A London Boy’s Saturday

Source: Unnamed schoolboy, quoted in T.E. Harvey, A London Boy’s Saturday (Bournville: The Saint George Press, 1906), p. 13

Text: Saturday last, I woke at seven o’clock, cleaned my boots, had a good wash, then had my breakfast, wished my mother and father good bye for the day. At eight o’clock I started to go to work at Cardwardine and Co., on one of their vans, delivering flour around Bermondsey. At three p.m. we had our dinner, and at four o’clock started on our journey. At eight p.m. I had finished my work, I called at the Leysian Mission and saw Cinematagraph [sic] scenes. I returned home at ten p.m. I had a wash, had my supper and thanked God for keeping me safe through the day and then went to sleep.

Comments: Thomas Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) was Deputy Warden of Toynbee Hall, the university settlement in London’s East End. A London Boy’s Saturday report on a survey he undertook in 1905 on how London children spent their free time, which was based on evidence from essays submitted by children as a school exercise. This boy is described as being “of better off sort”. The Leysian Mission was a Methodist institution based in City Road, and ran a range of social, medical, entertainment and evangelical activities.

A London Boy's Saturday

Source: Unnamed schoolboy, quoted in T.E. Harvey, A London Boy’s Saturday (Bournville: The Saint George Press, 1906), p. 13

Text: Saturday last, I woke at seven o’clock, cleaned my boots, had a good wash, then had my breakfast, wished my mother and father good bye for the day. At eight o’clock I started to go to work at Cardwardine and Co., on one of their vans, delivering flour around Bermondsey. At three p.m. we had our dinner, and at four o’clock started on our journey. At eight p.m. I had finished my work, I called at the Leysian Mission and saw Cinematagraph [sic] scenes. I returned home at ten p.m. I had a wash, had my supper and thanked God for keeping me safe through the day and then went to sleep.

Comments: Thomas Edmund Harvey (1875-1955) was Deputy Warden of Toynbee Hall, the university settlement in London’s East End. A London Boy’s Saturday report on a survey he undertook in 1905 on how London children spent their free time, which was based on evidence from essays submitted by children as a school exercise. This boy is described as being “of better off sort”. The Leysian Mission was a Methodist institution based in City Road, and ran a range of social, medical, entertainment and evangelical activities.

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 68-72

Text: AGE: 19 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: CLERK NATIONALITY: BRITISH FATHER: ELECTRICAL ENGINEER MOTHER: HOUSEWIFE

Since I am only nineteen this film autobiography is necessarily limited. However, I have been a constant film-goer as long as I can remember, commencing at a very early age when I was taken by my parents once or twice every week. From the age of about seven to thirteen the cinema was a passion with me – I could not go too frequently to satisfy me and when thwarted in my desire I created scenes as some children do over toys, sweets etcetera. I realize now that the films were to me an escape from a dull, uneventful, very ordinary childhood. They represented excitement, adventure, romance and new ideas which I had never met before.

One of my earliest recollections is hearing my mother saying that she would have to cease taking me to the cinema if I continued to have violent dreams about them. Concerning the dreams I remember nothing, but I know that I resolved then never again to mention my reactions to a film, or opinion of one, otherwise I should be forbidden to go to what was rapidly becoming to me a veritable fairy-land. This resolve, by the way, undoubtedly made me secretive and I rarely told my parents what I thought about anything.

But the films were merely an escape. In those days, the idea never occurred to me that the places and the men and women characterised in films had any connection to reality. The life which the film heroes and heroines lived, in no matter what type of film I saw, ‘high society* or ‘slum’, was too utterly alien from the world in which I lived.

From the age of seven to fourteen I do not think that I had any preference as to which type of film I most desired to see. Any film was acceptable. Although I think that I was most impressed by any film, be it a lavish Hollywood musical of an historical impossibility, which contained beautiful extravagant costumes, rich in colour and spectacle. But I was never seized by a desire to possess such lovely clothes, nor did I sigh with envy at the synthetic beauty of ‘stars’, or their magnificent houses and trains of servants, – simply, I think, because I did not connect these things with reality. The cinema was merely a form of fairy tales and as such I do not think that it did me any harm.

In my opinion it is only when children try to apply movie-life to actual life that juvenile delinquency results, otherwise if it is impressed upon them that it is merely an imaginary world at which they are gazing they will only be the happier for a few hours entertainment. But, naturally, I realize that this applies only to a child of limited intelligence and imagination as I was at the time. I accepted my parents’ explanation that ‘it was all made up’ whereas a more sensitive and imaginative child would not have done so. But such a child should not be allowed to go to the cinema at an early age.

After I had reached the age of fourteen however, I began to accept the cinema merely as a method of entertainment. I attached no importance to it, I merely went if I was in the right mood and if I thought there was a good film showing. I no longer went to satisfy a passion for escape, other interests filled my time more satisfactorily. My school-life broadened my horizon literature and the theatre brought more content than the bizarre, unreal cinema could ever do.

My tastes in films had definitely crystallised. I still like historical films but now for their history, not their costumes, although my interest in history had often made me wonder why film-makers must always introduce inaccuracies nearly in every case, unnecessarily. Why make Queen Elizabeth a sloppy, emotional woman when the quality for which she was noted was that her supreme love was England and she was a Queen more than a woman. But in Elizabeth and Essex she was pictured as deeply in love with Essex the one love of her life – and finally she made the supreme sacrifice for England with great emotion – nonsense! Elizabeth loved only herself, she may have liked lovers to satisfy her vanity but she would have sacrificed everything she loved without a second’s thought for the throne and power.

This love of inaccuracy in historical films is the more puzzling as the truth would invariably make better films. In the Prime Minister if Hollywood simply must ignore all the political side of Disraeli’s life except the sensational moments of victory and defeat, and concentrate on his romantic life, why misrepresent it? The beauty of the fact that Disraeli could say that Mary Anne was the perfect wife lay not in the fact that she was a frivolous, flirtatious, romantic young girl but that she was almost fifty and twelve years older than he was.

Catherine the Great, however, was the supreme example of twaddle. Anyone who knew but the bare facts of Catherine’s life and her marriage with Peter must either have blushed or giggled hysterically at such a ridiculous film.

In my judgement of films too, I deplore the fact that ninety-nine per cent of every film issued can be typed. Thus it became my ambition to pick out the other one per cent of films to see – the film that did not fall into a definite category. I was tired of typed movies – Westerns; snobbishness in high society; the depths of degradation; country life – local boy makes good; detective story – police baffled – dapper amateur triumphant; love story – impossible situations – misunderstandings which two minutes sensible conversation could have cleared up – naturally with a happy ending; and so on, many other so familiar types.

By now of course I had linked up films with reality, and I despised the futile attempts to portray life, so showily, gaudily, and synthetically. But in the last few wartime years I have encountered with delight good British films, with solid British humour, no gags or cracks as the Americans put it, but definite British wit. Their portrayal of village life, where everyone knows his neighbour’s affairs as well as his own, are truly delightful and they get the right
atmosphere. British films about Britain are now, in my opinion, the best films to see.

In my search for an original film I eventually found Citizen Kane. I was intensely interested. It was the first time I had seen a film which did not tell the audience what to think but made them think for themselves. One of the many reasons why I think the theatre is superior to the cinema is that one can use one’s brains occasionally at the theatre but never at the cinema. The uniqueness of Citizen Kane delighted me. Except for clumsy surprise endings which annoy one because they are obviously there for no other reason but to surprise the audience, one can really always foretell the ending of the film and indeed the whole story from its type. But in Citizen Kane the whole story was original, it was not a type, it possessed atmosphere, a good plot, (which is often considered unimportant by film-makers), unusual photography and excellent acting by unknowns and not stars who depend on a good pair of legs to see them through every film.

I am painfully aware that my opinion in this matter is not shared by many. Citizen Kane was not a popular box-office success, audiences prefer not to think, they like types.

I was not influenced by the films at an early age because I felt they had no bearing on this life and later when I saw that they were supposed to represent sections of people’s lives their failure produced only an amused contempt. I was never frightened by the conventional thrillers, grotesque make-up or the villain about to kill the hero because I knew that there would be a happy ending – films were not related to life and crime did not pay. One film however which I saw when I was about eight did have a frightening effect upon me because it presented a new idea to me – mental torture. I now cannot remember the title or what it was about clearly. I think that Sara Haden and Basil Rathbone were in it and that the latter had forced himself into this lady’s house and was trying to drive her insane in order to procure her money. The acting was very good and I was haunted for weeks and still now, I retain the impression of fear at seeing this lady becoming more frightened and convinced that she was insane. The film was not Gaslight or Thornton Square versions which, considering they had the same theme I thought amateurish in comparison. I vividly remember Sara Haden’s large expressive eyes dilated with fear as Basil Rathbone bent over her with a jewelled cigarette-case in his hand. I do not remember anything else about it – I suppose it ended according to type.

With true femininity I enjoy a good love-story and if it is the sorrowful type which ostentatiously does not end happily ever after, such as Now Voyager, I can give myself up entirely to the luxury of the moment and indulge my emotions, weeping at the touching scene before me. It never lasts however and immediately the film ends, sometimes before, I can analyse the ridiculous and unlikely situations quite coldly as if I had not been moved at all.

I have never imitated films in anything. I go to the cinema for entertainment – not example. At about fifteen I fell in love with Conrad Veidt. At the time he representated [sic] my idea of a perfect man handsome, distinguished, cultured, intelligent, an attractive foreign accent, a perfect lover – all the most desirable qualities. Moreover he was nearly always the villain who I think is usually much more attractive than the insipid hero. This infatuation died with him, although I still like to see re-issues of his films – that is when I can persuade myself to forget that the type he represented the rather dated, courtly perfect lover is exaggerated and rather trying.

The question ‘Have films made you more receptive to love-making’ I cannot answer since I like the intellectual company of men only, much prefer women friends and contrary to many girls of my own age I cling to the old-fashioned belief that nineteen is too young for boy-friends and love-making in which, anyway, I have no interest.

How can I answer the questions concerning temptations, ambitions, dissatisfactions arising from films since I have never let any film influence my life. The films I have seen are always too much interested in the hero’s and heroine’s private affairs to make me interested in the vocation in which they are engaged – but only, it seems to me, as a background, a nurse, an actress, member of the services or other professions.

Books and the theatre have influenced me but not films and I think this is because it is largely a question of one’s own will how one is influenced and I never believed that the films were a good influence. Undoubtedly they make some children dissatisfied with their life, they drive some to crime in imitations of ‘gangsters’, they cause unhappy marriages because boys and girls especially the latter, conceive a too romantic idea of love and marriage from the screen. I think a Children’s Cinema is most desirable; specially made films could influence children in the right direction.

As to adults of the present generation most of them go to the cinema from habit and lack of any other occupation, and they delight in nudging their neighbour and pointing to a Hollywood lovely and saying ‘She’s just been divorced for the fourth time’, and people will doubtless go on seeing films for precisely the same reasons.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. The films mentioned are The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (USA 1939), The Prime Minister (UK 1941 – a British, not a Hollywood film), Catherine the Great (UK 1934 – or possibly The Scarlet Empress, USA 1934), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Gaslight (UK 1940), The Murder in Thornton Square (UK release title for Gaslight, USA 1944) and Now Voyager (USA 1942). The only film in which Basil Rathbone and Sarah Haden both appeared, Above Suspicion (1943) does not match the description above.

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: John W. Woodhead, quoted in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 80

Text: John W. Woodhead, 37 Stanley Rd (aged 18), regular cinema-goer (6 times amonth), preference – American films.

Comments. First of all I should like to thank the Films for the many entertaining hours I have spent watching them. I sincerely hope that the high rate of entertainment which has been raised in present-day Films will be maintained. Also, a word of praise for modern cinemas – their luxurious interiors certainly increase one’s enjoyment of a show. But must we have:-

1 Worn-out film plots?
2 Inane ‘shorts’?
3 Depressing ‘psychological’, films.
4 Lady-patrons in front of us wearing eccentric head-gear?

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.

The Negro in Chicago

Source: The Negro in Chicago: A Study of Race Relations and a Race Riot (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1922), pp. 318-320

Text: Reports of investigators indicate that the managers of movies are convinced that their main floors, at least, should be guarded against Negroes. In most of the commercial amusement places, Negroes seldom have difficulty if they are willing to sit in the balcony, though attempts are frequently made to seat them on the aisles next to the walls, even when there are center seats empty. It is rare that any report is obtained of objections by white patrons to the actual presence of Negroes when they are well-mannered, well-dressed, and appreciative auditors.

As a rule movie theaters do not sell reserved seats, general admission entitling any patron to any seat in the house. But the following detailed report of the experience of two intelligent, well-dressed, quiet-mannered Negro women at a new movie theater on State Street is typical:

Purchased tickets, and entered the large lobby which extends across the front of the house. From this lobby there are closed doors at the entrance of several aisles, so that patrons are directed by ushers to different aisles, supposedly wherever there are vacant seats. We followed directions, and went to the extreme left of the lobby.

We opened the door, and the usher in charge of this aisle started down toward the front to show us seats. We saw at once that the narrow section of seats next to the wall was empty except for one colored woman sitting about the middle of the section. Instead of following the usher down the aisle, and taking seats indicated to the right of this section, we turned through a row of empty seats on the left-hand section, and sat next to a woman in the aisle seat. This put us two rows from the rear in a side middle section, instead of in the section which seemed to be reserved for colored patrons, next to the wall. As the usher returned to his station he said, “We have some lovely seats in the balcony; wouldn’t you prefer sitting there?” He was courteous, and I thanked him, telling him that we were quite satisfied with the seats we had taken.

Later, seeing two vacant seats further front in the center section which gave us a much better view we decided to take them and see what would happen. As we rose, the usher tried to block ms by putting his hands on the back of the seat in front, and saying, “I am sorry that you can’t take those seats.” I brushed by him and took one of the seats. He tried the same thing with Mrs. H — , and she also brushed by and joined me. There were scattered vacant seats both in the section we left and the one to which we moved. We remained until the end of the show without embarrassment.

The manager of this theater has had many years of experience in Chicago, and was quite willing to discuss race contacts. Nothing in his words would indicate any strong prejudice against Negroes, even when expressing his conviction that they should keep to places intended especially for them. He said, in substance:

Not many Negroes buy tickets — perhaps ten or a dozen a day. An effort is made to seat them in one section of the house, preferably the balcony, to which they are directed by ushers. Reason is the complaint by white patrons who object to sitting next to them for an hour, or hour and a half. Offensive odor reason usually given. White patrons often complain to manager as they go out if Negro has been sitting near them.

Conduct of Negroes is not often objectionable — runs about the same as all patrons. Occasionally one tries to “start something.” Recently two Negroes came to manager in crowded lobby after they had attended the show and objected to their seats on the balcony to which they had been sent by ushers, saying there were vacant seats on the main floor. Wanted to know why they were discriminated against. Manager did not want an argument in the presence of other patrons, and told them that as they had seen the show, heard the music, and shared everything with other patrons, he did not see they had any real cause for complaint. Called attention to the notice printed on almost every theater ticket in some form or other to the effect that the management reserves the right to revoke the license granted in the sale of the ticket, by refunding the money paid.

The same two women bought tickets the next day and attended a movie in an older and very popular “Loop” theater. They reported that they had no difficulty of any kind.

In a test made of a new and popular movie theater in an outlying section the investigator reported:

There were four of us in the party on June 5. We were told by the usher that there were no seats on the first floor, and that we would find seats in the first balcony. I think he was right, for there were white people also sent to the balcony. We were ushered in promptly, but another usher met us and said, “Right on up to the second balcony.” We said we preferred seats in the first balcony, and walked by him. He went and got two more ushers and stood in front of us to prevent us from going into the first balcony, insisting that there were no seats there. One of the young ladies stepped around the usher, and saw three vacant seats. She called them to the attention of the usher, and he then said he meant there were no seats for four. Two of our party took those seats, and the other two waited about twenty minutes till they could get the seats they wanted. After getting into the first balcony, we saw vacant seats in at least four rows, two, three, and four seats together into which we might quietly have gone had the usher been courteous.

On June 18, 1920, a well-known Negro employed in the City Hall was denied admission to a movie theater at Halsted and Sixty-third streets. There is a small but long-established Negro colony about a mile west of this location.

Comments: The Negro in Chicago is a report commissioned by the Chicago Commission of Race Relations following severe racial disturbances in the city in 1919. In Northern states Black audiences had the legal right to be seated anywhere at a public entertainment, but many cinemas and theatres attempted to keep them to segregated areas (often the balcony), or might charge them higher prices than white audiences. Some cinemas had separate entrances for blacks. Southern states enforced racial segregation under the Jim Crow laws. Cinemas managed solely for black audiences existed in both North and South.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Women and the Trades

Source: Elizabeth Beardsley Butler, Women and the Trades: Pittsburgh 1907-1908 (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1909), pp. 332-333

Text: There were then in Pittsburgh in 1907, 22,185 working women in factories and stores, besides many more in occupations uncounted in this census; yet of this number only 258, less than 2 per cent, were in touch with a centre for social development and recreation, either in the play or re-creating sense. Even a little leisure is a by-product of life too valuable to waste, and the community is the loser if the free hour is spent only in weariness or some undesirable form of entertainment. Nickelodeons and dance halls and skating rinks are in no sense inherently bad, but so long as those maintained for profit are the only relief for nervous weariness and the desire for stimulation, we may well reckon leisure a thing spent, not used. These amusements take a toll from the people’s income, disproportionate to the pleasure gained. They divert, and to the work-weary girl, diversion is essential. Yet there should be possibility for constructive diversion. A diversion is needed which shall be a form of social expression, and with slighter toll from strength and income, be of lasting value to the body and spirit.

I shall not soon forget a Saturday evening when I stood among the crowd of pleasure-seekers on Fifth Avenue, and watched the men and women packed thick at the entrance of every picture-show. My companion and I bought tickets for one of the five cent shows. Our way was barred by a sign, “Performance now going on.” As we stood near the door, the crowd of people waiting to enter filled the long vestibule and even part of the sidewalk. They were determined to be amused, and this was one of the things labeled, “Amusement.” They were hot and tired and irritable, but willing to wait until long after our enthusiasm was dampened, and we had left them standing in line for their chance to go in.

It was an incident not without significance, this eagerness with which they turned toward leisure after a working week of unmeaning hours. Are we very sure that this eagerness is not as well worth conserving as any river fall that makes electricity or drives a mill?

Comments: Elizabeth Beardsley Butler (1885-1911) was an American social investigator. She was an important contributor to the Pittsburgh Survey, an extensive survey of social conditions in the American city, of which Women and the Trades: Pittsburgh, 1907-1908 was the first volume of six.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Movies, Delinquency and Crime

Source: ‘Male, white, Polish, 28, sentenced for burglary, inmate of reformatory’, quoted in Herbert Blumer and Philip M. Hauser, Movies, Delinquency and Crime (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 38-39

Text: The ideas that I got from the movies about easy money were from watching pictures where the hero never worked but seemed always to have lots of money to spend. All the women would be after him and usually there would be two or three women who have a fight over him. They’d pull each other’s hair and all that sort of thing. I thought it would be great to lead that kind of life. To always have plenty of money and ride around in swell machines, wear good clothes, and grab off a girl whenever you wanted to. I still think it would be a great life. After seeing these pictures I would think how great it would be if I could get hold of a few hundred thousand dollars and travel all over the world and see everything and have a girl in every city in the world so that no matter where I was I could get lots of loving.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies, Delinquency and Crime studies the supposed connection between cinemagoing and crime, and is part of a series of studies 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.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Report from a Chinese Village

Source: Li Hung-fu, interviewed for Jan Myrdal, Report from a Chinese Village (London: Picador, 1975, orig. Rapport från kinesisk, pub 1963), trans. Maurice Michael, pp. 248-250

Text: With the years, life has got better. We are making progress all the time. In the old days, for example, we had few possessions. Now we have thermoses, galoshes, blankets, hand-carts with rubber wheels, bicycles. There’s no comparison between what is was like before and what it is like now. We had been hoping for a long time to be able to buy a bicycle. We had planned to buy one. Eventually, in 1959, we had got enough together to buy one. We use it for transporting things, for bringing things home when we have been in the town shopping, and I usually take it to ride over to my relations in other villages. Sometimes I take my wife and children with me. I give them a lift then. It’s a quick way of getting there. Women walk so slowly. I also take the bicycle when I am going into the town to go to the opera or the cinema. I like the opera and cinema; but on the other hand I am not particularly amused by the song-and-dance troupes. It’s mostly operas that are already classics that I like. Of the films I remember, I can mention ‘The Monkey King Conquers the White Bone Spirit Three Times’, that is a filmed opera, and ‘Hwa Mountain is Conquered’. I like films. My ten-year-old son can’t get on with opera, but he likes films, he wants to see films like ‘A Warrior of Steel’. He wants adventure and excitement and war and that sort of thing.

Comments: Li Hung-fu (b. c.1928-?) was a battalion commander in the People’s Militia and resident in the North Chinese village of Liu Ling, near Yenan (the town referred to here). He was interviewed and profiled by Swedish sociologist Jan Myrdal during a month’s study of the village undertaken in 1961, which resulted in his Report from a Chinese Village. The films referred to are Monkey King Conquers White Bone Ghost Three Times (China 1961), Capture by Stratagem of Mount Hua (China 1953) and Steeled Fighter (China 1950). Opera here refers to Chinese opera.

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: Mrs E. Skellen, quoted in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 121

Text: Mrs E. Skellen, 5 Roseberry St (aged 27), regular cinema-goer (5-6 times a month), preference – American films

Comments: When I go to the pictures I go to be entertained. For this reason I don’t like seeing what producers fondly imagine are true to life films, simply because they are not true to life. I know far more about my own problems than film producers do or ever will do, so that when I go to the pictures I don’t want to see these problems solved (to the satisfaction of the producers) in what are called true to life pictures. I like seeing historical romances i.e. Charge of the Light Brigade, Captain Blood or such films as Queen Victoria etc. Failing this, I like Musical Comedies or a really good Detective Picture because they take my mind off everyday things, and going to the pictures is a change and a tonic if I can see the films that I have mentioned.

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. The films she refers to are The Charge of the Light Brigade (USA 1936), Captain Blood (USA 1935) and Victoria the Great (UK 1937).

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 205-208

Text: 22. Mr. …

An ardent filmgoer since the early days of Cinema I can recall no instance of a film encouraging me to make any important personal decision. I was, however, inspired during adolescence by the antics of the late Douglas Fairbanks, snr. I tried to imitate his personal mannerisms and emulate his athletic prowess in the mistaken belief that I could, so achieve an extra strength and self reliance — (at the time I suffered from exaggerated feelings of inferiority).

Since those days, I have never consciously desired to imitate anything admired in others, on the screen.

Whereas my early cinegoing was largely a matter of ‘escapism’, to-day choice has supplanted habit. What concerns me now is enjoyment through interest, not escape through fantasy. I now seek interest through appraisement and analysis. The appreciation of good acting, imaginative lighting, interestingly authentic decor and wardrobe, evocative ‘cutting’, the expressive use of sound and dialogue — in short, seeing films ‘whole’ motivates my present day picturegoing. It is the content and manipulation of a film that now interests me and not merely that a film can provide a temporary escape from a reality which is, in nine cases out of ten, largely self-created.

Having grown up with the Cinema my understanding and appreciation of it has matured just as the Cinema has, in many ways, itself matured. It was during the pre-talkie period of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of German and Swedish production, that I first became aware of the real possibilities inherent in the film as an art, and a mental and cultural stimulus. The notorious Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, for instance, excited my imagination because, for me it opened up new vistas of a fascinating and undreamed of significance.

‘Caligari’ is said to have changed the whole outlook of cinema, and I believe that it did.

I will admit that my first impressions here were largely bound up with childhood wonder and excitation experienced through Grimm’s fairy tales. I think ‘Caligari’ re-created for me those perhaps rather unhealthy delights, connected somehow with fear, i.e. the fascination of weirdness, dark forests, witches, hobgoblins, magic, sinister castles, and, in fact, the frighteningly suggestive in general.

And yet it was through such films as Caligari, Waxworks, The Student of Prague, The Golem, Nosferatu (Dracula), etc., etc. that I was subsequently to acquire a more objective understanding of what artistic and constructive film entertainment could mean. They gave me my first insight into the true potentialities of Cinema.

To-day, I visit films less often, and when rare and culturally valuable ones such as Citizen Kane, Earth, The Grapes of Wrath, etc. do become available I try to see them as often as possible before they disappear — possibly for ever.

In answer to your question regarding fashions and manners, it is obvious, and especially with regard to women, how greatly the screen has influenced and encouraged consciousness of and interest in personal appearance and behaviour. Women have learned the value of attractive clothing and make-up in the development of poise and self confidence, or at least a sense of it, for I notice that people influenced by such things frequently fail to adopt them with any real degree of success.

Misapplication, resulting in artificiality rather than attractiveness seems all too often the inevitable result. Finger nails and hair ‘do’s’ are not necessarily indicative of character or self reliance, or even of good taste.

Personally, I cannot say that I have been influenced in any way here. I believe that real poise and self confidence result from an objective rather than a subjective attitude to life. I would far rather be my natural self (at least as far as I am capable of being), than a second rate edition of some movie idol I admired, or might happen, faintly to resemble.

Love and divorce do not apply to me. For one thing I have never really been in love, and for another I do not believe that the screen exercises so much influence with morals as seems generally to be supposed.

So now to dreams. I believe that few people dream about the films they see, but I can recall (though of necessity, only partially) dream experiences the content of which included the Cinema in one form or another, although I have never dreamed of any particular film. When I have dreamed about Cinema, the building itself seems always to have been included. Sometimes it has been curved in shape, (which is when I have been inside), and sometimes square, and rather aggressively strong looking, (and then I have been outside). Recognising, in my limited understanding of Freudian psychology, that ‘shape’ has significance in dreams, I draw, or imagine I draw, the obvious conclusion here. I have also dreamt of meeting ‘stars’ personally, and having them regard my criticisms of their work and of Cinema in general as something to marvel at.

I certainly do feel that the Cinema can and does exercise considerable, and probably far reaching influence on individual psychology, and mainly in the sense that many filmgoers tend unconsciously to identify themselves with pictured characters and emotional situations. More briefly, many of us see ourselves in the movies we like.

I think, for example that it is possible to read into films the things we would really like to do and be. But are the things we enjoy really projections of the hidden truths about us? I cannot arrive at a decision about this.

I do think about it, but I really do not know. I would very much like to determine just why I believe my initial reactions to say Caligari, or Warning Shadows, or perhaps The Street or The Last Laugh, would not be repeated were I able to see them again to-day.

I might still enjoy them as museum pieces, and in a nostalgic sort of way, but would, somehow be unable to ‘recapture the first fine careless rapture’. This overlong letter must now end.

I hope you will gather at least something from it that is worthwhile to you. I expect there are many things I have failed to remember, and probably from your own point of view the most important ones of all, but, on the spur of the moment, it is the best I can do in the time at my disposal. I have tried to be truthful about it, but how often can one be satisfied that one has succeeded in being really truthful? As a psychologist, you will probably arrive at a much truer solution to this problem than I myself am at all capable of achieving.

Age — 44. Sex — Male. Nationality — British. Profession — Shopkeeper — (now in costing office of war factory).
Profession of Father — Builder. Mother — originally a court dressmaker.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above response comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’. People were asked to answer two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams? The films referred to here are Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany 1920), Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks) (Germany 1924), Der Student von Prag (Germany 1926), Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (Germany 1920), Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Germany 1922), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Zemlya (Earth) (USSR 1930), The Grapes of Wrath (USA 1940), Schatten (Warning Shadows) (Germany 1923), Die Straße (Germany 1923) and Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) (Germany 1924).