travis
Producers: Arthur H. Wolf and Russell A. Mosser
Cinematographer: Norman Steuwe
Centron; 12 min; B&W

Vera Stough (Sarah), Harper Barnes (Ron), Henry Effertz, Brady Rubin, Bret Waller

The girl who played Susan Jane in The Outsider is back- older and still out of the social status quo. On a Friday night, Sarah sits in her bedroom working on algebra, while next door, Ron and his friends are having their traditional Friday night bash, with good food, and all kinds of groovy jazz playing.  Sarah doesn’t want anything to do with them, nor do they with her.  However, Ron’s mother politely reminds him of the fact that when he was little, Sarah was the one who looked after him while had a fever.  That was a time, though, before Sarah went to junior high and got all hoity-toity.

What is so striking about The Snob is its maturity.  The performances are all realistic and the filmmakers approach this project like they were making a Hollywood movie (there is some inventive camerawork, and beautiful lighting).  This would be all for naught though, if the writing wasn’t easily as strong.  Happily, we get commentary from both sides about Sarah’s demeanour.  Her obsession ambition to succeed in school thusly results in a lot of misunderstandings with her classmates.  She tries too hard to fit in—her entry for the design of the yearbook is turned down in favour of someone else (we are not told why, but it may be that the other person won because he is well-liked, even if his entry could possibly be inferior to Sarah’s).  This surprisingly complex film is a labyrinth of misunderstandings and imagined slights.  Sarah’s contempt for her classmates could likely result from a conflict that she and her adversaries have long forgotten.  Is she so obsessive at being perfect (which thusly turns off everyone else) in an effort to fit in, or because she really feels superior to her schoolmates?  Is her “Who needs them?” attitude to her classmates a result of past failed attempts to fit in?

This all comes to a head when she is finally invited to another of Ron’s Friday night’s bashes.   She locks horns with newly elected school president, and runs out crying.  The film ends on this moment- asking the viewer “What next?’’ But this ending is not a cop-out, because even this final act stems from misread signals of both Sarah and her classmates. 

This is an amazingly complex film, with enough food-for-thought to fill something four times its length. Sarah’s conversation with her father, where we finally see her Achilles heel, is quite memorable- he says little, but his facial reactions ream volumes about his inability to help or understand his daughter’s behaviour.

In keeping with Centron’s usual quality, the performances, the direction, even the editing, are all top-drawer. (Today this film is even more interesting as one of the many industrial films made by Herk Harvey, who attempted to break into the movie business with his sole feature film, the cult classic Carnival of Souls.) The excellent Vera Stough, who plays Sarah (and the immortal Susan Jane), apparently did go to Broadway, and had some bit parts in 70s movies and TV series, but her work here suggests that she could have gone to far greater things.  

You can view both films below...

The Outsider:

The Snob:


Claudio Villalobos Barrera said...

thank you very much for this !! I really enjoyed these films

plebny said...

I appreciate this information and I enjoyed those two videos, too.