Uncertain Enthusiasm: The American Cancer Society, Public Education, and the Problems of the Movie, 1921-1960

Historians have highlighted a growing medical enthusiasm for public health education movies in the early twentieth century. This essay suggests that there is another historiographic tale to tell, of concerns that films might undermine the public health messages they were designed to promote—concerns that threatened continued interest in movies during the Depression of the 1930s. First, focusing on cancer-education movies aimed at the general public released by the American Society for the Control of Cancer (ASCC, founded 1913), the paper argues that the organization's initial enthusiasm for movies was tempered from the late 1920s by a combination of high production costs, uncertainty as to the effectiveness of movies as public-education tools, and the hard economic situation. It was only after 1944 that motion pictures became a stable part of the propaganda efforts of the renamed American Cancer Society. This transformation followed the takeover of the Society by advertisers and businesspeople, led by Mary Lasker, who introduced business models of fund-raising and education, and made expensive communication technologies, such as movies, central to cancer control. Second, the article also traces the persistence of anxieties that movies might undermine cancer control by encouraging emotional responses

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that led audiences to ignore the lessons the movies were intended to encourage. But whereas such anxieties dampened ASCC enthusiasm for cancer-education movies during the hard economic times of the 1930s, they had no such effect after 1944, and attention shifted to developing techniques of controlling unwanted audience responses.