Lessons from Toledo

There has been quite an on-rush of new material appearing on the Internet Archive, some of it relating to our subject and period, and I’ll be working my way through selected titles and adding them to the Bioscope Library. First up is the Reverend John J. Phelan’s Motion Pictures as a Phase of Commercialized Amusement in Toledo, Ohio (1919). This is another example of a social survey driven by moral concerns rather than social science itself, and the distaste implied by the book’s title is reinforced by these lines from its introduction:

Students of social science are in quite general agreement as to the necessity of community control
of public commercialized amusements.

And yet there is rather more to this study than disdainful suspicion of popular taste for the movies. To begin with, Phelan recognises the virtues, listing these key advantages that motion pictures offered society:

1. The providing of a reasonable-priced and highly entertaining form of amusement.
2. Convenience both as to accessibility and continuous play hours.
3. The promotion of family unity – as seen in attendance of the entire family.
4. The counteraction against the influence of the brothel, saloon, public dance hall and other questionable forms of amusement.
5. A provision for amusement and relaxation.
6. The supplying of information in regard to travel, history and world events.
7. The treatise of high moral and educational themes.
8. The movies as an “art.”

So, while Phelan feels that the movies may appeal to those “who feed their nature upon the abnormal, distorted, suggestive and far too often, vicious things of life”, he feels that they are capable of “moral and educational worth”. But what makes his study valuable for us is that he wants to back up his understanding of motion pictures with empirical data.

Using Toledo as his subject, Phelan tells the number, type, size, location, ownership and function of the different cinemas in his town (there were six in 1919). He tells us of their proximity to other forms of commercialised amusements (saloons, dance halls etc.). We learn of their value, the rental fees charge, and the cost of machinery, fabric, employees, musicians, advertising, lighting and heating. He supplies figures on the composition of audiences, prices of admission, and the construction of cinema programmes. We learn what it cost to invest in the cinema business, the operating expenses and the revenue. This is all very useful data.

Phelan provides evidence of studies conducted at individual schools. There is a long list of suitable educational films, by itself an illuminating guide to how this new branch of the film business was starting to blossom. There is plenty on the moral issues, censorship and the hoped-for attractions of “non-commercialized” amusements valiantly fighting their losing battle against the irresistible attraction of the screen. Intriguingly, Phelan ends each section of the book with a series of questions for other “social studies” students, indicating the sort of things they should be asking of their own territories should they intend to conduct similar surveys.

The book concludes with substantial appendices. These includes a valuable bibliography; examples of relevant legislation; a list of all Ohio cinemas with owners, managers, seating, location and number of employees; sample questionnaires; sample testimony from juvenile courts; and much more. Beyond the moralising, this is study with a great deal of practical information to inform a particular study of American film-going in 1919 – well worth investigating further.

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