Health Education Films of the Silent Era: A Historical Analysis

By Sofalvi, Alan | International Electronic Journal of Health Education, Annual 2011 | Go to article overview

Health Education Films of the Silent Era: A Historical Analysis


Sofalvi, Alan, International Electronic Journal of Health Education


Introduction

Since the production of films began on a widespread basis, they have been divided into genres. (1) One such genre is educational. (2) Motion pictures have long been used as a health education technique; they are mentioned in the American Journal of Public Health in 1912. (3) The purpose of this article is to describe educational films of the silent era, detailing health information and recommendations found in the films. The focus will be on those films available on YouTube or other websites; films available on DVD will also be described.

How silent films were used to spread health messages

Before audio was introduced into films, use of films for educational purposes was known as visual instruction or visual education. (4-6) Most health-related films of the era were designed not just to inform but also to convince people to modify conduct. (7) By 1914 films had already been accepted as an educational method, and perhaps taken for granted; at a joint meeting of the American Public Health Association and the National Mouth Hygiene Association, the Director-General of the National Mouth Hygiene Association said "the motion picture, as a device for popular education, has been perfected and exploited so thoroughly that it only needs to be mentioned." (8(p405)) Bauer and Hull (9) stated in 1937 that silent pictures were shown more often than films with sound for health education purposes, even though sound films were widespread by the late 1920s or early 1930s. (10)

Turner (11) grouped health education films of the silent era into four categories, primarily based upon their suitability for classroom use. First was the "long drama". (11(p270)) These pictures were shown to the general public in theatres and weren't suitable for classroom use because of their length. (11) Second was the "propaganda film" (11(p270)), made by a group to be shown to promote interest in supporting the group. Turner11 also placed films that promoted certain types of food or beverage as being healthy into this category. The third category consisted of films "prepared for a general audience, rather than to fit the school curriculum". (11(p270)). Information in these films met the scientific standards of the time; the question about these films was their suitability for the classroom. (11) The final kind of film was designed for classroom use: these films were made to aid in instruction, not take the place of the teacher. (11) These pictures didn't have to be entertaining, in Turner's view: a student was "on the job to learn. That is his business, to get information, and it is not necessary to make an appeal to his interests to maintain his attention". (11(p270))

Selected health education films of the silent film era

Films described for this article were made in cooperation with health agencies or health professionals of the time. These films are available on DVD and/or on YouTube or similar sites. They are described in chronological order.

Hope, A Red Cross Christmas Seal Story was made in 1912. The picture was sponsored by the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis, the forerunner of the American Lung Association, and was produced by Thomas Edison's film production company as part of a series of films that "were probably the first film series produced for health education". (12(p22)) The picture deals with the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis and tells the story of a woman who contracts the disease and seeks treatment. (12) The films in this series were connected to the sale of what were then known as Red Cross Seals, now known as Christmas Seals). (12-14) For several years in the early 20th century, Red Cross Seals were sold in a collaboration between the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis and the Red Cross. (13,14) This film is available on the Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film DVD (12) and as of July 25, 2011 was available at dailymotion. …

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