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Minds Made by the Movies

Arthur Kellogg

Managing Editor of Survey Graphic

May 1933

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The films they saw were what the rest of us see, for practically no special films are made for children (there was just one in 1930). What they pored over were films dealing chiefly with romantic love, sex and crime; films that give a cock-eyed picture of the world. Seventy-five percent of all the characters shown were between nineteen and forty years of age, a full half of them under thirty. Of the adult actors, only 15 percent were married (in the plot) as against 60 percent in the general population. There are no workers in this movie world, except the servants of the rich and the cowboys in the Wild Westerns; no agriculture; no manufacturing; no poverty. In a group of 115 films, 33 percent of the heroes, 44 percent of the heroines, 54 percent of the villains and 63 percent of the female of that species were wealthy or ultra-wealthy. In 73 percent, formal dress figured heavily. Indeed there appears to be a group of young men in Hollywood who have set out seriously to "save" the high silk hat.

But with their sensitiveness to the moral implications of their findings, the Committee has more to say of habits than of habiliments. In this group of 115 films, 66 percent showed drinking, 43 percent intoxication and 78 percent contained "liquor situations."

But again this is only the beginning of the Committee's concern. In a study of 1500 films in three selected years (500 each year), Prof. Edgar Dale, psychologist, of Ohio State University, found that crime, sex and love were the subjects of 82 percent of all feature films in 1920, 88 percent in 1925, 72 percent in 1930. But the falling off in 1930 was more apparent than real for there was a new 9 percent on mystery and war in which violence always and crime often appeared. So the child, at his weekly average show, saw fifty-two feature films of which thirty-nine were on these three subjects. Professors Charters and Dale, writing together, point out:

Literally hundreds of times one notes there a portrayal of character and conduct which gives a totally erroneous notion of the situation or event as it actually occurs in real life. A mature adult who has had a wide range of experience can at once discount in some degree what he has seen on the screen. Not so the children.

Professor Dale analyzed 115 films taken at random. In them he counted seventy-one deaths in forty-five films, 21 percent of them caused by the hero, 40 percent by the villain, the others accomplished in various ways. Only one was by a heroine. For good measure there were thrown in fifty-nine cases of assault and battery, seventeen hold-ups, twenty-one kidnappings; 406 crimes were pulled off and 43 others were attempted a total of 449 crimes in 115 films.

Such an orgy of battle, murder and sudden death must have been exciting to every child. But not all of them liked it. The Committee has collected a large number of replies to the question asked of children, nine to thirteen, if they ever disliked motion pictures and if so why. "Killing" held a prominent place in the answers, such as the nine-year-old who wrote, "Killing looks offel, scares me," and another, "Hate to see people killed; makes me sick."

Much of the crime, of course, is no more than a realistic reflection of our times. But it was not made unattractive. On the contrary, some of the most winning actors were cast in criminal parts: Jack Holt as the leader of a gang of outlaws; Lawrence Tibbet out for private vengeance; Edmund Lowe as a gambler and robber; Victor McLaglan, Gary Cooper and Marlene Dietrich carrying on gaily and courageously outside the law.

And as to punishment for crime, Professor Dale made a detailed analysis of forty pictures in which fifty-seven criminals committed sixty-two crimes, with the following results:

Three of the fifty-seven were arrested and held; four were arrested but releascd; seven were arrested and their punishment w as inferred. In one group of five, three were arrested, one gave himself up; another's arrest was inferred and all were legally punished. Twenty-two criminals vvere punished by what may be described as extralegal methods—by their own henchmen, other gangsters and in a variety of ways in which the law had nothing to do. In seventeen cases the punishment was primarily accidental and fifteen crimes went wholly unpunished. Some of the unpunished crimes were: murder by the hero, as in Rogue Song; kidnapping by the hero, as in Devil May Care; kidnapping by the villain, as in Along Came Youth; embezzlement by the hero, as in Six-Cylinthe hero, as in Six-Cylinder Love; embezzlement by the heroine, as in Miracle Woman, and housebreaking by the hero in the same picture.... Surely children and youths need assistance in interpreting such motion pictures. Many parents believe that they should not be seen at all.

Nowhere was an attempt made to show the reaction to environment, the attrition of evil companionship, the slow cumulative process by which a criminal is made.

The goals pursued by the handsome young actors were varied, but twelve goals accounted for 385 out of a total of 574. In order of frequency they were: winning another's love, marriage for love, professional success, revenge, crime for gain, illicit love, thrills or excitement, conquering a rival, financial success, enjoyment, concealment of guilt, marriage for money. Only 9 percent of all goals seemed to Professor Dale tokbe socially desirable in nature. He says:

It is apparent children will rarely secure from the film's goals of the type that have animated men like Jenner, Lister, Koch, Pasteur, Jesus Christ, Aristotle, Norman Thomas, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Plato, Socrates, Grenfell, Edison, Noguchi, Lincoln, Washington and others; and women like Jane Addams, Frances Willard, Susan B. Anthony, Grace Abbott, Madame Curie, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale and Dorothy Canfield Fisher....

We ought to expect the cinema to show a better way of living than the average we find outside the cinema....We need to see the screen portraying more of the type of social goals which ought to be characteristic of a decent civilization. We need more often to catch a glimpse of the immortality of great characters who have sacrificed opportunities for personal aggrandizement in order that the larger community might have a fuller measure of life.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003