In the middle decades of the 20th century, Sid Davis was a prolific director of educational films seen on projectors in school classrooms across America. The nationwide impact of his short films was recognized by the New York Times, where after his lung cancer death at age 90, he received a page-long obituary in 2006. This film empire was all achieved on a low production budget, where economies included using a single vehicle as a prop. Sunny, new and well-maintained schools and parks served as the background, adding a priceless air of real-life to dramatic stories.
Various Southern California School and Police districts sponsored Sid Davis’ work, including Inglewood, Santa Monica, and Los Angeles County. The orderly suburban paradise, with its authority figures of parents, teachers, and police officers; was often held in contrast to Los Angeles’ skid row, which contained drunkards, pool halls, prostitution and nightlife. This dichotomy served as a backdrop for the dire consequences of straying from social conformity, which to its furthest ends included manslaughter and unmarried teen pregnancy. “You had an anchor in a social institution, now you feel adrift”, Sid Davis remarks about a high school dropout.
Despite his stiff morality, Sid Davis makes no appeals to religious authorities: his films are presented for a secular audience. His prime filmmaking years coincided with the Kennedy presidency, and the famous 1962 Supreme Court case on school prayer (Engel vs Vitale). Sid Davis’ films feature a racially diverse cast, first in the pool halls of Los Angeles, then later in integrated suburban settings.
Sid Davis films are a product of their times. For example, a teenage drunk driver is let off with merely a warning and phone call to his parents. Sid Davis’ most infamous short would be 1961’s “Boys Beware”, warning boys about the dangers of pedophiles, who were labelled exclusively as “homosexuals”. The corresponding film “Girls Beware” warned about casual sex, and received better reception among present-day audiences. Other films contained the results of cutting-edge research on the adolescent mind: One short, “Age 13”, features a low-income Hispanic teenager as it sensitively addresses the adolescent grieving process.
Sid Davis’ films present a top-down, “Do as I say, not as I do”, “Father knows best” attitude consistent with the era. A 1970 film, “Keep Off the Grass”, presents a father, holding a cigarette and a cocktail, chastising his son for marijuana use. Sid Davis explains the difference: the casual drinker is unwinding after a productive day, and the marijuana user seeks to detach from any responsibility. Public Service Announcements and social guidance films for youth today tend to focus on the effects of peer pressure, instead of the expectations of authority figures.
The Bottle and The Throttle: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyMRxHDT4x8
The Dropout (1962): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GBx3RKi3j4
Sid Davis’ Obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/09/obituaries/09davis.html