Bad influence

From time to time we have noted the various publications from the silent era or just after which looked at the social effects of the cinema, particularly on children. Like most sociological treatises they are predicated on the anxieties of their age, or at least of the enquirer, and most are concerned with why children were spending so much time in front of the screen, how what they were watching might influence them adversely, and why they might not rather do something far healthier, like sports or visting public parks. And if they had to watch films, then why couldn’t they be educational ones? And so on. A number of these are freely available online, with links and short descriptions in the Bioscope Library.

Now, and with acknowledgements to the Research into Film blog where I came across it, UNESCO has published a word-searchable PDF of its 1961 annotated international bibliography, The influence of cinema on children and adolescents. The 107 page document is an extraordinary monument to fifty years of angst, with 491 reports on cinema’s influence on the young from the 1920s to the 1950s from all around the world. There is plenty here for the student of silent cinema, not just from the publications from the 1920s, but in later reports which (especially in the 1930s) interview people about their past experiences of filmgoing which inevitably look back to the silent era.

There are too many to list in their entirety, but by searching under “192” you can find everything with a 1920s publication date (there are none listed before that decade). Below are some choice examples, including the summaries provided by the UNESCO report which reveal that these documents often contains important primary evidence of filmgoing practice as well as evidence of contemporary attitudes.

Lscis, A. and Kejlina, I. Deti i kino.
[Children and the cinema]. Moscow,
General Directorate of Social Education,
Peoples I Commissariat of Instruction of the
RSFSR, Moscow, 1928, 85 p.
Chapter 1 presents information about collective infatuation or “cinematomania” of children collected by the Institute of Curricular Methods through an examination of 2,000 children in Moscow. Data are included on the dangerous influence on children of films which are not appropriate to their age. Chapter 2 describes the adaptation of film services for child audiences, the opening of a cinema for children, and the arrangements made for special children’s matinees. For the sake of comparison, information is also given about a children’s cinema in Germany during the same period.

Various practices adopted at the first children’s cinema (800 seats) in Moscow are outlined: in the foyer was a “cinema corner” with a mural newspaper and publicity material; a co-operative snack bar was opened and group games were organized; in the cinema hall proper, the services of an educational expert were made available.

Other subjects treated are the equipment needed for children’s cinemas and liaison between the children’s cinema and other children’s organizations. A report on the work of a children’s cinema and notes on several children’s films are included.

A diagram of educational work in connexion with the screening of three films before child audiences is given in the annex. Illustrated with six scenes from Soviet children’s films.

Japan, Ministry of Education.
Seishonen no Eiga-kogyo Kanran-jokyo Chosa Gaiyo, jo. / Summary of surveys on film-viewing by Children and adolescents, vol.I, Tokyo, Ministry of Education, Social Education Burecu, 1929, 79 p. (Kyoiku Eiga Kenkyu Shiryo / Data
for Research on Educational Films series, 3).

This volume is a summary of data collected on the cinema attendance of boys and girls of primary and secondary schools in Tokyo and Osaka. The surveys which produced the data were made in October 1927 in Tokyo, and in December 1921, in Osaka.

Part 1. Survey on primary schoolchildren
(1) Film-viewing by primary schoolchildren, accoring to sex.
(2) Film-viewing by primary schoolchildren, according to zones of industry.
Part 2. Survey on middle school pupils.
Part 3. Survey on pupils of girls in high schools.
Part 4. Comparison of Parts 1, 2 and 3, and conclusions.
Supplement. Observations of school authorities on the films shown and on the influence of film-viewing.

Dale, Edgar. The Content of Motion Pictures,
New York, MacMillan, 1935, 234 p.

A content analysis of 1,500 feature films (500 from each of the years 1920, 1925 and 1930). Ten categories were made: crime, sex, love, the comic element, mystery, war, children, history, travel and social propaganda. In 1930, love (29.6 per cent), crime (27.2 per cent) and sex (15 per cent) were the most important subjects, i.e. a total of 72 per cent of all subjects. 16 per cent were taken up by comedy, and 8.6 per cent jointly by mystery and war. Only one out of 500 films was a children’s film; in 1930 there were 7 historical and 9 travel films, but not one social propaganda film. An average of one crime film was seen each month by those who visited the cinema once a week. In nearly two-thirds of all cases, adolescents find crime films unattractive. Of 115 crime films shown in Columbus (Ohio) cinemas, murder techniques are shown in nearly every film, actual murder in 45, attempted murder in 21, and revolvers were used in 22 films. Sex films show: extra-marital relations, seduction, adultery, procuring, illegitimacy, prostitution and bedroom jokes. Romantic love films have for subject: melodrama, courtship, love, flirting, difficulties in marriage, historical romances.

Jimenez de Asua. L. Cinematagrafo y delincuencia.
[The cinema and delinquency] / In:
Revista de Criminalogia, Psiquiatria y Medicina
Legal, Buenos Aires, May-June 1929, p. 377-384.

Earlier studies of the influence of literature and art upon delinquency, especially of the young, began to be extended to the field of the movies soon after 1910. Such studies were undertaken in the United States of America and later in most leading countries of the world. The general conclusion is that the cinema is widely effective in suggesting crime. Various prophylactics have been attempted, of which public censorship has been most commonly and widely applied.

Pedro Casablanca has agitated for the international censorship and control of films, but the plan is scarcely practicable. The Brussels Congress for the Protection of Childhood (1921) sought to stimulate the production of a more educational type of picture. The only legitimate control over films must be in the interests of children and
here considerations of health are more important than morals.

Shuttleworth, F.K. and May, Mark A. The Social Conduct and Attitudes of Movie Fans. New York, MacMillan, 1933, 142 p. (Payne Fund Studies).

The first part concerns the relationship between cinema attendance and the character and social behaviour of young people. The test groups were composed of an equal number of “movie” and “non-movie” children, i.e. children who attended the cinema 4 or 5 times a week and children who went only twice a month. The results were based on
information obtained from the children and their teachers. It was found that “movie” children behaved less satisfactorily in general – were less co-operative, had less self-control and emotional stability, poorer judgement, poorer school performance – than the “non-movie” children. They were, however, more often cited by their class-mates as “best friends” and were more apt to admire others. No differences in honesty, perseverance, obedience and moral consciousness were observed between the two groups.

In the second part of the investigation the opinion of 416 “movie” and 443 “non-movie” children on a variety of matters were compared. Movie children were found to have more admiration for cowboys, popular actors, ballet girls, than “non-movie” children; they believe more readily that alcoholism exists, attach more importance to clothes, object more to parental control, go more often to dance parties, and read more, but what they read is not of good quality. The “non-movie” children showed a greater interest in students and teachers as film characters than did the “movie” children. However, these differences cannot be attributed solely to the cinema.

Such reports often reveal prejudice and partiality, but they also show the seriousness with which sociologists began to treat cinema in the 1920s. They placed emphasis upon empirical study, using such primary evidence as questionnaires, interviews, on-site observations and such like to reach their conclusions, rather than unsubstantiated opinion. They were as an important part of taking films seriously as were the film first theorists, film societies and film archives which likewise recognised the fundamental importance of the medium – a radical step in each case from what had gone before. In treating cinema seriously, however, they had a tendency to view their young subjects as laboratory animals. There is something rather unsettling about reading about children as objects to be controlled better if only they could be better understood. It is salutory to read audiences memoirs of the period, or indeed to think back to one’s own memories of cinema-going when young to and realise that cinema was, as it has always has been, about escape. And that includes escape from adult control or adult assumption of understanding. Worthy and impeccably empirical as such studies were, fundamentally they coiuld only ever uncover so much. The real cinema remains in our heads.

The examples above by Shuttleworth, May and Dale from the famous series of Payne Fund studies which in the 1930s investigated how the movies were influencing America’s youth. A thorough history, with much unpublished material included, is Garth S. Jowett, Ian C. Jarvie and Kathryn H. Fuller’s Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy.