Movies and conduct

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik (1926)

Motion pictures are not understood by the present generation of adults. They are new; they make an enormous appeal to children; and they present ideas and situations which parents may not like. Consequently when parents think of the welfare of their children who are exposed to these compelling situations, they wonder about the effect of the pictures upon the ideals and behavior of the children. Do the pictures really influence children in any direction? Are their conduct, ideals, and attitudes affected by the movies? Are the scenes which are objectionable to adults understood by children, or at least by very young children? Do children eventually become sophisticated and grow superior to pictures? Are the emotions of children harmfully excited? In short, just what effect do motion pictures have upon children of different ages?

There were so many studies in the early years of cinema, so many anguished articles, doubtless so many sermons preached from pulpits, all seeking to explain the huge attraction of motion pictures among the young and trying to assess the damage done. The above paragraph neatly sums up many of the concerns that adults held – though presumably those adults who weren’t frequenting the cinema much themselves. The questions posed are reasonable enough, but they are underpinned by a fear of the young, a fear of a loss of control. Such studies end up telling us rather more about the prejudices of their authors than the motives of their subjects.

The paragraph comes from American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct, published in 1933. The book presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. Sigh. But the reason for highlighting this 1933 book here is not for its questions or its conclusions, but for its evidence. The studies undertaken included interviews with filmgoers, who were asked about their cinema-going experiences as children, and hence it provides us with a rich selection of people’s fresh memories of watching films in the silent era.

Here, for example, are young adults remembering childhood play inspired by films:

Male, 20, Jewish, white, college junior – Quite often I would band together with other youths of my age, and we would play “Cop and Robber” or “Cowboy and Indian” trying to imitate the antics of the actors we saw in the movies. We would arm ourselves with toy pistols and clubs and chase each other over streets and yards. We would climb fences and barns, imagining them to be hills and all other objects necessary to make a realistic scene. At times we would get a little girl to play with us and we would have her be the heroine. Then someone else would rescue her, as we had seen it done in the movies.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – We had a small hobby horse which was used by the hero and heroine alternately. As my cousin’s backyard was large and contained a large number of trees, we soon learned to climb these with agility, with only one or two casualties resulting a cracked arm and a sprained wrist. From these trees we would lasso the villain and his band as they rode by. We wore this plot almost threadbare and then began to use Indians as the villains. They were always cruel and painted terrifically with mud. These cruel villains usually about three would hide behind a tree about six inches in diameter. This hid them so completely that no one could see them, especially the heroine who happened to be out walking. Then the villain would fall upon her and drag her to the Indian camp about three or four feet away. By that time, of course, the dashing hero would try to make the daring rescue. Sometimes he would succeed, but at other times he would be captured. He would then make the spectacular escape with the heroine in his arms and the wild Indians at his heels. This plot was used many times with but few variations. It provided such a great amount of action that it was always a favorite.

Female, 20, white, college junior – From these pictures I received some of my ideas of beauty. I had a great desire to have curls like Mary Pickford’s and was forced to try to secure them secretly because my father forbade the curling of my hair … I got some comfort out of being “Mary Pickford” in our games, and improved my appearance with the aid of shavings from new buildings near by. I was also fond of old-fashioned clothes which I had first seen in the movies. I always loved to dress up as the old-fashioned lady, and used everything available to make my skirts stick out like a hoop skirt.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore-The first picture which stands out in my memory is “The Sheik” featuring Rudolph Valentino. I was at the impressionable and romantic age of 12 or 13 when I saw it, and I recall coming home that night and dreaming the entire picture over again; myself as the heroine being carried over the burning sands by an equally burning lover. I could feel myself being kissed in the way the Sheik had kissed the girl. I wanted to see it again, but that was forbidden; so as the next best thing my friend and I enacted the especially romantic scenes out under her mother’s rugs, which made excellent tents even though they were hung over the line for cleaning purposes. She was Rudolph and I the beautiful captive, and we followed as well as we could remember the actions of the actors.

There are some particularly rich examples of children becoming so totally immersed in re-enacting what they had seen on the screen that it led to harm:

Male, 20, white, college junior – Two peculiar events are still impressed upon my mind as directly resulting from the influence of the movies. Once we tied one of our members to an oak tree, and notwithstanding his frantic cries, proceeded with a boisterous war-dance about the victim. The struggling boy was almost strangled by the numerous coils of rope about his neck before his frenzied mother appeared to secure his release. At another time, I was compelled to walk home through the deep snow in my stocking feet because my playmates had chosen to forcibly remove my shoes and conceal them, in imitation of a humorous scene which they had witnessed at the theater on the same day.

There is more on imitation of dress, mannerisms, etiquette and modes of behaviour, and how tips from the stars might be adopted when dating:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – Then came the time when I became interested in men. I had heard older boys and girls talking about “technique” and the only way I could find out how to treat boys was through reading books and seeing movies. I had always known boys as playmates, but having reached my freshman year in high school they became no longer playmates but “dates.” I didn’t want it to be that way but it seemed inevitable. I was asked to parties and dances and friends’ homes. The boys were older and sophisticated. I felt out of place. I noticed that older girls acted differently with boys than they did when with girls alone. I didn’t know what to do.

I decided to try some of the mannerisms I had seen in the movies. I began acting quite reserved, and I memorized half-veiled compliments. I realized my “dates” liked it. I laid the foundation with movie material. Then I began to improvise.

Of course, I had a rival in the crowd. Every time she began to receive more attention from the boys than I, I would see a movie and pick up something new with which to regain their interest. I remember one disastrous occasion. She was taking the center of the stage, and I was peeved. I could think of nothing to do.

Then I remembered the afternoon before I had seen Nazimova smoke a cigarette, and I decided that would be my next move. The party was at a friend’s home and I knew where her father’s cigarettes were kept. I got one, lit it, and had no difficulty whatsoever in handling it quite nonchalantly. The boys were fascinated and the victory was mine.

There is a lot of testimony on taking love-making tips from the movies, with Valentino frequently cited as a model, as in this droll, self-mocking example:

Male, 20, white, college junior – Later Valentino. I studied his style. I realized that nature had done much less for me in the way of original equipment than she had for the gorgeous Rodolfo, but I felt that he had a certain technique that it would behoove me to emulate. I practiced with little success. My nostrils refused to dilate – some muscular incompetency that I couldn’t remedy. My eyes were incapable of shooting sparks of fiery passion that would render the fair sex helpless. I made only one concrete trial. The young lady who was trial-horse for the attempt is still dubious about my mental stability. Worse yet, she made a report of the affair to her friends. The comments that came drifting back to me left no doubt in my mind about the futility of carrying on any longer. I gave up.

And so much more. There are examples of day-dreams and fantasies, of which stars they fell in love with, what induced sorrow, what thrilled them, and memories of what frightened them. The a several memories of a film in which a gorilla with the transplanted brain of a human commits murders (presumably the Bull Montana film Go and Get It, 1920), which clearly terrified many:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – The horror-pictures and serials used to frighten me when I was a child. I remember one picture in particular I cannot even recollect the name of it but it was a newspaper story and concerned several mysterious killings which, it came out later, were committed by a huge orang-utan which had been given the brain of a man in an experiment by a doctor one of the men killed by the animal. I remember distinctly the scene which frightened me so. The ape was standing in an open window leering at his next victim who was lying in bed, a helpless invalid, rendered even more helpless by fear and horror. Of course, a newspaper reporter, the hero in the story, came in to his rescue just in time and shot the ape, but by that time I had been so thoroughly frightened that I could not sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see this ape standing in the window and as the foot of my bed was only a few feet away from an open window, unprotected by even screens, I soon decided to spend the rest of the night in my mother’s bed with her. I remember being so paralyzed with fear that I could scarcely get out of bed, but once my feet touched the floor I ran as fast as I possibly could to my mother and spent not only that night but the next one, also, with her. I do not believe I cried, but I became speechless, powerless, rigid, staring wide-eyed into the dark, and the fright did not leave me for several days.

Finally, there is evidence of lessons learned from the movies, and of prejudices either reinforced or overturned. There is much on racial stereotyping, mostly the Chinese, but also this last piece of testimony summing up much that was worst about the movies:

Female, 17, Negro, high-school senior – It seems to me that every picture picturing a Negro is just to ridicule the race. When a Negro man or woman is featured in a movie they are obliged to speak flat southern words, be superstitious, and afraid of ghosts and white men. They have to make themselves as ugly and dark as possible. The bad things are emphasized and the good characteristics left out. This is very unfair to the race. All Negroes are not alike; there are different types as in other races. Why must they be portrayed as ignorant, superstitious animals instead of decent people that are just as capable of doing great things as any other race; all they need is the chance. It is the same with other dark races besides the Negro. They are always the loser, the shrinking coward, and never the victor. It is very unjust of the white race to make every nation appear inferior compared to them.

You can take or leave the analysis that goes with the text, but the short memoirs themselves are vivid, eloquent and revealing. There is much evidence here for anyone keen to explore the social impact of cinema (particularly on the young) in the 1920s and the mysteries of spectatorship. Movies and Conduct is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (4.9MB), PDF (22MB) and TXT (542KB) formats. I’ll add it to the Bioscope Library.

5 responses

  1. Luke: You are right. The memoirs are fascinating. “…children becoming so totally immersed in re-enacting what they had seen on the screen that it led to harm…” We were still doing that in high school.

    Regards,
    Joe Thompson ;0)

  2. What intrigues me is what silent films brought that was new to children’s imaginative lives i.e. what changed in children’s imaginations when they first appeared? Did children in the 19th century have the same intensive identifcation with novels or magazines, and did this continue into the next century alongside the new passion for films? Or was the intense identification with what was seen on the screen psychologically something new? And if so, why?

  3. I think 19th century children would have had less input top their imaginative lives from books and magazines. Afterall these were relatively expensive. The oral cultures of previous centuries would have played a big part for them. The cinema must have been truly an imaginative revolution.

  4. I like the idea of cinema as imaginative revolution and, indeed, the difference may simply be quantitative rather than qualitative i.e. children of the 20th century were simply exposed to more stimuli to the imagination (and continue to be so). Yet I still think there’s something more. I’m currently reading Colin McGinn’s “The Power of Movies” on the connections between dreaming and cinema, and I do feel there is something specifically in the experience of cinema which correlates profoundly with dreaming and with the functions of memory, particularly in children. I must explore further.

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