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How to Be Popular: 5 Helpful Films From the 1940s

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In decades past, short films were used in classrooms to show young people how to get along in society. They were starchy, unrealistic, and authoritarian. Despite all that, most of the advice they give isn’t bad. They promote courage, kindness, and inclusiveness (unless you’re Jenny—see below). It’s the package the information is delivered in that’s the problem. Here we look at mid-century ideals of How To Be Popular.

1. Are You Popular?

I’ll tell you who isn’t popular. Jenny. That make-up-caking, over-accessorized floozy who thinks parking in cars with boys is the key to popularity. In daylight, none of those boys will even make eye contact with her. There is a reason they’re called “ladies of the night,” Jenny.

Then take Caroline, who floats through the film like a large Shirley Temple on Xanax. She is on the path to being beloved by all. She helps wrangle props, and only accepts dates offered a week in advance, because she is a lady of quality.

That’s why she has to turn down Jerry, the short-sighted chap who thought he could get a same-day date with her. Who does she look like, Jenny?

2. The Other Fellow’s Feelings

In the 1950s, bullies who didn’t do actual bodily harm to their victims got to wear the much more innocent moniker of “teasers.” In this film, you’ll meet Jack, who is an absolute ass. It’s not enough that he “accidentally” knocks Judy’s first real perfume out of her hand and shatters it, he has to go on for weeks “teasing” her about how smelly she is. Judy doesn’t tattle, or retaliate, and no one defends her with any heart. Eventually she breaks down, unable to take it anymore. When the film asks the final question, “What would you do?” it’s hard to think of any responses that don’t involve establishing an alibi first.

3.The Snob

Sarah works harder than you, schlub. She studied for hours for the history test, not like the rest of those apple-polishers. She worked her pencil-skirted patoot off to design a classy yearbook cover, but everyone chose that galoot Bill Tyler’s instead! No one appreciates her. So Sarah spends Friday nights with her only friend, Algebra, glaring daggers at Don’s never-ending party pad across the yard. Because Sarah is a snob. Can she be helped? Should the gang judge her so harshly? And what of the yearbook cover? So many questions left dangling.

4. The Outsider

The narrator of this film spends the majority of the story endeavoring to irreparably damage the psyche of a young girl.

This film starts with poor, unwanted Susan Jane, huddled against a wall, watching other children, even the fat ones, enjoy life. From there she must endure the merciless taunting of the narrator:

“Susan? Susan Jane. What’s the matter with you? Why is everyone else having such a good time when you’re not? Why do they always leave you out? What makes you the outsider? The Outsider. The one who never gets asked.”

The narrator keeps pace with all of little Susan’s failures. Not invited to a study date? “Even in things you’re good at, why do they make you the outsider?” Order a root beer while everyone else ordered chocolate ice cream? “Why are you the one who’s always out of step?” You disgust me, Susan Jane.

He works so efficiently that when poor Susan Jane does get invited to a party, she drops the phone and collapses into heaving sobs of shame over her unworthiness. Even in the last frames, as Susan bravely prepares to attend the party putting everything she has into presenting herself as a likable girl, that bastard is on her heels. “But is this enough? Will it work? Will the gang accept you, Susan Jane?”

We are never told the answer. Hopefully because the happiness Susan Jane finds silences the demon voice forever.

5.The Shy Guy

Suppose you were an alien who had recently taken over the body of a teenage boy. How would you go about best understanding the human teenagers around you, and convince them that you were one of them? This 1947 film, The Shy Guy, would be your guide.

Phil (Dick York, the first Darrin from Bewitched) spends a lot of time in the basement, wearing a disheveled suit and playing with radios, presumably to contact the home world. He is failing horribly at his assimilation directive. His mission commander (called “Dad”) councils Phil to “keep an eye” on the most popular kids in school to learn of their ways.

Phil, dressed in the worst “It’s okay, I’m one of you!” camouflage sweater on Earth, begins his observations of humans in their natural habitat. Eventually Phil and “Dad” come to the conclusion that the key to fitting in with the humans is to display similar emotions to theirs, and feign empathy for their weakened human condition. The film closes with Phil using his superior knowledge of electronics to successfully infiltrate the population.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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