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.

The nightside of Japan

As evidence of the value of Live Search for searching across the texts of books digitised by the Internet Archive (see previous post), here’s a passage from The Nightside of Japan, by Taizo Fujimoto, published in 1914. It’s a travel book on Japan written for a Western audience by a Japanese writer, and it includes this marvellously vivid portrait of attending a cinema show in Tokyo at this time, complete with benshi narrator, interval acts and food sellers.

The Asakusa is the centre of pleasure in Tokyo. People of every rank in the city crowd in the park day and night old and young, high and low, male and female, rich and poor. It is also a haunt of ruffians, thieves, and pickpockets when the curtain of the dark comes down over the park. All houses and shops along each street in the park are illuminated with the electric and gas lights. The most noisy and crowded part is the site of cinematograph halls. In front of a hall you see many large painted pictures,
illustrating kinds of pictures to be shown in the hall, and, at its entrance, three or four men are crying to call visitors: “Come in, come in! Our pictures are newest ones, most wonderful pictures! Most lately imported from Europe! “Men of another hall cry out: “Our hall gives the photographs of a play performed by the first-class actors in Tokyo; pictures of the revenge of Forty Seven Ronine!” Tickets are sold by girls in a booking-box near the entrance of each hall; they are dressed in beautiful uniforms, their faces painted nicely, receiving guests with charming smiles. Most of the Japanese carry geta (clogs) under their feet, instead of shoes or boots, and specially so are the females. When you come into the door of a hall, tickets are to be handed to the men, who furnish you zori (a pair of straw or grass-slippers) in place of your geta, and you must not forget to receive from them a wood-card marked with numerals or some other signs the card being the cheque for your clogs. When you step on upstairs you are received by another nice girl in uniform, who guides you to a seat in the hall. Now the hall is full of people; it seems that there is no room for a newcomer, but the guide girl finds out a chair among the crowd and adjusts it to you very kindly. Pictures of cinematograph are shown one after another, each being explained by orators in frock or evening coat. Between the photograph shows performance of comic actors or jugglers is given. After the end of each picture or performance there is an entr’acte of three or five minutes, and in this interval sellers of oranges, milk, cakes, sandwiches, etc., come into the crowds, and are crying out: “Don’t you want oranges? Nice cakes! New boiled milk! etc., etc.” The show of cinematograph is closed at about 12 P.M., and all people flow out of the hall. Where will they go hence? Of course most of them go to their home, but a part of them young fellows among others runs to the Dark Streets of the park, or Yoshiwara, the licensed prostitution quarter near the park.

The Nightside of Japan is available from the Internet Archive in the usual range of formats (PDF, DjVu, TXT), and contains a few more references to cinematographs. More such gems as I find them.

The Birth of a Nation

I think it’s true to say that, if film historians could go alter film history just that little bit, they would not have D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation as the cornerstone of their subject. The most sensational film of its age, one which ushered in the feature and a host of cinematic methods, one which drew in audiences in their millions, one which helped establish the cinema once and for all, one which made a huge amount of money – but also a film of blatant, poisonous racism. Why, oh, why, does such an important film in our field have to be a paean to the Ku Klux Klan?

The embarassment, if not downright offence, that the film tends to arouse in performance nowadays, does not, however, negate its importance to film history – for all the reasons listed above and more. And the film has been given an exhaustive and what looks on initial inspection to be very impressive historical treatment in this new book by Melvyn Stokes, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation: A History of “The Most Controversial Motion Picture of All Time”.

Stokes covers the origins, production, reception and subsequent history of The Birth of a Nation, working from a huge range of sources, including the D.W. Griffith papers and the papers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The book is weighty (408 pages), though not handsomely illustrated. There are substantial chapters on Thomas Dixon, whose novel The Clansman inspired the film; on Griffith’s personal history and outlook; on the film’s production; on its dramatic impact on the cinema and audiences; on the protests and actions made against the film, particularly from the black community in America; an analysis of Griffith’s view of history as expressed through the film; and the subsequent history of the film, both its exhibition (the front cover shows a protest against the film held in 1947) and its uneasy elevation into cinema’s canon.

The Birth of a Nation

Mevyn Stokes has produced some excellent work in the past on film audiences, and the book looks particularly strong on the film’s reception, its powerful effect on cinema as a social force, as a way of life for people. It attracted a huge middle-class audience most of which had not visited the cinema before 1915, widening cinema’s range, increasing its social acceptability, and of course bringing in much money from a wealthier clientele able to pay more for their tickets. Stokes makes it clear how little upset the film caused among the white majority audience, for whom the attitudes that it expressed regarding race were unexceptional. Plenty has been written on The Birth of a Nation‘s importance for film aesthetics and narrative, and on its racial politics. Stokes covers this ground too, but it is by being equally strong on the exhibition, promotion and response from different kinds of audience, and on the film’s relation to American social and cultural history, that makes the book so usefully multi-contextual, if you will.

It looks set fair to become a standard text, not least just as a reference work for the subject, since every name, company or interest group involved seems to be cited somewhere. It’s not a radical re-reading of the film, but simply a methodical, thorough and palpably useful one. Perhaps we do not want to see a re-invented The Birth of a Nation in any case. It stands as a relic of cultural attitudes now overturned, “a reminder”, as Stokes says, “of just how much has changed since 1915”. It will always be an important film in history, but film history changes just as cultural attitudes change, and the film’s narrative skills now seem of far less moment than its significant place in the social and economic history of cinema that is starting to get written all the more.

The instruction of disabled men in motion picture projection

Projectors

Motion picture projectors for instruction at the Red Cross Institute

It’s been a while since we added anything to the Bioscope Library. The latest addition is James R. Cameron’s The Instruction of Disabled Men in Motion Picture Projection (1919). Cameron was Instructor of Projection at the Red Cross Institute for Crippled and Disabled Men, in New York. The Institute sought to instruct soldiers disabled during the First World War in suitable professions, and motion picture projection was one of them. As Cameron tells us, “almost any man with both hands intact could, with a course of study of about two months in duration, acquire sufficent knowledge to enable him to enter an operating booth, and take charge of the machines”.

Twelve pupils joined the inaugural class in May 1918 – “Most all were leg cases, either paralysis or amputation”. Cameron tells of the success of most of those undertaking the course, their earnings, and the elements of training that they received. The remainder of the booklet is then concerned with the practicalities of motion picture projection, with illustrations, terminology and lengthy question-and-answer sections, all presumably derived from the course itself, though little further mention is made of disability. The booklet therefore serves as a standard technical guide to projection at this period.

However, there is more to the history than this. There is an exceptional website, Project Façade, based on a 2005 National Army Museum exhibition, which looks at the treatment of facial injuries of British soldiers during the First World War. Some men had injuries so terrible that they were unrecognisable to family and friends, and, as the site says, “unable to see, hear, speak, eat or drink, they struggled to re-assimilate back into civilian life”. The site celebrates the pioneering plastic surgery undertaken by Sir Harold Gillies, but even with surgery and prosthetics etc., some men remained so disfigured that they felt they could not return to normal society. The site tells us that one profession that remained open to them was that of projectionist. Such men could arrive for work before anyone else, spend their working day on their own, shut away from society, and then return home in darkness. This sad revelation may be what partly lies behind the Red Cross Institute’s interest in the profession, though Cameron’s booklet, perhaps not surprisingly, makes no mention of it.

Tin facial prosthetics film

Tin facial prosthetics film (c.1916), from Project Façade

Project Façade also has a remarkable film on the making and fitting of tin masks and facial prosthetics for injured servicemen, from around 1916. There is no information on who made the film, or where it came from, but I do encourage you to see it (it requires QuickTime and is available in small and larger versions). It is gentle and inspiring. It contains nothing particularly unsettling, but do be warned that there are images elsewhere on the site which might upset some.

The Instruction of Disabled Men in Motion Picture Projection is available from the Internet Archive, in DjVu (4.3MB), PDF (14MB) and TXT (161KB) formats.

Motion Pictures: A Study in Social Legislation

National Board of Review censorship recommendations

The above document contains some of the recommendations from the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures for cuts to be made to some unnamed films. Donald Young, later professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, was no admirer of this private organisation which made censorship recommendations which were not legally binding and could be ignored locally. Young was the author of Motion Pictures: A Study in Social Legislation, now added to the Bioscope Library. Published in 1922, this PhD thesis must be one of the first doctorates to be awarded for the study of motion pictures.

Young’s subject is the influence of motion pictures upon the American people, particularly children. As a piece of supposedly scientific social investigation it is remarkably partisan. It takes as read reports conducted by various groups with an interest in the morals of society which found motion pictures to be generally pernicious in their effects, and comes down on the side of legalised state censorship (by 1922 eight American states had instituted film censorship laws). A National Board of Censorship, later the National Board of Review, had been instituted in 1909, but its recommendations carried no legal weight. This is therefore not the social study that it claims to be, but rather an expression of fear, albeit one that is artfully and authoritatviely expressed. Under the guide of social investigation, it looks for ways to control the medium whose malign tendencies are taken as a given.

The value of the text is firstly the period attitudes that it demonstrates, with the evidence that it calls on to support this. Secondly, it provides a rich picture of the various forms of municipal and state regulation that existed, their operations and aspirations. Thirdly, there are the several appendices with useful information, including the numbers of cinemas across America, state by state; figures for the importing of films from other countries; the rules of the British Board of Film Censors; the Standards of the Pennsylvania Board of Film Censors (the first US state to have censorship laws); and samples of eliminated scenes by the National Board of Review (as illustrated above). It is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (3.1MB), PDF (9.4MB), b/w PDF (3.4MB) and TXT (232KB) formats.

How workingmen spend their spare time

How many people writing on early film know about this? Using a bit of lateral searching on the Internet Archive, I found How workingmen spend their time, a doctoral thesis by one George Esdras Bevans, submitted at Columbia University in 1913. I’ve not come across it before, and it seems few film histories refer to it, yet it is a marvellous source of information on cinema-going, audience leisure tastes, and the relationship of earnings and work-time to leisure, with a wide range of evidence demonstrating the prime position of cinema in the public mind just before the First World War.

Here’s the author’s description of his methodology:

This investigation has been undertaken in order to determine how workingmen spend their leisure hours. On the suggestion of Dr. Franklin H. Giddings, Professor of Sociology, Columbia University, the questionnaire method was adopted and a time schedule prepared. The investigation was begun in February, 1912.

More than 4,000 schedules were distributed among workingmen thru the agency of Labor Unions, Clubs and Churches; but altho much interest in the study was manifested, only 113 properly filled out schedules were returned, and these were considered too
few in number to serve as a basis for any general conclusions.

In the Fall of 1912 the Bureau of Social Service of the Home Mission Board of the Presbyterian Church became interested in the study and agreed to engage investigators to interview workingmen in order to secure a sufficient number willing to answer the questions. This investigation began on November 1st, 1912, and was completed on February 3rd, 1913.

Schedules to the number of 868 were returned by the paid investigators. In addition 31 schedules were obtained as the result of a Workingmen’s Mass Meeting held November 12th, 1912, at the Labor Temple, 14th Street and 2nd Avenue, New York City. By February 3rd, 1913, 1,012 schedules had been secured from New York City, 10 from Rochester, N.Y., and 5 from Utica, N.Y. After the tabulation had been partly completed 43 schedules were received from other cities and were used in the closing part of the study relating to Expenditure of Money. Altogether, 1,070 schedules were returned, and these serve as a basis for the present study.

Bevans then goes into great detail, describing the processes he took, the particular statistical method employed, and the resistance that he sometimes received (questions were asked, “Who is back of the study?” “What capitalistic scheme is this?” “Why not investigate the employers and see how they spend their spare time?”). He also provides the questions asked and the forms supplied. The main body of the text is tables with accompanying analysis, under such headings as ‘The Relation of Occupation to the use of Spare Time’, ‘The Relation of Wage to the Use of Spare Time’, and ‘What Men Usually Do on Certain Hours and During Certain Hours’.

As an example, here’s is one of the the tables accompanying the heading ‘The Relation of Hours of Labor to the Use of Spare Time’:

Table one

This isn’t the place to go into a detailed analysis of the data, but essentially one finds that whatever the working man’s circumstances, his hours of work or his earnings, the motion picture was the favoured way of spending one’s spare time. This might be expected, but it is invaluable to see the assumption tested against other leisure options, the availability of free time, and the means to pay for it. Here’s a table on the relationship of age to spare time:

Table two

OK, not everyone interested in silent cinema is going to be that engrossed by statistics, but the sociology of early cinema is still a grievously neglected subject, and if we don’t relate the films to th people who saw them, its hard to say what we are doing investigating early films at all.

There were other such early sociological studies. The most notable is Emilie Altenoh’s study of film audiences in Mannheim, Germany over 1912/13, published as Zur Soziologie des Kino: Die Kino-Unternehmung und die Sozialen Schichten Ihrer Besucher (1914), part translated as A Sociology of the Cinema in Screen, vol. 42 no. 3, Autumn 2001. I hear tale that a full translation into English is underway. Another is M.M. Davis’ The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreation in New York City (1911). There is always something a little unsettling about people being studied anatomically in this way – and generally working-class people. What seemed irrational or in need of explanation (and then control) by elites, seemed wholly rational to those enjoying the experience. But we still have to be glad that such studies were done. As Bevans’ data amply proves, watching movies was, quite simply, a good way of spending your time.

Into the Bioscope Library it goes.

The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities

The Cinema

There are so many interesting and valuable texts in the silent cinema field being added to the Internet Archive, but this latest addition to the Bioscope Library is perhaps the most exciting and important yet.

The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. Essentially, it is a thorough investigation into the cinema in Britain and what its effects might be on the viewing public. As the introduction states, the National Council on Public Morals was “deeply concerned with the influence of the cinematograph, especially upon young people, with the possibilities of its development and with its adaptation to national educational purposes”. In other words, many in authority were alarmed at the popularity of cinema among those it deemed dangerously impressionable, and they wanted better to understand it, and to establish greater control over it. But they also wanted to find out what was best about it, and to replace hearsay with evidence.

The Commission was led by the Lord Bishop of Birmingham, and comprised assorted religious, educational and political figures, representatives from the film trade, T.P. O’Connor from the British Board of Film Censors, and others, including Dr Marie Stopes representing the Incorporated Society of Authors, Playwrights and Composers. The Commision sat from January to July 1917. Its terms of reference were:

  • To institute an inquiry into the physical, social, educational, and moral influences of the cinema, with special reference to young people; and into
  • The present position and future development of the cinematograph, with special reference to its social and educational value and possibilities;
  • To investigate the nature and extent of the complaints which have been made against cinematograph exhibitions;
  • To report to the National Council the evidence taken, together with its findings and recommendations, which the Council will publish.

The detailed report that was published is an unmatched treasure trove not only of opinions, fears, hopes and prejudices regarding the cinema and its audience, but of evidence relating to the production and exhibition of films in Britain at this time. Those supplying evidence included Cecil Hepworth, J. Brooke Wilkinson, A.E. Newbould, Gavazzi King and F.R. Goodwin, all key figures from the film industry, teachers, policemen, magistrates, social workers, and children.

The report is of importance in three areas in particular. First, for what it reveals of attitudes – positive as negative – towards the cinema from society’s moral guardians, for which there is much fascinating verbatim evidence, in the questions they ask as well as in the answers received. There are many questions about the supposed corrupting influence of cinema, and some heartening replies, such as this from J.W. Bunn, a headmaster from Islington:

A considerable number of people look upon the attendance of children at cinematograph entertainments with dislike if not with horror, and are apparently inclined to accuse the picture shows of being the main cause of juvenile misdemeanours. I do not agree with this view, and am firmly convinced that there is great exaggeration committed by this class. In my opinion these people are always to be found on the side of opposition of popular and cheap amusements for the working classes. The picture show is undoubtedly very popular with the women and children of the working class, but then it is still new enough to be a novelty, and it must be remembered that no other form of entertainment has ever offered to the poor the same value in variety and comfort for a very small outlay.

Secondly, there is invaluable statistical evidence provided by the film trade, including numbers of cinemas nationally, seats occupied, prices, investment in the cinema industry and the amount of film in distribution. Much of this data is unique to the report.

Lastly, there is the evidence from the school children about their cinema-going habits. Probably uniquely for this period in British film, we have the words of the audience members themselves. Here’s a revealing exchange between the Chairman and four boys from Bethnal Green (two aged eleven, two thirteen):

Q. What do you like best at the cinema ?
A. All about thieves.
Q. The next best?
A. Charlie Chaplin.
Q. And you?
A. Mysteries; and then Charlie Chaplin.
Q. And you?
A. Mysteries, and Charlie Chaplin.
Q. What do you mean by mysteries?
A. Where stolen goods are hidden away in vaults so that the police can’t get them.
Q. And you?
A. Cowboys; and then Charlie Chaplin second.
Q. When you have seen these pieces showing thieving and people catching the thief, has it ever made you wish to go and do the same thing?
A. Yes.
Q. Do you think the fellow who steals, then, a fine man?
A. No.
Q. But you would like to do it yourself?
A. Yes.
Q. Do you like the adventure or what?
A. I like the adventure.
Q. You have no desire, then, to steal in order to get things for yourself, but you like the dashing about and getting up drain-pipes and that sort of thing?
A. Yes.
Q. And you?
A. No, I don’t like that, I should not like to do that.
Q. Do you like pictures where you see flowers growing?
A. No.
Q. Do you like ships coming in and bringing things from distant lands?
(One boy replied ” No,” and the other three ” Yes.”)
Q. You like to have a consistent programme of detective stories and Charlie Chaplin, and you don’t want any more?
A. Yes.
Q. Do you sit amongst the girls?
A. Sometimes.
Q. What do you pay?
A. Id. and 2d.
Q. Do you ever have to sit on the ground?
A. No, we always have a seat.
Q. Have you ever seen the boys behave roughly to the girls?
A. Yes.
Q. What do they do?
A. Aim orange peel at them.
Q. Do they pull the girls about?
A. Yes, their hair.
Q. And do the girls pull back again?
A. No; they seem to enjoy it.

The Report was generally favourable towards the film industry, which was delighted to receive such vindication of its work. The Report recommended the implementation of a system of official censorship, superseding that of local authorities, but this was not implemented.

It’s a marvellous document, and I strongly recommend it to anyone interested in early British film or the social history of film. It’s available for download from the Internet Archive in DjVu (28MB), PDF (69MB), black-and-white PDF (21MB), and TXT (1.3MB) formats (the latter essential for word searching).

Teenagers

Teenage

http://www.amazon.co.uk

Sometimes some of the most interesting writing on early cinema isn’t found under the heading ‘cinema’. A case in point is Jon Savage’s new book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945. It’s a history of the invention of teenagers before there were teenagers, as it were. Most social histories explore the phenomenon post-1945 – Savage looks at how we got to that point by looking at the growing power and influence of adolescents, partiularly American, from the late Victorian period, not least through the pleasures that they pursued. So he has a lot to say about the cinema of the teens and 1920s (making good use of Kevin Brownlow’s Behind the Mask of Innocence), for which the audience was, we must remember, significanly young (up to 50% of the early cinema audience were children or adolescents, according to some estimates). He places the cinema as a particular pleasure of the teenaged within his larger thesis about America as a young society, giving early cinema a social context beyond the boundaries used found in a film studies book. Or at least that’s what I gleaned from half an hour’s read in Waterstone’s…

There’s an interesting review by Libby Purves in The Times which highlights the cinema aspects of the book. Jon Savage is of course the author of the definite book on punk, England’s Dreaming.