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The Motion Picture Theatre and the Child
FREDERIC R. WILLARD,
N THE United States there are approximately
20,000 motion picture theatres, entertaining something like 10,000,000 men, women, and children every week day, or 3,000,000,000 persons a year. In Hampden county there are over 40 such theatres ; in the city of Springfield there are 15 motion pic
ture theatres with a total daily attendance of 9,000, Suomucego while on Sundays alone frequently over 10,000 persons are present. The number of theatres and people attending them are increasing with tremendous rapidity.
The motion picture craze is spreading beyond the theatre itself to the church, the school, the Y. M. C. A., manufacturing plants, baseball instruction rooms; and recently, I understand, the motion picture is being made use of by traveling salesmen to supplement the exposition of their goods. Of the making of reels there is no end. Sex problems, labor problems, Bible teachings and scenes, natural history, geography, dancing, literature, travels, dangers from certain diseases, historical episodes, the saloon evil, melodrama, and coarse humor,—anything and it would seem everything that at all lends itself to pictorial portrayal is run off in the motion picture theatre. No subject appears to be too trivial, or delicate, or religious. Every taste is satisfied, and sometimes every taste is shocked.
Hence an endless discussion has arisen among thinking men · and women throughout the land over the kind of films that should be exhibited, or prohibited. Some people believe that the way to remedy vice is to let the world see it in all its phases, and thereby shock people into decency. To others, such vivid portrayal of scenes from the
seamy side of life tends only to awaken a morbid curiosity and frequently a desire to go and do likewise. There appears to be an assumption on both sides that the world generally reacts to what it sees in the same way, regardless of age, sex, tem
perament, home environment, or personal tendencies. Ordinarily, the average father and mother do not find it necessary or becoming to take their children aside and tell them about the rottenness that is to be found in the dark places of the earth. In our desire to have the realities of life pictured in all of its possible forms we do not give into the hands of boys and girls the many books and plays that deal with the underworld. Nor of course do we encourage the boys and girls to pass through the wild oats experience as a means of making them ultimately shun the ways of evil. Yet beyond doubt the cinematograph can be made an agent in teaching lessons of honesty, decency, courage, manliness, industry, sobriety, and good citizenship generally.
What I have to say here in this paper is a result of personal observation gained through daily attendance at the motion picture theatre for some weeks past, supplemented by the testimony of about 3700 boys and girls in the schools of Springfield, Mass. Providence, R. I. and Lynn, Mass., by a little reading, and by interviews with the theatre managers. I have tried to look at the subject from the child's viewpoint,—by child, I mean the boy and girl, say from ten years of age to eighteen. I asked these young people how often they attended, what kind of shows they liked best, whether their parents favored their going, what they thought they gained from the performance, whether or not it affected their desire to read, or to attend the legitimate theatre, whether they made any use of what they saw or learned in their English work, how the pictures affected their eyes, and in general, what they thought of the motion pictures.
Practically all pupils questioned, have been to the motion picture theatre at some time. About 20 per cent. only, go oftener than once a week. About 50 per cent. attend only once or twice a month. Furthermore, I believe it is a safe statement to make that the best pupils go least often,— by best I mean pupils in good standing in deportment and scholarship. No doubt, however, the attendance of these best pupils is influenced by the conscientious attitude they hold to their school work.
Among the plays and scenes having first place in their preference two deserve special mention: "Pathe Weekly” and the "Pictorial Weekly.” . In general, students seem to abhor sensational and
unduly "foolish” pictures. The following tables tend to show an increasingly elevated taste as the pupils grow older. In the earlier years, scenes depicting brute action hold first place; later humorous and educational scenes are first in choice.
Table I is based on an examination of 2364 children in the grammar schools of Providence, R. I.* Grade 5 6
95 183 317 312 907 Western
192 211 186 146 735 Comedy (funny) 85 90 99 100
25 34 36 44 139 Crime
5 19 10 29 63 Do not attend
20 44 47 45 156
The collaborator makes this comment: That the plays often exert an unwholesome influence is substantiated by the following answers:
"I like where a man has a wife and three children, and the wife has a fellow."
"It is exciting when two men want to marry the same girl.”
Table II is based on an examination of 129 ninth grade pupils in the Forest Park school, Springfield. (This school is located in one of the best sections of the city. These pupils said that the pictures helped somewhat in their school work, in the following ways: 51 in history, 55 in geography, 40 in literature, 20 in science, 9 in composition, 2 in current events, and 1 in religion. They attended the motion picture theatre about three times a month, but most of them said they would like to go oftener if they could get the "price.” They acknowledge little desire to attend the real theatre. Fifty said they dream more or less frequently about the pictures they see; 20 had frightened dreams; one was "haunted” wide awake; 25 have the pictures more or less in mind while in school. I asked them what pictures lingered longest in memory, with this result: horses, one; sea, 2; love story, 6; war, 7; travel, 9; adventure, 13; funny scenes, 15; mystery, 15; tragedy (they called it murder story), 17; educational, 25. On the whole
• Survey, April, 1914.
these children attended the theatre in the afternoon, and went to the best in the city.
Table III—780 pupils in the Central High School. Spectacular, 126, where display is the big thing. Tragedy, 150, where killing of self or others is the chief thing. Comedy, 240, where a laugh is the chief thing. Travels, 318, where strange sights and scenes are the big things. Western, 351, where daring and picturesque characters are promi
nent. Thrillers, 369, where excitement at any cost is the dominant thing. Educational, 411, where books and plays and processes are repre
sented. No pupil would like to have any one or two of these to the exclusion of the others. He usually likes the medley.
Like best to read the book or play before witnessing the representation, 210.
Like best to read the book or play after witnessing the representation, 85.
Imagination affected, 125. (The others could not tell whether it was or not).
Dreamed at least once of the pictures seen, 52.
About one pupil in fifteen thought they helped once in a while in English. The best pupils got least help in this way.
In the high school I find that there is a tendency by the boy and girl to take the movies less and less seriously as they become more mature. In the grammar school they are very enthusiastic about them; in the senior class of the high school they are indifferent. In spite of their greater maturity and consequent greater freedom from direct parental oversight, the average attendance at the motion picture theatre is slightly lower among high school upper class pupils than among grammar school children. Almost without exception the high school senior prefers the legitimate stage. Furthermore, as stated before, the tendency to go to the movies is strongest among the lower grade of pupil,-i. e. the more or less dull pupil. At least so it would seem from testimony given.
Let me quote a few of the several points of view gleaned from the pupil's papers.
(1) “I think that motion pictures as a whole are a good thing. They keep people off the streets who otherwise might go about doing harm.”
Sometimes I, myself, think that the cheaper grade of motion picture theatre is a kind of street cleaner.
(2) "I think they are about as good as dime novels for education. They are too sentimental and untrue to life.”
(3) "A great part of the motion picture plays lead people to think of the lower things of life instead of the higher.”
(4) "I would much rather see a reel play.” He spelled real, r-e-e-l, so that he left me wondering what he meant.
(5) "Most of them are on the same plan and are just for the ignorant people and to get money, but some plays teach you things.'
(6) A girl in the senior class wrote: “There is too much frivolity and nonsense in the motion picture performances; not much that appeals to the intellect. The sex question is always brought in. (She probably means marriage.) There is such a thing as too much of this for young people. They get wrong ideas of married life and everything connected with the sex problem.” She may be right!
(7) "A comedy if not too serious lightens one's feelings and makes them laugh.”
(8) "I go merely to pass the time. I learn something once in a while."
Generally speaking, the grown up child goes to be entertained, and time and again I read that he says he was amused over things that later made him disgusted with himself. One of my more reflective boys, with a fondness for big words, writes: "My time is usually wasted at such performances. The plays are frequently preposterous, unnatural, and with a tendency to pervert the minds
young people. The pictures stimulate unnatural propensities, such as hopping freights, murdering, counterfeiting, etc. There are two ideas that are most commonly dealt with at the movies :love and murder. I never received a grain of culture from the movies. I do like the real stage and actual drama. They don't make up so many awful faces there, but are more as you see people in life. I think the motion pictures can be improved by cutting out this tragedy nonsense."
The type of testimony in the following excerpt I found to be rather frequent: