A few months ago my husband and I got a Roku streaming player so that we could stream Netflix movies and shows on our TV. Once it was hooked up, we were delighted to discover that it also gave us access to a bunch of other free channels—cooking stuff, nature documentaries, the Smithsonian Channel, and Midnight Pulp, which advertises itself as “your favorite grimy video store right in your living room” and was full of awesomely terrible B (actually more like C and D) movies. Then one night I stumbled upon a channel we’d never noticed before, and hit the freaking jackpot.
It was late and my brother was over, and we were flipping through channels trying to find something ridiculous to make fun of together. That’s when I caught sight of a channel I’d never noticed before: Pub-D Hub. Its description read: “Classic films, TV shows, cartoons, and radio programs.” Curious, I asked my brother to click over, and a list of categories popped up: Action/Adventure. Cartoons. And then the thing that is making this whole piece sound like a commercial for Roku even though I swear it’s not: Cautionary Films.
Oh my god, you guys. VINTAGE CAUTIONARY FILMS! Aka educational advertising, aka public service announcements. Have you seen these? If you have, then you know why at that moment I yelled, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” like a sports fan watching the Super Bowl. I may have even jumped up and down a little, anticipating a trove of vintage educational videos warning the American public about the dangers of drugs, “heavy petting,” and girls’ not taking home ec. Pub-D turned out to stand for public domain—films whose copyrights had expired, so the channel could play them for free—and it had all that stuff plus movies about proper driving (and walking!!!) skills, party planning, and safety precautions for women working in factories during World War II (no billowing sleeves or jewelry, ladies, they can get caught in the machinery and MAIM you—that film is called, no joke, “Danger—Women at Work!”).
These little dramas began appearing on American televisions (and sometimes before movies in theaters and at drive-ins) during the second world war and were initially aimed at getting people psyched to enlist in the military, buy war bonds, and conserve war materials like fuel. After the war, the PSAs expanded to cover a broad range of subjects, including forest fires, drunk driving, and grooming.
PSAs are still around, of course—there are those ones about bullying, the ones about texting while driving, and that whole “The More You Know” series. But my favorites are the old commercials, especially the ones from the ’50s through the ’70s. And here’s the part where I prove I’m not shilling for Roku: you don’t need a special streaming player or a cable channel to watch these gems. Since they’re all public domain, you can watch them all for free, legally, on YouTube.
I’d suggest you start by searching something like “1960s marijuana PSAs.” That’ll get you such masterpieces as 1969’s “Keep Off the Grass,” in which a Tom, a 35-year-old-looking “teenager,” gets in trouble when his mother finds a joint in his room. She weeps uncontrollably as Tom’s father lectures him about the dangers of marijuana:
I watched that one when I was having a really stressful day, and it had me laughing my ass off. It also had what was probably the opposite of its intended effect on me: when Tom pointed out that his dad had no right to judge his pot smoking when he himself drank and smoked, I was all, “Yeah! What a hypocrite!”
Once you’ve found a couple of these, you can just let yourself slide down the rabbit hole of suggested videos in YouTube’s sidebar—that should be enough entertainment for several evenings. Some of the films are super short, like this hilarious one called “VD Is for Everybody,” which teaches us that everyone—the mailman, the ballerina, the mom of the newborn baby, and who knows, maybe the baby itself—has venereal disease, and perhaps because it’s the ’70s and the lighting is so nice and soft and they’re accompanied by a swinging little tune, they all seem pretty happy about it:
Now, I know STDs are serious (I am the daughter of a public health nurse, after all)! But sometimes I need to laugh at serious stuff to make it less stressful, and the old-timey nature of these films provides enough distance that I can.
Some of these old ads stress me out more, though—like the heinous and infuriating “Boys Beware” and its counterpart, “Girls Beware,” both from 1961, which warn boys about homosexuals (because they’re all mentally ill pedophiles) and girls against flirting with older boys (because they will probably rape you or get your pregnant and it’ll be all your fault). I rolled my eyes and yelled at the TV screen during those, but that felt kinda good too.
My brother and I cracked up like crazy at 1951’s “Duck and Cover,” which employs a cartoon turtle named Bert to demonstrate to children how to react to an atomic bomb—either when the sirens go off or when you happen to notice “the flash” in the sky. As the title suggests, you duck and cover:
At one point they actually suggest covering your face with a piece of newspaper for protection. Newspaper, which (a) is highly flammable, and (b) it’s an atomic bomb, people! What good is newspaper going to do against radiation? Though I guess that’s not really surprising coming from a time when doctors were recommending specific brands of cigarettes to their patients. A fun little side trip you might end up on when you start exploring old cautionary films is old commercials like this Camel ad in which where doctors endorse their favorite smokes:
I love all of these movies for their time-capsule quality: a lot of them were on TV when my mom was a girl, and I feel like they give me a peek into what her world was like. When I mentioned “Duck and Cover” to my mom, rolling my eyes and laughing over its absurdity, she nodded gravely and told me that she remembers being hyper aware back then—at the beginning of the Cold War and not long after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—of every bomb-shelter sign in her town.
I’ve saved the best one for last—it is called “One Got Fat” and it is ostensibly, at least according to the description on Roku, about “bicycle safety,” which sounded so boring to me when I read it that I waited way too long to watch it. Maybe if they had just come out and said it was about creepy-looking half-human, half-simian children who are gruesomely killed off for the most minor traffic infractions while a cheerful adult narrator cheerfully narrates their gruesome deaths and their friends just carry on like nothing happened, I would have gotten here sooner:
Now I make everyone watch it when they come over. I’m not sure what is supposed to be “educational” about it, nor what it is “cautioning” us against (Trusting adults to be kind and reasonable, maybe? Or befriending hideous half-human/half-monkey children?), but it never fails to flabbergast me and fill me with real awe and wonder, and that is a public service indeed. ♦