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Memorandum No. 56: Watch Sex Hygiene, the movie wherein John Ford directed Superman and Batman

“Most men know less about their own bodies than they do about their automobiles.”

John Ford, who made Stagecoach and The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and who won the Academy Award for Best Director four times – not for any of the first-rate pictures I’ve just named – also made a sex-ed film for G.I.s in 1942, the same year he collected his third Best Director Oscar for How Green Was My Valley.

Okay, maybe that’s only funny to me. Anyway, if you think it’s worth 26 minutes of your life to learn how not to catch syphilis from – in the charming patois of Sex Hygiene – “a contaminated woman,” you can watch this not-so-casually misogynistic but highly informative short. Even if you’re already fully briefed on how to protect yourself from the predatory vaginas of dirty, dirty whores, this film has at least two other things to recommend it.

1) It features the greatest reaction shots ever captured on film.

2) Eisenhower-era TV Superman George Reeves and Robert Lowery, who played Batman in the 1949 serial Batman and Robin, appear together briefly in an early scene. So if you want a preview of what next year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice will be like, well… it will probably be like this, at least in hair-gel terms.

“I think it made its point and helped a lot of young kids,” Ford told Peter Bogdanovich, reflecting on Sex Hygiene years later. “I looked at it and threw up.”

I learned of Sex Hygiene – the film, that is – from Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. It’s about how five filmmakers at the top of their profession – Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra – lent their talents to the war effort. It’s a great read.

I’m a fan of Harris’ writing for Grantland and elsewhere; his sharp thinking and elegant prose is on full view in this piece from earlier this week defending the movie Selma‘s forgivable liberties with the historical record. I’d heard him on The Treatment telling Elvis Mitchell about the book months ago. What finally got me to read it was an assignment for my day job at Air & Space / Smithsonian about depictions of World War II flying in the movies. Harris’ book doesn’t deal with that specific subject, but it provides invaluable context about Hollywood during the era.

I’ve had a copy of Harris’s first book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of a New Hollywood, on my shelf for five or six years now. I expect 2015 will be its year.

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