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Minds Made by the Movies

Arthur Kellogg

Managing Editor of Survey Graphic

May 1933

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A BOY from a high-delinquency area in New York City was taken by one of Prof. Frederic M. Thrasher's investigators to see Union Depot. In one scene a violin case played a conspicuous part. When it was opened and seen to be filled with packages of bank notes, the audience gasped, but the boy was unmoved.

"What's the matter?" asked the investigator. "Doesn't that money bother you?"

"Naw, I expected a machine-gun," answered the boy.

"Why the machine-gun?" asked the investigator.

"Tell me any picture that ain't got a machine-gun in it. They all got typewriters (machine-guns) in them."

"Who's your favorite actor?"

"Jim Cagney."

"You like the way he acts?"

"I eat it. You get some ideas from his actin'. You learn how to pull off a job, how he bumps off a guy, an' a lotta tings."

IN his Mind in the Making, James Harvey Robinson wrote:

"There are four historical layers underlying the minds of civilized men—the animal mind, the child mind, the savage mind and the traditional civilized mind....Their hold on us is really inexorable....We are all children at our most impressionable age."

That was written twelve years ago but it might have been a preview of the four-year study of the effects of the screen on American minds in the making, initiated by the Motion Picture Research Council and made by the Payne Fund through its Educational Research Committee of psychologists and sociologists. The findings, to be published in ten volumes, give one the feeling that Prof. W. W. Charters of Ohio State University and his associates have reversed the projector and thrown on the screen a series of life-size movies of the rows of boys and girls who look on.

Their "films" feature the great child audience; how often they "go to the pictures"; what they see; what kind of life is portrayed for them; how much of it they remember; how it affects their sleep, habits, nerves; what goals it holds up; how it conditions behavior. In a word, what we may expect of children who are exposed to run-of-the-mill motion pictures every week.

From almost their beginning the movies have been under attack from two sources: from parents who sensed that their children were being injured by what they saw; from grown-ups who felt that they were being gypped by commercial producers who were using a form of art but using it on a basis of mass production—films geared at that meanest of common denominators, the twelve year-old mind in adults. Here at last we have the facts as to the children.

The Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America claimed in good times a weekly attendance of 115 million of whom, they said, 5 to 8 percent were children. Evenly spread, that was practically one movie a week for every one of us. The Payne Research Committee by counting, sampling, estimating and other accredited research processes got a total possible audience of 105 millions, a national weekly attendance of 77 millions of whom 36 percent were children and adolescents. That is, a youngster sits in every third seat.

He chooses to sit there by himself, particularly if he is a boy. At all ages one quarter of the boys prefer to go without companions, sitting alone, daydreaming in the dark. Up to the age of eight this average boy is accompanied by a parent 23 percent of the time; at the age of nine, 16 percent; at eleven, 10 percent. Children almost never leave before the show is over. Indeed 25 percent of the boys and 22 percent of the girls stay on for at least a part of the next showing.

In a study of five-to-eight-year-olds the average attendance was found to be twenty-two times a year. Another study, ages eight to nineteen, gave a weekly attendance of 35,155 among 35,491 youngsters. The yearly average for the girls in this large group was forty-six shows; for the boys, fifty-seven; for the two combined, almost precisely one a week. Fifty-two shows of three films each gave them, on the average, 156 films a year.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003