The Bootleg Files: Understanding Stresses and Strains

BOOTLEG FILES 782: “Understanding Stresses and Strains” (1968 animated Disney short for the educational market).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A film that fell through the cracks.

Unlikely, unless it is part of an anthology of Disney’s non-theatrical films.

During the 1960s, Walt Disney Productions began to curtail its output of animated short films for the theatrical market. From a commercial viewpoint, this made perfect sense because fewer cinemas were including animated shorts as part of their exhibition slate.

However, the company did not completely abandon the animated short format. Disney maintained a non-theatrical film unit that continued to produce educational shorts for distribution to schools, corporations, nonprofits and government agencies. Although they were meant to be seen on the somewhat cramped 16mm screen rather than the expansive 35mm or even the XL-sized 70mm screen, these shorts retained the visual style and playful wit that Disney brought to its theatrical work.

One of the most entertaining entries in this genre is “Understanding Stresses and Strains,” which Disney produced on behalf of the Upjohn Company, a pharmaceutical manufacturing firm. Upjohn commissioned Disney to create a series of educational films under the banner “Upjohn’s Triangle of Health” that was meant to address issues relating to wellness that envisioned the concept of health as an equilateral triangle that united physical, mental and social sides into a perfect balance.

“Understanding Stresses and Strains” was the first entry in this series and its focus was on maintaining strong mental health when, according to the short’s narrator, “driven by the pressures of our modern time.” The scene quickly shifts to a hectic morning in a suburban house where a mother in curlers and a bathrobe tries to contain an overboiling pot of oatmeal while a son crams for a test while eating an oversized piece of toast and the father (in business suit) is agitated by a doom-filled newspaper headline and a clock that reminds him of his commuting schedule.

This anxiety is framed by a catchy pop tune with lyrics like “Push, push, rush, rush, drive, drive, go” and the father becomes the center of attention in a stressful drive to work, an even more stressful day at the office under the glare of his boss and unhealthy calming with pills, booze and smoking. Poor old dad winds up at day’s end as a green-hued nervous wreck slumped down in his easy chair.

From here, the film abruptly shifts to live-action nature footage to show what animals can teach man for dealing with stress – because, the narrator reminds us, man is also an animal. Nature provided animals with protective responses to stress, most notably the fear instinct that triggers one of two responses: fight or flight.

Reverting back to the animation, the narrator explains this fear factor exists in the human brain – specifically, in the section of the brain called the diencephalon. Disney’s animators depict this brain function as a jittery caveman hovering over a large red panic button that he readies to push while watching for unseen frights. When the fear instinct “gets the message” (a large electrical bolt zapping the caveman in his rump), the human’s fear instinct comes into play (the caveman smashes the panic button).

The cartoon goes into thumbnail detail on how the inner organs respond to the caveman pushing the panic button when stressful situations – the father in an unstable job, the son worrying over a school exam – occur. It also depicts how a constant state of stress wears down the body, with the father being taken away in an ambulance due to severe ulcers.

Since “Understanding Stresses and Strains” is barely 10 minutes long, the conclusion is somewhat abruptly wrapped up with the narrator reminding the viewer that “using basic common sense” will ultimately mitigate the mental health burden created by a stressful life. Well, at least the film didn’t push pharmaceuticals as a solution – after all, this wasn’t a Sackler family production.

Upjohn and Disney followed up “Understanding Stresses and Strains” with another animated short in 1968 called “Steps Toward Maturity and Health.” Two more shorts followed in 1969 – “The Social Side of Health” and “Physical Fitness and Good Health” – before the series paused until the 1979 “Understanding Alcohol Use and Abuse.” The series went on hiatus until 1992 when four live-action shorts were made, and then the series ended.

Some non-pristine prints of “Understanding Stresses and Strains” can be found floating about the major online video sites. The film’s ownership rights are murky and it is not available on the Disney label’s home entertainment formats. For a 1960s understanding of how mental health issues can be explained through the Disney spectrum, this obscure little film is a vintage gem.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with new episodes every Monday. Phil Hall’s new book “Jesus Christ Movie Star” is now available from BearManor Media.