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The Benefits of Looking Ahead (1950)

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Uploaded on Jun 18, 2010

"Nick Baxter" is a sloppy teen with greasy hair and a poorly-knotted necktie. His clean-cut friend, "Don," tells him that he'll end up on skid row if he doesn't come up with some detailed plans for his future. Nick's hammy acting make this a fun film. The fantasy sequences -- where Nick imagines himself as a bum and then a successful businessman -- are high points.

"Who are the people most likely to succeed?" asks the narrator. Well, not Nick Baxter, a senior in high school and slacker in the making, who can't plan ahead. Whether it's building a table in shop class or planning his life's future, he's clueless and, unless he gets his act together, destined to be a bum.

Let's assume for just a moment that Nick is a real person. Since this 1950 film shows him at age 17 or 18, he would have been born in 1932 or 1933--the two hardest years of the Great Depression. This makes him one of the left-behinds--one of the Depression children who didn't get to fight in the war, a sort of middle child between two groups of people who underwent profound experiences completely beyond their control. Is it any wonder that, for Nick, reality bites?

Of course, the other, perhaps more valid, argument is that Nick just doesn't understand what it takes to make it in the fabulous Fifties. Don: "To succeed in something, you have to have a purpose, and make plans for reaching it, and work at it all the time." Nick: "Sounds crazy to me." But Nick's friends get the message, and even Nick sees their futures are pretty much assured already. When Don blithely tells Nick that he's "least likely to succeed," and well on the way to becoming a drifter or a bum, this is the kick in the pants Nick has been waiting for. "That could be me...nothing but a bum."

Nick finds a worthy metaphor for all of his unfinished business in the school shop. Realizing that drawing up a plan is necessary to building a table that can stand on its four legs, he decides to draw up a plan for his own life. "Plans...sketches...measurements...­that's what I have to do with my own future...I've got to look ahead and imagine...what I want it to be like...". He is shortly back on course and in command of his future, and fantasizes himself telling his father that he's been elected chairman of the "Community Club." "Yes, I want a future that's something like that. I want to be happy. Be somebody. Have a good job. Friends. A home. A wife and kids. But how do I get there? If that's my purpose, how do I reach it. How? A detailed plan. How to achieve my purpose. And I'd better be getting at it right now."

Although Nick does lack a detailed plan, he's already got something much more important--a sense of middle-class entitlement peculiar to that postwar period. This is the feeling that the world is made to help him achieve his goals, that it can offer him what he needs if he can only figure out how to take it. I'm not so sure Nick (or even Don) would feel the same way in the 1990s. What's going to take the place of a "future that's something like that?"

This film represents a whole culture of vocational guidance, a panorama of alternative futures for the young that has given life to thousands of books, films and training aids. In this visually minded century, these publications have focused on visual means of expressing abstract ideas like planning ahead, avoiding vocational deadends, and measuring progress towards concrete objectives. But whether it's little cartoons about the "steps to success" or parables taking place in the carpentry shop, the prejudices and kitschiness of this culture have hardly been explored and urgently await the attention of historians.

Producer: Coronet Instructional Films

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