(I’m not a) juvenile delinquent

In the last post, on the Lynds’ Middletown, there was a footnote reference to Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent. That 1925 text has now also gone into the Bioscope Library. This renowned study of the phenomenon of youth crime (source of the illustration, left) was an early work of British psychologist, Sir Cyril Burt (1883-1971). Burt is best known for his work in educational psychology, and is controversial for his ideas on heredity and intelligence, and for possibly having falsified some of his research data.

Such debates are the concerns of others; our interest is in his book The Young Delinquent, and its sections on cinema. One gets a clear idea of cinema’s place in the scheme of things in the contents listing, where under ‘Environmental Conditions’ one finds cinema listed alongside betting and gambling as evidence of ‘Excessive facilities for amusement’. Cinema is not blamed of itself for juvenile crime, but is seen as part of a milieu where crime was likely to flourish. Consequently, Burt has several references to the part cinema played in the lives of the young who were associated with crime. He begins thus:

The Cinema. One feature among the attractions of every town and suburb a feature already mentioned more than once demands discussion at some length. The cinema, like the ‘penny dreadful’ before the advent of the film, has been freely censured and abused for stimulating the young adventurer to mischief, folly, and even crime. Among those who criticize it on this ground, the most credible are teachers of wide experience and magistrates of high standing; but perhaps none is so eager to advocate this view as the young culprit himself, who frequently sees, or thinks he sees, in such a derivation of his deeds a chance to deflect blame and attention from his own moral laxity to that of the producer of films.

Burt identifies three ways in which he finds that ‘the power of pictures is harmfully exerted’, two of which he holds to be unusual and over-emphasised, the third to be the more serious yet less remarked upon. The first of unusual circumstances is the child who imitated crimes it had seen on the screen. This rather ludicrous assertion had exercised the minds of authorities for several years – indeed, it still does, as we are repeatedly warned of harmful imitative behaviour after watching violent or crime-oriented films, without so much as a shred of real evidence to prove any connection between the two. Burt writes:

On sifting the evidence adduced by those who express these fears, it is plain that both their inferences and their psychological assumptions are by no means free from fallacy. Nor are their facts better founded. They have between them hardly one well-attested instance from their own first-hand knowledge, hardly a single analysed case to put forward in proof. That certain children at certain ages are highly suggestible and imitative, I am far from wishing to dispute; and, beyond doubt, the peculiar conditions of cinematographic reproduction heighten this natural susceptibility still further by artificial means. The darkened hall, the atmosphere of crowd-excitement, the concrete vividness of visual presentation, the added realism due to movement and to the play of facial change, and, above everything, the intensely sensational character of the emotional scenes portrayed all are calculated to increase the child’s suggestibility, and to stamp upon the impressionable mind graphic images and lasting recollections. Mental pictures, so deeply imprinted, may sometimes issue in obsessions haunting and irrepressible recurrent thoughts and impulses bound from their very persistence and strength to work themselves out by action. All this is not to be denied. Yet, of the ensuing acts, how much is crime? Most of the characters and situations rehearsed by film-smitten children are as innocent as those of any other piece of childish make-believe. Who has not seen street-urchins mimicking Charlie Chaplin, holding each other ‘up’ with toy pistols, or masquerading in the feathers of Red Indians or the wide-awake hats of cowboys, every flaunted detail manifestly picked from the romances of the film? Even where the model is a heroic pirate or bandit chief an Arsene Lupin or a Long John Silver the adventures themselves may be as innocuous as those of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. The direct reproduction of serious film-crimes is, in my experience, exceedingly uncommon: and, even then, it is usually the criminal’s method rather than the criminal’s aim that is borrowed: the nefarious impulses themselves have been demonstrably in existence beforehand.

Burt found only four or five incidents where a child, ‘dull or defective’, had commited a crime directly inspired by the cinema.

The second unusual circumstance was that cinema provided ‘a standing temptation to steal money for admittance’: that is, that its very desirability among the young was a cause of criminiality. Burt argues, however, that the temptation to steal should be seen a separate from what such money might be spent on; that is, the child stole the money first, then considered the best way in which to spend it. Cinema was, in this instance, only an indirect, not a direct cause of such criminality. Moreover, as he argues:

the temperament of the typical thief is just the temperament to which the sensations of the picture-house appeal most strongly; he comes from just the dreary, comfortless home which makes the cinema almost his sole means for mirth and amusement; hence, the union of the two habits the habit of stealing and the habit of picture-going a coincidence rightly observed to be significantly frequent, is not so much a matter of effect and cause; it is the double by-product of a deeper common source: the underlying adventurous nature of the child, for which his humdrum life affords no satisfying outlet, animates and penetrates them both. The attraction of the cinema, therefore, can be counted as a direct incentive, only where the child has acquired an over powering habit, an inveterate taste and craving, for that particular form of diversion.

For Burt, the ‘main source of harm’ was not these two common complaints, but was one of ‘moral atmosphere’:

Throughout the usual picture-palace programme, the moral atmosphere presented is an atmosphere of thoughtless frivolity and fun, relieved only by some sudden storm of passion with occasional splashes of sentiment. Deceit, flirtation, and jealousy, unscrupulous intrigue and reckless assault, a round of unceasing excitement and the extremes of wild emotionalism, are depicted as the normal characteristics of the everyday conduct of adults. The child, with no background of experience by which to correct the picture, frames a notion, altogether distorted, of social life and manners. The villain or the vampire, though outwitted in the end, has nevertheless to be portrayed with a halo of fictitious glamour, or interest would flag: he does wrong things; but he does them in a smart way, with daring, gallantry, and wit. It is true that, in most of the plays, the scoundrel is infallibly unmasked and eventually requited. But the hollow and factitious character of this pseudo-poetic justice seldom deludes the most youthful spectator.

For Burt, those very qualities of cinema that could be argued to be its greatest virtues – namely, its appeal to the imagination and the encouragement of fantasies – are to be seen as its leading vices, at least for the unbred young.

They provide models and material for all-engrossing day-dreams; and create a yearning for a life of gaiety a craze for fun, frolic, and adventure, for personal admiration and for extravagant self-display to a degree that is usually unwholesome and almost invariably unwise.

This is so sad to read. How can anyone condemn something that promised ‘fun, frolic and adventure’, and for a section of society largely denied such pleasures from any other quarter? In the end, though, Burt at least comes to a sense of proportion. He concludes:

When all is said, however, it is easy to over-blame the cinema, to exaggerate the actual harm and ignore the possible good. It is clear that, in comparison with the incalculable number of films that are manufactured and released, the offences resulting are infinitesimally few. The victims are almost wholly those who, temperamentally or otherwise, are already disposed to anti-social conduct; and the cinema can do little more than feed and fan the latent spark?

The Young Delinquent inevitably tells us more about the prevailing attitudes of the moral authorities rather than the youth themselves. It is interesting for what it reveals of the fear of youth crime in period earlier than we might normally expect, and for the association many made between cinema and delinquency. Interestingly, Burt ultimately does not put the ‘blame’ on heredity, the theme of his later work, but on environment. Cinema was a common feature of ‘low’ environments; it was therefore damned by geographical association.

The Young Delinquent is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (38MB), PDF (43MB) and TXT (1.5MB) formats.

For earlier (1917) anxieties about the connection between cinema and crime, see last year’s post on The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities, the deeply-biased but highly recommended report from the National Council of Public Morals (what a name!), also available from the Internet Archive. For a fine social history of the young from 1875 to 1945, with much on the association in the public mind between youth, anti-social behaviour and cinema, see Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth, recently out in paperback. For a summary of Cyril Burt’s work, and the ongoing controveries surrounding him, see Indiana University’s Human Intelligence site.


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