The lastest archival DVD release from the perpetually inventive folk at the British Film Institute is The Joy of Sex Education. A compilation of British sex education films from 1917 to 1973, it has attracted a fair bit of media attention, not too surprisingly. You can read about the sound film attractions of the release on MovieMail, but this post is just to record the presence of three silent films on the disc, with music accompaniment by Dave Formula (formerly of Magazine). Of these, the most notable title is the earliest – Whatsoever a Man Soweth (1917)
Sex education films, or public hygiene films, first appeared during the First World War, when military authorities became concerned by the spread of venereal disease among soldiers, which was rendering them unfit for duty. Whatsover a Man Soweth, 38mins long, is a British production made by Joseph Best, who had been a newsreel editor and who would go on to direct some intriguing African-themed films in later years (including the Paul Robeson title My Song Goes Forth, 1937). Whatsoever was sponsored by the British War Office for use with for the Canadian Army (there was a close connection between British and Canadian official filmmaking, largely owing to the Canadian Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, heading the War Office Cinematograph Committee), though the film seems to have been exhibited widely among Allied troops in general.
The film sets out not so much to instruct as to scare. Its story concerns Dick, a Canadian soldier on leave in London. He encounters a prostitute outside the National Gallery, but is warned away from her by a passing officer. Dick is then taken to a hospital to see victims of venereal disease, the film taking some delight in showing us rotting limbs. Pages from a Final Report of the Commission on Venereal Diseases explain the nature of hereditary syphilis to the audience, and we get to see the spirochetes in a syphilitic sore under a microscope. But the fun does not stop there. Dick visits a schoolfor the blind, learning that half of the children there became blind through hereditary VD. After the war, Dick’s brother Tom visits prostitutes in London. On his return to Canada, his wife becomes infected with syphilis. Tom undergoes a cure, but his wife gives birth to a baby who is born blind.
Kevin Brownlow writes about the film in Behind the Mask of Innocence, and cites examples of some of the striking intertitles, both coy and direct:
“Do nothing of which you could be ashamed to tell you sister or your mother”.
“Daddy took a chance”.
“There is no such thing as a safe prostitute. They are practically all diseased”.
“Every child has a right to be born clean into this world, and than man is to be pitied whose own flesh and blood looks him in the face to say, ‘Curse you, Dad, I was dirty born and you are the reason why!'”
Brownlow writes about other such films made during the war, such as the American Fit to Win (1917), The Scarlet Trail (1918), Open Your Eyes (1919) and End of the Road (1919). The best-known title of the period to tackle the theme was Damaged Goods, originally a 1902 play by Eugene Brieux and filmed with some boldness in America in 1915 and with great coyness in Britain in 1919 (this survives, but perhaps as it is a drama rather than a sex education film as such it is not included in the BFI set). There was a colour film on venereal disease whose exhibition was organised by Charles Urban for exhibition to troops in London and France in 1917-18. Information on this lost film is scarce, but it sems to have been a Kinemacolor Company of America production from 1913, originally shown at American recruiting stations, which Urban re-exhibited using a refinement of Kinemacolor called Kinekrom. In a 1982 letter from one-time Kinemacolor employee William Crespinel to Kevin Brownlow he recalls “that horrid, yet important medical film on the various stage of syphilis”.
The other silents on the disc are characteristically timid Any Evening After Work (1930, 27 mins) and How To Tell (1931, 21 mins).
The Joy of Sex Education comes with an illustrated booklet which has introductory essays by Tim Boon (Science Museum, London), Hera Cook (Lecturer in the History of Sexuality, University of Birmingham) and Katy McGahan (Non-Fiction Curator, BFI National Archive) who curated the films first as a BFI Southbank show and now as a DVD.
Update: There is a video clip from Whatsoever a Man Soweth (with its decidedly less-than-period soundtrack) on the BBC News site, as part of an article on the history of the sex education film.