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“I think they have a large educational value, for many people who do not read much, or maybe who cannot read at all, have an opportunity to see some of the best plays and books, to see many parts of the world, to see some of the events that are happening in the world, and all for a small sum of money." There is a good deal of truth in that statement. My own impression is that a large porportion of the audience in the cheaper grade of theatre is made up of apparently just such people. Much to my surprise, always more than fifty per cent. of the audience in the five-cent theatre, in the afternoon, is composed of men, never more than fifteen per cent children. Conditions are usually reversed, however, as regards men and women in the ten cent theatres, and far more children are to be found there. Children from the better class of homes are seldom seen in the five cent theatre. This difference of five cents in the price of admission makes a world of difference in the type of spectator.
About three out of a hundred in the high school prefer the motion picture theatre to the legitimate stage. Pupils usually attend the motion picture theatre, not so much from choice as from economic necessity. Most of the pupils agree that if they select a seat pretty well back in the hall, their eyes are not so likely to ache, but they nearly all declare that they cannot gaze for any great length of time without finding it necessary to close the eyes to rest them. Apropos of this, I find that the state of Massachusetts up to last July, aimed to help the spectator in this regard by requiring that "Every person, firm, corporation, or association of persons operating or owning such machines, shall after each film, picture, or series of pictures, or at the expiration of twenty minutes, furnish some other form of entertainment or amusement for a period of not less than five minutes.” Since July, the letter of this law has not been in force, but many theatres still observe the five-minute rest requirement. I suppose it is in an effort to meet this statute that the proprietors of many motion picture houses thrust into the program a little vaudeville. Necessarily, in the lower priced theatres this vaudeville is very cheap in character, and almost always far worse than anything to be foụnd in the pictures themselves.
The prevailing attitude of parents regarding the attendance of their children at the motion picture theatre is one of caution. They generally counsel great moderation. Yet one boy made the admission that his own interest in the pictures was slight, but his mother and father took him every Friday night, and that what they saw usually became the topic of conversation till the next Friday night.
In my meanderings the past four weeks among motion picture houses I witnessed a bewildering array of scenes taken from all walks and phases of life and near-life. Holdups, railway wrecks, stage coach fights, Indian raids, highway robbery, cowboy fights, counterfeiting scenes, drownings, a plentiful display of knives, guns, revolvers, and fists, and many thrilling get-aways by horse, train, and automobile. (I have seen men hanged, stabbed, ilung overboard, tied to a track, shot, and tarred and feathered. I have seen girls flirt, sell themselves, drink poison, and generally cater to the world, the flesh, and the devil. The things sought for have been money, inheritances, gold mines, a rival's life, divorce, and many other of the baser things that commonly move the undercurrent in life. To attain their ends I have seen men wreck trains, and generally treat life as worth something less than a puff of powder; souls have been bought and sold; subterfuge of a hundred kinds has been often made to appear heroic and clever; and pranks of numberless varieties involving funny but rough and tumble scenes made to look like "charming foolery.” Tragedy is usually dubbed murder, and I have not a doubt so called by the average man and woman who attends the cheap theatre. I find myself agreeing with the senior who wrote:
“The photo-plays are too ‘dare devil-don't care,'. as a whole. They portray the unusual and unreal. They cause the observer to have thrills which are not healthy thrills."
It is asserted by some people that the motion picture theatre has educational value, for all of the scenes depicted are not photoplays, but scenes taken from history, geography, literature, as well as life. Indeed, it is quite possible to be affected like one of the girls in my school who says it is her common experience to find herself frequently in the course of one afternoon enlightened, amused, saddened, and disgusted. Only occasionally can she say that she has really retained anything worth while. Unless the scenes are particularly horrid, she forgets what she sees almost as soon as she sees it. Yet this girl is not in the habit of forgetting things as her standing in school plainly shows. Why didn't she learn something? Because the motion pictures make their appeai rather more to immediate comprehension than to any development of intelligence. To people of ordinary intelligence, there is slight incentive to think. The pictures move so rapidly, the events hasten on so swiftly, that thoughtful attention is quite impossible. There is no time to think. Moreover, new knowledge must be built up on previous knowledge. A good instructor proceeds in his instruction from the known to the unknown. The motion picture theatre necessarily ignores this principle. It is a most absurd thing to deluge the mind with new things and expect results. Of course I am speaking from the view point of the child. The reel whizzes along, and in rapid succession follow in bewildering incoherency to a youthful mind, war scenes, rice gathering in China, the Salem fire, lion hunting in Africa, swimming lessons at West Point, Rocky Mountain scenery, the drug terror, how Issy stuck to his post,—the variety depends largely upon the price of admission. What teacher will hazard the guess that any ordinary child intellect can be harried into gaining anything permanently from such an array of unrelated, and to the child rather unintelligible hodgepodge of sense and nonsense.
Few people in this world can learn except by reflection. Extensive reading is frequently of little practical value because the books are read with the eye and not with the mind. Great readers have seldom been great thinkers. Wordsworth with his little library of seventy volumes has left a far more lasting and deep impression upon the world than Southey with his eighteen thousand volumes. At the other extreme are the people who confine their reading exclusively to the newspapers, which of necessity contain helter skelter tidbits of information, more or less transient, to be read while running, to be forgotten in the wink of an eye. The motion picture performance is often of this character. To a certain small per cent. of us, this is the best of it. We may attend the show and look and not think, for we don't have to.
But in the case of children it is a different proposition. We grownups are worldly wise, we know the sham from the real; usually we are not wholly taken in by what we see. We can therefore let the film man run off any amount of life and we are somehow able to adjust most of it to our own experience, what we cannot adjust we pass by. But with the children it is too arduous an undertaking, for they are still in that period of life when the world is a wonderful place, where every day and hour presents to their wonder-gaze some new thing. The motion picture must frequently tax the brain of the child to the limit in his effort to put two and two together. “What is all the action about ?” “What are they trying to do to her ?” “Aren't they wicked ?” “Gee, what a foxy trick!" "Couldn't he shoot ?" Or what is the child going to do with a process of manufacture that is wholly foreign to his experience, such as the making ready of beef for market, the manufacture of soap, or what not, all run off before his startled gaze with lightning-like rapidity, without word or comment? How can any one say that the boy or girl is really learning anything effectually by that method? Their wonder, curiosity, may be excited, or more frequently they may be bored by having such educational pictures thrust in between the funny or tragic ones. As one youngster said: "I close my eyes during the geography scenes so as to rest them.” He quite likely would assent to this statement:
"I go to be entertained. School is enough for me." Knowing the boy, I suspect school is more than enough for him. From time to time I ran across a paper that read like this:
"I get tired looking at the pictures. I think so hard that I keep right on thinking after I go to bed.” Why is it that so many children say that the pictures trouble their sleep, if it isn't that they are completely deluded by what they see, having had no sort of experience to help them to penetrate the make believe in it all ? A motherly sort of girl gives a little light on the answer to this query:
"I think that a child shouldn't be allowed to see the movies often unless an older person is with him who will interpret the meaning and tell it to him clearly.” The girl who wrote that "after seeing Quo Vadis my eyes were in an awful condition,” probably meant that she had the time of her young life trying to interpret the scenes. A boy wrote that he was greatly impressed when in Cabiria the queen finally took poison and died! He too was having difficulty with making proper interpretation of what he saw. The same boy says that while in the playhouse, especially at the end of an exciting play, "I feel a general relaxation of my muscles. It seems I become tense,” he adds.
The more I look into this question of the relation of the motion picture theatre to the child, the more convinced am I that something must certainly be done to make such places better places for children. The appeal there to the child is too frequently to the lower, animal side of his nature, or if educational scenes are being run off, it is done in a wholly unpedagogical fashion so that they teach little or nothing.
"Most of us,” says Clayton Hamilton in his book Studies in Stagecraft, "suffer from a tragic need of laughter”: and I may
add that if, as a result, we should laugh our heads off when Mary flings a spoonful of soft mashed potato into her lover's face, would we not laugh just as eagerly at the whimsicalities of Sir James Barrie? The average theatre manager looks down to his public rather than up to it. Most moving picture performances seem to indicate that the manager thinks that his audience has no brains; either it witnesses a play full of blood and thunder, or a skit dominated by rough-house humor. It is bad enough for us adults, but what shall we say of its disastrous effects upon the minds of children?
The photo-play should be made an art just as much as the spoken drama. Most good plays depend for their success upon the picture elements in them. The essentials of character, action, and setting are conveyed pretty largely by vision alone. Hence there is a splendid opportunity to utilize the motion picture to reproduce the great mass of existing drama.
It seems to me that the motion picture theatre should attempt to do more with setting, i. e. wild out-of-door life, and scenery; and with certain kinds of action, such as racing, the movement of the sea, the wind, manufacturing processes, and rather less with an effort to delineate character, especially certain types of character. In the picture, character is suggested by what the person is doing, on the theory I suppose that action speaks louder than words. But any one knows that character is made up of countless elements moulded together by means that cannot be seen by the eye. The motion picture apparently tries to get around this difficulty by having its actors twist and contort their countenances to express inner feelings that are usually, however, immediately translated into action. Self-controlled people, people of fine, well-poised characters, do not wear their hearts or minds where they may be read by all the world. In Stevenson's Gossip and Romance this statement occurs :