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Wellcome Film of the Month: Get Fit!

3 Aug, 2012

This jaunty black and white public health film sponsored by the British Medical Association (BMA) aims to encourage the audience to use the National Eye Service, an organisation aimed at providing eye testing for people with low incomes. It provides an example of the BMA’s involvement in promoting public health at that time.

The film takes a very surprising approach to communicate this initiative: most of the film is occupied with a patriotic, stirring homage to the ‘Great Keep Fit Movement’. Its opens with widespread dismay at the nation’s health and fitness at the time, communicated by the alarmist newspaper headline, “NATIONAL HEALTH, GRAVE ANXIETY”.

Britain in 1937 was recovering from the Great Depression (at least in the South East) with a boom in house building, expanding manufacturing and more jobs as a consequence of re-armament in response to the rise of Nazi Germany. Greater prosperity meant increased disposable income and leisure time; a dramatized conversation is overheard between elderly gentlemen playing dominoes (possibly in a public house), one smoking a pipe. The other man speaks enthusiastically (but with no irony) about the solution to our health; get more “h-exercise”! Through various media (newspapers, radio, movies), the message to “get fit!” is promoted.

Eyes Right! was made a year after the 1936 summer Olympics were held in Munich, Germany. The spectacle of the games (particularly the mass displays) would have been familiar to cinema audiences of 1937 from newsreels shown at the time. Hitler commissioned a film about the Olympics by Leni Riefenstahl, Olympia, which was released in 1938. It is still regarded as being a cinema classic, although Riefenstahl’s involvement in National Socialism undermined its artistic credibility.

Eyes Right! makes use of the cinematic device of a film within a film. A cinema audience is shown a short sequence from a (presumably fictional) cinemagazine [PDF] ‘Health Series No. 1’. The Keep Fit Movement is demonstrated by mass calisthenics by nimble men, women and children over a number of outdoor public displays. Calisthenics were widely believed to strengthen muscles, provide a cardiovascular workout as well as promote discipline. The participants wear jumpers with ‘Fitness Wins’ emblazoned across them.

The narrator introduces Dr G. C. Anderson, medical secretary of the BMA, who says that one of the most important aspects of general health is the wellbeing of the eyes. An attractive young woman is then seen visiting her doctor, who recommends she visits an eye specialist at the National Eye Service. She goes on to be fitted with a pair of spectacles.

Eyes Right! has recently been used as part of the Wellcome Trust supported Fidget Project by London Arts in Health Forum (LAHF). This project consists of a touring stage reminiscent of a carousel with stations illustrating how our activity levels have changed over the decades as we have become more sedentary. The Fidget Project is currently touring the UK and you can see venues and dates on the project website.

Angela Saward, Wellcome Film  

You can learn about the Wellcome Film project here. If you would like to make use of this archive footage in your own projects, please visit the Wellcome Library catalogue to download the original files, which are distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales licence.

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