Sid Davis, RIP


In his 1999 book Mental Hygiene: Classroom Films, 1945-1970, Ken Smith introduces the oeuvre of Sid Davis with a bit of context:

By the late 1940s social guidance filmmakers were in a quandary. The world they had created in their films was brimming with positive role models and happy endings, but real life was not so clean and simple. In dark alleys and less-desirable neighborhoods there existed a world of unspoken unpleasantness: substance abusers, sexual perverts, juvenile delinquents. Good kids had to be warned of the dangers; bad kids had to be shown the consequences of bad behavior.

Social guidance filmmakers wouldn't make films about such things. As social engineers they believed that kids would imitate what they were shown, hence films should show only uplifting images. As profit-minded businesspeople they feared that films about disagreeable subjects would upset prudish educators, hurting sales for the rest of their product line. It would fall to someone else, an outsider, to get to the grim task of making mental hygiene films about the nasty side of life.

That someone was Sid Davis.

Davis, who just died at age 90, got his start as a Hollywood extra; from 1941 to 1952, he was John Wayne's stand-in, and it was Wayne who lent him the money to start his own production company. His movies painted a nightmarish world of constant danger—if your kid managed to escape the gay predators who might lurk in any playground or public restroom, they could still be killed in a car wreck or be led ineluctably from pot ("that's jive talk for marijuana") to heroin. Almost anything could be a threat: The key line in his L.A. Times obit is its description of his 1951 film Live and Learn, in which a girl "cuts out paper dolls before she jumps up, trips and impales herself on scissors."

Davis occupies a gray area in mid-twentieth-century America. On the one hand, he was an independent filmmaker with his own vision, shooting ultra-low-budget pictures with few constraints. As Smith wrote, "Society's discomfort with Davis's dark world gave him the freedom to do pretty much what he wanted. No committee of educational advisors oversaw his work, no peer group condemned his excesses." But it was educators who bought his movies, and it was schoolchildren who watched them; his films were frequently narrated by government officials or other authority figures, and they weren't averse to speaking the psychiatric language of the time. Davis might not have been a part of the social-engineering community, but he certainly was part of the social-engineering complex. There's a complicated relationship between the supposedly scientific interventions of credentialed experts and the more nakedly paranoid world of grassroots moral panics. Sid Davis was a bridge from one to the other.

And the movies themselves? You can find a handful of them on YouTube and the Internet Archive. In Smith's words, Davis had "a trancelike style, stripped of anything even remotely approaching drama or human emotion," while his images offered "the visual dynamism of a pancake." That might be the real secret to his success: He managed to make delinquency look boring.