Fit to win

It’s time to go back to the Bioscope Library, and to look at the latest addition, Karl S. Lashley and John B. Watson’s A psychological study of motion pictures in relation to venereal disease campaigns (1922). The study on which the book was based was initiated in 1919, and is said to have been the first large scale research project on the educational effectiveness of educational films, something which greatly exercised minds at the time. Films were self-evidently popular with the masses, and noticeably so with young minds, but could that popularity be converted into lessons for life? Did one actually learn anything from motion pictures? Plenty were saying that you did, but they were chiefly those with a vested interest i.e. film producers themselves. What was needed was controlled studies and verifiable evidence.

In 1919 the United States Interpartmental Social Hygiene Board awarded a grant of $6,000 to the Psychological Laboratory of John Hopkins University for the purpose of “investigating the informational and educative effect upon the public of certain motion-picture films used in various campaigns for the control, repression, and elimination of venereal diseases.” Psychologists Lashley and Watson headed the research and produced the report.

The problem of venereal disease exercised minds hugely at the time. Specifically VD had debilitated so many troops meant for fighting during the First World War that campaigns with official backing arose in Britain and America. In the latter, the campaign operated under the slogan ‘Fit to Fight’, which became the title of a 1917 film, directed by Lieutenant Edward H. Griffith and promoted by the US Public Health Service, which followed the fortunes of five men suitable for military service, four of whom succumb to “bootleggers and prostitutes”. In 1919 the film was revised and extended, and released under the title Fit to Win. The John Hopkins University study provides this synopsis:

The first 1,000 feet of the picture are devoted to the showing of lesions resulting from venereal disease, by photographs of cases and explanatory legends. A story is then introduced. It deals with five young men of diverse education and traditions. They are shown first as civilians, then as drafted and in training. On leave, they are approached by bootleggers and prostitutes. One, Billy Hale, influenced by the memory of his sweetheart, resists temptation. The others are exposed to venereal disease. Of the latter, Kid McCarthy resorts to medical prophylaxis promptly and escapes infection. The others are infected.

Kid McCarthy accuses Billy Hale of being a “mollycoddle,” and a fight ensues in which Kid is defeated. He admits himself beaten and at Billy’s instigation reforms. These two are then held up as examples of physical fitness and are selected for service abroad. The other three, infected, are disqualified for foreign service. One, infected with gonorrhea, is discharged and the others, infected with syphilis, are sent to the hospital for treatment.

The remaining reels were constructed after the signing of the armistice and added as an epilogue to the original picture. Billy is shown returning from France as a captain. Kid McCarthy has been killed, after citation for bravery in action. The youth afflicted with gonorrheal arthritis is shown at home, his father heartbroken over his infection, his mother ignorant of its cause. Billy carries Kid McCarthy’s medal for bravery to McCarthy’s sweetheart. He then meets and sympathizes with the men afflicted with syphilis, telling them that they are now probably completely cured. He then bids farewell to his company, advising them to be wary of prostitutes and to keep morally clean in civilian life. After purchasing a civilian outfit, he visits his sweetheart, and in the final scene they are shown at the altar.

Fit to Win was shown to segregated audiences, and not to children. It aroused considerable controversy, owing to its frankness over the causes of venereal disease, and was banned from exhibition in New York City.

For the purposes of the study, a shortened version of the film was shown – effectively the original Fit to Fight, since the post-Armistice scenes were left out – to 5,000 people, divided up into different groups. There was a Medical Group (around forty physicians and nurses), an Executive and Clerical Group, a Literary Club Group, a mixed audience (250 people from a village in Pennsylvania), a Car Men Group (railway employees in NYC), a Merchant Sailor Group, and a Soldier Group.

The study describes the film, the methodology and the statistical analysis in great detail. They were interested to discover what the levels of understanding were among the different types of audience, then how much and what kind of information might be imparted to each by a film, and what the effect of a single film over a programme of films or other kinds of information might be. Lashley and Watson had no interest in promoting the film for its own sake, and their conclusions are refreshingly frank. The medical group, they reported, “was frankly bored throughout the picture”, finding it exaggerated and falsely dramatic. The mixed audience displayed mixed responses, from ribald laughter to expressions of embarassment, reactions which in turn worried the investigators. The car men “reacted rather strongly to the suggestive parts of the picture”. The seamen showed an unexpected intelligent interest in the film. The soliders were under orders to stay silent, and did so apart from laughter at the bawdy house scene.

Unltimately, the study’s findings were inconclusive. On the film’s informational effect, it was discovered that audiences gained general impressions rather than accurate knowledge, and that while many came away with some basic facts acquired, others still displayed confusion over causes and details. On the film’s emotional effect, it was found to engender horror in most of those who saw it, but precision of influence was difficult to identify, and for many “the appeal of sympathy for the innocently infected is greater than of fear of disease”. However, in answer to the worries of censorious authorities who sought to prevent the film’s exhibition, they noted:

The picture does not produce any sexual excitement in the majority of the men. The replies to questionnaires, comments of the audience, and data gained from interviews with men after the performance all indicate that there is, instead, a temporary inhibition of sex impulses.

Fit to Fight and Fit to Win are lost films; not even a still appears to survive. The study provides such meticulous detail, however (down to the number of seconds in which audiences were exposed to various examples of syphilitic infection) that one has a very clear idea of the film’s contents, strengths and limitations. In the end it finds, a little surprisingly, that such a film’s appeal to the emotions that little value in changing hearts and minds, but that it could impart some basic information which could then be built upon by other educational means. So they judge the film before them, but do not call for better films, which might have provided the way forward that they were seeking.

A psychological study of motion pictures in relation to venereal disease campaigns is available from the Internet Archive in PDF (2.46MB), full text (209KB) and DjVu (1.49MB) formats.