BOOTLEG FILES 649: “Care of Hair and Nails” (1951 educational film about good grooming).
LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube and Archive.org.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: In anthologies of old instructional films.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: The copyright may have expired.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely.
From the late 1940s into the 1970, American schoolchildren were bombarded with a series of 16mm educational films designed to encourage proper behavior. By contemporary standards, the films are rather hokey – and one would imagine that the smarter kids of a distant era were quietly snickering at these well-intentioned but daffy cinematic efforts.
Typical of this output was a 10-minute 1951 short called “Care of Hair and Nails,” which was produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica Films. The purpose of the film was to encourage elementary school children to keep their fingernails free of dirt and to ensure their hair was clean. Now, it should not take 10 minutes to tell a child that fingernails and hair should be properly maintained – and, for that matter, such lessons were really the responsibility of parents and not the school system. Nonetheless, the good folks at Encyclopaedia Britannica Films felt that such information belonged in the school curriculum.
The real problem with the film was how it was framed. The film opens with a strange drawing of an androgynous child with wild hair and overgrown fingernails. The drawing is revealed to be framed and hanging in what appears to be a kitchen in Revolutionary War-era America, complete with an oversized spinning wheel, 18th century cooking utensils and candles propped up in pewter candlesticks. A disembodied grandmotherly voice turns up and tells us, “I always keep that picture on my wall just to remind me how many still need my help.”
The voice then realizes that the audience doesn’t see her, so she helpfully chimes, “Here, let me make myself visible.” After a brief noise that sounds like a 1930s radio being turned to a station, a rather stout older woman dressed in 1770s garb turns up in a wooden chair. She is holding some sort of fabric in her lap – it might be a flag, which would suggest that the woman is Betsy Ross.
The woman happily informs us that she spends most of her time in the state of invisibility, in order to help boys and girls learn good habits without their knowing what she’s up to. She remarks about a current youthful client named Stanley, and then she pulls out what she claims is a magic wand – it looks like a sawed-off curtain rod – to take the viewer into Stanley’s bathroom, where the Nordic-looking tyke is busy scrubbing himself with a washcloth. Alas, the narrator complains that Stanley never cleaned his fingernails. The picture freezes as the woman gently berates Stanley for dirty, grimy fingernails, and the film rewinds so Stanley can take extra time to ensure proper fingernail cleanliness.
Then, the woman claims that she coached Stanley how to wash his hair properly every week. In fairness, Stanley has a killer haircut for a 1951 tyke, so ol’ Betsy Ross clearly knows her stuff.
From here, the woman explains why one finds loose hairs in a hairbrush. “Suppose you had magic eyes,” she exclaims, and then the film uses crude animation to detail hair growth on the scalp. She also lectures on why hair needs to be cleaned regularly, and then we get a brief pointer on when fingernails need to be trimmed. In fairness, the instruction is handled intelligently, even if the context of the lesson makes no sense.
The woman warns that hair can get sick from ringworm, with a case study offered by a bald boy who is smiling inanely. The viewer learns that dandruff is a disease (who knew?), and the woman tell the viewer that parents or teachers must be informed if the sick hair symptoms turn up.
From here, the magic wand comes out and we get to meet Alice, another Nordic-looking child who learned the value of carefully brushing her long blonde hair 100 times until it shines. Alice also gets instruction on how to file her nails, with particular attention given to pushing back her cuticles.
The woman closes the film by reflecting with joy on the fruits of her labor. “Once you’ve learned a good habit, it will work for you all of your life.” And while the woman brags that she helped many, she also frowns with consternation to declare, “There still are some that need my help.”
“Care of Hair and Nails” leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. For starters, why is Betsy Ross popping in and out of invisibility with a magic wand, and why is she interested in the grooming habits of children? And, for that matter, where are the parents of the children? Are they so disconnected from their offspring that they have no idea whether or not the kids are engaged in basic bathroom grooming? And were these kids in an advanced state of slovenliness before getting the Betsy Ross treatment? If so, didn’t anyone complain?
There are no credits on “Care of Hair and Nails,” so we have no clue who was behind the camera to create this unusual work. And, sadly, there is no available data regarding the name of the actress playing the magical Betsy Ross. While this information is lost to us, at least we have prints of the film (albeit slightly worn and scratched). It seems that Encyclopaedia Britannica Films’ copyright expired, thus enabling endless duping for video postings and packaging into anthologies of public domain educational titles.
It might be too easy to make fun of “Care of the Hair and Nails,” but at least the film was sincere in its enthusiasm. And if the youngsters who watched the film turned to classroom violence with bouts of hair-pulling and scratching, at least their delinquency was hygienic.
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