The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 276-282

Text: April 21, 1917. MINUTES OF EVIDENCE. Dr. Kimmins. Examined.

DR. KIMMINS: I think the simplest way would be for me to elaborate the evidence, and give you a few extracts from essays showing you the mind of the child with regard to the cinema. I would urge you not to attach much importance to the results from the girls’ central school, because I only had 184 papers sent in, which is not a sufficient number from which to draw a very definite conclusion. In many of the children’s essays they simply refer to the last performance or the one before that. I have thoroughly analysed the papers and there are several points which come out very clearly. I have noticed that the girls take a greater interest in domestic drama and fairy stories. Quite a large number of fairy stories have been filmed, and they have been described in great detail. As regards the comics they are very much more popular with the boys than the girls, and when one analyses every age one finds that in the upper standards the boys are less attracted by the comics than the boys in the lower standards. The boys are much keener on serial films than the girls, but this may be explained by the fact that the boys have more opportunities of attending the cinema than the girls. The interest in war films is very great and varies from school to school. Then, again, the boys take a keener interest in the crook films than the girls, while love films are more popular with the girls than the boys; and it is very noticeable that in the schools in very well-to-do districts the purely love film is more popular than in the poorer districts. To carry on this investigation I selected six schools from poor districts and six schools from good districts, in order to get a great difference in the home surroundings. One point comes out in the analyses of the papers of the girls’ central school; and that is, that there is an increased interest at twelve and thirteen years of age in films about cowboys and adventure. I will quote some extracts from essays as to why some of the children do not go to cinemas.

The first is rather pathetic, it is from a child of nine: “I have never been in a cinema. It was my dada’s wish that I was not to go in a cinema. Mother likes to keep his wish because he was killed” (in France).

Then another child of nine says: “My reasons for not going to cinemas are that the heat gives me a headache. I also found that germs like the dark and so cinemas are unhealthy, so father and mother decided I better not go. I like books very much and having many at home I do not want to go.”

Then a child of ten: “I have never been to cinemas. Last year my two sisters went, and in two or three days, one had scarlet fever and the other measles, and so mother would not let me go because she thought I might get it.”

Then a girl of thirteen says — and I must say here that a girl of thirteen is much more critical than a boy of thirteen: “I do not go to the pictures because of these reasons: (1) I save money by stopping at home; (2) it don’t do your eyes any good; (3) it’s not healthy to be stuck inside a hot place taking other people’s breath.”

Now I will read some extracts from essays on films. Here is a rather remarkable one from a boy of ten: “A girl had an extremely heroic mother whose husband was locked up in a den of tigers. The woman, who was determined to save her man, boldly went to the circus train where she begged pitifully and melancholily to give her the keys of the den. After a long argument they answered in the affirmative. When she got to the place they said ‘ You can have the keys on one condition only,’ and that was, when she got to the door and unlocked it they must give back the keys. At first she answered in the negative, afterwards she agreed. The second she got into the gloomy cavern she heard her husband’s voice. ‘Is that you, John?’ ‘Who is that?’ came a dreamy and fatigued voice. ‘It is me your wife, Charlotte.’ Then the tears flowed.”

Here is an extraordinary account of the impression a girl of thirteen obtained from seeing a film dealing with the death of Nurse Cavell: “They took her to a prison in a German neighbourhood and ordered her to tell the British plans. When she thought of her God and country she said: ‘I will not be a traitor to my own country.’ The German Emperor, who is called the Kaiser, said : ‘You will suffer for it if you do not tell us.’ Nurse Cavell knelt by her stony bed and said her evening prayer. When Von Bissing saw her he spoke some German language to her, and she did not understand it. The following day the Kaiser ordered his soldiers to fetch her to the place where she was going to be shot. When she was led through the market the people laughed and teased her. When she arrived at her destination the Kaiser said: ‘Fancy you trying to fight against me.’ He then ordered Von Bissing to level his revolver and shoot her. He did so, and then he was given an Iron Cross and some money for killing her.”

One small child after describing a country scene says : “The picture I like best is like a meadow. It had flowers and little hills. Why I like it is, because it makes you think that you are in the country yourself. It also learns you your Nature study.”

Then a child of eleven says: “I always look forward to pictures about people who do daring things. I like to see people climb mountains under great difficulties, or people running away and being pursued. There is one picture that I think is very good. It is called Liberty. It is a very daring play and the people go through very dangerous things.”

The girls, by the way, take very much more interest in scenery than the boys, and here is what one of the girls says: “The picture that I enjoyed most was one delivered in six parts and dealing with the wild life of Alaska and the Yukon District. I cannot exactly recollect the details, but I have a rather hazy, it is true, remembrance of them. It is about a man who, in disguise, tracks to the snowy regions of Alaska and there kills the man who ran away with his wife. The music that was played at the time, I think, has a great deal to do with my decision.”

Here is another: “It was a beautiful picture and beautiful scenery too; as we sat looking at it, it seemed to dazzle our eyes. The lady of the house was dressed in green velvet, while her son had a green suit; her son’s sweetheart also had a green dress, but it was trimmed with black fur. As they sat under the trees, on a seat made of oak, in the moonlight, it was picturesque. The green made it look more beautiful than ever. We held our breaths as we watched it, for it was so beautiful.”

At the age of thirteen, the girls like to describe the appearance of the people who are acting. That comes out very strikingly in one or two essays I have here: “Joan was a young and beautiful girl of about seventeen years of age, who worked in the mines. Her friend was Lizzie, a pretty girl of about the same age, but fragile and obstinate. Their ‘boss’ as they called the manager, was a young man, handsome and kind. Many a time had he saved Joan from blows from the foreman, and she had grown to love him. Joan’s father was a bully and the terror of the mine.”

Here is another short description: “It was a dull day, and a heavy storm was raging overhead ; and a man, evidently a newcomer, entered the inn. He was tall and respectable, with large bright eyes, which seemed to influence everybody. Having had his fill, and the storm having abated, he left the inn and proceeded homewards. On arriving there he sat down and seemed lost in meditation.”

Here is a good description: “The picture that I liked most was not a funny story nor a drama, but just views of water waving and curling, and also some falls. It gave some most beautiful falls and fountains splashing and sparkling in sunny France. The water first turned a beautiful blue, and then on the fountains it sprinkled with a silver tint. Then came the fall, with its beautiful waters jumping and bubbling over sharp stones and rocks, making many pools of white foam. Another picture was the river, and sometimes it did not sparkle but was dark and sullen.”

This is a remarkable production for a young child.

Then another child says: “I like mysteries and detective pictures, from them you can learn many things: first, you can learn to copy detectives’ ways; secondly, you can be careful of whom you make acquaintance, whether a nice girl or a nasty mean girl.”

Here is something for the Censor: ” Some pictures are degrading, and they do not do one any good; but they would help to make the people who see them less pure and have less moral support. These pictures are only shown in cheap and degraded picture palaces, and are only supported by the people of inferior education. Some pictures are degrading, and these never ought to be passed by the Censor.”

The age of that girl is only thirteen and she goes to an ordinary elementary school.

Then you have: “Pictures of foreign scenes, exploration and aviation give one ideas that are not to be found in books and do a great deal to improve our ideas. My opinion is, that pictures could be utilised for the education of children along with the form of education that is taught in our schools. Pictures about foreign countries are highly valued for their aid to education, and in the improvement of children’s minds.”

Another girl says: “Love pictures are sometimes ridiculous and are only meant for grown-ups. Pictures such as ‘Quo Vadis?’ ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ are really a help to education and give one a good idea of the habits of the people at the time.”

Then here is a delightful child who gives this description: “I have an aesthetic taste for scenery, and one of the best pictures I have seen is ‘Doran’s Travels in China.’ This young lady travelled on the tranquil winding river. The mountains glistened in the sun and the traveller stood amazed at the wondrous spectacle. The people in the massive building were similar to the ancient people of years ago. The beautiful scenery helps to uplift one to purer thoughts. It helps to give one a better idea of the beauty of the world and gives one ideas of different countries.”

In one essay a girl traces the extraordinary influence of one person upon another: “Bob believed in crime, and reared Daisy, as the little girl was called, to believe in the same principles. One day Daisy was hungry, and being now a girl of seventeen and very pretty, she decided to pick some one’s pocket, but also was detected and carried to the police station, where a middle-aged man took pity on her and took her to his own home, which was situated in Park Lane. Daisy had never seen such a lovely house, and even after she was dressed in lovely clothes, the impulse to steal would come to her, and at last, while the haughty footman was asleep, she cut off the gorgeous gold braid from his shoulder, and tied it round her own waist.”

Then here is the essay of a boy of eight years of age: “There was a girl about fourteen years of age. She had a very nice young man. There was another lady who was very jealous, because she wanted the young man. So she made up her mind to murder this young lady. She got two young men to capture her. One day they saw her out. They blindfolded her and took her away. They put her in a house and left her there. While she was looking out of the window she saw her sweetheart. She opened the window and called out to him and told him all about it, so he knocked the door down and got her.”

Here is a boy of nine: ” The best film I have ever seen is ‘The Man Who Stayed at Home.’ I like it best, because it ended up nicely, and some pictures end up so funny. But ‘The Man Who Stayed at Home’ ended up where the Man Who Stayed at Home saves one of our biggest liners, and sunk one of the German submarines, and killed a lot of German soldiers. So you can see that it did end up very nicely.”

The boys’ descriptions of war films are extremely well done, as you will see by this one: “Name — Battle of the Ancre. Crash! Boom! The Tower Cinema Band is imitating the battle of the Ancre. You see the Tanks in action, also men slushing about in mud. Now you see a transport wagon being guided round a shell hole by an officer; the officer takes an unlucky step and has a bath in mud. Now the eighteen-pounders in action, making frightful havoc over in the German trenches. Now the whistle shrills, and they leap over the parapet, rat, tap, tap, tap, go the German machine guns, but nothing daunts our soldiers. Crack ! and their gallant captain falls. This enrages the men to fury. At last they reach the German lines. Most of the Germans flee for their lives shouting ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ etc. Now the British and German wounded are brought in, some seriously, others slightly. Soon after follow the German prisoners, some vicious-looking scoundrels that I should not like to meet on a dark night, others young boys, about sixteen years of age.”

Here is the essay of a boy of eleven: “Moving pictures are nice, and although I have seen and enjoyed many, that which I liked most was a film entitled ‘His Mistake.’ In the first picture one saw three evil-looking men in an old shepherd’s hut, plotting to kill Lord Harston of Myrtle Manor. The next shows these men slinking home in the dark to a dilapidated cottage. Third, one saw Lord Harston riding out with his faithful dog ‘Rufe.’ As Harston came down a leafy lane a masked man with a revolver calls upon him to stop. Harston speaks to his dog, which, unnoticed, creeps behind the masked man and then, with a low crouch, darts forward upon Harston’s would-be kidnapper. He, startled by the attack, falls and is immediately attacked by the dog. Part II shows Lord Harston’s Manor, which he is using as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Part III films a second attempt on Harston’s life, in which he receives a mysterious threat in a note brought by a shaggy dog. Last part: Lord Harston’s baby is kidnapped and threatened with death unless Harston turns up at a certain spot. Lord Harston takes ten constables, captures the robbers or plotters and imprisons them.”

I have had some fine descriptions of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. It is a very favourable film with the girls and many of them write upon that. Then just one description of the way in which the boys describe Charlie Chaplin —

“Charlie by the Sea. In this two-reel farce we see the inimitable Charlie Chaplin garbed in the clothes of a seaside lounger, bowler hat and baggy trousers complete, strolling along the front at Mud-splosh-on-Sea, winking merrily at the oysters and twiddling the toothbrush on his upper lip. A fair form hoves in sight, which gradually changes itself into a fair maiden, escorted by a fierce old gentleman with a moustache which nearly hid his uncomely face from view. She soon left him asleep, at which Charlie gaily tripped along, his golden locks waving gently to and fro in the breezes. On being asked, the fair damsel agreed to go for a stroll along the sands with our hero. After a game with another of the young maiden’s admirers in which a lifeboat came prominently into action, Charlie left his young lady to meet his friend Jerry Swiller, whom he treated to some ices. At the end of the picture we see all the irate maidens he had jilted chasing our hero.”

This is, I think, one of the best of the Battle pictures: “The best picture I have seen was the Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks. It shows us in Old England the privations Tommy has to undergo in blood-sodden France and Belgium. The Tommies went to the trenches stumbling and slipping, but always wore the smile which the Kaiser’s legions, try hard as they might, could not brush off. Lords, tinkers, earls, chimney sweeps, side by side, were shown in this splendid film. It showed and proved that although England was small and Germany large, the British Lion was a match for the German Eagle any day. The film also showed that monster terror and fear of the Germans, the Tank. Snorting, creaking, waddling, the huge bogey started for the German first-line trenches. The film showed the huge British guns. Day and night, night and day the huge monsters of destruction roared never ceasing.”

That I think is a remarkable essay for a small boy from an elementary school. I will conclude with one or two extracts from the girls’ essays.

A child of eight says: ” When I went to the picture palace I saw a picture of a fire. It was a large house which was on fire. The fire was caused by a little girl dropping a lighted lamp. When the house was burning a boy came walking along. He saw the house on fire and three little girls looking out of the window. He threw up to them a large rope. They took hold of it and climbed down in turns. The mother came down after her children and the father came down last. The mother and father were very pleased with the boy for saving their children’s lives and their own.”

Then a girl of ten says: “The pictures I like best are dramas not too sad. I like about when people get bankrupt. A lady has to marry a person she does not like to get her father’s business back. She loves another gentleman and she tells him her trouble. Then just as they are going to church a telegram boy comes to say that her uncle has died and she is an heiress. Then she marries her real young man. Her father is then able to keep his business on.”

Here is the extraordinary story of the reformation of a beer-drinker: “Once when I went to the cinema I saw a picture about a little girl named Mary, whose mother was very ill and whose father was a drunkard. One night her father came home very drunk and he aimed a jug at his wife and killed her, and when Mary saw it she ran away. Presently she came to a motor and got under a covering and went to sleep. Later, a gentleman got in who was very rich, and whose fiancée had broken off her engagement with him because he drank beer. When he got in the motor he put his feet on the blanket and he woke Mary up. He sat her on his lap and she said: ‘I don’t like you; your breath smells like my daddy’s.’ He took her home with him determined not to touch beer again.”

This next one is very typical and shows the child’s extreme love of detail: “‘The House of Fear’ was the moving picture I enjoyed most. It was a drama in four acts, but it was not as long as some dramas. It was about a very old lady, named Mrs. White, who was bedridden. She had only one child, a girl named Margaret, who was married to a certain Mr. Fairley, who had no relatives. Margaret had one child named. Elsie, who was thirteen months old. Soon after Elsie’s second birthday her father was accidently [sic] shot through the head and died immediately. Her mother, hearing of her husband’s sudden death, is taken very ill and dies soon afterwards. She then lived with her grandmother until she had turned five, knowing but little of her parents’ deaths. In her ninety-ninth year Mrs. White dies, leaving the child in the care of an uncle who is her godfather, but the uncle was a miser and did not wish to keep her. After the funeral of her grandmother Elsie is brought before a meeting in her house and the uncle is asked to keep his promise. He does not wish to, but in the end, wishing not to appear ungrateful, he consents. In the end Elsie is married to her uncle’s nephew, and here we leave her with a good husband, a comfortable home and two children.”

Comment: 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. This remarkable sequence features evidence from Commission member Dr. Charles William Kimmins, Chief Inspector under the Education Committee of the London County Council (his son Anthony Kimmins became an actor and film director). He had 6,701 children of different ages from 25 London schools each write an account of ‘the moving picture they liked most of all those they had seen in the cinema’. They had 15 minutes in which to do so, with no preparatory discussion. These extracts from the essays (the originals appear to be lost) form a precious and substantial body of evidence from children themselves about what they thought of films they had seen. Some of noteworthy points are the detailed recollection of artificial colour effects, the role of music in shaping memories of a film, the memory of film titles themselves, and the variety of films (fiction and non-fiction) that made a particular impression on their memories.

The films mentioned include Tom Brown’s Schooldays (UK 1916 d. Rex Wilson), John Halifax, Gentleman (UK 1916 d. George Pearson), The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (UK 1917, ph. Geoffrey Malins, J.B. McDowell, Oscar Bovill) (a War Office-sponsored documentary), Nurse and Martyr (UK 1915 d. Percy Moran), Quo Vadis (Italy 1913 d. Enrico Guazzoni), The Three Musketeers (USA 1916 d. Charles Swickard), The Man Who Stayed at Home (UK 1915 d. Cecil Hepworth), By the Sea (USA 1915 d. Charles Chaplin) and The House of Fear (USA 1915 d. Stuart Paton).

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