It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Understanding Your Ideals’

One of the hundreds of educational films made by Coronet (not an exaggeration, by the way), this is kind of a special case. Typically, these ’50s educational shorts are centered around basically ordinary, blandly decent kids dealing with a single, common problem (how to ask a girl out, being shy, etc.). Not this one! This one has an actively unpleasant, selfish, and moronic young man at its center.

Meet Jeff; a bow-tie wearing high schooler chasing the ideal of popularity. He does this by paying close attention to his wardrobe (“thank you, unmonitored clothing drive drop-off box!”), pinning up a photo of the football captain (but apparently not actually observing his behavior, to judge by his late-game realization that the guy does none of the things that he’s been trying), and dating a girl he admits he isn’t all that attracted to, but who everyone likes, all while daydreaming about how many people would want to be his friend if only he had a snazzy car and the right clothes. Then, the night of the school dance, his father (who had promised to loan him the family car) tells him that he’ll have to go back on the promise because grandmother had a fall and his mother has to rush out to take care of her for a few days. Jeff spares not a breath of concern for his aged, injured grandmother, but just keeps whining that his dad promised he could have the car, finally concluding “they just don’t want me to be popular” (“Right. They pushed grandma down and broke her hip to hurt you“). So, rather than take the bus to the dance, he calls his girlfriend and cancels with a lie about being sick.

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“Grandma’s last act was to write you out of her will.”

Does he then do the sensible thing and stay home? Maybe reflect upon his life choices and what a selfish little brat he has become? No! He goes out to the local malt shop, where he tries to show off to a bunch of Freshmen, who proceed to mock him mercilessly (no, seriously; that’s what happens). Then, predictably, his girlfriend walks in (you will be amazed at how sick you get of the word ‘popular’ before this film is over).

The short proceeds to have his father explain the concept of ‘ideals’ to him, though the short doesn’t have a particularly clear view of the subject. ‘Ideals’ end up meaning ‘vision’ or ‘drive’ or just about anything positive.

Needless to say, between the spineless, self-centered protagonist and the vague moralizing, the Rifftrax crew have a field day with this one. “Don’t you see, Dad? I’m the center of the universe!” Things get going right out of the gate when Mike speculates that the overly bombastic title music must be from the sword fight halfway through (prompting Bill to ask, “An educational film with a sword fight?”). The odd framing device of a point-of-view shot from a car driving at night (because ideals are like headlights: “They’re a bit dim”) also prompts some good jokes, as does Jeff’s dog, Stew, who serves as the recipient for his solipsistic musings (“You mean nothing to me”). Meanwhile, the father’s rambling speech on ideals gets a fair number of good jokes (“Aw, now you’re just being socratic and stuff”), though the short’s at its best when Jeff is front and center in his stupendous stupidity (“I’ve got to have ideals like honesty and sincerity…” “A spine and a pair…”).

I have to say, in my experience ’50s educational shorts generally don’t misfire very often. Oh, they can be stupid and ham-fisted, but the basic morals and storylines tend to be solid. This is one of the exceptions; the protagonist is an unlikable idiot whose redemption is far too little, too late, and the thesis is too vague; like they were rushed on this one. The result is a confused, basically pointless short and a very memorable Rifftrax entry.


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