Sid Davis And His Stranger Danger Films

The melodramatic and shocking educational films of 1950s and 1960s America.

In 1950, movie stand-in Sid Davis was, like the rest of America, horrified by the case of Linda Joyce Glucoft, a six-year-old girl who had been abducted and murdered. The case had led to a plethora of other cases of actual or attempted child abduction and rape being reported, giving rise to something of a national panic. Davis – whose own daughter was the same age as Glucoft and paid little attention to his own warnings of stranger danger – mentioned the problem to John Wayne, who he was doubling for at the time, and said a film ought to be made to bring the problem home to kids. Wayne agreed and suggested that Davis do it himself, advancing him $1000 to get started.

$1000 proved to be exactly what Davis needed to make his first film – indeed, it would remain the budget for all his movies. The Dangerous Stranger was completed in 1950 and told the story of various children who are kidnapped – some to be rescued, some rather less fortunate. Using non-professional actors including real police officers, the film had a less slick style than most movies, but this probably helped make it feel more authentic – the crude production values gave the film a reality that a slicker Hollywood production would’ve lacked.

Davis and his film found a ready audience with schools and police forces, eventually making him £250,000, and Sid Davis Productions was up and running. A style was quickly established – a cautionary tale, told in around ten minutes – long enough to make the point, short enough not to get boring for the juvenile audience -and often made in collaboration with police forces and other authorities rather than actual experts. Keenly aware that films might start to look old-fashioned, Davis would remake his more successful titles, including The Dangerous Stranger, leaving the narrative almost untouched but giving the kids a more contemporary look.

While Davis’ films would cover the gamut of childhood dangers – everything from running with scissors to heroin abuse – he would return to the theme of abduction by strangers on several occasions. This was, after all, a subject that couldn’t be hammered home enough. Unfortunately, one of his films on the subject has become a byword in high camp and outrageous homophobia. Boys Beware is essentially just another Stranger Danger film, but this time it equates paedophile with the homosexual. There’s no ambiguity, as the narrator warns us that Jimmy’s seedy-looking new friend, who takes him fishing, tells off-colour jokes and shows him racy magazines, might not be all he seems:

“What Jimmy didn’t know was that Ralph was sick—a sickness that was not visible like smallpox, but no less dangerous and contagious—a sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual: a person who demands an intimate relationship with members of their own sex.”

To be fair, Boys Beware was made in 1961, when homosexuality was still a criminal act and people didn’t really know any better. What is more baffling is that Davis remade the film in 1973, still making this outrageous and false comparison. At what point this film was finally pulled from circulation in schools is unknown, but the fact that it was made at all seems rather staggering.

In the same year as the original Boys Beware, Davis also shot Girls Beware – never let it be said that he was sexist in his scare stories. For him, every group needed to be warned… and of course, two films instead of one doubled his profits.

Some teachers and parents considered Davis’ films, while certainly hitting home the dangers of strange men – and it is always men – and not falling for their offers of ice cream and free rides, were perhaps a little grim and overly scary. In The Strange Ones, Davis dials back the implied horror of the children who don’t come home. Here, the would-be victims all escape the clutches of abductors just in time, allowing the fear to hit home with the audience while avoiding the more graphic implications of some other films. Again, this 1957 film was successful enough to be remade over a decade later.

Davis didn’t just stop at scaring young kids. Name Unknown sets out to put the fear of God into teenagers who want to drive out to Lover’s Lane and make out, go babysitting or simply accept lifts from boys they don’t know (one of whom is a young Stuart Whitman). The implication that rape and murder are what awaits teenage delinquents is rather hammered home.

Davis’ films present a world where danger exists around every corner, where morality exists on a straight line and anyone who veers away from Judeo-Christian heterosexuality and Middle-American values is not to be trusted. But much of the advice given in the films aimed at young kids is not terrible – telling them not to go off with strangers seems rather sensible, even if the production values and stern narration now feel wildly dated and the homophobia is shameful.

Sid Davis produced around 150 films in his career – no one seems really sure exactly how many, and many haven’t survived. His work is, in many ways, the very definition of ephemeral – made for a purpose, and then cast aside. For many years – certainly throughout the entirety that he was making films – no one considered his work to have any value as art, and little effort was made to preserve or document it. Now, people are belatedly seeing the worth in these movies – odd little dramas that tell us a lot about the times they were made in, good and bad.

DAVID FLINT

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