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Reel Classroom: The best educational films

Hygiene, manners, dating and more—classroom films explained it all in the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

For several generations of us, one of the joys of grade school was returning to the classroom after recess to discover a film projector aimed at a white screen. The subject of the tightly wound reel of celluloid could be anything from a tutorial on table manners to a tour of the Grand Canyon. Better yet, once we reached our teens, the possibilities for educational films broadened to include more entertaining topics, like teenage rebellion, dating and, yes, even the mysteries of kissing.

Confronting these subjects in our typically dull homeroom was awkward bordering on surreal, making the experience unforgettable. We may have joked about the educational films on the bus ride home, but many of us remain profoundly affected by what took place in those darkened classrooms.

Further your knowledge with this list of educational film favorites in the gallery below.

Dating: Do's and Don'ts (1949)

No. 1: A tie between "Are You Popular?" (1947) and "Dating: Do's and Don'ts" (1949). Not only did these two charmers help define the genre of social guidance films, they’re especially fun to watch. The instruction may seem obvious now, but back in the day, such info was harder to come by in many communities.

Duck and Cover (1951)

No. 2: "Duck and Cover" (1951). Created for schools by the federal Civil Defense Authority, Duck and Cover may be the best-known of all classroom films. Sugarcoating the subject of a nuclear attack on American soil might seem impossible, but this film attempts to do just that with a chipper theme song and an animated turtle named Bert.

Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953)

No. 3: Tie between "Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom" (1953) and "Donald in Mathmagic Land" (1959). Leave it to Disney to produce Oscar-worthy educational films. Both features brim with beautiful, original animation that’s as timeless as the information they convey. Anyone investing 45 minutes in these two shorts will come away with a better understanding of musical instruments and the importance of mathematics, not to mention a big smile.

One Got Fat (1963)

No. 4: "One Got Fat" (1963). An unconventional bicycle safety film in which children don monkey masks that resemble skulls. One by one the monkey children disobey the rules of the road and suffer the consequences, as actor Edward Everett Horton narrates in bedtime-story fashion. Some of yesteryear’s viewers reported lasting nightmares, while one online reviewer describes it as “a masterpiece.”

Our Mr. Sun (1956)

No. 5: "Our Mr. Sun" (1956). This production from Bell Laboratories raised the bar for what an educational film could be. The big-budget hourlong feature first aired on prime-time television before it landed in classrooms. Directed by Frank Capra, it features Eddie Albert, a classical score, animated sequences and miles of stock footage. More than half a century later, it remains pertinent and fascinating.

Shy Guy, 1947

No. 6: "Shy Guy" (1947). In this classic, we eavesdrop on the thoughts of a timid teen named Phil who’s trying to get his foot in the social door. Phil makes mental notes like There must be more to getting along with people than just wearing a sweater and listening. You may recognize the bashful protagonist as Dick York, best known as the first Darrin Stephens on the TV sitcom Bewitched.

More Dates for Kay, 1952

No. 7: "More Dates for Kay" (1952). While she appears to be an average student going about her day, Kay’s every move is actually designed to attract boys. Any boy will do. In this instructional film for girls, Kay demonstrates how to feign interest in various subjects, how to appear helpless and how to help others for personal gain. Kay makes single-mindedness an art form, and watching her work is a joy.

Paper and I (c. 1950s)

No. 8: "Paper and I" (c. 1950s). In this surreal pick from the Texas Forest Service, a brown paper sack comes to life and indoctrinates a young boy in the origins and value of paper. Watching the boy perplex his parents as he grows obsessed with the bag’s message is more entertaining than it should be. The film turns prophetic when it depicts a world without paper, where newspapers and books are a thing of the past.

It's Everybody's Business (1954)

No. 9: "It's Everybody's Business" (1954). This appealing featurette is a terrific example of how animation can make very complex subjects—in this case, capitalism—easy to digest. Its art director, Maurice Noble, also worked on Walt Disney’s "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs", as well as many classic Looney Tunes.

Dating: Do's and Don'ts (1949)Duck and Cover (1951)Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953)One Got Fat (1963)Our Mr. Sun (1956)Shy Guy, 1947More Dates for Kay, 1952Paper and I (c. 1950s)It's Everybody's Business (1954)

Educational Films List and story by Kirk Demarais, author of Mail-Order Mysteries: Real Stuff from Old Comic Book Ads, published by Insight Editions


{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Michelle Taylor July 3, 2013 at 10:04 am

Johnny Tremain was my absolute favorite school film! Anyone remember that one?


Latesha Stephens September 5, 2013 at 1:39 am

Very good one! My family still enjoys that one!


Wendy July 6, 2013 at 7:09 am

I remember seeing “Paper and I” in school and how we all laughed at the part that showed what the world would be like without paper. Almost all of the examples have been replaced.


Kelley September 4, 2013 at 11:37 am

Look for these on YouTube! “Are You Popular” is there along with many others.


Latesha Stephens September 5, 2013 at 1:37 am

Is there anywhere that I could find, watch, and hear these videos? They look very interesting!


yasunori June 11, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I admit it. I was an “AV Monitor” (which was a much sought after elected position in my grade school). My favourite films were the old Disney-made educational cartoons, like “Donald in Mathe-magic Land”, or “Mr. Wheeler and Mr. Walker”. I also particularly liked the science films, like “Our Friend the Atom” and “Hemo the Magnificent”. There were of course the obligatory Civil Defense films and hygiene and manner films too.


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