The Social Influence of the Moving Picture

Source: Rev. H.A. Jump, The Social Influence of the Moving Picture (New York: Playground and Recreation of America, 1911), pp. 3-4. Reprinted from The Playground, June 1911; originally given as a talk to the People’s Institute, Cooper Union, March 12, 1911, New York City

Text: Recently I was conversing with a group of Persians who are employed in my city. Desirous of ascertaining how American life had impressed them, I put this question: “What was the most amazing experience that came to you after your arrival in the United States?” One man answered, “the subway,” another replied, “a black woman,” a third confessed that it was “the moving picture.” And I observed by the nodding of heads among other members of the company that they were saying amen to his verdict. Further inquiries brought out the fact that practically every one of these foreigners had the habit of going to moving picture shows. One man declared, “I like them because they make me forget that I am tired.” Another said, “I like them because I learn so much from them without knowing the English language.” Evidently the motion picture looms large in the experience of the immigrant.

A few weeks ago I visited the public library and had a chat with some three dozen children in the Children’s Room. “How many of you visit the moving picture shows?” I asked, and every hand went up. “What kind of pictures do you like best?” was my second inquiry. “I like the sad pictures,” answered one pale-faced little girl. “I like the kind where they get married,” replied a jolly miss. “I like the pictures of American soldiers marching down the street with the flags going on before,” came from a dark skinned lad. I asked him his name. He answered, “Guiseppi Calderoni.” The librarian of the Children’s Room told of a Hebrew boy who had recently inquired for a story called “The Bride of Lammermoor.” When asked where he had ever heard of that story, he replied, “I saw it in a moving picture show” Before he was through patronizing the library he had read every novel of Sir Walter Scott and much other good fiction besides. Evidently the motion picture occupies a large place in the experience of the school child.

College professors sometimes surprise us by their humanity. One of them told me not long ago that he patronized the moving picture show as often as he could find the time to do so. I expressed surprise, and asked him why he followed up the practice. He answered, “I always find something human in moving pictures; they seem to bring me close to the life of humanity.” Evidently there are educated men who are not above enjoying this marvelous invention.

In short, a new form of entertainment for the people has grown up without our realizing its extent. It appeals to all races, all ages, all stages of culture. In fact, it is one of the most democratic things in modern American life, belonging in a class with the voting booth and the trolley car.

Comments: The Reverend H.A. Jump, of the South Congregational Church, New Britain, Connecticut published the text of a talk he gave in New York City on the new phenomenon of the motion picture show, of which the above are the opening paragraphs. It is a markedly more positive assessment of the effect of motion pictures on audiences, especially the young, than was common from similar social guardians at this time. There had been four film adaptations of Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, some by way of Donizetti’s opera version, by 1911.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Focussing the Universe

Source: Montagu A. Pyke, Focussing the Universe: A Defence of the Cinematograph (London: Waterlow Bros. & Layton, 1910)

Text: What would we not now give for reliable representations, veritable re-productions of epoch-marking events in the history of our own country, faithful portraits of those who took part in them? The signing of Magna Charta [sic], the execution of Charles I, the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, these and a thousand other historical occurrences, if they could be brought before our eyes today precisely and actually as they happened, how easy and interesting it would be at once to teach and to learn history; what a clearer and more accurate idea we should have respecting the great events and the people of the past, not only in our own country but in other countries.

Posterity will surely be better served in this respect. The Cinematograph renders that certain, every great event in the history of the world, every striking occurrence, every upheaval, whether of men or of nature, by means of it will be recorded for all time. The recent Revolution in Portugal is an object lesson in regard to this. The many rapid and dramatic occurrences in that Revolution, as likewise the portraits of the leaders of the revolt against Monarchical Government, are now faithfully recorded for all time. Let the mind wander back 120 years or so and contemplate the interest with which we of to-day would, were it possible, gaze on the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and all the other awful events of the French Revolution precisely as they took place, or on the great Napoleon himself, then a citizen of the Republic, urged on by his insatiable ambition to wade through a sea of blood and glory to a throne, and subsequently to an exile on a lonely South Atlantic Island. As I have said, posterity will be better served in such historic matters than we are. It will be able to read history not in books but in pictures.

The Cinematograph is the indelible, the faithful, the unbiased recorder of history. We of this generation may make history, but we shall not be privileged to read it in Pictures. That remains for our descendants. For us, however, the Cinematograph has abundant functions. To me, the more I think over it, the more lost I am in amazement at the complete revolution in our conceptions, our ideas, our knowledge, this modern invention is quietly accomplishing. Let me refer to a few of its phases.

It has annihilated space. Most of the wars, much of the racial feeling and national prejudices of the past have been due to narrowness of ideas and ideals, to a failure to understand, through lack of imagination, other people, their feelings and idiosyncracies. The people of the United Kingdom were long insular in more than one sense of that word. They regarded other nations with suspicion, and knew very little about them, while most of what was known was inaccurate to a degree. The Cinematograph is altering all this, it may be gradually and imperceptibly, but a distinct change is being effected all the same. By means of the Cinematograph Theatre all the world is now brought before the eyes of the visitors thereto – floods in Paris, an earthquake in South America, a typhoon and its consequences in China or Japan, a hundred and one occurrences here, there and everywhere are visually represented to the eyes of the audience with the result that sympathy is excited, different races begin to understand one another and to feel that though the colour of their skin, or the articulate sounds by which they convey their thoughts, may differ, they are, nevertheless, bound together by the firm cords of humanity.

The Cinematograph is a vast, enlightening and instructive force. The use of Pictures to convey knowledge and information is no new thing. Indeed in this respect we are simply going back to the primeval days of the human race. All alphabets were originally pictures, and the Chinese characters remain so still. In Mexico and Peru, prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the written language was expressed in pictures.

The Cinematograph Theatre is teaching daily thousands of men and women by means of the eye. It keeps them au courant with public events at home and abroad in a much more striking manner than any newspaper can effect. The latter can only record in type a fact, not as it happened, but as it seemed to happen to the recorder. The visitor to the Picture Theatre can see the occurrence precisely as if he had been on the spot and witnessed it. And so, if he visits a Cinematograph Theatre once or twice a week, he is practically a traveller over the earth’s surface. He can take “the grand tour,” which our forefather considered a daring event once in a life-time, once or twice a week under comfortable conditions, visiting the five Continents, being, as it were, present at all the great occurrences therein, and seeing men and women making that history which not he but his descendants will read. He can survey all mankind from China to Peru and obtain observation with extensive view.

The Cinematograph provides innocent amusement, evokes wholesome laughter, tends to take people out of themselves, if only for a moment, and to forget those wearisome worries which frequently appal so many people faced with the continual struggle for existence. It forms in fact – I like the word – a diversion. It is in some respects what old Izaak Walton claimed angling to be: An employment for idle time which is then not idly spent, a rest to the mind, a cheerer of the spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness. Amusement, relaxation of some kind is necessary for men and women, and it is especially necessary in these strenuous days when nearly all work is at high pressure. That the Picture Theatre provides a greatly felt want is made clear by the popularity it had already achieved despite the opposition and sneers of either prejudiced or interested persons.

The Picture Theatre properly conducted is a clean and healthy entertainment, entirely free not only from the actually indecent, but the suggestive in any form. It seems to me largely a revolt against the decadent condition of the modern stage and the banalities and vulgarities of the modern music-hall. It combines in due proportion amusement and interesting information respecting the happenings of humanity everywhere. Its potentialities seem to be illimitable, and I am not inclined to put any bounds to them. That it has come to stay is not now an arguable proposition. The problem rather is to meet the immense demand springing up in every part of the country for this form of entertainment. Those who have seen it once and, perhaps, visited it hesitatingly, or for the purpose of jeering at it, have left it converted missionaries to sound its praises and voice its attractions in the remotest country districts.

Not least of the charms of the Picture Theatre for me is the fact that it is, in the real sense of the word, catholic, appealing not only to men and women of every class and degree, but to men, women and children of all ages. Before its advent, the process of amusing or interesting the child at a public entertainment was a somewhat difficult one, while the possibility of instructing him or her thereat, was never considered at all. For the child the music-hall was, and rightly, deemed utterly unsuitable, so too, was the theatre; it was either above the child’s head, or the play, musical or otherwise, was not deemed proper for it to see. And so the child in a great city like London, had usually the choice of a visit to the Zoo, or to the pantomime at Christmas. Now that is all changed. The Picture Theatre, if it has done nothing else, has brought delight to the minds and souls of thousands upon thousands of mites in this great Metropolis, some of whom look upon it as the one oasis in the desert of their dull and sordid lives. I confess that nothing gives me so much pleasure as a contemplation of the fact that I have had some part in bringing a little happiness into the lives of these young ones. Nothing is more delightful to me when I visit one of my Theatres than to hear the hearty laughter of the boys and girls who have come “to see the pictures,” and in the process to get a little happiness infused into their lives, some interest in the world that lies beyond their narrow outlook. Of the value of the Picture Theatre as an educational force for the young, opening up to them, as it can, vast realms of knowledge in an attractive and easily assimilated form, or of its achievement, and still greater possibilities in the future, in respect of the extension and spread of scientific knowledge generally, I have not space to relate. The prospect is vast, almost overwhelming in its greatness, its possible results.

When I made up my mind to open my first Picture Theatre, I did so convinced that the class of entertainment which could be put forward at such a place would be one which, from its infinite variety and the conditions under which it was given, would appeal to the great mass of the public. There were then, as there always have been when anything novel is suggested, doubting Thomases who deemed the idea impracticable and bound to fail. These men had not so much faith in humanity as I had, in its desire for an entertainment free from ribaldry, vulgarity, profanity, combining in due proportion knowledge and amusement, the charge for admission to which should be moderate, and entertainment which should be given among enjoyable surroundings to people sitting in comfort, instead of craning their necks from elevated benches in the vicinity of the ceiling. My faith was justified, and the Picture Theatre is now well established in our midst. It will always be a source of pride and delight to me that I was privileged to be the pioneer of the Picture Theatre in this country, and, as such, that I have done something to brighten the lives of great masses of the people, to bring a little sunshine and happiness to them when weary and worn after a day’s toil. I feel, however, that my work in this direction is not yet completed. I shall not rest satisfied until I have erected a Picture Theatre in every London suburb and provincial town in which it seems to me that one is needed. When I have succeeded in doing that I shall feel that sense of satisfaction which comes from the thought of “something attempted, something done” to elevate, to enlighten, to instruct, and to amuse humanity.

Comments: Montagu Pyke (1874-1935) was a British exhibitor whose ‘Pyke circuit’ boasted fourteen cinemas in central London at its pre-World War One height. He became perhaps the most famous person in the British film business of his day, but his methods of raising capital were dubious, and he had been made bankrupt by 1915. Focussing the Universe was a promotional pamphlet for Pyke’s Cinematograph Theatres. Though much of it makes conventional claims for cinema as an educational force and means to capture important events, it has some thoughtful observations on the special appeal of cinema for its audiences.

The Child and the Cinematograph Show

Source: Canon H.D. Rawnsley, The Child and the Cinematograph Show and the Picture Post-Card Evil (reprinted from the Hibbert Journal, vol. xi. 1913), pp. 3-11

Text: It is not improbable that the cinematograph film has a good deal to answer for in this matter of the public demand for horror and sensation. On many of the hoardings near the cinematograph halls or pavilions, beneath the sensational programmes are written such words as “nerve-thrillers”, “eye-openers tonight”, and when we turn to these programmes we cannot help noticing that it is the horrible that draws. “Massacre; a terrible tragedy, 2000 feet”; “The Wheel of Destruction”; “The Motor Car Race: the car when going at prodigious speed overturns and buries its living occupants. Don’t miss this”. “Dante’s hell”, the Devil film, with a huge invitation beneath it, “Don’t miss this opportunity of seeing Satan – Satan and the Creator; Satan and the Saviour, 4000 feet in length”; all these are signs of a downgrade pandering to a sense of horror which is being fostered throughout the length and breadth of the land by the downgrade film.

I spoke to a boy, about twelve years old, who had attended a cinematograph show in a little country town a week or two ago, and he positively trembled as he reported what he had seen. He said, “I shall never go again. It was horrible”. I said, “What was horrible?” He said, “I saw a man cut his throat”.

As I write, a friend tells me that a week or two ago his neighbours, seeing pictures of Sarah Bernhardt advertised as the chief item in a cinematograph show, visited the hall with their little daughter. They found to their disgust the bulk of the entertainment was sensational horrors of such a character that in consequence they were obliged to sit up all night with the child, who constantly woke with screams and cries …

Nor is this sense of horror alone appealed to. Many of these films prove to be direct incentives to crime. Clever burglaries are exhibited before the eyes of mischievous boys, who at once have their attention called to the possibility of the “expert cracksman’s life” …

In the face of the claims of the cinematograph proprietors that the exhibitions are for the moral improvement and amusement of the masses, and in opposition to all the tall talk about the educational value of the film to which the trade from time to time treats us, we have only to reply, “Look at your posters and the items of horror or fierce excitement or degrading sensationalism which, in spite of Mr Redford and his censorship, are still being exhibited up and down the country, to the detriment and discouragement of the nobler feelings of gentleness and compassion!”

The worst of it all is, that neither the police nor the agents of the cinematograph firms who are sent out as exhibitors, are sufficiently educated to know what is horrible and what is not. Thus, for example, when the mayor was appealed to in a town where the most terrible exhibition of the horrors of hell and the tortures of the damned were being visibly enacted as illustrations in gross caricature of Dante’s Inferno, he in turn appealed to the police to visit the cinematograph hall and report. The officer who was well up in the legal aspect of the case and was probably on the look-out for a criminally indecent film as a thing to be objected to, reported to the mayor that he could see nothing objectionable in this horrible Hell film, and therefore had not thought it necessary to speak to the exhibitor …

It is not only the sensational, cruel, or crime film that is sowing seeds of corruption among the people. The film manufacturers have invaded the most holy mysteries of our religious faith. There can be no question that in suitable surroundings, and with specially reverent treatment, pictures from the life of our Lord may be impressive and educational, but the idea of exploiting the life of our Lord as a commercial speculation, and the getting of a troupe of actors to go out to Palestine and pose in situ as His disciples, and as impersonators of the scenes described in the Gospels, is in itself abhorrent; and the quickness of motion needed by the film takes away reverence and imparts a sense of what is artificial, and sometimes almost comic …

It is not only the health of the religious and moral sense and spiritual understanding of the child which needs safeguarding. The time has come when the educationists of the country must realise that it is no use spending millions of money upon elementary education if children beneath school age are allowed to attend a cinematograph show till eleven o’clock at night, and then go home so overwrought and excited by the scenes they had witnessed that sleep is impossible.

I say overwrought advisedly, for it was reported in the press a short time ago that a child going home from a cinematograph hall pleaded piteously with a policeman to protect him from those two men with long beards that were following him. The two men with long beards were two ruffians that he had seen, and actually supposed to be living beings, in a cinematograph film that night …

… A census was taken on a certain Saturday in November last, in Liverpool, with the result that it was proved that there were 13,332 children below the age of fourteen present at matinees held in twenty-seven halls in that city, which appeared to cater especially for children so far as the price of entrance was concerned. The children’s ages … ranged from four or five up to thirteen, and they were viewing the ordinary films shown at the other performances during the rest of the week. Parts of the programme were composed of pictures of a sensational character, some showing crimes, others serious accidents, while not a few were suggestive of immorality.

Comment: Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (1851-1920) was an outspoken critic of the cinema, who wrote and lectured widely on its supposed evil effects on children. The Dante film referred to is the Italian production L’inferno (1911). The troupe of actors going to Palestine is a reference to the American film company Kalem’s production of From the Manger to the Cross, made in 1912. George A. Redford was the first president of the British Board of Film Censors.