Activity Group Therapy (film #21 on Prelinger Archive). [Category: Educational]

This film, made for mental health professionals in the 40s, provides a fascinating glimpse into the child psychotherapy practices of the time. A group of psychologically-troubled grade-school age boys is treated with "activity group therapy," which mainly involves letting them loose in a playroom and allowing them to do whatever they want. The film was made with hidden cameras, so what we are seeing are real therapy sessions, not reenactments. The therapist intervenes as little as possible, even when the boys commit such acts as swinging saws at each other, breaking into and ransacking cupboards containing materials for other groups, and starting a fire on a hot plate, and the narrator keeps reiterating that this is how he is supposed to be handling these situations. These scenes make you wonder about the judgement, if not the sanity, of the treatment team. Still, by the end of the film, the group has settled down and you do begin to notice significant improvement in the behavior of individual boys, especially the ones that were initially withdrawn and anxious. Of course, the narrator tells us that the group is carefully "balanced" in terms of individual personalities, and that the therapist keeps a watchful eye on things and is prepared to intervene if things get seriously dangerous. And it's obvious that these boys, though psychologically troubled, are not seriously violent delinquents. Still, it is doubtful that such a permissive form of therapy would fly in today's mental health system. And though I can see and acknowledge its effectiveness in this case, I still am not totally convinced that it's a good idea. Another interesting and dated aspect of the film is the repeated concerns that some boys are "effeminate." Effeminancy seems to be defined in this film as being quiet, bookish, and concerned with personal appearance. I will acknowledge that this free-for-all form of therapy seems to be effective in diminishing those qualities in the boys. Overall, this film is a fascinating document of one aspect of mental health treatment in the 1940s. It's films like this that epitomize the concept of "historical interest"––where else but ephemera can you observe such unusual glimpses of the past as this?

Ratings: Camp/Humor Value: N/A. Weirdness: *****. Historical Interest: *****+. Overall Rating: *****.

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