Before loners, stoners, slackers, geeks, and nerds became recognized misfits of American high-school cinema, there was Phil (played by a young Dick York), the shrinking violet of Shy Guy (1947). The first of many “personal guidance” or “mental hygiene” shorts produced by Coronet Instructional Media between the 1940s and 80s, Shy Guy was designed to be screened in the classroom — the environment where our protagonist falters. Recently enrolled in a new school after moving from Morristown, Phil is having trouble fitting in. “In class it’s not so bad”, says our narrator, “but when school’s out and the others go off to enjoy themselves, well, if you’re what they call a shy guy, that’s when you really feel it.”
We meet the shy guy from behind, looking through the window of a local drugstore, as soda jerks serve malts and cokes to booths of smiling, well-adjusted teens. “You’re on the outside looking in”, we are told, “there’s a barrier and you don’t know how to begin breaking it down.” It’s an affecting opening: all the loneliness and distance of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, painted five years earlier, driven home by the camera angle and our narrator’s second-person address. If Phil is a shy guy, we are even more so — placed at a double remove from the object of his voyeuristic longing.
Dad will help. We cut to home, where Phil is soldering a transmitter and microphone in the basement. He can’t figure out how to wire in the oscillator. “I know I have to connect it to the amplifier, but where? It just doesn’t fit in!” Well son, begins his father, “maybe school is like your radio. This oscillator will do its work well, but you still have to fit it in, so it can work with all the other parts”.
There’s nothing subtle about the social message. Yet it’s a surprisingly explicit cybernetic conception of American society in the early days of economic acceleration. Phil doesn’t need to actualize or individuate, he just needs to wire himself into the right circuitry. As Zoë Druick writes, in a paper on postwar education, “cybernetics was championed after the war as an apolitical universal model for technological civilization . . . educational and documentary media in particular are genres in strategic positions to operationalize social visions.” For real-life shy guys, films like these could supposedly decrease social latency. Watching a cinematic version of a self-help text, we glimpse the aspirational role of educational media at this time, how, using literature’s age-old tricks of empathy and identification, it sought to correct behavior and achieve a specific societal vision.
Shyness, then, is not merely a personal inconvenience. It was a detrimental bug in the civilization-building machine. During her study of shyness, power, and intimacy in the United States after World War II, Patricia A. McDaniel reminds us that “emotions are social experiences, or processes, rather than visceral sensations that happen to our unwitting bodies”. In mid-century America, shyness became a familiar topic in self-help manuals pitched at white middle-class men. Not only was overcoming timidity essential for establishing a productive heterosexual relationship, it also translated directly into the booming white collar labor market. Instead of doing business with “timid, lukewarm Caspar Milquetoast”, as one text labeled the shy guy type, customers preferred to shake hands with people like Chick Gallagher, the popular boy at Phil’s high school. “Echoing the advice given to young girls to be discreet in advertising their interest in a particular boy”, writes McDaniel, “self-help authors argued that the key to appealing to others in the business world was to show just the right amount of self-restrained interest in them.”
And this is exactly how Phil comes to win friends and a romantic interest: he learns to “listen” and “think about the other guy”. Taking the advice of his pocket-square-suited father, who himself “had quite a time making friends in a new office where everybody else knew each other”, the shy guy begins to reverse engineer popularity: “pick out the most popular boys and girls in school and keep an eye on them”. But Mean Girls this is not. He soon learns that women like Jane Davenport are beloved because they attune to others. Unlike his hobbyist audio equipment, she successfully completes the feedback loop of communication and amplifies social signals. “She’s listening! Hearing about Helen’s collection of menus. And liking it! That makes her kingpin with Helen.” Returning to the drugstore, we cheer as Phil gets hailed over to a booth by Chick, enfolded into a masculine acoustic order because the women will not stop conversing noisily about shopping: “We men need some support to run down this girly chatter”. Phil gets invited to tomorrow night’s mixer, locking eyes across the drugstore with Mary Lou whose face dissolves in a blur transition. At the mixer, students finish a sing-along to the minstrel song “Oh! Susana” — a detail that perhaps reveals who is allowed to fit so seamlessly into this vision of middle-class America — and Phil hears the boys asking Beezy Barnes about radios. Beezy hesitates: the communicative circuit is momentarily broken. And Phil bravely fits himself into the gap. “They know he’s alive now”, the narrator says, “and strangely enough, he’s just discovered that they’re alive.”