Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘Female, 19, white, college junior’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 145

Text: But I shall positively say that Warner Oland, the oriental-looking villain of the screen, was responsible for my mortal dread of Chinamen. Whenever I saw one I would run as fast as my little legs would carry me and palpitating with fear would cling close to my reassuring mother. He, Warner Oland, was always wicked in his role of the canny, cunning, heartless mandarin who pursued Pearl White through so many serials. I carried over this impression to all Asiatics, so that they all seemed to conceal murderous intent behind their bland features, their humble attitude merely a disguise until the time was ripe to seize you and kill you, or, worse yet, to make you a slave. I never passed by our Chinese laundry without increasing my speed, glancing apprehensively through the window to detect him at some foul deed, expecting every moment one of his supposed white slave girls to come dashing out of the door. If I heard some undue disturbance at night outside, I was certain that “Mark Woo” was at his usual work of torturing his victims. I have not been able to this day to erase that apprehensive feeling whenever I see a Chinese person, so deep and strong were those early impressions.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct 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. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. This extract comes from the chapter ‘Schemes of Life’, section ‘Stereotyped Views’. The Swedish-American actor Warner Oland frequently played oriental characters, including Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Serials in which he appeared with Pearl White were The Romance of Elaine (1915), The Fatal Ring (1917) and The Lightning Raider (1919).

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Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘Female, 19, white, college junior’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 145

Text: But I shall positively say that Warner Oland, the oriental-looking villain of the screen, was responsible for my mortal dread of Chinamen. Whenever I saw one I would run as fast as my little legs would carry me and palpitating with fear would cling close to my reassuring mother. He, Warner Oland, was always wicked in his role of the canny, cunning, heartless mandarin who pursued Pearl White through so many serials. I carried over this impression to all Asiatics, so that they all seemed to conceal murderous intent behind their bland features, their humble attitude merely a disguise until the time was ripe to seize you and kill you, or, worse yet, to make you a slave. I never passed by our Chinese laundry without increasing my speed, glancing apprehensively through the window to detect him at some foul deed, expecting every moment one of his supposed white slave girls to come dashing out of the door. If I heard some undue disturbance at night outside, I was certain that “Mark Woo” was at his usual work of torturing his victims. I have not been able to this day to erase that apprehensive feeling whenever I see a Chinese person, so deep and strong were those early impressions.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct 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. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. This extract comes from the chapter ‘Schemes of Life’, section ‘Stereotyped Views’. The Swedish-American actor Warner Oland frequently played oriental characters, including Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Serials in which he appeared with Pearl White were The Romance of Elaine (1915), The Fatal Ring (1917) and The Lightning Raider (1919).

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

A Sort of Life

Source: Graham Greene, A Sort of Life (Hardmondsworth: Penguin, 1974 orig. pub. 1971), p. 9

Text: If I had known it, the whole future must have lain all the time along those Berkhamsted streets. The High Street was wide as many a market square, but its broad dignity was abused after the first great war by the New Cinema under a green Moorish dome, tiny enough but it seemed to us then the height of pretentious luxury and dubious taste. My father, who was by that time headmaster of Berkhamsted School, once allowed his senior boys to go there for a special performance of the first Tarzan movie, under the false impression that it was an educational film of anthropological interest, and ever after he regarded the cinema with a sense of disillusion and suspicion.

Comments: Graham Greene (1904-1991) was a British novelist, many of whose works were filmed and who was a notable film critic in the 1930s. The first Tarzan film was Tarzan of the Apes (USA 1918), starring Elmo Lincoln. The above are the opening lines of Greene’s first volume of autobiography.

Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), pp. 30-31

Text: At the age of six a social function was imposed upon me that had everything to do with entertainment, though not necessarily of the comic kind. On Queen’s Road there were two cinemas – the Rex and the Electric. They faced each other, like the Globe and the Rose playhouses on the Elizabethan South Bank, but not in true rivalry. Going to one on a Monday and Thursday (the day the programme changed) did not prevent your going to the other on a Tuesday and Friday, if you could afford it. The cinemagoer’s criteria had more to do with hygiene than with the quality of the entertainment offered. The Rex was called a bughouse and the Electric not. The Electric used a superior disinfectant like a grudging perfume; the Rex smelt of its patrons and its lavatories. With the Rex, it was said, you went in in a blouse and came out with a jumper. So it was to the Electric that the children of Lodge Street went, clutching their pennies, on a Saturday afternoon. Because I lived at the Golden Eagle I was called Jackie Eagle, and ten or twelve boys would, after midday dinner, cry out for Jackie Eagle from the verge of the public bar the law forbade them to enter. They would hold on to me in their redolent jerseys all the way down Lodge Street and left and over on Queen’s Road. I was the only one of them who could read.

The manager of the Electric did not wish too many even of his front rows to be defiled by children, and so we were jammed three to a seat, with a gaping black auditorium behind us clean for the evening’s two houses. So I began a lifetime’s devotion to the cinema, a one-sided love affair in which I was more bruised than caressed. In those old silent days the art was almost an aspect of literature. I hear my little treble voice crying the text aloud for the benefit of even big louts whom the reading mystery had passed by. ‘Kiss me, my fool’, mouths the Spanish gipsy siren, and the cabellero who proposed knifing her trembles so that his knife silently clatters to the floor, ‘Came the dawn’, a regular cliché. We saw Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and Ben Turpin in The Shriek. There was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (‘What’s that mean, kid?’), with artistic camera-masks that varied the shape of the frame. There was a Chester Conklin comedy which began with lovers kissing on a doorstep. ‘The end’, the legend said. There were roars of kids cheated. ‘Of a perfect day.’ That was all right, then, but the humour was too adult for relief: the buggers were clearly not to be trusted. There was one frightful shock for me. A character with a dirty beard and gabardine spoke, and then the black screen filled with unintelligible letters. I know now it was Hebrew; I even remember a beth and a ghimel. To my illiterates it was all one, and there was bafflement and then anger at my failure to twang it off. ‘Thought you said the bugger could read.’ So I improvised a flight of suitable invective. No piano played in the pit: we were too cheap for music.

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. His memoir is of particular interest for providing evidence of silent films in some places being shown without music into the 1920s. It was common practice in some cinemas of the 1910s and 20s to cram three children onto two seats; three per seat sounds improbable. The films mentioned include The Sheik (USA 1921), The Shriek of Araby (USA 1923) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921).

Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), pp. 30-31

Text: At the age of six a social function was imposed upon me that had everything to do with entertainment, though not necessarily of the comic kind. On Queen’s Road there were two cinemas – the Rex and the Electric. They faced each other, like the Globe and the Rose playhouses on the Elizabethan South Bank, but not in true rivalry. Going to one on a Monday and Thursday (the day the programme changed) did not prevent your going to the other on a Tuesday and Friday, if you could afford it. The cinemagoer’s criteria had more to do with hygiene than with the quality of the entertainment offered. The Rex was called a bughouse and the Electric not. The Electric used a superior disinfectant like a grudging perfume; the Rex smelt of its patrons and its lavatories. With the Rex, it was said, you went in in a blouse and came out with a jumper. So it was to the Electric that the children of Lodge Street went, clutching their pennies, on a Saturday afternoon. Because I lived at the Golden Eagle I was called Jackie Eagle, and ten or twelve boys would, after midday dinner, cry out for Jackie Eagle from the verge of the public bar the law forbade them to enter. They would hold on to me in their redolent jerseys all the way down Lodge Street and left and over on Queen’s Road. I was the only one of them who could read.

The manager of the Electric did not wish too many even of his front rows to be defiled by children, and so we were jammed three to a seat, with a gaping black auditorium behind us clean for the evening’s two houses. So I began a lifetime’s devotion to the cinema, a one-sided love affair in which I was more bruised than caressed. In those old silent days the art was almost an aspect of literature. I hear my little treble voice crying the text aloud for the benefit of even big louts whom the reading mystery had passed by. ‘Kiss me, my fool’, mouths the Spanish gipsy siren, and the cabellero who proposed knifing her trembles so that his knife silently clatters to the floor, ‘Came the dawn’, a regular cliché. We saw Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and Ben Turpin in The Shriek. There was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (‘What’s that mean, kid?’), with artistic camera-masks that varied the shape of the frame. There was a Chester Conklin comedy which began with lovers kissing on a doorstep. ‘The end’, the legend said. There were roars of kids cheated. ‘Of a perfect day.’ That was all right, then, but the humour was too adult for relief: the buggers were clearly not to be trusted. There was one frightful shock for me. A character with a dirty beard and gabardine spoke, and then the black screen filled with unintelligible letters. I know now it was Hebrew; I even remember a beth and a ghimel. To my illiterates it was all one, and there was bafflement and then anger at my failure to twang it off. ‘Thought you said the bugger could read.’ So I improvised a flight of suitable invective. No piano played in the pit: we were too cheap for music.

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. His memoir is of particular interest for providing evidence of silent films in some places being shown without music into the 1920s. It was common practice in some cinemas of the 1910s and 20s to cram three children onto two seats; three per seat sounds improbable. The films mentioned include The Sheik (USA 1921), The Shriek of Araby (USA 1923) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921).

Letters

Source: James Joyce, extract from letter to Stanislaus Joyce, 1 ?March 1907, reproduced in Letters (ed. Richard Ellman) (New York: Viking, 1966), vol. 2, p. 217

Text: It is months since I have written a line and even reading tires me. The interest I took in socialism and the rest has left me. I have gradually slid down until I have ceased to take any interest in any subject. I look at God and his theatre through the eyes of my fellow-clerks so that nothing surprises, moves or excites me or disgusts me. Nothing of my former mind seems to have remained except a heightened emotiveness which satisfies itself in the sixty-miles-an-hour pathos of some cinematograph or before some crude Italian gazette-picture.

Comments: James Joyce (1882-1941) was an Irish novelist and briefly (December 1909-January 1910) a cinema manager. In March 1907, years before his first book was published, he was working in a bank in Rome, a low period of his life. Joyce was an occasional cinemagoer from the 1900s through to the 1920s, even when his eyesight became very poor.

Letters

Source: James Joyce, extract from letter to Stanislaus Joyce, 1 ?March 1907, reproduced in Letters (ed. Richard Ellman) (New York: Viking, 1966), vol. 2, p. 217

Text: It is months since I have written a line and even reading tires me. The interest I took in socialism and the rest has left me. I have gradually slid down until I have ceased to take any interest in any subject. I look at God and his theatre through the eyes of my fellow-clerks so that nothing surprises, moves or excites me or disgusts me. Nothing of my former mind seems to have remained except a heightened emotiveness which satisfies itself in the sixty-miles-an-hour pathos of some cinematograph or before some crude Italian gazette-picture.

Comments: James Joyce (1882-1941) was an Irish novelist and briefly (December 1909-January 1910) a cinema manager. In March 1907, years before his first book was published, he was working in a bank in Rome, a low period of his life. Joyce was an occasional cinemagoer from the 1900s through to the 1920s, even when his eyesight became very poor.

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: Harold Walker, quoted in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 83

Text: Harold Walker, 11 Regent St (aged 20), regular cinema-goer (10 times a month), preference – American films.

Comments: Regarding question 5 [i.e. which are the best films], I certainly am not a patriot, for in my opinion American films are far superior to British on every point: acting, direction, production, humour, yes, everything! (If I’m not mistaken, you know it!). As for your cheaply-made ‘Quota’ films – well -! Finally, I am eagerly awaiting the result of the combination of Hollywood and Our Gracie. Now what about question 7 [i.e. which of the following would you like more of in the films?] – I fail to see where either religion or politics should have any part whatever in films. In the same category I place ‘people like you and I’ and educational subjects for the simple reason that – we dont [sic] want what we know! or what we should know! no! first and last we want ENTERTAINMENT.

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. This comment comes from Mass-Observation’s research programme into cultural life in Bolton, Lancashire. The study began in 1938, and this comment is a response to a questionnaire issued in March 1938 asking Do you go to the cinema regularly? How many times a month do you go? Do you go regularly on the same day, if so which day? Do you think you see people on the screen who live like yourself? Which are the best films, British or American, or do you think both are the same? People were also asked to number the types of films they best, and to list what they would like to see more of in films. This respondee was a regular of the Odeon, Ashburner Street. Quota films refers to the proportion of British films which had to be shown in British cinema, which led to a rash of cheaply-made features guaranteed a screening somewhere (‘Quota Quickies’). Our Gracie is Gracie Fields, born in Rochdale, Lancashire, who made the Twentieth Century-Fox-produced film We’re Going to be Rich in 1938.

The Photoplay

Source: Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York/London: D. Appleton and Company, 1916), pp. 215-220

Text: Enthusiasts claim that in the United States ten million people daily are attending picture houses. Sceptics believe that “only” two or three millions form the daily attendance. But in any case “the movies” have become the most popular entertainment of the country, nay, of the world, and their influence is one of the strongest social energies of our time. Signs indicate that this popularity and this influence are increasing from day to day. What are the causes, and what are the effects of this movement which was undreamed of only a short time ago?

The economists are certainly right when they see the chief reason for this crowding of picture houses in the low price of admission. For five or ten cents long hours of thrilling entertainment in the best seats of the house: this is the magnet which must be more powerful than any theater or concert. Yet the rush to the moving pictures is steadily increasing, while the prices climb up. The dime became a quarter, and in the last two seasons ambitious plays were given before audiences who paid the full theater rates. The character of the audiences, too, suggests that inexpensiveness alone cannot be decisive. Six years ago a keen sociological observer characterized the patrons of the picture palaces as “the lower middle class and the massive public, youths and shopgirls between adolescence and maturity, small dealers, pedlars, laborers, charwomen, besides the small quota of children.” This would be hardly a correct description today. This “lower middle class” has long been joined by the upper middle class. To be sure, our observer of that long forgotten past added meekly: “Then there emerges a superior person or two like yourself attracted by mere curiosity and kept in his seat by interest until the very end of the performance; this type sneers aloud to proclaim its superiority and preserve its self-respect, but it never leaves the theater until it must.” Today you and I are seen there quite often, and we find that our friends have been there, that they have given up the sneering pose and talk about the new photoplay as a matter of course.

Above all, even those who are drawn by the cheapness of the performance would hardly push their dimes under the little window so often if they did not really enjoy the plays and were not stirred by a pleasure which holds them for hours. After all, it must be the content of the performances which is decisive of the incomparable triumph. We have no right to conclude from this that only the merits and excellences are the true causes of their success. A caustic critic would probably suggest that just the opposite traits are responsible. He would say that the average American is a mixture of business, ragtime, and sentimentality. He satisfies his business instinct by getting so much for his nickel, he enjoys his ragtime in the slapstick humor, and gratifies his sentimentality with the preposterous melodramas which fill the program. This is quite true, and yet it is not true at all. Success has crowned every effort to improve the photostage; the better the plays are the more the audience approves them. The most ambitious companies are the most flourishing ones. There must be inner values which make the photoplay so extremely attractive and even fascinating.

To a certain degree the mere technical cleverness of the pictures even today holds the interest spellbound as in those early days when nothing but this technical skill could claim the attention. We are still startled by every original effect, even if the mere showing of movement has today lost its impressiveness. Moreover we are captivated by the undeniable beauty of many settings. The melodrama may be cheap; yet it does not disturb the cultured mind as grossly as a similar tragic vulgarity would on the real stage, because it may have the snowfields of Alaska or the palm trees of Florida as radiant background. An intellectual interest, too, finds its satisfaction. We get an insight into spheres which were strange to us. Where outlying regions of human interest are shown on the theater stage, we must usually be satisfied with some standardized suggestion. Here in the moving pictures the play may really bring us to mills and factories, to farms and mines, to courtrooms and hospitals, to castles and palaces in any land on earth.

Yet a stronger power of the photoplay probably lies in its own dramatic qualities. The rhythm of the play is marked by unnatural rapidity. As the words are absent which, in the drama as in life, fill the gaps between the actions, the gestures and deeds themselves can follow one another much more quickly. Happenings which would fill an hour on the stage can hardly fill more than twenty minutes on the screen. This heightens the feeling of vitality in the spectator. He feels as if he were passing through life with a sharper accent which stirs his personal energies. The usual make-up of the photoplay must strengthen this effect inasmuch as the wordlessness of the picture drama favors a certain simplification of the social conflicts. The subtler shades of the motives naturally demand speech. The later plays of Ibsen could hardly be transformed into photoplays. Where words are missing the characters tend to become stereotyped and the motives to be deprived of their complexity. The plot of the photoplay is usually based on the fundamental emotions which are common to all and which are understood by everybody. Love and hate, gratitude and envy, hope and fear, pity and jealousy, repentance and sinfulness, and all the similar crude emotions have been sufficient for the construction of most scenarios. The more mature development of the photoplay will certainly overcome this primitive character, as, while such an effort to reduce human life to simple instincts is very convenient for the photoplay, it is not at all necessary. In any case where this tendency prevails it must help greatly to excite and to intensify the personal feeling of life and to stir the depths of the human mind.

But the richest source of the unique satisfaction in the photoplay is probably that esthetic feeling which is significant for the new art and which we have understood from its psychological conditions. The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us. No wonder that temples for the new goddess are built in every little hamlet.

Comments: Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916) was a German psychologist who was a professor of experimental psychology at Harvard University. His book The Photoplay is considered as the first serious work of film theory and is still highly regarded. The selection above comes from the chapter ‘The Function of the Photoplay’.

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