Friday A/V Club: Watch This Old Movie About Stranger Danger and Marvel at How Unsupervised Kids Used to Be
This film's fears can't conceal just how level-headed people were about allowing children a little autonomy.
The Strange Ones (1963) belongs to an evergreen genre of classroom movie, the stranger-danger picture, in which kids are taught tips for avoiding kidnappers and molesters. Many films and videos have been made on this theme over the years, some of them unintentionally funny in dark, weird ways. But The Strange Ones stands out.
That's partly because of the sheer nightmarishness of it: the shadows, the creepy music, the narrator who constantly wanders into horror-movie territory. "Most people in the world are good and nice, but unfortunately, there are some strange ones," she tells us. And: "You never know when there might be a Strange One around." And: "Even if this little boy had seen the man, how could he know that he was a Strange One? There's no way to tell. The Strange Ones look just like everyone else."
Yet watching this in 2014, that atmosphere of dread seems to have settled in a world where people are remarkably level-headed about the actual risks families face. There's no need here for someone like Lenore Skenazy and her Free-Range Kids movement: It's taken for granted that boys and girls will run errands for their parents, walk home from school on their own, go to the park or the movies without an adult, and play unsupervised in public. Even when the narrator suggests that children should not go certain places by themselves, she doesn't say they should stay close to a grown-up; she tells them to "take along a friend."
They're also told they shouldn't hitch-hike. This advice is offered as we watch footage of a young boy thumbing a ride. Evidently, half a century ago it was sufficiently common for pre-adolescents to hitch-hike that someone felt the need to make a movie telling them to stop.
The Strange Ones was directed by Sid Davis, a stuntman turned classroom-film auteur whose movies have attracted a small cult following. (His most infamous effort is probably Boys Beware, on the threat purportedly posed by lurking homosexuals.) After he died in 2006, I wrote that he
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 [film historian Ken] 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.
Bonus link: A few years after The Strange Ones came out, Davis released a quasi-remake—the soundtrack is the same, but the old black-and-white images have been replaced by new color footage. Comparing the two will give you a quick lesson in the evolution of American fashion, architecture, and automobiles.
(For past installments of the Friday A/V Club, go here.)